'I know I'm nowhere near perfection... I'm pointing in the wrong direction. All I ever seem to do is sit around playing this stupid guitar!!!" It's been about six years since Matt Johnson recorded his brilliant debut LP, 'Burning Blue Soul,' from which the above quote was taken. At that time, Matt was 18 years old and had already become a sort of musical genius, performing all of the instruments and vocals on the album himself. Since then Matt has done more than just sit around playing a guitar; he's created a one-man multimedia entertainment industry. Following "Burning Blue Soul," Matt became The The, signed with CBS, and transferred the technical ingenuity and intimate songwriting of his industrial-sounding debut into a more accessible, yet still adventurous sound presented on "Soul Mining." The creative and eclectic pop of "Soul Mining" was praised far and wide, never really gaining much commercial attention, but drawing enough of a reaction to leave people wondering what he could pull out of the hat next.
Three years later, and two years in the making, Matt Johnson has finally released his latest project titled "Infected," available in record, tape, compact disc, video, and book form. The music was recorded with three different producers (including Roli Mosimann of hte Swans and Wiseblood) and 62 musicians. The eight videos were filmed in four countries with five directors. Evidently CBS has a lot of faith in him. To promote the "Infected" album and videos, Matt left his home in London for a brief promotional tour of the States. The following interview took place in my living room. Present on the occasion was my hamster Gaza, who spent the duration of the interview in his mobile plastic "Liberty" ball, which allowed him to run freely throughout the room often attracting Matt's attention. With a mug of Heineken Light in his hand and a bag of Lay's potato chips at his side, the interview went like this:
The The's image has always been very mysterious and low-profiled. Do you intend on keeping it that way?
"Difficult question. No, I've obviously made it a high-profile thing by making the videos. The reason I've maintained the name is to keep a certain amount of anonymity, but I'm not interested in becoming a pop star, although you do have to do a certain amount of promotion to get your work across. I used to think that if your stuff was good enough you could get by anyway, and that's not the case. You do have to do quite a bit of promotion and you have to accept that. It wasn't that contrived sort of mystery thing, it's just that I wanted to keep everything just slightly out of the way. I just wanted to work in a certain amount of privacy, and I think for longevity as well. You become too over-exposed on a shorter life span, don't you? That's true in any area, whether it's acting, music or whatever. It's important to regulate things."
A lot of your songs focus on the depressing side of life. Are you more inspired to write when you're depressed?
"I don't think it's the depressing side of life. I think my lyrics just dwell on the things people prefer not to talk about. Oh wow, he's (Gaza the hamster) going really fast now. I really don't think it's depressing; I think that's a misconception. Musicians tend to get pigeonholed at a very early stage. Somebody says something and a lot of journalists, being quite lazy, just pick up on that: 'oh, he sounds like this or he sounds like that,' so you always have this thing attached to you. I think the music is very optimistic and very defined and positive. The subject matter is just the things that dwell in the recesses of people's minds."
In "Heartland," you say "There's so many people that can't express what's on their mind." Is there anything you have trouble expressing?
"No, but for a lot of people there is. I'm expressing it through my work, but I think a lot of people don't. I think a lot of people feel frustration and just go through life feeling pretty much unfullfilled. A lot of people feel like that, and then it turns to frustration and then into anger. There's a lot of anger in places like Britain right now. I think if the present government gets another term then it could be civil unrest. There was a degree of civil unrest in 1981 in Britain. I think it could happen again because people cannot articulate themselves. For instance, you get people that take up boxing and stuff like that, and that's their way of expressing themselves. They can't do anything else. If you cannot express your emotions sufficiently then things build up and build up and build up. I would say for a majority of people that happens."
Do you feel like you're fulfulling what you want to do with your life?
