Slow Emotion Replay

Melody Maker - August 28, 1993
By Paul Mathur and Tom Sheehan

The very mention of The The inspires visions of musical doom, fretful soul-searching, and a general air of unreconstructed gloom. But does Matt Johnson really deserve his reputation as pop's Mr. Glum? Paul Mathur meets Reading's Saturday night headliner and thinks not.

This being the first sentence of a Matt Johnson piece, I am legally obliged to bludgeon you with the explain-all fact that he lives in a converted department store in London's East End. It also helps if I throw in phrases about his head being shaved "severely," his glumness shading his world like a shroud and his pathological desire to debate the merits and demerits of purgatory. And, hey, why not go the whole hog and insist he's consumptive as well?

Matt Johnson's street is studded with pubs that have turned their trade over to hawking "exotic dancers" to the weary city workers who shuffle their lives away in the nearby silver towers. Opposite his house, there is a club called "Paradox." On the way to the interview, I see a well-dressed man stuffing empty tin cans through a letter box. Just after the interview, Matt Johnson shows me a video of his last single in which a naked woman slinks around his lounge. It strikes me that this must be a rather terrific place to live.

'Actually," says severely shaven, glum, blah, blah, blah Matt, "I don't spend that much time here. I'm much more at home in Spain or America these days. Most of the operation is based in America anyway. Britain isn't a particularly inspiring place." And the British pressfolk themselves don't seem to find Matt particularly inspiring, having inexplicably decided that he isn't the heroic "existentialist bluesman" he'd originally been lauded as. These days, he gets a far more fervent reaction Stateside despite having released some of the best music of the past ten years and rarely having abandoned a lyrically perceptive take on the more gripping failings of the human condition. Sometimes the cookie crumbles against all sense of what is just.

Matt Johnson records under the name The The, but the band's function has been, and always will be, to flesh out his personal creativity. Everyone who works with him knows that and accepts it, everyone from the lowliest session musician to such luminaries as his most notable recent ranch hand Johnny Marr. "It's true that it's my group," he confesses, "but it's basically because I look for people who are going to create the sound that I want. When you're looking for a completely different sound, you need a completely different band. It's like, the newest stuff I'm doing is very American, funky, and so I've got together an American band. Plus in pratical terms, I'm going to be spending a lot more time in America, so it helps to have a band based over there. I like to think of The The as a fluid thing, people can work with me, then stop for a bit, then work again."

They get their old school ties, then?

"Definitely. I mean, I'm definitely going to work with Johnny again in the future, it's just that he's been too busy with his family and things recently."

Nevertheless, there's a nagging sense that Johnson demands incessant change; [that he] requires that no one gets truly close enough to be indespensable.

"Yeah, that's probably true," he admits. "I have a very precise idea of what I want to do, the sort of records I want to make. I don't want anything to distract me from that."

Most recently, his vision has taken the form of an album, "Dusk," his most mature work to date and, alongside the wrenchingly addictive "Infected" long player, a vindication that his work transcends mere rattle 'n' glum. Songs like "Slow Emotion Replay," "Dogs of Lust," and particularly "Helpline Operator" are among the finest the wordsmiths of his generation have hurled our way. If anything, his creative powers are very much in the ascendant. "I agree," he unsurprisingly, er, agrees. "I've got another five albums in my head. I know the direction I want to go. At the moment, I just have to decide the order I'm going to release everything. I feel right now that I can do far more than perhaps I've done in the past. It's only really been laziness that's stopped me."

And will there perhaps be anything to dispel the rumors of him as the archetypal doom and gloom merchant? A rollicking cover of "The Sun Has Got His Hat On" perchance?

"Well, I have actually sung the line, 'Here comes the blue skies,'" he insists. "The thing is that what I've written has always been very intense, but it's positive rather than negative. I've never been a great believer in all that business about great art coming out of suffering."

But there is that sense that all Johnson's art comes from the method of songwriting, from the living underbelly rather than just peeking at it through a telescope.

"Oh, yes of course," he says. "I've always been fascinated by sleaziness, by the kind of darker side. Maybe sometimes I've embraced it a bit too closely, but I don't regret anything I've done."

How close has the embrace been? Has he ever sold his body for money?

"No," he says, without even thinking about it.

Would he ever? A longer pause. Much longer.

"I don't think so. I guess I'm fascinated by the motions behind all that; by the people in that world. I've made lots of friends who are hookers or whatever and had amazing conversation with them. I like their company."

And have the hookers heard of Matt Johnson?


That must make you feel good.

"Sure, I'm fascinated by anyone who has a different perspective on the world. I'm sure everyone is."

Matt Johnson's perspective first surfaced, as these things so often do, on 4AD, via a single "Controversial Subject," and an album, "Burning Blue Soul" (re-released twice since, to fit into some sort of narrative process). That was 1981. Shortly after, he decamped to Some Bizarre, where the symbiotic and often unhinged relationship that grew between Johnson and label boss Stevo paved the way for Epic Records to release The The's full-length debut and allowed bedsits and student rooms of this world to soak in the quite extraordinary album that is "Soul Mining." Smart pop with an ambitiously rich instrumentation, it had the hyperbolists reaching for the Thesaurus, with some justification. To this day, it continues to sell by the lorryload and, in "Uncertain Smile," has a timeless song that has touched or will touch the lives of most discerning teenage pop consumers.

The albums that followed have established him as a man who insists on ploughing his own, often idiosyncratic, furrow; rarely failing to wrench at least some beauty from the intensity of the experience. This weekend he will headline the Saturday night at Reading, but amazingly, it's the first British festival he's ever played. How come?

