THE THE : An Interview with Matt Johnson

By Randy Bookasta

Ray Gun #4, March 1993


Born and raised in London's East End, Matt Johnson officially created The The in May of 1979 at the age of 17, while working at DeWolfe studios. Johnson placed a classified advertisement in the New Musical Express. It was answered by Keith Laws, a keyboardist, who suggested the name The The. After several local supporting gigs, the duo attracted the attention of 4AD's Ivo-Watts Russell, who subsequently issued their debut single, "Controversial Subject," as one of the label's first offerings.

For a brief time, The The expanded to a quartet before Johnson opted to record his debut album, Buring Blue Soul, almost entirely on his own. Although released under his own name, Burning Blue Soul is considered to be The The's first album. Under the guidance of Stevo, manager / founder of Some Bizzare Records, Johnson signed with Epic Records in 1982. The The became a platform from which Johnson could collaborate with any number of performers, among them Thomas Leer, Zeke Manyika, Neneh Cherry, Jim Thirlwell, Warne Livesey, and Roli Mosimann. Hardly prolific, The The released two albums : Soul Mining and Infected before Johnson decided in 1989 to present The The as a bona fide band, recrutting former Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist James Eller, and drummer David Palmer. The unit recorded Mind Bomb and then embarked on The The's first ever live tour. The same line-up, with the addition of D.C.Collard on piano, is featured on Dusk, the new album. Yet Johnson seems uncertain as to their future. Speaking from the London offices of Epic Records, Johnson expressed the following...

RG : Dusk is a departure for you in the sense that the production is more stripped down. Was this a conscious effort?

MJ : Yes, definitely. I really wanted to uncover the songs themselves. I think production can sometimes clutter things. It can be a case of all icing and no cake. That's not to say that I wouldn't do something high tech sounding in the future, but at this moment in time, I really want to work on my abilities as a songwriter.

RG : Do you feel that some of your past work was too cluttered with production?

MJ : I think it possibly was. There were some strong ideas in there, but some of them kind of got lost. I've been a perfectionist in the studio, which is a neurotic condition where you just want everything to be as good as it possibly can be. I think I've changed from that. I wanted this album to be a bit looser. I wanted the songs to breathe more easily. I cut quite a bit of it live in the studio.

RG : There's also a lack of political imagery on the record. The lyrics seem very personal...

MJ : My opinions on politics and religion haven't changed much over the past few years and I didn't want to repeat what I've already said. A lot of things have happened in my personal life since Mind Bomb that aren't all particularly good and that's changed me quite a bit as a person. That's what was on my mind, the world within my head rather than the world outside of it.

RG : The songs are all your compositions, but since you are functioning as a band now, how much of the record would you consider to be a collaborative effort?

MJ : This album is actually less of a group album than Mind Bomb. The group was less present in the studio to be perfectly honest. I decided to continue with the same line-up because they had done the tour and I got to work well with them, but I like to bring in fresh blood a lot of the time. Having said that, they are all great musicians and they all bring their own character to their part, but I do write most of the parts, as well as the songs, and ultimately do have the overview. If I go out live I may be forming a new band. It all depends on who's available from the old band. All of our lives have changed since I formed that group. I haven't had any children yet, but they've had six children amongst them. If you are going to be away from home for a long time, it's really tough if you've got kids. It might be the right time to bring in a fresh, hungrier band. From my point of view, I feel that The The is ultimately my entity. Out of the other members of the band, I guess that Johnny has had the most input. We spoke a lot during the making of the album. He was very encouraging and involved. We're very close. He's one of my best friends and our friendship is more important than working together.

RG : Did he have a child?

MJ : Yeah, he's got a little baby.

RG : Did you ever contemplate working together before he formed the Smiths?

MJ : Yeah, we did discuss it before the Smiths. We were going to do it, but it was very awkward. I didn't have much money. I was living in a bedsit in London and he was in Manchester, which was very impractical. So we both went our seperate ways and teamed up at a later stage. There is every chance that Johnny and I will be doing some writing together. We will be collaborating on an album together with or without this band. At the moment, though, I think he needs to be with his kid.