"Yeah, I'm starting to. I'm always making new goals and stuff. I've always done pretty much what I wanted to do, and continue to. I'm still not satisfied with certain things, but that's just because I feel that I can do better; I'm never satistfied with certain things but that's just because I feel that I can do better; I'm never satisfied with what I do. I set myself goals and ways to achieve them. For instance, it's such a big project making the film, and there's a book coming out as well, and the album. There's just so many people involved. It was almost like constructing a building in a way, with a large amount of work, organization, and everything else. The thing is, the reward comes in doing something."
"There was one point after they showed the whole video thing on national TV. That evening I just sat with my girlfriend and watched it when it was on. After it was over I just felt, so what? That was like the fruit of a couple of years' work and my soul laid bare before the night, and I just felt really empty. I thought, is that all there is to it? It made me realize that the reward comes during something. It's like the pleasure is traveling and not arriving. When you finish something, all there is to do is start again, really. So now I've started thinking about new projects and new ideas that I'm planning to do. I did interviews a few years ago telling people what I was planning to do with the video films, the book, and everything else, and considering the pure size of all of it and the subject matter of what I was dealing with, I think it's quite an achievement from my point-of-view to get it all done. So I'm satisfied with that, but you have to keep moving forward."
What's the book going to be?
"It's called 'Infected,' but it's all the sheet music and my brother's paintings and every lyric that I've written since 1979, or virtually every lyric. Also old photographs and other bits and pieces. It's called 'Infected,' but it's also a brief documentary of The The since 1979."
Has The The ever played live?
"Yeah, about three and a half years ago."
Do you think making the video album for "Infected" is a better form to expose The The than a live tour?
"Yeah, I think more people have seen it than would ever see me play live. For instance, when they showed it on British TV, one and a half million people saw it. If I played live it would take years for that many people to see me. The live thing is something I may be interested in, in the future, but I'm not interested in it at the moment. I've got too many other things to do."
Did your record company have any problems over the content of the "Infected" videos?
"When they saw the scripts to the videos they were a bit worried about that. They just said they were too weird. And then there were bits about guns and women and they were not keen on it. There was a lot of arguing over the editing actually. Some of them have been banned; MTV won't play three of them. And in Australia "Slow Train To Dawn" was banned. They said it was sexist."
Do you consider The The to be a band name or just a name for your individual project?
"I consider it to be an umbrella organization, 'cause it's a limited company now. I'm planning to form offshoot companies underneath it. I'm also planning on doing some film music and books; that's the long-term thinking. That's why I maintain the name, because I'm trying to build it up. I want to cover various areas. I don't see it as a name for me individually or just the music; it extends and straddles a few media."
You mentioned film music. Have you done any soundtrack work?
"No. In fact, I'm having meetings out here at the moment. I've had things used in film quite a few times, but never specifically me. I was supposed to be writing one about two and a half years ago but that coincided with doing the album, so I couldn't do it. Obviously the album comes first, but that's something I want to do in the next year or so. Oh, look, he's (Gaza) still running around. Does he enjoy it in there?"
Were the themes from "The Nightwatchman" on the back of the "Sweet Bird of Truth" 12" used for a film?
"Oh, yeah, that's right. That was a 16mm film. It was an experimental film, porno film. I was in it. I starred in it. I used to be a porno film star. I don't want to talk about it. That's all in the past. You'd never believe me."
Is there anyone else that you consider to be a member of The The?
"I suppose Andy Dog, my brother, who does all of the paintings. There are associate members, like Zeke Manyika, Roli Mosimann, possibly Jim Thirwell, and other people that come and go and give me bits of advice when I need it. There's a bunch of people that ocassionally turn up but essentially it's just me. See, no two songs of mine have ever had the same instrumentation, from the first album I did years ago until the one I did now, which is quite a good thing."
How long do you think you can continue that?
"Another six weeks"
Do you think that your lyrics and music give an accurate representation of the real you?
"I don't know if you can ever get an idea of me. You may see a guy's paintings and you think he's going to be a real intense, horrible bastard, and he'll be the opposite. And then you may get somebody whose stuff is totally lightweight, and he'll be real moody and horrible. I don't think you can ever get a representation from people's work as to what they are really like. There's only one side of your conscious coming out. The impression people get of me is real moody and horrible, but I'm not."
