Matt Johnson: Detonation Time

Melody Maker - May 13, 1989

By John Wilde


Following the success of The The's "The Beat(en) Generation," Matt Johnson next week releases his new album, "Mind Bomb." John Wilde hears tales of good and evil and tries to discover whether the LP is a work of a genious or the creation of a madman.

Is this really Matt Johnson halfway through the interview, I feel the urge to ask him to produce his passport, just to make sure. Here he is, telling me about karma and the voices inside his head. How he deplores the notion of hedonism. It's a long way from the Matt Johnson who retched up "Infected" from the dark bowels of the soul. Three years ago, I interviewed another Matt Johnson who had gone to hell and back in a desperate bid to find the symptoms and causes of the decline of the western empire. He came back looking stark-dazed, like a man who had reached the end of his rope and clawed himself up just in time. I spent an evening in his London flat, listening to the screech of his screaming nerves, watching him waver between exuberance and profound gloom. At the end of the night, his insane ravings finally exhausted, he offered me a night-cap which turned out to be a foul-tasting, potent aphrodisiac. Johnson had spent the night puking up the last scraps of "Infected." Now it was my turn. As I crouched over his bathroom sink, disgorging the contents of my entire stomach, I could hear him cackling behind me. I recall thinking -- this man is genuinely mad.

Is this really him then? Three years on, Matt Johnson is lounging about in a West End recording studio, dunking a digestive into a mug of PG Tips, talking to me about God.

"My religion is one of spiritual commonsense," he says. "There's a song called 'The Violence of Truth' on the new album and the first few lines are, 'God is Evil, God is Love, God is the force that possesses us / God is beauty, God is truth, God is the force that is watching over you.' My philosophy progressed to the point of realizing that God is absolutely everything. The ultimate power is good, but God allows evil to exist. Evil isn't an ultimate power. Love is the ultimate power, but there are transient aspects. There is a transient good and a transient evil but, ultimately, good is absolute. Evil exists as an evolutionary thing. Devastating things happen to me, which I think are awful, terrible. Only later, when I've grown and passed through them, I realize they have changed me for the better. Someone may commit an aweful act, but if you follow its natural course, it turns out to be good."

What about the wild sex orgies and the bucketfull of drugs? What about the sick depravity and the hunger for degradation? All of a sudden, I feel like a man who's been sent to interview Jean Genet but ended up sharing a pew with Jess Yates, the swinging vicar. Is this really Matt Johnson?

"The whole album has been months of realization. A lot of illuminating moments. Pure inspiration. You can see the progression of my philosophy throughout this album. On 'Armageddon Days are Here (Again),' the last verse is -- 'God didn't build himself that throne / God doesn't believe in Israel or Rome / God doesn't belong to the Yankee dollar / God doesn't plant bombs for Hezbola / God doesn't even go to church and God won't send us down to Allah to burn.' It's saying that God doesn't commit these evil acts. The things that are committed in the name of God are not God's doing. They're just mankind's doing. All this wickedness is the animal nature of man being expressed. There is no Satan. The Devil lives in the human heart. The only devil is the human ego or the lower nature of man. The God that inspired the prophets is the one God no institution or religion has a monopoly on. That same force is here today for anyone to use it. God is not a relic from the past. It's a human birthright. I feel very strongly about the misuse of God as a tool for suppressing humanity, which is what it's been used for throughout the centuries."

"Then, on 'Violence of Truth,' I'm saying that God is evil. God is everything. I'm asking what it is that makes us ashamed to be white when we close our eyes to the sound of machine gun fire. Why the niggers of the world are starving with their mouths wide open? Why is it that anything on this earth that we don't understand pushes us to our knees to worship or to damn. These are the rules of religion. These are the rules of the land. That's how the forces of darkness will surpress the spirit of man."

"I progressed to the point of thinking about Thatcherism and wondering why we've had no opposition to speak of for the last 10 years. I decided that we need to let this materialism run its natural course for people to be repulsed by so they can see what's really happening. If there had been a good Labour opposition, they would have been in power for five years. Then we'd have had another term of Thatcher. The way it is, it's been forced on us. Now we're seeing the results. Now we see how morose people are becoming. We can see how shallow people's lives have become. I think a lot of people are ready to wake up. Their eyes are starting to open. Since writing 'The Beat(en) Generation,' I've noticed a change. There's a tragic degree of ignorance but people I talk to are wondering what it's about; they're starting to question their lives and their environment. It's starting to move in a positive way. That's what I'm interested in at the moment."

