MATT Johnson chose the name of his band The The’s latest tour — Comeback Special — quite deliberately.
“It’s a nod to Elvis, but I’m not wearing a leather catsuit,” the British musician jokes. “I wanted to bring a bit of humour to things, really. Despite my public image I don’t take things as seriously as people would expect. And the members of The The actually laugh quite a lot.”
Johnson may be smiling now he’s back on the road, but rewind to 2003 and he’d quit the music industry after major burnout.
Now 57, Johnson’s career started as a solo act with 1981’s Burning Blue Soul album, adopting the band name The The for 1983’s Soul Mining even though he’d remain the band’s one constant member.
Soul Mining scored underground hits with Uncertain Smile and Perfect, but it was the follow up, 1985’s Infected, that saw The The become a cult success globally.
Refusing to tour, Johnson instead made a video for every song from Infected, the album featuring politically charged lyrics like Heartland where he called Britain “the 51st state of the USA”.
1989 saw his friend Johnny Marr finally join The The after the demise of the Smiths — Marr was thinking of joining The The in 1982 but opted for the Smiths instead.
Marr played and wrote on two The The albums — Mind Bomb and 1993’s Dusk — which Marr says is the album he’s most proud of in his entire career. It makes up the bulk of the Comeback Special set.
The The released a Hank Williams covers album in 1995, then joined Trent Reznor’s record label for 2000s NakedSelf, where Johnson saw the worst side of the music industry.
“NakedSelf was such a negative experience. I had problems with Universal, problems with my previous label Sony. I was funding everything myself and losing a lot of money because we had no record company support. Radio stations were contacting us directly to get copies of the album. You can’t take it personally, the whole industry was going through a meltdown.
“The people at the labels you had a relationship with were no longer in their jobs, you didn’t know who you were dealing with. It was chaos. The music industry made some foolish mistakes. They gave all their power and content away to Apple and You Tube, it just devalued music. Music just became this worthless, free commodity. It was very difficult when you’d spent your life trying to make a living out of music and suddenly it was being given away. How do you put the genie back in the bottle?”
Johnson felt “ground down” by 14 months of touring NakedSelf. He’d just had his first son and relocated to live in the USA.
“I needed to take a break. I didn’t want to be part of the major label set-up any more at all. So I took time off. Weeks have a habit of turning into months, into years. Time goes fast. I’m always very active I’m just doing other stuff out of the public eye, it wasn’t like I was just sitting around. I was living abroad working on various things. Time moved on. You get to the stage where you find it hard to get back into an industry that’s changed so much.”
Johnson didn’t pick up a guitar for over a decade and had stopped singing. A new song last year, We Can’t Stop What’s Coming, about the passing of his brother Andrew (who did most of The The’s cover art) planted a seed and The The were coaxed back to a handful of UK shows earlier this year.
Their Australian tour in October will be their first since 1989.
“I did retire, then I got tempted out of retirement. It was partly due to my eldest son, the last time he saw me on stage he was about three years old. I’m glad I was tempted. I’m as fit and strong as I’ve ever been. I didn’t abuse myself too much, well, there was a bit, but I kept myself in pretty good shape. I think I’m singing better than ever, it feels good. Having been around a lot of death, like most people will the longer they live, it certainly does put things in focus of what’s important in life.”
Johnson is working — at his pace — on a new The The album. He’s also running his own book publishing company (his authorised biography Long Shadows, High Hopes is out here next month) and has worked on a The The documentary (The Inertia Variations) and various movie soundtracks.
While he laughs at the “minuscule” royalty rates from streaming services and You Tube, The The’s music (and videos) continue to be discovered or rediscovered.
“I never made things easy on myself. People always had trouble with the band name. Google wasn’t invented when I came up with the band name, now we’ve got a band name that’s unsearchable! That caused problems. I’ve never courted publicity, I’ve always kept a low profile. Politically I’ve had my records banned, I’ve been outspoken about political issues.
“I used the band name as a bit of a shield. I’ve always been told you could be more commercially successful if you just did this or this or this and I just never wanted to.
“I had so many songs banned from radio and videos banned from TV. It was always an uphill struggle. My career has been held back but now I think that’s part of the interest in it, I think it makes for a more interesting career having had all these battles and skirmishes.”
The The, Sydney Opera House August 2, 3. sydneyoperahouse.com, Arts Centre, State Theatre, October 4 (sold out), October 5. artscentremelbourne.com.au
MATT JOHNSON ON
The British press
“I’ve never had a cosy relationship with the British press. I didn’t like them, they didn’t particularly like me. Some bands got very close with journalists and featured heavily in the press, I kept my distance. You pay a bit of a price for that in Britain, if you’re not part of the old boys club, and I was always happy being an outsider.
Being burned by major record labels
“I’ve criticised record labels over the years for the way they behaved, when CDs were developed they put artists on half rate royalties, charged the general public twice the price of vinyl, it was scandalous. Various people fought it, people like Dire Straits, George MIchael, Prince, people with a lot more power than me, and they lost. I tried to fight it but you couldn’t.
“In some ways the music industry meltdown was a bit of a comeuppance for the record companies over their stupidity and greed. But unfortunately the collateral damage for the artists was they were caught in the middle. Previously there’d been ripped off by the record label and now the audience were getting their music for free.”
His favorite The The album – Dusk.
“Because of the circumstances under which it was written Dusk is one of my favorite albums, possibly my favorite. It came in the aftermath of the death of my brother Eugene, it was a very reflective album, still political but much more humble and emotional. I’m now in the aftermath of the death of my older brother Andrew. My mood is not dissimilar to the mood I was in when I wrote Dusk, which is probably why there’s so many songs from it in the live show now.”
Doing more The The reissues including Infected, Mind Bomb and Dusk
“I’m still haggling with Sony, having arguments but we’re getting closer. Like most of the big old record labels, Sony love it when the artist is unrecouped and on their knees. But since I quit music industry back in 2003 I made myself, through a lot of hard work behind the scenes, financially independent of the music industry. That means I’m in a stronger negotiating position. I did the Soul Mining reissue in good faith and said if they paid me a proper royalty rate we’d do Infected. They reneged on that deal so I’ve put it on hold until they treat me fairly. It’s not just a problem for me, it’s for all bands. Everyone from Elvis and the Beatles down got shafted by record companies with bad deals. My attitude is philosophically, I don’t take it personally, I don’t feel bitter, I’d rather work on new stuff than keep working for Sony for peanuts. It’s just not worth my while.”
Getting streaming royalty cheques
“It’s ridiculous. You get these huge statements, hundreds of thousands plays and at the end it’s 234 pounds. It’s worthless. The digital statements all musicians laugh at, they’re three inches thick and it’s just pennies.”
Morrissey’s political views
“I’ve never met Morrissey. Johnny (Marr) is a close friend, I have no idea about Morrissey, he’s not someone I have any interest in.”