Practically all of your songs prior to the "Infected" album dealt with your own intimate thoughts or were written in the first person, although on the new album you've sort of expanded more into politics and other topics. Do you view this as a sign of growth for your songwriting ability?
"I suppose it's just a sign of getting older. When you are in your late teens and early 20's, you tend to think about yourself most of the time and your own particular problems. Adolescence is one of the most intense experiences of your life. And when you're trying to find out your own identity you tend to be a little more introspective then any other time in your life. As for the increase in politics, well, there's always been politics in my stuff. Even on my very first album there are references to riots in Britain and to nuclear proliferation and stuff like that, which has become more evident now. So it's always existed, but as you get older you become a little more aware about it and you disbelieve what you're told on television. When you're younger you tend to take things for granted and as you get older, you gradually start making your own mind up about things and you think about things more seriously. When you're younger you haven't got the time for that. You just worry about yourself."
"It's also an expression of my songwriting ability. In 'Slow Train to Dawn,' which is the first duet I've ever written, the other person in that song whose mind I was basically writing about told me that was exactly how she felt. So that was quite pleasing, to know that I articulated her feelings. I feel that there is a change in my songwriting. After doing 'Slow Train to Dawn,' I was encouraged to do other stuff like that, bringing in other singers. I used five female singers on this album. That was a good development as well."
Did the bombing in Libya inspire you to write "Sweet Bird of Truth?"
"No, actually I wrote that in December and the Libyan air strike happened in March or April. That was pure coincidence though. All you had to be doing though was watching curret affairs programs for the past few weeks to see the tension. But nothing really happened, just a few small incidents. It was obvious that there was this clash between the West and the Islam brewing up and there was going to be this break point, and it just happened there."
Why was the initial release of "Sweet Bird of Truth" deleted?
"Because it came out at an unfortunate time, with the Libyan bombing and everything. CBS in London was actually told to take their flag down by the special branch there, which is like the secret police. There was a lot of terrorist activity and after the Libyan bombing they thought the terrorists would strike American targets and American national corporations. CBS with the stars and stripes flying is a bit provocative, I suppose. Basically that record was released at that time and drew attention to things, and everyone was a bit paranoid. That's why it came out as a limited edition."
How closely do you follow media events and world politics?
"Of course, you have to remember that if you're just watching the news you're only getting filtered truth from the government and the broadcasting companies. If I've got time I like to read through different sorts of magazines. What I want to do is get some specialized magazines, like a left-wing one and a right-wing one and then maybe one in between, so this way you get different sides of the story. What you get from the BBC is so filtered anyway. But I am curious. World politics is the greatest soap opera. You can watch it every day on TV."
"It's interesting, I remember I was in New York in 1982 when the Falkland war was going on between Argentina and Britain, and the coverage in America was so much better than the coverage in Britain. I think, though, the problem with the American news is that they don't cover enough world news. You may get a little bit here and there, but the world stops at the east coast and the west coast. I think that is partly the reason why America keeps getting themselves involved in these wars in Vietnam, the Middle East, and Central America. It's because they've got no conception of any other cultures apart from their own. I think it's really bad; there's no willingness to open up and accept other cultures. Everyone is so paranoid about socialism and communism and they don't really know why. They're just words. If you say communism every red-blooded American goes 'Uh!' They don't really understand the system there. All they know, or they think they know, is a lot of horseshit that is fed to them. It's a real problem. That's one thing I've noticed with the news coverage here [America], it's not global. One thing good about British news is that you do tend to have a lot of world news. You get at least a fair idea of what's going on in the rest of the world."
What sort of standpoint do British people take towards communism?
