Love and Hate. War and peace. The The's Matt Johnson arranges a shotgun wedding between pop music and the next big theme.
Matt Johnson lives in a small Victorian department store in London. He has a recording studio in his basement, a clammy cellar dotted with little dishes of rat poison, a darkroom on the ground floor, and, up a grand oak staircase, an enormous womblike loft apartment make cozy by a cluster of old sofas, crucifixes, a grand piano, and the taxidermic form of Matt's pet raven Ronnie, who died unexpectedly.
Matt is The The, and this is his hermetic empire. It is his vision that powers the brutal, soul-baring songs of The The, songs that Matt calls "existential blues." His sensibility lies somewhere between the political militance of Jam's Paul Weller and the cosmic cynicism of Roger Waters. A dedicated control freak, Matt used to play all the instruments too, but now he trusts a supporting band that includes ex-ABC drummer David Palmer and Britain's favorite guitar hero, Johnny Marr, once of the Smiths.
His latest album, Dusk, shows Johnson, after passing thirty and losing some people close to him, at his most reflective and intimate. The The leisurely release an album every three years or so. This gives Matt time to decide that he's going to quit music and move to the Mediterranean. But he always comes back, and each new album sees him grapple in a new way with the questions that obsess him -- the decline of Western civilization, the ferocity of the Swamp Thing within, the love of God, the meaning of life. Johnson writes with all the passion and clumsiness of a true believer.
The son of a mom-and-pop team of East End publicans, Matt always wanted to be a musician. He formed his first band, which played glam-rock covers, at age eleven and went through the obligatory petty criminal phase. "I used to nick money from the blind box, break into places, smash up cars," he says. He dropped out of school when he was fifteen.
Johnson compensated for his wasted youth with a series of obsessions and hobbies : boxing, football, and making records.
He started with Burning Blue Soul, an album of oddly appealing songs, tape collages, and instrumentals. In 1983 Soul Mining, his first record as The The, established Matt as a writer of perfect pop -- "Uncertain Smile" and "This Is the Day" were classic songs of unrequited love and postadolescent angst. Three years later, with the self-loathing Infected, he returned as Britain's social conscience. On glidingly beautiful songs like "Heartland," he denounced his country's callous materialism and America's political arrogance; "Sweet Bird of Truth" was a Sensurround depiction of an American fighter pilot crashing into Arab territory (which seemed to predict the American raid on Libya).
By 1989, Johnson had read the Bible and the Koran. Mind Bomb was his investigation into the nature of worship and spirituality -- it was pro-God, antireligion. The jaunty "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" warned of a clash between Islam and the West and coincided with Salman Rushdie's death sentence. Johnson couldn't resist issuing a press release to point this out : "I have been both horrified and amazed to see another of my songs burst into life on the world stage," he proclaimed.
There were extenuating circumstances surrounding this decision to come out as prophet, he says now. Like he was out of his head. "I was fasting for weeks at a time and taking hallucinogenics. Anyone who did that would start to hear voices and see things."
But Dusk reveals a saner Johnson, pondering love and loneliness, with God taking only a cameo role. He's given up prophecies as well. Now he sings : "Don't ask me about / War, Religion, or God / Love, Sex, or Death / ... I don't even know what's going on in myself."
The songs are simpler, sparser, many of them given an easy warmth by Marr's acoustic guitar and harmonica. "Love Is Stronger Than Death," dedicated to his late brother Eugene, is a heart-wrenching, but ultimately uplifting, act of faith. "Helpline Operator," for which Johnson spent hours on the phone to the Samaritans ("I'm a Method Songwriter," he admits), is compassionate and unsettling, in a creepy, latenight kind of way
AUTHENTICITY IS OBVIOUSLY ANOTHER OBSESSION. I meet Johnson at his home the day after a video for his song "Dogs of Lust." He wanted "claustraphobia and heat," so he crammed the band, film crew, and three gigantic industrial heaters cranked up to full blast into his basement studio. To give their performance an added droopiness, Matt and Johnny Marr dropped tranquilizers and shared a bottle of tequila.
He sometimes takes it too far. "I've often done things -- seedy, sleazy things -- to get a song," he confides. "And I've justified the less savory aspects of my character by saying, 'Well, I'm a songwriter and this is experience.'"
What do you mean?
"I'm sometimes held ransom by my biological urges," he answers primly.
I'm not satisfied. I still want to know one bad thing he's done that he later tried to justify in the name of art.
"I stabbed someone."
"But I don't think that you should put that in -- it makes me sound like a thug."
I don't know exactly what to say.
"Well, he asked for it. Everyone was drunk and he was the aggressor. It was self-defense."
Johnson writes a lot about lust; he has a weird Catholic guilt thing about it -- weird because he's not Catholic. He's been with his girlfriend Fiona for ten years. Yet he complains of a gnawing emptiness, the curse of late-twentieth-century man.
"I had therapy, but I got bored. I've tried drugs and promiscuity, but that's like drinking salt water; The more you do, the emptier you get. I've tried acupuncture, flotation tanks, you name it. I suppose I just want to feel more alive, and I'm trying anything I can get my hands on. But nothing seems to satisfy."
Tonight, Matt can't seem to decide if he should quit the band, have children, or finish the glass of wine he's been toying with all evening. "Life's a bit upside down at the moment."
So we go for a drive in Matt's sleek, white 1970 Rover. We head east, toward the neighborhoods where he grew up, past the Blind Beggar, a pub now run by one of his uncles, where Jake "The Hat" McVitie was gunned down by the notorious Kray twins. And we pass the wall where Matt wrote off his first car when he was seventeen. He points out where his grandparent's house used to be, "just there, where that tree is."
We finally reach the Two Puddings, his parent's pub. When Matt and his three brothers were young and the pub was still a hub of British social life, the Two Puddings was packed every night. Matt would sit on the stairs, listening to the music coming up the elevator shaft. It was a happening place: Long John Baldry and David Essex played there; Rod Stewart and even the Krays would come by for a drink. The Small Faces rented rehearsal space upstairs, then ran off without paying their bill.
Now it's just a high-street put in a rough part of town, offering karaoke on Saturdays. This part of the East End, where ugly new offices and multistory car parks face dingy row houses and wartime bomb sites, grieves Johnson.
"It was always a rough area, but it was really lively. There were street markets and stuff. But they've ripped the heart out of it."
He shrugs, slipping into melancholia. I try to cheer him up by telling him a story. The day before this interview, as I sat on a bus reading some The The press clippings, I heard a voice at my elbow. It was a girl sitting next to me, who wanted -- no, needed -- to see the clippings. She took them with hushed reverence.
"He's wonderful," she whispered. "His lyrics ... what a mind."
She was cute, too, I tell Matt.
"Was she?" he asks. "They always are."