WHEN Brian Clough’s scouts arrived at Johnny Marr’s home in Manchester and his mum led them into the lounge, they hadn’t expected the sight that greeted them.
“I looked like one of the New York Dolls,” remembers Johnny Marr.
“I think that scared them off.”
This was in the late 70s and on the cusp of Forest’s two triumphs in the European Cup. So, he could have been playing for one of the world’s greatest club sides of that era.
But he chose music.
“They followed me around for a few games,” says Marr, who was playing for Manchester City’s junior side.
“They invited me up there [down here, he means]. I was really flattered and it was super tempting but I always wanted to be a guitar player. I remember telling my parents that I was not going to be anything other than a guitar player.”
He adds: “I was literally on my way to rehearse with my little band of mates when they came to visit.
“It’s something to tell the grandchildren about, along with a few guitar stories.”
The band of mates wasn’t The Smiths. The infamous visit to Morrissey’s house was still a couple of years away.
Marr is in Los Angeles when we speak, en route to a show in San Jose with Modest Mouse, the band’s 52nd since last October.
Initially Marr and Mouse were to be connected for just over a week at the beginning 2006. The band’s frontman Isaac Brock had called to ask if he wanted to write with him for a new album.
“It sounded like an intriguing way of spending ten days,” says Marr, 43, who lives between Manchester and the band’s base in Portland, Oregon.
“I already liked the group and liked how unusual their songs were. I hadn’t committed to anything but when we started writing we clicked straight away.”
As a result he became a permanent member, putting his own project The Healers on hold.
“I’m always led by the music. And I got really passionate about the record and I’m very proud of it.”
The album was We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, which topped the US chart on its release in March.
The current tour finds them playing to crowds of 5,000-15,000 people every night in the US. Unlike the rest of Modest Mouse, he’s well used to it.
“At the end of The Smiths in some places we were playing as big and bigger places. And with The Pretenders I played to much bigger crowds. I’m not blase about it, though.”
He adds: “My favourite gigs are to about 1,200 people. Little clubs, they’re without doubt the best shows. I’d prefer to do 15 of those on the run.”
So he’ll enjoy Rock City on Monday, which has a 1,750 capacity.
“Yes. It’s been a long time since I played there. The Smiths played there in ’85. Though I did play in Nottingham with Neil Finn maybe two years ago.”
That was October 2004 at the Royal Concert Hall and Marr joined Finn for a rendition of The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, as a tribute to the late John Peel, whose death had been announced the previous day.
“I’ve also got a couple of mates there who I visit now and again so I’ve been to Nottingham quite a few times.”
And the reaction in the street — not just here but in the US?
“If people do stop me, particularly in America, they thank me for having some sort of impact on them, which is always a pretty humbling experience.
“The English are more likely to tell you to ‘sod off!’”
He’s happy not to have the same attention as Morrissey or any of the singers he’s worked alongside, which also includes Bernard Butler (in Electronic), Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys), Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), David Byrne (Talking Heads), Bryan Ferry and Beck.
“The recognition I have is for being a musician. Singers often get recognised for their face and as a celebrity. I couldn’t really handle that, people going nuts just because they’ve seen your face on the telly.”
His current leading man, Isaac Brock, is again soaking up the majority of the attention, not simply as the band’s frontman but also because he’s the one with the drug and prison stories.
“It’s all an act,” says Marr, who comes across as a regular 40something. Though he’s not sure he is so normal.
“The track record of the people I’ve worked with has to say something about me. I’m not interested in working with people who are run-of-the-mill. I don’t know what that says about me.
“Well-balanced insanity is fine. I think I’ve probably got lots of that.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say he was normal but he’s a beautiful guy and super intelligent and the best writer around at the moment, without a doubt.”
Damn. There was the perfect lead-in to asking him about Morrissey but I miss it. I try another angle, that of how his role in Modest Mouse compares to The Smiths.
With the latter he was carrying the songs, his dexterous fingerwork as essential as Morrissey’s words. With Modest Mouse he is one of six and his distinctive playing style isn’t evident. So it must be a lot easier?
“It’s not any easier because it’s not any less intense when I play. And from a technical point of view I’m always trying to walk a high wire and keep myself interested, be it through a gig or while recording. So I’m glad to say my fingers are as busy as they’ve ever been.”
But is it a superior band? Has anything he’s done these past 20 years bettered The Smiths?
“I’m always going to be known for being in The Smiths because it was so successful and has meant so much to so many people and I would never complain about that and I’m fiercely proud of it. But running alongside that I’ve been lucky enough to have some moments that I’ve felt were artistically just as good. Whether it was with The The or on a couple of Electronic singles. Or with this new Modest Mouse record.”
When was the last time he spoke to Morrissey and what was it about?
“It’s been in the past couple of years about this Smiths box set I’m trying to get together.”
It will feature remastered tracks including rarities. But he’s not sure it will happen.
“The record company are in disarray about it. They appear to be treating The Smiths like something that they found in their attic. Like an inconvenience.”
And Morrissey was behind the project?
“He was at the time but there’s all kinds of politics going on behind the scenes now so I’m staying out of it until I get the green light.”
The question of a reunion of The Smiths has been put to Marr more often than any other. So let’s try a different tack. Let’s give him three choices: You either join a Smiths reunion, go on Celebrity Big Brother or appear as a judge on American Idol...
After a little hesitation he replies:
“Right midfield for Nottingham Forest dressed as one of the New York Dolls.”
Modest Mouse appear at Rock City on Monday May 28.