Johnny Marr Has a Blast on 'Playland'

Some artists like to enter the relative calm and privacy of the studio, sit back, conceptualize, and produce something dense and epic—like an audio version of Gone With the Wind.
Publish date:
Updated on

Some artists like to enter the relative calm and privacy of the studio, sit back, conceptualize, and produce something dense and epic—like an audio version of Gone With the Wind. Others would rather jump in there, burning with a super-hot band right off the road and cut tracks that literally shudder and pulse with electrified energy. That was the approach of a thrilled and energized Johnny Marr when he entered a London studio to record his latest album, Playland [Warner Music Group].

“I know that some people like to be very experimental in the recording studio,” says Marr. “But I just love playing live, and this record is directed at what I do onstage.”

So with his new Sherwood Green signature Fender Jaguar and his crack band in tow, Marr went almost right into the studio from the stage, tossed off pretension and concepts of grandeur, and simply cranked it up and rocked out. Lucky us.

Do you mind if we discuss the gear on Playland?

Sure. It probably comes as no surprise that I’ve been mostly using my signature Fender Jaguar. About eight or nine months ago, I talked Fender into making me a Sherwood Green one. [Editor’s note: The original release offered Olympic White and the stunning Metallic Kandy Orange.] I played it at a few shows, and it’s really popular. I’m excited about it, because it’s a great looking guitar. I already knew it sounded good— certainly right for me, anyway. To be entirely honest, if I had another year to spend on it, I don’t think I’d change anything. But the Jag wasn’t all I played on the album sessions. I used my Rickenbacker Model 330 for a few things, an Inca Silver 1963 Jazzmaster, and a Yamaha SG1000—a real kind of post-punk/new wave guitar from 1981. So I’d use those in a few places to kind of blend together with my Jaguar sound. Do you have Carl Martin pedals in the States?

Yes, actually. We’ve reviewed quite a few.

They’re awesome—beautiful sounding. The guys at Carl Martin really know about musicality. So there’s the HeadRoom reverb, the PlexiTone, the AC-Tone, the Chorus, and the DeLayla XL. These pedals worked well with the amps I used—the original 1965 Fender Deluxe Reverb I’ve had since the ’80s, a new Super Reverb, a brand new ’65 Twin Reissue, and a ’50s Twin in white. There’s also the Diamond Compressor that’s important to my sound. It really works with my Jag. It’s the best.

I find that I like most of my effects to come out of my amplifier—particularly through a 10" speaker—and then right into the microphone. There’s something about the sound of guitar effects coming through an amp. Also, I feel it’s a good practice to connect to the sound that you’re working with—especially these days, when we can make infinite choices and change things round and round. Very rarely do I go back and re-record something because I got the effects the wrong way around, or there’s too much or too little. I’m pretty happy about that. There’s very little post-recording processing going on my guitar. Have you played my guitar yet?

Yes. Fender sent us one for review when it was released. I’ve always kind of feared Jags, because, for me, they tended to be tough to get working. But your model felt comfortable, and it sounded great.

Cool. Thank you. I love them. I wanted to keep what made the old ones quirky and unique, but lose what I ended up calling “unwanted conditions” because the guitar was just going to fade away, and we were going to lose it. I had to do something, and Fender was very cool about it.

When you conceptualize your songs, do you have a particular sound in mind?

I tend to know what I’m going for, and I do it all very quickly. Usually, by some kind of fluke, I get it right. Obviously, some overdubs in certain parts are in order once the track starts to come alive. For this record, I demoed a lot from the road on our tour bus. I had an Apogee interface, a microphone, a laptop, and Pro Tools. On the single “Easy Money,” for example, the guitars, vocals, keyboards, and bass all made it onto the final version from the demo I did on the bus at 2:30 am. A real triumph of modern technology! Essentially, I recorded direct guitar parts on the demo, and then fed the dry guitar tracks through my amps and pedals in the studio.

Getting most of a master track on a tour bus still seems crazy. I know it’s done a lot these days, but I still find it surprising.

It’s the classic thing about the demo, right? I did it all off the cuff, and, for that song at least, I managed to capture the right spirit on the bus. I did try to re-record some bits back in the studio, but I think I was trying too hard, or giving the process too much reverence. It didn’t work. The bus tracks were right on the mark.

Your riffs always have this clear and insistent punch that jumps right out of a track. Is it a conscious process when you record to say, “This tone needs to blow speakers up when this part hits”?

I guess I play quite raunchy, but I never analyze it too much. I’ve had a couple of experiences over the last ten years where people I respect have pointed stuff out. One producer I worked with said he noticed the pickups on my guitar had all the magnets positioned very evenly. He said this was the reason why my frequency response was so balanced, and that every string rang out at the same volume level. The engineer listened to it for a while, and then shouted, “Dude, that’s what’s going on in his fingers!” That was very sweet. But when I heard that, I realized that it’s the same for all guitar players. So much of our sound is in our hands and the way we snap it.

