Interview: Matt Johnson of The The
In a decade of politicised pop heralded in by the Specials’ chillingly prophetic 1980 record, ‘Ghost Town’, singer/songwriter/musician Matt Johnson’s post-punk band The The were the definite article. To listen to the classic 1986 single ‘Heartland’ with its harrowing evocations of ‘piss stinking shopping centres’ and its chilling closing refrain of ‘This is the 51st State of the USA’, is to be transported back to the heady days of 1986 when Thatcher’s reign of terror was in full swing and deprived communities were really feeling the pinch.
The album that followed, ‘Infected’, was no less hard-hitting, taking in everything from allusions to the AIDS epidemic in the title track; Western intervention in the Middle East in the spookily prescient ‘Sweet Bird of Truth’; to chronicles of dysfunctional relationships in an individualist age with songs such as ‘Into the Fire’ and ‘Slow Train to Dawn’.
Tired of touring and without a regular working band (The The who recorded ‘Infected’ were pretty much Johnson and an army of session musicians and friends) Johnson, along with legendary manager Stevo, managed to persuade record company Sony to stump enough cash to enable them to make an elaborate video for each track. With the £350,000 in pocket (an unheard of amount at the time, particularly for a relatively unknown band) Johnson, embarked on a globe-trotting shooting schedule. Subsequent misadventures included a face off with a gang in a New York crack house / brothel, and the mother of all hallucinogenic binges in Peru.
Older readers may recall the (miraculously) completed video album (which pipped Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ to the post by about thirty years), screening on Channel 4 back in the day. To celebrate the thirty-year anniversary the Institute of Contemporary Art in London screened the video album in full, followed by a Q&A with Johnson, with further screenings scheduled.
It’s a mellower, but no less passionate and articulate artist, now earning his keep writing film soundtracks, running his own publishing company, 51st State, and broadcasting via his own Radio Cineola who welcomes The Crack into his Shoreditch HQ, to reflect on pop, politics and ‘Infected’s’ long shadow. As we’re ascending the stairs Johnson apologises for the stench coming from the blocked drains of a Certain Global Coffee chain on the ground floor, and if that’s not a good metaphor for encroaching corporate hegemony, then we don’t know what is.
Whose idea was it do this talk at the ICA?
I was initially approached by the ICA to do some talks on political song writing, which I was interested in doing, but then I said, ‘Why don’t we do it tie it in to the 30th anniversary of Infected?’ which is the most political records I have ever done. And they said yes.
Are you the sort of person who enjoys looking back?
Not really, only occasionally. I did the 30th anniversary of ‘Soul Mining’ [the equally essential album that preceded ‘Infected’] a couple of years ago. It’s mainly people contacting me about anniversaries coming up that reminds me. I don’t have my own records; I don’t listen to my own records. I like to move forwards. Going back to it, the feeling I get is, I suppose, the feeling you would get as you’re looking through an old photo album, and you see yourself late teens, early twenties; it looks like you but it doesn’t. The most heartening thing for me is that I don’t feel embarrassed, I feel proud of it. I worked so hard, writing recording and filming, and it was all done for the right reasons. I have no sense of embarrassment. If I did it now I would make changes, purely because I’ve learned more and as we age our aesthetics sharpen, develop and mature, but you know, I was 23, when I wrote it, 24 when I made the videos, I was very young.
Listening to and watching ‘Heartland’ now it’s tempting to imagine some ‘Heart of Darkness’-style creative process.
It was a bit like that actually, but I had a lot of laughs as well. It certainly wasn’t grim-faced, and we had fun in the studio but it was certainly intense. The good times were intense, the dark times as well. I remember while doing ‘Infected’, I was very influenced by films such as ‘Taxi Driver’, and that methodology, the method actor living out and acting out what you were writing about. So being a young guy full of testosterone, early to mid-twenties, and inspired by things like that, when recording and filming it, I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. Location-wise we filmed in Harlem which at that point was quite dangerous.
Is that true about the crack house altercation with the gang?
Yes, I was drinking quite a bit in those days - nowadays I don’t drink much at all – and full of testosterone. The reason being I was really a singer/songwriter, but was being pushed into being an actor – when I say push, I was doing it myself of course - but suddenly having to perform in front of the camera, when you don’t really feel like it, I’d have a few drinks just to relax myself, and as we know, one drink leads to another, and some of my behaviour off-screen probably wasn’t ideal. When we were filming in Harlem, by the time we got to one or two in the morning our protection decided to go, and we were left there by ourselves, the film crew and I, and I would do stuff like throwing bottles around. But that’s an age thing and I wouldn’t do it now. [Fun fact: on the less methody acting tip Johnson also has a cameo in the bar scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens – J.J. Abrams is a huge fan of the The The’s ‘Soul Mining’ apparently]
Did you see that sort of extreme behaviour as part of the process?
