Matt Johnson was born in London's East End in 1961. He's been in bands since he was 11 years old. At age 17, fueled by a musical collection that included John Lennon, Syd Barrett, Tim Buckley, T-Rex and the great post-punk industrialists Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, The Residents and Thomas Leer, he formed The The by placing a "musicians wanted" ad in England's New Musical Express. From the release of their first singles -- on 4AD and Some Bizzare -- Johnson's passionate intelligence coupled with an accessible experimentalism marked out The The as something special.
Although noted for his absence as much as his presence -- entire careers come and go during his lengthy rest periods - Matt Johnson and The The are still thriving after twenty years, periodically refreshed by a judicious change of personnel. The current line up is comprised of guitarist Eric Schermerhom (ex-Iggy Pop), drummer Earl Harvin (ex-MC900 Foot Jesus), and bassist Spencer Campbell (ex- Kenny Rogers). If that sounds like a truly eccentric mix of musicians, then it all makes sense upon listening to NakedSelf.
While Johnson admits to living a reclusive lifestyle when not promoting his albums, he acknowledges that moving to New York's Chinatown several years ago helped galvanize and inspire him. "I think being a foreigner swells the senses and makes you feel more alive and receptive," he notes. I'd lost my way in-England."
As a result, NakedSelf is a beautiful, vital work untouched by fads or fake emotion. It also tips more than a knowing nod towards territory previously explored on 1981's Burning Blue Soul album. NakedSelf may have taken him nearly four years to produce -- "my life and mental state went through kaleidoscopic changes" he says -- but these tracks sound fresh and raw.
"A lot of work went behind that stripping down," he confesses. "In music today, the possibilities are endless and its easy to get swept away in a tidal wave of technology and lose sight of what you really want to express. I wanted a thick, fluid, slightly discordant sound laced with strong melodiea and harmonies. It was crucial to start out with strict parameters -- for instance no keyboards,samplers, sequencers or even harmonicas! We were also lucky enough to rent and borrow a lot of old Chinese tube equipment that came from a disused radio station in Shanghai. It sounded incredible."
While the door is firmly closed on some chapters of The The's long history, one thing remains constant: Johnson's lyrics still bite. Having written one of the freest anti-war songs of all time "Sweet Bird of Truth," he remains passionately concerned with what he sees as the pervading westernization of the world. "It's a wonderful, terrible time at the moment. There's so much going on in the world, with genetically modified food, and animals and human cloning, and global corporatization -- and with all of this the blurring of ethical lines. Personally, I think free market economics have caused as much devastation in the world as bombing raids from B52s. We're in for a fascinating new century"
The gentler side of Matt Johnson that has always been so spot-on with observations on relationships is also still very much in evidence. Listen to "WeatherBelle" and catch the sideways nod to "Out of the Blue"' or "DecemberSunlight," which explores the bittersweet side of emotional nostalgia. They are achingly beautiful and timeless songs in the vein of"Kingdom of Rain" and "August and September," proving that he hasn't lost his touch. In a world where the three minute inconsequential pop song is king, it's comforting to know that there is still a place for a classic talent which will be discovered and enjoyed by successive generations of music lovers.
As for the immediate future, there is a "stripped to the bones" tour planned in small venues with the musicians who played on the album - "the most powerful group l've ever had," notes Matt. There are also plans percolating to follow-up Hanky Panky with an album of Robert Johnson songs. Beyond that? "I guess I see myself first as a songwriter, then a producer, then a singer, then a guitarist and lastly, as a performer. I think I'm finally learning how to live in the moment and not put too much pressure on myself. Experience has taught me that we never know what's lying in wait just around the next corner."
-- Jill Smith