RG : Do you and Johnny have similar tastes in music?

MJ : Yeah, we have very similar tastes, which is why it's been so good working together. We like what each other does and we share a lot of the same interests.

RG : Considering that the Mind Bomb tour was The The's first venture on the road, what did you learn from the experience?

MJ : I learned that there were structural weaknesses in my songs, some of which had never been played live before. I built my confidence as a singer quite substantially. Another thing I realized was that I had an audience. It had a powerful effect on me to actually go to the other side of the world and see people singing songs that I'd written ten years previously. It had a big impact on me in a very positive way. All of the effort that I had put into writing the songs actually did have repercussions.

RG : Apparently you started performing in bands at the age of 11. What inspired you at such a young age?

MJ : In fact, I knew I was going to be a singer from about the age of three or four. I grew up in a pub where bands would perform and me and my older brother would go and play on the instruments when the pub was closed. I remember various customers would often say, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I used to say, "I want to be a singer. That's what I'm going to be, a singer." By the age of 11 I was. When I was 15, I was working full-time in a studio. By the age of 17 I formed The The. Now I'm 31 and about to put out my fifth album. I'm very fortunate in that respect because a lot of people I know my age or older still don't know what they want to do. I realize that it was a real blessing to have had such a strong sense of direction at such an early age.

RG : You mentioned that you grew up in a pub. Did you have living quarters on top of the pub.

MJ : That's right. We lived in several pubs over the years and we always lived above them.

RG : You've said that when you were younger the White Album was the only record in the house...

MJ : Yeah, that was the only rock album. When my parents first bought a gramophone player, we had the soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia, Peter and the Wolf, and the Beatles' White Album. The White Album had a huge, huge effect on my musical tastes.

RG : What were some of your other early inspirations?

MJ : Tamla/Motown, Can, obviously John Lennon, Tim Buckely, various blues. A very wide range really, from very formless, experimental, European avant-garde music to American blues and everything in between.

RG : You left school at the age of 15. You've stated in the past that was, in part, a reflection of the British school system...

MJ : It was a reflection of me not being a very good student. The British school system doesn't really encourage children that aren't apparently good at their subjects. The schools are very understaffed and there are too many pupils in the classrooms. The teachers don't have the time or the training to identify pupils that may have that hidden potential. There are a lot of people that slip through the net in our education system. A lot of people are permanently damaged by it because they are branded as dunces when they are really not.

RG : Do you think the British eduction system has gotten worse since you were in school?

MJ : It doesn't seem like it's gotten any better. Britain is a country in serious economic decline and public services are being cut down. The health and education systems are suffering quite badly and have been under the conservative party for the last 13 years. They deny it. Do you trust what you hear or do you trust your own eyes? Your own eyes tell you that the country is in seriously bad shape.

RG : How important of a learning experience was your work, in your early teens, at DeWolfe Studios?

MJ : It was very important because I started playing around with tape machines and...it struck me almost as a revelation that you could be completely self-contained. Drum machines were just starting to come on the market and I suddenly realized you didn't need a drum, or this and that, and you could just be a self-contained solo artist that creates music more powerful that with just an acoustic guitar. Prior to that, a solo artist often meant that you either sing and play piano or sing and play guitar. So actually playing with tape machines and building it up opened a whole world of possibilities for me.

RG : Was it during this stage that you initially created The The?

MJ : Yeah, I got together a couple of bands. Two years after I started working at the place I put an advertisment in the British music press classified column and I got together with some people and took it from there.

RG : When did you first meet Stevo (manager/founder of Some Bizzare)?