It has also been pointed out that my amps in the studio are really quite loud, but I don’t play very hard at all. I’m never really playing at my full physical power. So with the amps cranked, and my attack being light, I have a ton of dynamic range to play with. There’s so much headroom. If you play full up and hit the strings hard, then—that’s it. You’re maxed out and going nowhere.

Oh, the other thing is that I designed my signature Jaguar to go perfectly with my playing. It seems to be doing the job, and I certainly hope that it’s a factor in my tone and technique.

The legato intro lick of “Back In the Box” stings so hard. It sounds like you’re really digging in, but as you said earlier, your attack is usually quite light. So how did you get that tone?

I got that with the Jag, the Deluxe, the Carl Martin AC-Tone, and the Carl Martin DeLayla XL. That was it.

It’s really beautiful.

Thank you. To me, what’s cool about that is it sounds like an overdriven Vox. So many people think of Vox amps as the kind of “beall” jangle, or the British beat-group power-pop thing. But they drive really beautifully. I did the first line, and then I overdubbed another part an octave up. I played that in a high position on a wound string. The amp was really loud, but I buried the octave very quietly behind the main line, so it ends up sounding kind of like a harmonic.

These kinds of tonal choices are quite instinctive to me, and I do them because they make a significant difference in the overall guitar sound. It’s important when layering to know the sonics you are dealing with, and which part is going to be given priority. It’s all just spending another few minutes to decide what you would normally put on the top. For example, what you think should be the main line, might work better as a secondary line. Perhaps the low harmony you just played as a counterpoint would be much more interesting as the main line. You simply have to break the rules, and trust your ears very much more than your analytical mind. It’s fun to turn things on their heads a bit—especially when you’re playing in octaves and harmonies. The goal is to come up with an inspiring part that makes you want to work on it for a hour or so to get it exactly right. That’s just good news.

You always manage to be so creative in the studio. Did you discover any new production or sonic techniques during the sessions for Playland?

One of the tips I can share is quite obvious, but it took me a long time to work out. When I’m standing in the control room, in front of a small, near-filed monitor—like a Yamaha NS-10, or a Genelec, or whatever—I trick my mind into thinking that I’m standing in front of my Deluxe Reverb or Vox AC-30. This is simple, but it has been very useful, because you can make too many concessions for the fact that you’ve walked out of the live room, and are no longer in front of your amp. It’s a different recording scenario, of course. You’re not hearing and reacting to the amp in the room—you’re standing in front of this small monitor. It can be strange to detach yourself in this way from the sound you hear when you play live. Guitar players can be particularly analytical, you see, and one of our first lessons, if we are lucky enough to make records in a studio setting, is that stepping away from your amp is the way it should be, and the resulting tonal concessions are okay. But after 20 years of tracking guitars in control rooms, I just thought, “No. That blows. I’m not going to go with that at all. I’m going to demand the same sound I’d hear and feel as if I were in front of my amplifier.” It’s a trick, yes, and it may work better for some than for others, but, for me, this perception helps get me nearly all the way to that sound—or, at least, very close to it.

That’s awesome. I’ve never heard of that before. So when you want tweaks to the amp sound, then, do you still have the engineer do them? That’s the typical method when you’re tracking in the control room.

No. I keep going back to the amp, and I make all the tonal changes right on its control panel—just as if I were still standing in front of it. I don’t leave myself any room to translate the “pretend play” any other way than I’m actually hearing my amp speaker directly.

Was there anything else that you wanted to accomplish with the new album?

It’s an obvious thing to say that I wanted to continue onward from where I left off from the last album, but we had been touring so much that I was pretty excited about getting into the studio with the band. I knew it would be great to have that energy on Playland. I wanted to go in and nail it right off the tour for The Messenger, because everyone knows that’s the best time to catch a band. But that meant giving myself a certain deadline to get all the writing done, and that was a bitch, but I’m glad I did it. I pretty much wrote the songs for Playland from scratch, and they were designed to make a great live show. It’s almost entirely an upbeat record. I don’t think there’s one song that you could say is slow on there. When an album has dynamics, melody, and it’s up-tempo, it gives you some very exciting things to do onstage. I don’t like to put labels on things, but we’re sort of like an indie/new wave alternative group, and this is exactly the kind of album I can’t wait to perform live with this band. I just keep my fingers crossed and hope everybody gets it. By “gets it,” I mean understand it. I don’t mean buy it. I wouldn’t be that crass [laughs].