Are you still with us? If it all sounds a little loopy.... well, you had to be there. Over the course of 90 minutes, Johnson must have recited the lyrics of his new album to me in their entirety. When he comes onto the love songs, he is actually on the verge of tears. I lean back, reach for another digestive and let him get on with it.

"There's a lot of love songs on 'Mind Bomb.' There's a track called 'Beyond Love' which must be one of the most beautiful songs anyone has ever written. I'm really proud of it. It describes the life process...."

My digestive breaks into my mug of tea and floats like frog spawn on the surface. I start staring at it as though it is the most wonderful thing I've ever seen.

"Yes, the life process. There are three or four different things going on at once. It's like a spiritual communion via sexual ecstasy, in a way. It describes the reproductive process using biological language next to pure, romantic poetry -- 'The force of life is rushing through our veins / In and out like the tide comes in waves / The drops of semen and the clots of blood / Which may one day become like us'."

This biscuit is starting to look very, very strange.

"It's taking the life process from the sperm cell in the lovemaking act, to human growing and reaching out. The life force growing from the size of sperm, bursting to come out of the man and into the woman; growing in the woman; coming out of a woman as a human being, reaching up. Growing doesn't stop when we reach adulthood. The spirit then has to grow, even though the physical body stops growing. Most people stop growing, mentally and spiritually, at the same time they stop growing physically. You meet guys who are 60, but they have the mental age of a guy of 17."

"It's depressing...but that's the particular stage of their incarnation. In the next incarnation, they'll reach another stage. 'Take me beyond love up to something above / Upon this bed / Between these sheets / Take me to a happiness beyond human reach / Beyond the grasp of lust / Beyond the need for trust / Beyond the gaze of the sick and lame / Beyond the stench of human pain.' That's how the album finishes. It's absolutely beautiful. I cried when I wrote it. I cry quite a lot when I'm writing. In some ways, it's a bit naughty of me to claim authorship because it's almost as though this stuff is coming through me."

Bernard Albrecht! You're not alone!

"When songs come like that, they make my hair stand on end. If I don't feel that way when I'm writing, how can anyone feel like that when they listen to my stuff? My girlfriend criend when she heard 'Kingdom of Rain' and 'August & September,' which are songs about my relationships with her. Very, very intense songs. On 'August & September,' I sing -- 'What kind of man was I, who would sacrifice your happiness to satisfy his pride? / What kind of man was I, who would delay your destiny to appease his tiny mind?' That's what I do it for. Not for good reviews in Melody Maker. That's an ego massage if I get that. I put so much into the songs. They're like crystallized feelings. When people put the stylus on the record and hear it, the song bursts and melts. The songs come to life in people's hearts. People keep asking me why I don't write songs like 'Uncertain Smile' anymore. Well I was just a boy when I wrote that one, a mere teenager. It was a very pure, unrequited love song. These songs are written from a man's point of view, if I may be so bold. They are written from 10 years of deep experience."

"A song like 'Gravitate to Me' is more than a love song. It involves the attraction process. More mystical I suppose. It's taken on the animal level. You know the way animals attract? It's quite blatant. This song is taking it into the human spirit. I'm talking about the power of the human mind to make things happen. I've made certain certain things happen. Everybody can do it if they think about something long enough. Whatever's in the invisible part of your mind and spirit materialises with that power and all humans posses it. There comes a degree of responsibility though. If you use that power for bad reasons, then it's going to come back and hit you. If you use it for good, then the force will come back twice as strong for you to do the same work. It's a song about the spiritual attraction process. You're born into this particular stage in time to learn certain things. You meet certain people who you know you've known before. You feel you know them more than you do. Then you meet people you feel an immediate aversion to. I don't think that's any kind of accident. that's because there's a link there."

With "The Beat(en) Generation," Johnson achieved his aim of writing a song that would chart and draw attention to "Mind Bomb." After the near misses of "This is the Day" and "Heartland," he realized that, this time, he had to get it right. When I reminded him that it was compared to Fairground Attraction, he merely shrugs.

"The way The The has established itself has been in spite of the media and not because of it. I've had the luxury of enjoying good press, but it hasn't swayed me an inch. I've reached a stage where I'm devoted, dedicated, and completely in love with music and what I do."

"People seem to think that 'The Beat(en) Generation' was a bitter song. It was more scathing. I tend to think of bitterness as a negative emotion. With 'Infected,' I managed to eradicate a lot of the negative emotions in myself. I don't feel bitterness, envy, jealousy, or frustration any more. I get angry and kick things, but I don't feel hate towards anybody. I don't feel bitter about anything that's happened to me. I'm not jealous or envious of anyone. I've also come to terms with my ego. I'll admit that I'm striving to achieve a certain amount of greatness as a writer. But, being British, I tend to play down that aspect."