MJ : I got a phone call out of the blue from Stevo in about 1981 and he wanted me to play a gig. He kept phoning up and I kept saying no until I was finally persuaded. He was a person that had a very powerful effect on my career because he was the first person that believed in me as much as I believed in myself. It was a very fruitful relationship. Towards the end it just wasn't working anymore and it was a very amicable seperation. We're still friends. I'm very fond of Stevo.

RG : What is he doing now?

MJ : He's still managing Marc Almond and he's got a couple of other acts on his label.

RG : What is the current standing of the Pornography of Despair (shelved 1982 LP) tapes? Was there a limited pressing at one point?

MJ : Very, very limited. There was only about 250,000 done. Very, very limited.

RG : 250,000???

MJ : Okay, I'm joking. Only a couple of thousand.

RG : Have you consider reissuing it?

MJ : I don't know. I listened to it recently and I thought...I mean, I might reissue it just to stop bootlegs from coming out, but I have no plans to. Burning Blue Soul is coming out on CD for the very first time. I'm very pleased about that.

RG : During the period of recording Pornography of Despair, apparantly there was several weeks of "trashed up hotel rooms and intense mania..."

MJ : Yeah, that was around the time I recorded "Perfect" in New York.

RG : What triggered all of this frustration?

MJ : It was drugs. I was taking too much ecstasy and too many qualudes. I also didn't like having a producer tell me how to perform my own songs. I was in New York with Stevo at the time and we just crazy and smashed up our respective hotel rooms, then rented a car and drove. We hung out in Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, and then we went up to Canada. We had a great time. We went awol! The record company didn't know where we were. It was a fantastic time.

RG : Have you kept in contact with Jim Thirlwell (Foetus)?

MJ : Yes, he just did a remix of "Dogs of Lust." We speak from time to time. Jim is another person who was a very big influence on me. He's been an important part of my career. He's a very close friend and somebody who's been a bit of a mentor for me.

RG : Have you ever discussed recording a collaboration with him?

MJ : Yes, we have. We do discuss it from time to time and I'm sure that it will happen at some point. Both of us have so much on our plates, but I'm sure it will happen.

RG : You've often spoken of The The as an "umbrella organization" which could include various films and book projects. Have any of those ideas come to fruition?

MJ : I've been offered various things. Several people have offered me acting parts, which I've declined. I'm not into that. I've been offered various soundtrack work, but the right film hasn't come along. Tim Pope and I did write a treatment for Dusk, to make a film of the new album, but we were told that the funds would just not be made available for us. We shelved the idea, which was unfortunate. At the moment I'm concentrating on the musical side, but at some stage I do intend to move into film. The initial movie may be a film soundtrack and maybe a couple of cameo apperances. I would like to push more in that direction.

RG : You mentioned that you've declined a few acting roles. You have no interest?

MJ : Not really. I think actors are one of the few breeds of people that are even more vain than musicians. I have enough of a problem getting on stage. There are a couple of cameo roles I may be doing, but acting is not something that I'm particularly interested in.

RG : A couple of years back you were interested in some book publishing projects...

MJ : There were some things I was interested in, but I shied away from that. First of all, the tour virtually bankrupted me, so I had to put all of those ideas away. If any of my future albums do particularly well than I would venture into that. At the moment I have too many other expenses.

RG : Do you have any interest in producing other artists?

MJ : Possibly. It would all be under The The. It would mean that there could be The The records that I don't even appear on, which appeals to me. I bought my own recording studio, which I've just set up. I'm having major renovation work done to the studio at the moment. Once I get that done, I would like to embark on various projects simultaneously. I've got a lot of possibilities in the pipeline. My problem is that I'm very much a hands-on person. I've got a new personal manager here and I keep getting involved, which drives her mad. She'll be on the phone and I'll grab the phone. I want to be involved in every aspect of everything. It means that I'm doing less of what I should be doing, which is writing songs. What I want to do is delegate more, take on some people, get the studio fully operated and then just embark on these other projects of mine. I'm very excited by all of these possibilities.

RG : Did you make any New Year's resolutions?

MJ : Yes, to identify and defeat my fears.


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