Yeah, it was probably a young guy just wanting to push the boundaries and make things as authentic as possible: going down the Amazon strapped to the front of a boat; posing on a real aeroplane wing with the propeller going around; underneath a steam train as it’s going over my head. I thought what the most extreme thing I could do, and I kind of had the luxury, I suppose, of being able to do it. It was very unusual, no-one at that point has actually done a full length video album. I think Beyoncé recently did a long form video and claimed it was the first one ever which of course it wasn’t even. Before ‘Infected’, I suppose you could look at things like The Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. The reason it came about was because Sony were continuing to put pressure on me to tour, so my manager Stevo from Some Bizarre records and I sat down and wondered how we could find an effective way to get the album out there without me having to go on a world tour which we didn’t want to do, partly because there was sixty-two musicians on ‘Infected’ and to recreate that live... I just didn’t see how I could do it. So we came up with the idea of the long form video album. Sony were quite reluctant at first, they were like ‘How much?’, but Stevo was very persistent, and pushed and pushed and pushed, and I think probably blackmailed them, saying ‘Look, Matt is not going to do a single interview, you’ve already spent 150 grand on the album, and he’s not going to promote it unless you spend another 350 grand, and he’ll take the finished film around the world.’ And I did, taking it to cinemas in America, New Zealand, and Western Europe, everywhere else. We would show up, and I would do interviews, TV, radio. It ended up a very effective way to getting the project promoted.
Coming from a new wave background, did you see scoring the record company money as some sort of wheeze or situationalist punk prank?
Probably, I would say Stevo’s modus operandi was quite hardnosed and dealing with the record company, I’ve got to say, we were always willing to cut off our nose to spite our face; you know I’d ban them from the recording studio, I’d never let them in when we were making the record, and there was always a mistrust as we were coming from a more independent background. Also, deep down you knew that the contract you signed was a bit of a rip-off really: you were never going to see any royalties, the way those old record contracts were structured, There was twenty-five per cent deduction for breakages - they were archaic! It was a rip-off and part of you knew that, so you think fuck it, I’ll take as much as I can. And they own all the copyrights, they own all those recordings, I’ve tried to buy them back but they won’t sell them. But it was a lot of money for its day, half a million for that project in 85-86; in today’s prices that’s probably about two million, and that’s a lot of money for someone that isn’t that well known, so I’ve got to say all credit to Sony for backing us, they did and we had complete control of the artistic process. I wrote the storylines for three of the videos, and we had complete control of the directors, so it was unusual.
Did you always have the images in mind when writing the songs?
No, it was sort of in the background. I certainly wasn’t writing songs and pencilling out storyboards in the same time.
We seem to have come full circle since the album was released.
We have, with the situation in the Middle East, the continuing Americanisation of Britain, a right wing government in power, although you could say that there has never been one out of power really, so there are a lot of parallels between 1986 and 2016.
Do the similarities depress you or do you remain optimistic?
Not depressed really, because I think its human nature: everything is cyclical, but also there are the fundamental elements of nature that continually repeat. You look at literature and art throughout the ages and it’s love, sex, death, war, religion and God; these are the fundamentals of human existence and I think we’re condemned to repeat these eternally, whether that’s on a personal level or on a larger global level, so it doesn’t surprise me, it’s like weather patterns, these things come and go. I’m partly optimistic, as I see a gigantic battle going on at the moment: the existing power structure, the cabal, which is run out of places like Washington DC, and their various instruments such as the IMF or NATO or whatever, and the stranglehold they’ve got on the planet, but also there’s this awakening going on as more and more people get their information from alternative sources, and they’re starting to experience this strong feeling of cognitive dissonance. So they’re turning on the BBC radio news and they’re hearing a version of events that just doesn’t tally with what they’ve been reading all day from interesting and alternative respected journalists. What encourages me is that fewer people are beginning to believe in the mainstream media. One good example of that lately, whatever you think of him, is what the media has been trying to do to Jeremy Corbyn where there’s this character assassination, but thanks to this power of the alternative information, he’s like Obi-Wan Kenobi or something, his power is growing so he’s attracting more and more and more support, because people are able to see exactly the agenda, whether it’s the BBC or the Guardian or the Murdoch press or whatever; they’ve got it in for Corbyn and they’re using every pathetic excuse they can to remove him and his supporters from the ballot, every dirty trick in the book. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Infected comes from a time when politically, broadly speaking, you knew which side where you on. Do you think that sort of environment is conducive to art?