"If someone says they're a communist everyone buys them drinks. I think it's more hysterical in America. In Britain we've had more left-wing politicism than anywhere. It's been a socialist country, although there's a difference between socialism and communism. Even now, you've got people that have a strangle-hold on the media, and a paper like the Sun, which is totally right-wing and absolutely neurotic and hysterical. They just run character assassinations on people; they start branding people Marxists and such. Where's the hamster gone?"
I think he's in the kitchen.... What were you doing during the three-year interval between the releases of "Soul Mining" and "Infected?"
"I sat around drinking and taking drugs. Thinking. I took about a year off and just did nothing. I just worried about why I wasn't doing anything."
What about the track on the Some Bizzare compilation? Was it written for that?
"Yeah, 'Flesh and Bones.' That was done in February of 1984 actually. It was done for the compilation. It was done about four or five months after 'Soul Mining,' so that was the only thing I did between the two albums."
What was the difference between the surroundings in which you recorded them?
"I lived in a different place. I was working with different people. The ideas were different. There was a change of personal circumstances."
What differences do your surroundings make on your writing?
"I think it's important to have a set base where you put yourself and your writing equipment and all of that, although, I have written when I was living out of plastic bags. But it is important to have a permanent place."
Many of your songs display anti-religious beliefs. Were you raised in a religious family?
Did you ever believe in God?
"No, I'm agnostic I suppose."
How do you view God and what do you think religion means to modern man?
"I think there is a deep spiritual meaning amongst people; it's kind of finding a bit of resurgence. I suppose they are just going against traditional beliefs. That's why maybe a lot of people get sucked off into all of that Moonie stuff and become Buddhists and Hare Krishnas. I think there is a deep human need for some kind of spiritual satistfaction, but I don't think you find it in the way that the solar system is based, or in fear of punishment. I think that is fundamentally wrong. There's a great quote, I don't remember who said it but it goes, 'Those nearest to the church are furthest from God.' And basically all that evangelical crap you get coming out of the TVs here is quite sinister. That's just gripping on people's insecurities. I find that sinister."
"I think at an early age people are almost educated to underestimate themselves. A lot of people go through life doing that; it's very important for them to shield themselves. In all respects, it's not only in the West but in a lot of Eastern countries as well. There are certain pure forms to be found somewhere; it just becomes tainted, particularly when it comes to the West. It becomes tainted by a certain materialism. And you get these people in London, these fashionable Buddhists, that do their chanting and when you ask them what they chant for it's like a new job, boyfriends, cars; it's all materialistic things. I find that really gross."
Do they show the same sort of religious programs on television in Britain as they do here?
"No, that's why it's a bit of a shock when you come over. It's there, you see, but it's much more understated. For instance, the conservative party is bound up with the Church of England. But over here it's pretty gross. It's sinister. A lot of people probably [see] it for what it is, but there's a massive amount of people that are taken in by it and are just sitting there soaking it all in. I find it very disturbing because it's total hypocrisy."
Have you ever been to church?
"I have never been to one. The only time I've been in one, though, was when we used to go and steal stuff when we were going to school. I used to go to an athiest school and they told us, "If you don't eat your kidneys you won't go to hell!"
What sort of education did you have?
"A very poor one, actually, because I failed all of my exams and I worked when I was about 15. But it was beneficial in some respects because I almost lived in a little fantasy world, daydreaming all of the time."
"The way the education did work in Britain, there used to be a system whereby you took an exam called the 11 plus, and you went to a grammar school if you passed the exam, and if you didn't you went to a secondary school. So by the age of 11 you had been branded a failure or a success, which I think is unfair to kids. And then they abolished that and introduced a mixed ability system, but now the conservative party is trying to bring back the old system. I think that is really wrong because people grow at different rates and certain kids grow differently, mentally and emotionally, as they do physically."
"I'm certain that I would have failed the 11 plus if I had taken it. I didn't really pay any attention; I just wasn't interested. I was quite good at English and art but school wasn't made attractive enough to actually want to learn. I think you really have to develop a thirst for knowledge. You have to make kids want to come to school and want to learn. You can force them, like forcing them to eat greens, but it's not going to really go in. We used to get forced to eat greens and kidneys and liver, and we'd just put them in our pockets and then empty them out in the toilets. It's the same thing with education, you cannot force it down [on] kids."
