Cheery geniality is not what you'd expect from Matt Johnson, the mainstay of the English band The The, whose sporadic releases for more than a decade have been consistent in their brooding intesity. It's no different on the latest album "Dusk." But as Johnson sat recently in his airy, light-filled room at West Hollywood hotel, he was an eager conversationalist with an easy smile and friendly manner -- a complete contrast to the glum sensibility that characterizes his songs and his often anguished vocals. "It's all a load of bollocks," he said of the common perception that he's Mr. Darkness. He can't even stand to spend too much time in his native London, even though that's where his home and his girlfriend are, because life in the city "is corrosive to optimism." Rarely, if ever, has Johnson ever been publicly associated with optimism. "You get stuck with an image and you can't shake it," he said. "In Britain you get turned into a character or cartoon. My friends can't handle it."
Maybe they'd better get used to it. Johnson's been stuck with his image since forming the first version of The The in London in 1980. And in the five albums he's released since then, a preoccupation with fate and mortality has been pretty consistent. "One problem as a songwriter in the past is I tried to expand the possibilities of musical but not the lyrics," he said. On "Dusk" Johnson incorporates a wide spectrum of musical styles for sort of an industrial-folk-rock sound. Adding to the sonic coloration is Johnny Marr, the former Smiths guitarist who joined The The for the last album, 1989's "Mind Bomb." (Marr will not be part of the touring The The this year, though, preferring to stay home with his new child.) But any chance of tackling new lyrical territories on "Dusk" was preempted by the deaths of two of Johnson's family members in the past year, returning his attention to his familiar subjects. "People say, 'You've written about that before,'" Johnson said. "Well, I ate yesterday too and I'm hungry again. I write about dark things because I believe it's interesting to confront them. I'm happy to be who I am and don't want to be like anyone else. I just can't shut my eyes to the pain I see. I pick up on the melancholy I see. Ultimately the emotional pain, if you look at it seriously, deepens our spirituality."
Another thing that has hampered his public image is that he's given the world very little opportunity to see sides of him not represented in his songs. Johnson has been on the threshold of stardom for much of his career -- "This is the Day" from 1983's "Soul Mining" album and "Infected," the title song of The The's 1986 album, were both international hits. But Johnson has never broken through to celebrity, and that's fine with him. "I definately keep a low profile between albums," he said. "I like to be the observer rather than the observed. My ambition is to be a great songwriter but to be famous frightens me. I do have a high profile in the music community but I'm just not addicted to fame," he said. "I want recognition for songs I write, not because I'm a good manipulator of the media."