"You have to come to terms with your ego. By coming to terms with it and embracing it, you can reduce it in size. By battling against it, the ego takes over. I realize I'm still egotistical and vain in certain respects, but I try to use that as an energy. It's almost like the booster part of a rocket that sends it up. Then, the other parts can take over."

He describes "Mind Bomb" as "the greatest parts of 'Burning Blue Soul,' 'Soul Mining,' and 'Infected' rolled into one." He regards each album as a stage in The The's evolution.

"I can't distinguish between the work and the life because they're interrelated. The albums are interrelated too. All my stuff is interwoven. I don't really think of each album as seperate. It's a process of growing. There are links and cross-references all the way through the work. The same themes keep recurring. The struggle between good and evil, the spirit and ego. Essentially, it's the struggle of the life force within. The evolution of good through evil. The evolution of light through dark. I suppose 'Mind Bomb' is part of the quest. If you take it from 'Burning Blue Soul,' there are a lot of references to spirituality and a cluster of Biblical references. Well, 'Mind Bomb' takes it a step further."

"After 'Infected,' I wondered what I was going to do next. There was no point in making another 'Infected.' I'm not saying that I couldn't repeat myself because of what other people might say. It simply wouldn't satisfy me. What's the point? I could easily do it. It might satisfy the audience to a degree. But I'm not even sure of that. I think people like my stuff because they don't know what's going to happen next."

'Mind Bomb" could easily be The The's "Astral Weeks." Rather than the brilliantly erractic collection of songs that made up "Infected," this album has a seamless quality to it. Like "Burning Blue Soul," it sounds completely integrated and highly compressed. Each song is drawn into the stream, hurtled along, in a state of perpetual upheaval. Unlike "Burning Blue Soul," which seemed to melt into darkness, or emptiness, "Mind Bomb" benefits from a breathless climax. The slow swell of "Beyond Love" is a magnificent close to a magnificent album, full of vital energy. It might just be the most intense song that Johnson has been involved with.

In that song, as in this interview, Matt Johnson seems to entice us to trust his "vision," to let ourselves be swept along with him towards a climax that lies just ahead. As he sits there, clutching his last digestive, I'm convinced. Later, his words seem to lose their energy. They begin to sound vaguely like the kind of thing we would invent for TTT, to cast Johnson as a foolish over-achiever, a hopeless dreamer. He's not though. This year's Matt Johnson might seem a little far-fetched, but you just have to persevere. "Mind Bomb" should be convincing enough.

"I knew exactly where I was going with this album," he says. "I had a very distinct vision when I started writing these songs. I said about 'Infected' that I was throwing back all the images and propaganda that has been shoved into my head for the past 25 years. I was so involved in that album I ended up becoming the songs."

"Well, 'Mind Bomb' is even more intense. In a way, I still feel as though I'm regurgitating. I don't think that ever stops. If you're a writer, painter, or whatever, you're taking in life and inspiration and something else comes out of you. If you don't make that happen, then you force yourself to a nervous breakdown. You have to form your own reality out of things."

"The cult thing suits me fine, you know. I'm not even aware what people think of me. At least it's good that I'm not percieved as an oddball artist, an English eccentric. Anyway, the cult thing is going to change after this album. After 10 years of The The, I'm prepared to enter a new phase. I used to have a vague feeling of what I wanted to do. As I got older, it's got much more definite, much more intense."

"I'm actually full of hope. I'm one of the most optimistic people you could hope to know. My whole viewpoint goes beyond politics. My politics are spiritual. People think being intense involves being earnest and angst-ridden. But, by being angst-ridden, you're cutting off the intensity. I'm interested in celebrating life. The celebration of God, not through some kind of vile, grey, puritanical daily routine, but by the active celebration of life -- the appreciation of music, art, people, food, and living, tempered with a certain amount of spiritual discipline and moral discipline."

"The only thing mankind should fear is himself. In the Bible, it says, 'as ye sow, so shall ye reap.' In the Koran, it says that every soul shall be held hostage by its own deeds. It's not God we have to fear. God is ambivalent. It comes from us. If you kill someone, it ain't God that's going to punish you. It's the thing in yourself that's going to come back at you. If you plant a tomato seed, you're not going to start growing apples...."

Finally, Matt Johnson roared with laughter and I swear it went on for a full minute. It is a laugh that seems to say, "take me seriously, but not too seriously." "Mind Bomb" is shaping up as a seriously great record. The real Matt Johnson has finally stepped forward.


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