When did you initially start performing music?
"I first did music when I was about 11 or 12."
Did you have any musical training?
"No, I taught myself. I think it's always the best way because you've got to remember the music originated not from rules and regulations, but by people banging things to see what felt good or to express themselves. That's the way music began. It's natural and that's the way it should continue, instead of saying 'you can't play chord because it clashes with the augmentive doo-da.' That's crap! By building yourself a little set of rules you're caging yourself in. I always felt that I could always use any instrumentation. Or I could tape this (taps his hand on the coffee table) and make a loop out of it and make it the rhythmic foundation for a song. And then I could add a bit of this and some hamster noises. So there's any possibility. That's the way it should be. The only limitation should be your imagination."
"Certainly, knowing some kind of background on the rules and regulations helps you communicate if you're working with a lot of session musicians, like I do. It does help for me to say write this song, it's in this key, or this is the melody line. Those kind of session musicians stand there watching their meter tick away, and a lot of them are just so bland. You need to almost treat them as if they are instruments themselves. You get them in because they do what they do good. You program them precisely, then they finish and you send them away."
You make them sound very robotic.
"In a way they are. Sometimes you get some good ones that do add something, but a lot of them are there just to earn their money and they are not going to put much more in. They do a good job because they play the instrument well. There's just no real artistic interaction. It's purely you're employing them to do a job; they do it and then they go."
Is your brother, Andy Dog, a musician?
"No, he's just a painter."
What's the age difference between you two?
"I'm 25 and he's 28. I've got another brother who is 14 and one that's 21."
How close of a family is it?
"I come from quite a close family. We'd all get beaten up. My older brother would beat me up, so I'd beat my younger brother up, and he'd beat the littlest one up. That's the way it went. We didn't have any hamsters. We had a dog. Frogs, we had frogs."
How did your brother get nicknamed Andy Dog?
"He had a magazine called Dog, an art mag, and it just stuck."
How much of your career has been affected by your manager, Stevo?
"He's flying in tonight, actually. He helped to get the deal with CBS. He helped get them to put out the money for the videos. He pulls off things which people think he'll never do; he's got quite a unique style of management. There's pros and cons with that. The drawback is that he's not good with the small technical details, like counting the pennies. He's quite flamboyant in his own way. He doesn't do anything unless he believes in it, and that's what makes him so persuasive. I basically tell him what I need and what I want, and set him in the right direction."
What sort of changes have you seen in the way the public views The The over the last couple of years?
"More respect. I know more people know of me than I had realized. I met Iggy Pop the other day and he told me that he had my records and liked them and all of that -- never would have thought that he had even heard of me. Not that many people know what I look like, but they know my name. I think a lot of people viewed me from the 'Burning Blue Soul' days as this guy sitting in a little room getting depressed, which is about five years out-of-date. With the 'Infected' project I wanted to destroy a lot of those preconceptions with aggressiveness, confidence, and arrogance in a way. Hopefully I've done that and gotten rid of that last image."
In reference to the line in the song "Perfect" : "Passing by the cemetary, I think of all the little hopes and dreams that lie lifeless and unfullfilled beneath the soil." Do you think that your hopes and dreams will become realities by the time you die?
"That is the lyric that keeps me going because so many people are like that. When I reach the end of my life, whether it's sooner or later, I'd like to think that I did the best and at least I tried. A lot of people never try because they are so frightened of failure."
In "Heartland" you express concern over England losing its dignity and basically becoming the 51st state of America. What do you attribute this to?
