As ‘Burning Blue Soul’ eventually is re-released, Amid a building site masquerading as a hotel room, IAN CHEEK interviews the force behind The The, Nostradamus? Dickens? Or the mercurial MATT JOHNSON perhaps…
Matt Johnson sits in a Paris hotel relaxing between dates on a European tour, watching his world cave in around him. Literally.
“Oh my God, the fucking noise. They’re doing demolition work in the room next door and it’s driving me up the wall. God knows what they’re…” he pauses for a moment, as plaster lands on him from the ceiling above. “Christ! They’ve got the jackhammers going on now. I tell you, I’m not paying for this fucking room, and it’s like World War Two!”
It’s not the kind of outburst you anticipated from a man whose normal obsession centres on matters of a spiritual and emotional nature. If he’s not wrestling with the fire and brimstone of lust and desire then he’s probably struggling with the complexities of disease, religion and society’s many injustices. A noisy hotel wouldn’t usually enter the equation but today, if nothing else, it proves he’s equally susceptible to the banal and mundane as the rest of us.
When Matt Johnson released his first album ‘Burning Blue Soul’ I was barely beginning to come to terms with the entanglements of adolescence. Twelve years on, several superb albums later, and he sits there, sprinkled with dust, looking better than me. Younger as well, maybe it’s because his demons have been diluted, dragged from his soul via the grooves of a record and into the conscience of his all that have listened. Throughout his songs, he’s spoken unwittingly mot only about us but for us, reflecting the joy and terror of absolute pleasure and insurmountable grief by simply narrating his own life and all its fluctuating emotions.
Now ‘Burning Blue Soul’ us re-issued, at Matt Johnson’s request, as a fully fledged The The album, freeing it from the shackles of myth and legend and scurrying fans frantically rifling through second hand stores. It’s a sparser, more experimental work than subsequent albums, but even in those more youthful days, his soul was being purged of the demons within. ‘Delirious’, ‘Icing Up’, ‘Another Boy Drowning’ – even the titles seem to have a story to tell.
“I’m very proud of that album” he explains, “I wanted it racked with all my other records because it was really the first The The album. It was the predecessor to ‘Soul Mining’, and I’d rather have it officially in the catalogue than some aberration that occurred earlier on. It was a very honest, very pure and very much out on a limb . It gives me courage to realise that, as a kid, I had so much courage, it helps me rediscover that quality.”Johnson claims, not unreasonably, that ‘Burning Blue Soul’ was also ahead of it’s time, combining intense lyrical issues and cinematic sounds with tape loops and samples years before the art of sampling became a common commodity. He also claims to have had no genuine contemporary at any time during his career, although the lasting influence of Thomas Leer, Throbbing Gristle and The Residents is often readily acknowledged.“Although my music sounded nothing like those people,” he adds, “I was inspired by them, I just took it in a different direction.”
Yet he remains unassumingly modest, standing apart from the stark reality that many thousands of people perceive him as some kind of visionary who exerts genuine influence on their lives.
“If I do have that effect, then I’m very flattered, but if you start thinking about it you can get very arrogant. I hope people enjoy the records, but I you start believing too much of what’s written about you, it becomes very unpleasant. Over the years I’ve hardened myself to both criticism and praise, because I think if you accept the praise, then you have to accept the criticism, which is sometimes hard when it’s caustic or spiteful or wounding.”
And Lord knows I can be as caustic, spiteful and wounding as the next sanctimonious critic, but I’ve lived with this man’s records through more desolate nights than I care to remember, seeking solace and consolation. Which makes it harder to comprehend that Matt Johnson cold ever be the victim of adverse analysis. But the vultures have hovered around his work, tearing meaty chunks from his obsession with life’s darker side, the anguish, the disease, the utter despair that afflicts us all during weak and vulnerable moments.
“But they’re all constants throughout life” he states, seemingly unaware I’m on his side. “People see it as a weakness, that perhaps I haven’t grown up, but they are grown up subjects. They never leave us, they constantly surround us, and it’s more a sign of weakness just to turn away and bury your head in the irrelevances of modern life. You know you’ll will never fond solutions, but something constantly draws you towards them, to at least try and make sense of things.”
Talking to Matt Johnson, one gets the impression he believes he is fighting an almost single handed battle. As the world careers on it’s high-powered charge to oblivion, here he stands, faith in one hand, guitar in the other, helplessly trying to arrest the decline. It’s a heartless analogy, but were it not for the fact that his records sell by the million, he’d almost be the equivalent of those pitiful harbingers of doom informing us that the end is so very nearly nigh.
…who would perform the requisite task of incorporating lines such as “This is the place where the pensioners are raped / And their hearts are being cut from the Welfare State” into the context of a pop song?
But people do listen. They also have sometimes ludicrous, sometimes accurate illusions of him. Illusions that he’s lonely and grief-stricken, that he’s somehow the Nostradamus of pop, that he’s a latter day Dickens, crawling through urban undergrowth, sweating, stinking, searching for inspiration.
“I’m probably less of a loner than people think” he offers, taking each perception by turn. “I have lots of close friends. I’ve got a great girlfriend and a very close family. I devalue my time alone, but that isn’t very often because I have a lot of people in my life. As for being the Nostradamus of pop – that’s my own fault for releasing stupid press statements, which I made in a few years ago. I was going through a very strange period, taking too many drugs and hearing too many voices, whilst saying things, which later, did actually happen. Everybody has that ability though. There’s stuff in the air and you just pick it up, like when you think someone is gonna call and they do. It’s a talent everybody has but we forget to use it.”
The last one though, probably is true, that crawling around the undergrowth. It’s a bad habit I’ve got to change.”
He avoids the temptation to smile, but we both know damn well that he is unlikely ever to break the habit of a lifetime. Squalor and deprivation provides a spiritual home he’ll never quite be able to resist. It’s where he draws inspiration for music that’s as claustrophobic as Tennessee Williams and as uplifting as a Gospel Choir. If he were ever to leave the undergrowth, who would perform the requisite task of incorporating lines such as “This is the place where the pensioners are raped / And their hearts are being cut from the Welfare State” into the context of a pop song? Who would conceived words of such humid arousal as “I follow that bead of sweat / to the small of your back, from the nape of your neck / lighting it up with every drag apon my cigarette.” One suspects nobody. But one also suspects Matt Johnson will remain. Not necessarily in the same medium, but those fears and desires will always need exorcising, there will always be that artistic yearning to infuse the spirits of others, that human ambition to inform and communicate.
“All three are very true, but there is a forth reason…|” he laughs, “I enjoy earning a good living, I have to tell the truth about that. I’ve also developed an expensive lifestyle, which I’m struggling to maintain. But yes, there is a need to do it, to exorcise fears and to hopefully inspire people, because there are certain books and films and records that have affected me very deeply, and the most you can hope for is to have that affect on other people.”
He conducts his conversation, like you imagine he conducts his life, with disarming honesty and attention to detail, listening intently to every word and accepting with grace the false and, if we’re to be brutally honest, ludicrous circumstances of one stranger probing the intimacies of another. He also speaks with an arresting passion. “Everything in life is so heavily biased that if you can do your own little bit to redress the balance, to provide some other side to the story, whatever it is you do, then hopefully you’re doing something of worth.
Maybe this is isn’t the right medium, maybe some kind of charity work would better, but I have a desire to contribute something decent to the world, and I think if everybody made a little bit of difference in their own lives, it would be a better place to pass on to the next generation. I really do believe that.”
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