"A lot of it comes from shyness," he admits. "When I first started, I did a couple of those gigs where you travel up and down motorways in a transit van, but I was never completely comfortable with the whole side of things. I look at contemporaries like Depeche Mode [who he will support in America later this year] or New Order [with whom he has played a couple of Stateside gigs] and I can see that they reason they've got the much higher profiles is because they started playing live so much earlier. It's only relatively recently that I've started touring."

In the last couple of years, however, he's taken his shows across the continents and confesses a real hunger to keep doing so.

"Now that I've toured I've realised that I really enjoy it, although I know there's things I've still got to work on, like perhaps communicating more with the audience between songs. The The started off a studio-based operation but now it works just as well live, although I hate air-conditioned places. I always insist that the management turn the heat up as high as it will go, just so everyone gets sweating. I played a gig in LA and it was freezing. Plus the stage was enormous. It's a bit difficult to get an atmosphere going when you can't even see the other people in your band."

The venues may get larger, but the shows maintain a certain stripped dignity. Johnson is one of the few performers who still insists on the get-up-onstage-without-the-gimmicks ethic, believing wholeheartedly in the power of the performer rather than the lure of the sideshow.

"What I do," explains Johnson, "is basically all about the songs. The person people see onstage is the real me rather than any sort of larger-than-life figure. I think there's still a place for that."

So we shouldn't expect any overblown re-inventions, any distancing between Matt Johnson the writer and Matt Johnson the performer. No trips for The The to The Zoo?

"The whole U2 thing," says Johnson, "strikes me as the sort of thing you think up in a boardroom. I mean, I admire Prince and the way that he can change through all these different styles, but the idea of U2 shows is completely alien to me. I could never do that."

That might surprise some people since another of The The's most significant contributions has been to the medium of the pop video. The "Infected" album in particular became virtually a soundtrack to a long-form video that had him strapped to a boat, crawling through brothels, and even taking on the role of a dying pilot in Libya. The The's visuals have always seemed every bit as important as the sounds.

"That's wrong," he says, "and I'm aware of that. I think in the past I've relied too heavily on giving people visual interpretation of the songs rather than letting them make their own pictures up in their heads. I don't want people to listen to the songs and automatically picture the videos. Obviously, you have to do the videos, but the ones I've done recently have been more geared towards straight performances. The songs can say so much more when they're not tied to specific images."

Not that he's entirely disillusioned with the potential of video. It's just that these days he sees it as something that can grow from, rather than shelter inside, the songs. His next project, currently being edited, is a collaboration with his long-time associate, Tim Pope, which takes his "Dusk" album as a base and embellishes it with footage and interviews from a recent sojourn in New York. Titles "From Dusk to Dawn," it's a remarkable film that includes not just the music from the album, but also bucaneering clips of the band's impromtu appearances on shows like "Cab Driver's Hour" (including Jim Foetus writhing with a woman on the floor in front of predictably stoic cabbies) and a series of interviews with porn stars, fetishists, and passers-by. The interviews alone are reason enough to ensure that you reserve the video at the soonest opportunity. Loosely based around responses to the question, "What's Wrong With the World?," they elicit all manner of reactions, the most affecting being that of an old man who emotionally cumples in front of the camera, gets all gooey about a bit of wood his mate has brought from Staten Island and does his best to hide a scary, unspecified pain that will have you open-mouthed and vaguely torn apart. It's not exactly entertainment, but it delves into the human condition far more effectively than Bono's dry-wank global channel-hopping. "We'd like to try and get a TV release for this," explains Matt, "and maybe put it in a cinema as well for a while. I mean, even people who don't particularly like the group are going to be interested in the interviews. Then there'll also be a whole box-set with all the videos I've done. I wanted to make sure that all that stuff was there, was collected."

For someone who doesn't want his music to be too closely allied to visuals, he's not exactly going out of his way to keep the images under wraps. Still, good business is good business. As he steers his pop charabanc towards the parking spot marked "Veteran," you wonder whether he sometimes just feels like jaking it all in and heading off to live a life of contemplative calm. "Oh, there's been plenty of times that I've thought, 'Well, that's it, I'm never going to make another record'," he admits. "It can get very boring. And it's not like I'm a hugely prolific writer, although again a lot of that has to do with laziness. I only want to make music as long as I've got the hunger for it. You look at someone like Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen or John Lee Hooker and you can see that they're making music for themselves not because someone has told them they ought to. Maybe I'll keep making music for years, maybe one day I'll just stop."

Johnson retains an enthusiasm for what he does that should shame many of his jaded peers, although these days he appears, if anything, more single-minded than ever. He has given up believing any of his press ("I used to read the good bits, then my girlfriend told me if I was going to do that I'd have to read the bad bits as well, so I've decided not to read either") and, in his head at least, has some kind of masterplan. "I think I can visualize what I want to do for the next few years, and I know that I want these records, that are at the moment just fragments, to come out. I think I'll be dissapointed if I don't do that. I want to discipline myself to write more. I think I've still got a lot to offer."

The Reading show should pretty much bear out that assertion and while, lyrically, he may be moving away from the explicit to a more measuredly personal, his should be as fine a soundtrack as any to the lighting of fires, the tussling of tents, and the general emotional breakdown that's preparing you for just one more day without running water. And, if nothing else, the dogs of lust will be barking their approval. Matt Johnson can still sear the heart of your darkness and, one senses, will be doing so for quite some time to come. Let him burn you for a while.

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