Matt Johnson is a funny guy. The brilliant mind behind the revolving line-up of The The (in which Johnson is the only constant), that writes gut-wrenching songs about the agony and pain of interpersonal relationships, is actually an extraordinarily nice person. I was expecting to find a man hunched in the corner of the room, obscured by shadows, begrundgingly answering questions about his music, life, etc. However, the man I met was an affable, forthcoming and intriguing person who was a blast to hang out with. He bounced around his apartment like a kid showing off his new toys, such as the complete Beatles songbook, his various electronic devices to enhance his in-home six track recording studio, his new Martin guitar (which he let me play), piles of material on Robert Johnson, and an unproduced movie script on the life of Hank Williams, written by Paul Schrader. This last item held particular relevance to my visit with Matt because of the imminent release of "Hanky Panky," his new Sony 550 record comprised entirely of cover versions of Hank Williams songs. Recently, we sat down and talked about Mr. Williams and a bit of what it's like to be Mr. Johnson.
Let's start with "Hanky Panky." How did you come to the decision to cover Hank Williams stuff?
"The Hank thing started out with the idea that I wanted to do a couple of EP's of Robert Johnson music and that came about because I started thinking about 'Who were the real great songwriters, the real simple great songwriters?' As I was tracing back through the likes of John Lennon, Lou Reed, and Bob Dylan, there were two names that kept comming up as influences to all of these people, Robert Johnson and Hank Williams. And I just started listening to their stuff in earnest. I bought everything I could find on them -- biographies, CDs and collections -- and just listened and listened and listened. I found myself really starting to concetrate on Hank."
When did you start this process?
"As an idea, this started about four or five years ago. That's when I started to listen. I got his complete lyrics and carried them around with me. I wanted to saturate myself in the songs. I'm not a country music fan, but I think Hank Williams is to country what Bob Marley is to reggae. He transcends it and stands alone"
When I first heard that you were doing it, it didn't make sense to me. I said, 'Matt Johnson and Hank Williams -- what's the connection?'
"A lot of people said that, but when people heard 'Hanky Panky' they said, 'That does make sense, ah, there is a link there."
Yeah, when I heard it, if I didn't know any better, I would have thought that these songs were written by the same guy who wrote the songs on "Dusk" (The The's 1993 release). Sonically and lyrically, the similarities are uncanny.
"Sonically, 'Dusk' and 'Hanky Panky' are far more similar than, say, 'Dusk' and 'Mind Bomb'. They're very close in that respect."
'Hanky Panky" does not sound like a Country-Western album. How did you construct the songs to suit your tastes?
"We [Matt and keyboard player D.C.Collard] put the songs down in the same tempo, structure, and key as Hank. I would sing them exactly as Hank sang them. Then, I decided to change the key to suit me, and I changed the way I sang them. Most of the vocal melodies I kept the same, but I changed the music around it so it changed the atmosphere of the song. I didn't want to go to Nashville and make a Country-Western record like Elvis Costello had done. I wanted to meet the songs half way; bring my own experiences to them; find a common ground and make them my songs."
They really sound like yours.
"In reading all these biographies about him, I grew closer and closer to him. What comes across about him is that even those that were very close to him didn't know him at all. He was very friendly and charming, a kind of good old boy, but in reality he was quite a loner. He was most intimate with his own songwriting; that's when he expressed himself and felt happiest. I could really understand that as a songwriter as well -- that closeness you feel to your own work and you feel slightly alienated from others."
Have you spoken with Hank Williams, Jr. about "Hanky Panky"?
"No, but oddly enough some magazine was trying to set up an interview with him and me, which I didn't feel too comfortable about as I thought he might strangle me. [Affecting a Texan accent] 'What have you done to my daddy's songs, boy.'"
Shifting away from Hank, do you take a lot of stock in how your records sell?
"Well, it's useful because it means I could pay for certain things. I've been lucky in that my records always seem to sell the same kind of amount. I could do with them selling a few more, but they sell well. A lot of my contemporaries have disappeared but I've kept my audience. If I put out an album and it sold absolutely nothing, I'd be quite alarmed. I do make records for myself, but, at the same time, I do want an audience."
The band on the new record is quite different from the one on "Dusk" and "Mind Bomb". No Johnny Marr (formerly of the Smiths), no David Palmer, no James Eller. What happened?
"Yeah. It's my third band in three years. D.C. is the only remaining member of the old band. He's been with me for five years. The old band went its seperate ways. David (the drummer) was seduced by the 'hot legs' and greenbacks of Rod Stewart. He was good drummer but he was a flake. John is still a very close friend, one of my best friends, and we'll work together again. James, the bass player, I lost touch with him and he put out a solo album. I don't know what happened to him."
Do you consider The The a band?
"I don't know, it's a band now and again. I mean, I like working with other people but I tend to write alone a lot. I plan to do some writing with D.C. and Eric (Scheermerhorn, the guitarist on 'Hanky Panky'). Writing, to me, is a solitary process. It's like painting a picture. I mean, you don't see two people painting a picture together."
Unfortunately, Matt Johnson and The The have no plans to tour in support of 'Hanky Panky' but Matt is currently working on songs for The The's next release, tenatively entitled 'Gun Sluts'. Judging from the title, I have no doubt it will be yet another light-hearted effort from the man behind albums with titles such as 'Soul Mining' and 'Infected'.