I did at the time, because I was younger, but since then I’ve become so dispirited with the political process, since the Labour party was taken over by corporate interests under Blair. All of a sudden it was the same as the situation in America, which was two wings of the business party. My own reasons for not being very prolific as a singer/songwriter for the last years are different really; it’s been more personal things going to in my personal life, and wanting to take a step back and concentrating on being a publisher, and a soundtrack composer, although I’ve now started to write new songs again. I don’t know when a new album is coming out, but I’m certainly becoming inspired by the current political process, and it’s a case of how I as a political singer/songwriter, or sometimes political singer/songwriter, absorbs and synthesises all this material, but without preaching, and without telling people what they already know.
I think it’s a really exciting time, because so many people I talk to, are very aware and are getting turned on politically, especially since the Brexit situation, although I found it very upsetting that the level of debate was so poor; both sides reduced to demonising so anyone that voted leave was accused of being a racist, and anyone that voted remain was accused of being a neo-liberal stooge. Obviously the situation was far more complex than that and people’s reasons for leaving were very varied and very complex, as were the Remainers’. But everywhere you went, people from all walks of life were talking about politics and were really engaged. It really electrified the country. It did polarise it to a degree, and there was a certain amount of name calling which was unfortunate, and apparently a rise in racist attacks, which was also appalling and regrettable, but the fact that so many people were beginning to ask questions about where we were going as a country, when we voted leave, and what the implications were, I found that very heartening. It’s still a bit frightening; we’ve all leapt off this cliff and we don’t know where we’re going to land.
Do you think there’s an expectation of you now that if you did make a record it would have to be a grand, state-of the-nation address?
A bit, I do remember after ‘Mind Bomb’ in 1989 in which I wrote a lot about things like the coming storm of Islamic fundamentalism, shortly after that, I suffered a bereavement when one of my younger brothers died, so the follow-up ‘Dusk’ ended up being very reflective, a very inward looking album. I was really criticised for that and people would say, ‘Cuh, you think he’d wanna be out there writing more political stuff and now he’s decided to become more inward.’ So I can’t worry about what people think, but it does cross my mind sometimes that now is the time to be making a very political statement, because a lot of the things I’ve been writing about are even more relevant now, but I won’t let that put me off. It depends on how I feel: if I feel like writing a very personal introspective album that’s what I’ll do.
When you were writing Heartland were you consciously trying to creating something era-defining?
I was certainly mindful of trying to reflect the age that I lived in, because growing up my biggest influences as a songwriter were people such as John Lennon and Bob Marley who just reflected the time that they were in, brilliantly. All you can do is reflect as accurately as you can. So the ‘piss stinking shopping centre' in ‘Heartland’, people immediately recognized that, it resonated; the realisation, as expressed in the lyrics ‘this is the 51st state of the USA’, that actually we’re a colony, we have no independent foreign policy, that we were brought up as a generation in the embers of, shall we say, the afterglow of the British empire, and believed that Britain is a powerful and independent country, and then had this realisation - and it’s so big that you can’t see it for a while - that we don’t make any independent decisions for our foreign policy, we have no foreign policy, that in fact we are part of the invisible American empire.
I really wanted to convey that, and in songs like ‘Angels of Deception’ there’s little references to things like how, in the Middle East, America was referred to as ‘The Great Satan’, so there’s lines like ‘come on down. the devils in town, he’s stuck his missiles in your garden’, which is a reference to the Cruise Missiles and the Greenham common protest, and ‘his theories down your throat’, a reference to the Chicago School of Economics, which Naomi Klein had written about in ‘Shock Doctrine’, which was rolled out in places like Chile, and through Reaganomics and Thatcherism, and all these economic theories. And I wondered why we would be putting up with this crap. Unemployment had risen to three and a half million or whatever, and we’ve got all these alien theories and economic advisers, coming here telling us what to do, deindustrializing the country. There was a lot of anger, because you could see what was going to happen, particularly up North, that sense that the whole country was tilted to the South and all the investment was pouring in to London.
Suddenly the financial services got all the investment and as a country everything coalesced around that, so that always made me very uncomfortable. And the Miner’s Strike, just knowing damn well at the time, and it’s come out since, that the secret services were involved. They called the miners ‘the enemy within’ and they were treated like the enemy, spied upon by the MI5; the police were politicized and were attacking people. The other side of that was the spivy entrepreneur and what seemed to be a determined attempt to turn the country into a load of selfish individuals and destroy any sense of community, which left a really bad taste in my mouth. My dad was a docker before he was a publican and he was quite to the left, and involved in the unions, so being brought up in that environment I suppose I was very suspicious of the Conservatives anyway. So from 79 through the 80s, seeing all this unfold, and knowing just deep down that ethically and morally that there was a lot of wrong being committed in the country, I felt very upset about it and as a songwriter, all I could do was write songs about it, sing and dance [laughs], so that’s what I did. It was a conscious effort and it always pleases me when people say, ‘Wow, this album really represents how things were.’
‘Infected’ is screening at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London 9th-11th SeptemberWords: David Willoughby