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Burning bright, a light that will never go out

Guitarist Johnny Marr, cofounder of 1980s indie legends The Smiths, is on his way to Japan with his latest band — The Cribs

by Daniel Robson

While Sonic Youth just keep getting older and Dinosaur Jr are now all seniors, The Cribs have taken a shortcut to making their own baby-based name sound ironic. The Wakefield, England, band — initially based around twins Ryan and Gary Jarman and their younger brother, Ross — were all in their mid-20s until, last year, they invited an older gent into their ranks.

This charming man was one Johnny Marr — best known as the cofounding guitarist and songwriter of legendary 1980s British band The Smiths and, more recently, a member of Washington indie band Modest Mouse. Luckily for The Cribs, the 45-year-old Mancunian is a genuine guitar icon. And anyway, you’re only as old as you feel.

“No one notices the age difference until a journalist mentions it!” laughs Marr defensively. “It’s not like I hang out in the over-40s club or anything like that. And also, The Cribs aren’t boys either. The Cribs are very much men.”

When Marr met Gary Jarman in both musicians’ adopted home of Portland, Oregon, last year, he agreed to work with The Cribs on four songs for an EP. But something unexpected happened: When the band entered a studio that August to write songs, inspiration struck. The result of that inspiration is the band’s fourth album, “Ignore The Ignorant,” released earlier this month, with Marr as a fully fledged member of the band.

“When we got together to play, we wrote the opening song on the new record immediately,” he says. “And then we built up this really inspired momentum. We just stayed on a roll, cos it sounded right. After we’d pretty much written all the songs for the album, I turned around to them and said, ‘OK, if you wanna get a different guitar player in, I’ll show somebody how to play the parts,’ and they looked at me with expressions of horror and violence.”

Marr was born John Martin Maher to Irish parents on Oct. 31, 1963, in the grim Manchester district of Ardwick. Despite childhood dreams of becoming a professional footballer, his fate was sealed in early 1982 when he formed a band with his friend Steven Patrick Morrissey.

The Smiths’ rise and fall is well recorded; it ended acrimoniously in August 1987 when Marr left the band following creative quarrels with Morrissey. Their legacy, too, is common knowledge, with pretty much every guitar band of note since that time — from Oasis to Radiohead — citing The Smiths as a major influence.

Part of what made songs such as “How Soon is Now?” “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “Ask” such undying classics was Marr’s inimitable guitar style. Expressive, expansive, experimental and exquisite, it featured the sort of jangly tones that would go on to define indie music but injected them with a sense of menace, of purity, of warmth all at once. As identifiable on “Ignore The Ignorant” as it was on “The Queen Is Dead,” Marr’s sound is 100 percent unique. And yet there was a time when the fear of being pigeonholed drove him to reject it.

“When I formed Electronic with Bernard Summers from New Order (in 1989), I literally erased almost every guitar part that (we recorded) that sounded like me,” recalls Marr. “Bernard would have his head in his hands and be going, ‘Nooo! Nooo! Everybody’s gonna blame me!’ And that was just a phase that I had to go through. When I came to be in Modest Mouse (in 2006), I got . . . I hope the word is wise enough to be cool with it.

“What is one of the advantages of there being an age difference in The Cribs: They aren’t really hung up in that post-Smiths significance. They just grew up liking my guitar parts, so they kind of expect me to play that way, really,” he laughs.

Since their inception in 2001, The Cribs’ ragged American-inspired indie has carried a punkish energy and a pop sensibility, both of which seem to have struck a chord with Marr. And indeed, the chords Marr strikes on The Cribs’ fourth album widen the band’s sound tenfold, resulting in a mature but immediate album that has real substance.

“A lot of the record is about personal philosophy and romance,” considers Marr. “However, it has social comment that is skillfully done, I think. People have got so worried about earnestness or being sanctimonious, which we all know is a bad thing, but what’s wrong with describing or lampooning or, for that matter, celebrating the culture that we live in?”

