Interview: The The

Mattjohnsonthetheweb‘Do I feel that I belong there? Or should I carry on in self-imposed exile?’ says The The’s Matt Johnson.

It could almost be a lyric from one of Matt’s songs but instead he’s summing up his feelings towards the music industry.

After a run of critically acclaimed and much loved albums Matt officially retired from making music in 2002 to concentrate on film scores and book publishing. He’s been AWOL ever since until this summer and a Sony re-issue of his much loved masterpiece Soul Mining to mark its 30th anniversary.

Originally released in 1983, the record blends deeply personal and poetic lyrics with pop hooks and a unique production style which have made it an album adored by nearly everyone it touches. While he’s written and released numerous ambitious LPs in its wake, Soul Mining is seen by many as Matt’s finest effort.

In a rare interview with M, Matt gives insight into making the record, how the re-issue is a toe back in the water of the business and if it goes well, another album by The The could be on the cards…

How did you first become embroiled in music?

I had an unusual upbringing really as my uncle Kenny was east London’s top music promoter in the sixties. He promoted bands like the Kinks and the Who. I also lived above the Two Puddings pub in Stratford which my parents ran and had live music on constantly.. I didn’t know a time when I wasn’t surrounded by music.

What kick started the songwriting process?

From 11 I was in a band – we used to play in youth clubs, garages, parties, playing songs like Rebel Rebel by David Bowie and Smoke on the Water. Then I just liked the idea of writing my own so by the time I was 12 I was writing songs and experimenting.

The Beatles White Album was my favourite album growing up. I also loved T-Rex – the first LP I bought was Ride a White Swan.

Soul Mining is obviously celebrating its 30th anniversary this year – unbelievably you were only 20 when you made the album?

I was but I was also very experienced. I had my own band from 11, I left school at 15 and started working at De Wolfe Studios, learning about production and engineering. I formed The The while I worked there.

I released my first album See without being Seen on cassette. I sold it at gigs. My second album is called Spirit – which was never released. My third LP Burning Blue Soul was released via 4AD while The Pornography of Despair wasn’t officially released. So Soul Mining was really my fifth album although many think of it as my debut.

By that point, I’d been doing music for nearly ten years although I was only 20. People thought it was emotionally mature but I did have an old head on young shoulders.

How did you make the record?

The album started in New York working with Mike Thorne. He was producing and we did Uncertain Smile and Perfect, then there was a bit of craziness at that stage. I went on a road trip to Detroit.

I ended up back in the UK and decided to change who I was working with. So an engineer called Paul Hardiman came on board and we approached the album fresh. We had some older songs – Uncertain Smile was the oldest – and I started writing new material like Soul Mining and I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All Of My Life).

I’ve always tried to write quite politically and personally. My ethos has always been, as John Lennon once said, ‘tell the truth and make it rhyme’. If it has a theme, it’s an album that’s a very truthful expression of how I was feeling at that stage in my life.

Were you happy with the LP?

I was delighted with it. It doesn’t sound like any of my contemporaries of the time which I was pleased about. I always try to follow my own inspiration and muse. So I knew it was quite a unique sounding record. My favourite albums stand the test of time and I wanted it to be something that people would hold close to their hearts and carry with them through their lives. That’s the most you can hope for as a songwriter. It’s wonderful to me to have so much feedback. People have buried their loved ones to this album, got married, conceived children listening to it. You can get no greater complement.

Were the songs hard to write?

Songwriting is always a tough process. It’s hard work. You try a lot of things. You dig in deep. I really pushed myself in the studio. It wasn’t easy but there was a good atmosphere. Paul Hardiman was a great guy and a lot of my friends appeared on the record – Thomas Leer, JD Thirwell, plus other people I didn’t know so well like Jools Holland. My older brother Andrew also did the artwork for the sleeves. He did a great job and made it very distinct.

ThethesoulminingwebWhat are your highlights from the record?

From what I’ve been told, the piano solo on Uncertain Smile is considered the best piano solo in British pop music from the last 30 years. That’s Jools Holland’s wonderful improv. This is the day is the most successful song, commercially, I’ve ever written. That’s the nearest I’ve got to writing a standard – and I’m very happy about that. It’s a very positive song, an anthem of hope. Giant was quite ahead of its time in a lot of ways. The beat, rhythm, African flavour. That was recently reissued as a 12 inch single with a wonderful version by DJ Food.

The Sinking Feeling and the lyric; ‘I’m just a symptom of the moral decay gnawing at the heart of the country’. It’s symbolic of the early Thatcherite years, her policies and the destructive effect they were having on the country, particularly the working class. It’s quite a classist album and at that age I was very vocal at my disgust.

How did you grow as a songwriter?

Each album sounds different but they’re also very varied within themselves. But I also wanted each album to be a radical step forward. It’s really hard talking about music as it is something which should be experienced rather than spoken about. It is the same when you’re writing songs. It’s a very instinctive, intuitive process. I try to disengage the critical elements while I’m writing, and then afterwards when I’m editing I’ll bring my critical faculties.

How did it feel that certain topics on later LP Mind Bomb become so prescient?

It wasn’t a surprise to me. It was to other people – there was a certain amount of criticism aimed at the record as they couldn’t understand why I was writing about Islamic fundamentalism. But ten years afterwards, everyone said ‘wow –that LP was so ahead of its time’. It’s due to a deep fascination with geo-politics. I’m very interested in current affairs, it’s a hobby of mine. I read for hours and hours about geo-politics and always have done. It’s naturally going to come through the songs. The hard thing is how to make it palatable and get that information into the form.

Outside The The, what are you currently working on?

I’ve just had a score for a new film called Hyena debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. It’s a very controversial, British crime thriller and is picking up some great reviews. I’ll be releasing the soundtrack through my own record company. I also have my own 51st state press, a small publishing company. There’s loads going on and The The is just one aspect really. The only thing is I’m so busy, I work all the time.

Do you still the urge to write pop songs?

Occasionally. I retired from the music industry in 2002 going into what I’d call self-imposed exile. I live abroad a lot, New York and Scandinavia, so I’ve been very lucky. I just decided I wanted to have a long time off as I fell out of love with the music industry. I felt I didn’t particularly fit in anywhere, then I got involved with books and films. But doing this 30th anniversary re-issue, it’s really a toe back in the water to see whether I want to come back into music, do a song-based album with vocals and possibly play live. I don’t know yet if I do – it’s a toe in the water. How does it feel? Do I feel that I belong there – or should I carry on in self-imposed exile working in film and books? I don’t know yet.

So potentially there could be a new LP from The The?

Yeah.

Have you any tips for aspiring songwriters?

I would pass on that wonderful advice from John Lennon – tell the truth and make it rhyme. Tom Waits once told me when I met him many years ago to always carry a small notebook and pen because it’s your butterfly net. If you don’t write those ideas down, they will disappear. Do not copy your contemporaries. Find your own voice and stay true to it – that’s the only way to create music which will last.

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The 30th anniversary re-issue is out now – click here to grab a copy.

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