"A whole sphere of things, I suppose. Then again you could say that Germany is the 51st state and Britain is the 52nd, and it goes right up to 300 when you're talking about the American empire. It's an interesting thing. It's intruiging -- well that's not the right word -- it's frustrating just living there seeing this gradual erosion, become more Americanized. I mean, that's not necessarily a bad thing in some ways, for instance the fast-food thing. All we had in the way of fast-food were sterile steaks and kidney pies. I have to say that McDonald's is much better. It's no good resisting things from abroad if they are better. People say that they don't want anything American there. I don't think that's a bad thing, but there was a recent incident when there was a bit of a security alert on because some British journalist tried to get near an American air base. He wasn't even on the air base, and he was arrested in Britain outside the air base by an American. This kind of thing goes on and even the Queen dissaproves of that, and we haven't got a veto over America using their air bases. I think that makes us an occupied nation. These bases are like little pockets of America; we have no idea what goes on there, and the British government has no right to check inside them. It actually goes much deeper than that; it's the general idea of losing its identity. I have simultaneous affection and anger for the place, and I'm intrigued by it. I'm trying to make sense of it myself by living there and just trying to see what's going on. It's getting really bad. It's just a country that seems to be rotting. Anyway, on to something more cheerful."
Do you read many books?
"Sometimes. I often go through periods where I read a lot or I don't read anything for a long time. If I get a chance to read I do. I like films. I collect films: Orson Welles, Hitchcock, et cetera. I've always loved cinema."
You've done this video album but have you thought of making a feature-length film?
"Yeah, for the next album."
Is there anyone that you consider to be a major influence on your life?
"Everything, really. Marvin Hagler and Robert DeNiro are people whom I respect at the moment because they are the best at what they do and because of the purity, discipline, and dedication of their work. People don't really like boxing, but I like boxing. The discipline and dedication are phenomenal."
A while back it was rumored that Tom Waits was producing your record. Was this true and if so, what happened?
"Yeah, I was supposed to be working with him on a couple tracks sometime last year. But he had too many other commitments, like the film (Down By Law) and other things. I'd like to work with him in the future."
Do you consider yourself to be a perfectionist?
"I'm a perfectionist in my own perfection. I'm not a perfectionist in, let's say, 'Oh, she's got a perfect voice.' If I've got an idea in my head and I want it, I'll go after it, but I may get side-tracked, and somebody may make a mistake and that'll sound good and I'll incorporate that. Do you see what I mean? I'm a perfectionist of imperfection."
Who exactly were the Gadgets and how involved were you with them?
"The Gadgets were just some people that ripped off my name. When I was 15 I worked in a recording studio and they stole some tapes I was fucking around with and put them out with my name all over it in big letters."
That's funny because I just recently bought it?
"You're joking. Can I have a look at it? (With Gadgets album now in hand Mr. Johnson continues) That's a ripp-off, you shouldn't have bought that."
So you didn't do anything with them?
"I didn't do anything. They just ripped off my name. Note that they listed my name first. It's just a cheap rip-off trick. It's crap. You should smash it up!"
Why was "Pornography of Despair" (an LP recorded between "Burning Blue Soul" and "Soul Mining") never released, and will it ever be?
"It was too rude. I'm going to put that out this year as a limited edition."
How has the technology of modern music changed your sound?
"I think it's changed everyone's sound. What I'm doing now couldn't have been done five years ago. That's an interesting question because I used 62 musicians on the 'Infected' album, there's an 18-piece string section, and I probably use more acoustic instruments than any other contemporary musician. So the ironic thing is having technology: I've got an emulator and all that kind of stuff, but I've got a good library of acoustic sounds and I do a lot of acoustic arrangements on that, and having technology has enabled me to use more acoustic instruments. It's had a reverse effect in a funny kind of way."
Did you make any New Year's resolutions?
"Yeah, basically increasing my work and my dedication. Not getting drunk so much. Work harder. Get back into training, 'cause I got really thin about two months ago but now I just really fucked it up. Dedication and discipline in all aspects of my life. Developing some new goals that I've got to go after. And improving my work. Oh look, he pooped in the ball!"