Marr’s favorite song on the album is its title track, whose gruff melody and bouncing rhythm resemble a downbeat version of The Smiths’ “Sheila Take A Bow” tackled by The Clash.

“It veers from celebration to disappointment — and somewhere in between that, you’ve got the reality of living in the U.K.,” says Marr. “The band who are playing that song couldn’t be from anywhere else.”

The Cribs will tour Japan next month, and Marr says he’s more excited to play here with The Cribs than he had been with any other band. His most recent shows here were with Modest Mouse, but he’s also appeared in Japan with The The and his own band, The Healers, which featured Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey and was active earlier in the noughties. He likes visiting guitar and clothes shops during his rare snatches of downtime here and wouldn’t rule out someday joining a Japanese band.

“I would love to play with Ogre You Asshole,” he says, referring to the Nagano Prefecture band who will open for The Cribs in Tokyo. “I love ‘em. They’re not afraid to be poppy. Some guitar bands just don’t have the nerve to be poppy and second-guess themselves, you know.

“The Smiths never went (to Japan), which I think was one of our mistakes,” Marr laments. “I can’t for the life of me think why in that five-year period, no one organized it for us.

(A Smiths tribute band did headline Fuji Rock Festival on the Green Stage in 2004 after organizers failed to secure Morrissey; “What a waste of time,” snorts Marr. “All the bands out there, and you get a Smiths tribute band! What a joke.”)

Marr loves traveling, seeing it as enforced downtime. He describes his tour-bus bunk on Modest Mouse’s last tour as being “like the Starship Enterprise with a pillow,” loaded as it was with miniature recording equipment, a laptop, a DVD player and other gadgets. “I kind of associate travel with education and inspiration,” he says.

But this was not always the case.

“I never liked touring until I went out with The Healers,” he says. “All throughout The Smiths, I didn’t like it. I was so hell-bent on making records, it always took whatever frontman I was working with to hit me with a stick to get out on stage and actually perform these songs. Frontmen can’t wait to show off, y’know, whereas the guitarist is always sort of working earnestly on whatever their new creation is and then overdubbing it 50 times.”

The Cribs have just embarked on what Marr reckons will be 18 months of touring. But then again, he’s done plenty of the “making records” part this year already. His four 2009 releases include a Modest Mouse rarities collection, guitar and harmonica on Pet Shop Boys’ “Yes,” and “The Sun Came Out,” a charity album released here in October.

This last release is a continuation of the 7 Worlds Collide series of live shows Neil Finn of Crowded House organized in 2001, in which Marr was also involved. Musicians including Finn and his son Liam, Lisa Germano, KT Tunstall and members of Radiohead and Wilco created a double album in support of aid charity Oxfam in just two weeks in December 2008.

“We had three floors of musicians all working on each other’s songs,” says Marr. “You’d get midway through doing a song with Lisa Germano, and then Neil would call you downstairs and you’d start working on one of his songs, and then the song that you’d been working on upstairs with Liam got changed around entirely by Ed O’ Brian from Radiohead. . . . It was just a really amorphous, shape-shifting load of music.”

Marr’s enthusiasm for his various projects is as infectious as his unmistakable guitar riffs; but of all the bands he’s worked with over the years, he lavishes the most praise on Modest Mouse and, of course, The Cribs, with whom he will remain for the next record and beyond. “The idea is that we try and stay on a roll and write songs as we can,” he says. “Ryan’s got a couple of new songs and I’ve got a couple and Gary’s got a couple.

“I normally drive people around the bend when I finish a record and start getting ahead of myself thinking about the next one,” he says, laughing. “But it seems I’m finally with people who are up to the same speed as me.”

“Ignore The Ignorant” is out now; “The Sun Came Out” is released Oct. 21. The Cribs play Oct. 21 at Akasaka Blitz, Tokyo (with Ogre You Asshole; [03] 3444-6751); Oct. 22 at Nagoya Club Quattro ([052] 264-8211); and Oct. 23 at Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Osaka ([06] 6535-5569); tickets are ¥6,000 and all shows open at 6 p.m.