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Q&A: The The's Matt Johnson on Inertia Variations, Making Music and Doing Nothing

Image © John Claridge

Matt Johnson, singer/songwriter of THE THE is known for his intensely personal and political songs. Described as existential blues, new wave, post punk, his work was indefinable and ever evolving from 1979 until 2002 when the music suddenly stopped. Matt removed himself from the industry taking a 16-year sabbatical, to do - well, anything but music. A talented skiver suffering from an acute case of ‘creative inertia’ Matt now faces his fears in a new documentary, Inertia Variations.

Inertia Variations is an intimate portrait and study of Matt’s psyche by filmmaker and ex-girlfriend Johanna St Michaels, exploring the unspoken side of the artist's every day life: revealing his toxic love affair with aspects of the music industry, the fame it brings; along with his quest to find a tangible truth against a culturally diminishing landscape of London. Now, a matured musician, the artist strives to face his fear by battling long felt feelings and overcoming bereavements to get his music back on track with his first live broadcast on his radio station Radio Cineola. Echoing the lyrics of his 1983 dreamy-synth classic, This is The Day, will this be the day his life falls into play?

Charlie Partridge: Lets go back right to the start. Raised above an East end boozer, how did those characters and experiences shape your early life?

Matt Johnson: Growing up above the Two Puddings, one of East London’s most notorious music houses in the 1960s, was hugely influential to my brothers and me. My uncle Kenny was one of London’s top music promoters in those days and worked with pretty much everyone except Elvis and The Beatles. He helped run the pub along with my mum and dad. Plenty of famous bands and singers performed there but it also attracted lots of sportsmen, including Bobby Moore and his West Ham and England teammates and various champion boxers. The Kray twins were friends of my family so they’d also sometimes drink in the pub with their associates. As children we were aware of the excitement, danger and glamour of the place, it was an East End epicenter full of activity from morning ‘til night. It’s hard to quantify exactly how our childhoods shapes us into adults as obviously it’s not possible to compare how we’d grow up under different circumstances and with different experiences. But I had a happy and stimulating childhood and wouldn’t swap it for anyone else’s.

Charlie: In the documentary you explore creative burden - ‘the need to produce, the cause of so much unpleasantness…it’s almost relief to do nothing.’ Coming from a creative family what drives you to create?

Matt: Well, firstly, you have to remember that many of the words I narrate in the film are actually those of the poet John Tottenham, although I do share many of his viewpoints regarding procrastination and creativity. Part of the ‘weighing down’ of the creative process actually comes from other people’s expectations. Although I’ve been in bands and performing on stage since the age of 11 - and releasing albums since I was a teenager – I eventually realised that when you establish yourself with an audience you can end up battling against their nostalgia and expectations. People often just want to hear the songs they most associate with significant rites of passage in their own lives, be it relationship break-ups, marriages, births, deaths and various other life changing events. So whilst it is incredibly flattering for me as a songwriter to have helped provide some of the soundtrack to important events in other peoples lives it can also make it difficult to break with the past and move on to fresh experimentations and pastures new.

Charlie: You seem to have a toxic love affair with the arts – immobilized by a fear of success,  fear of failure. How important is it that your work is recorded and acclaimed?

Matt: No, I wouldn’t say a toxic love affair with the arts at all. I love the arts, whether film, music, photography, theatre, painting or literature. My life would be hugely diminished without them. What I do have is a toxic relationship with fame, celebrity and the business side of music. From my first flush of success back in the 1980s I quickly - and sadly - realised how fame can alter the dynamics between people. This made me very uncomfortable.

I also didn’t like the way my own ego started getting ‘puffed up’ and how I started acting. I think it’s unhealthy for young people to be suddenly placed upon a pedestal by the media or by other people as it encourages the worst sort of excesses and selfish behavior, much of which I was guilty of myself. Over the years I’ve tried hiding behind a very obscure (and ungooglable!) band name, hiding behind paintings on my record sleeves and even just disappearing into thin air for many years between projects. But therein lies the paradox of my career because I also want as many people as possible to hear, see and enjoy my music and films. It’s just that I don’t have a great need to see my face and name up in lights when I’m not promoting a project. I prefer a certain amount of privacy and anonymity as it enables me to walk the streets as an observer rather than being observed.

Charlie: The documentary accurately catches the feeling of London’s flooding corporate development right now at great cultural cost, ‘a city stolen without fee.‘ How does this compare to what you experienced and wrote about in 80s during Thatcher’s era?

Matt: I think things are actually much worse than under Thatcher in the 1980s. Corporate greed and power has become so normalised and accepted within British society that many people have either simply forgotten, or are too young to remember, that it wasn’t always like this. One of the things I’ve been involved in during my hiatus from music in the last decade and a half is local London politics. Having attended and spoken at countless local Council Planning Committee meetings during this time in order to oppose the destruction of historic buildings and their replacement with appalling developments, I’ve come to the depressing but inevitable conclusion that incompetence, cowardice and corruption within London’s local planning authorities lies at the heart of the gathering destruction of the city we’re now witnessing all around us. Local communities have been increasingly shut out of the planning process and so now have very little say over the decisions being made in their own neighbourhoods.

I’m increasingly dismayed at the besmirchment of our famous skyline when I travel across London. There is a general shoddiness and soulless-ness to these massive developments now being erected - seemingly at complete random - all over London. I’ve also witnessed first hand the rapacious greed of these property developers and how effortlessly they manipulate our feeble planning authorities. It’s actually quite common to see council planning officers quit their jobs and change sides by taking up employment with private property developers - either directly or indirectly as independent planning advisors - and to help successfully steer these vast and wholly inappropriate developments through the planning process.

So much beauty, character and history in London has now been lost forever, sacrificed to short-term gain and unfettered greed. Time and again we see favourable planning decisions gifted from local councils to property developers so one naturally assumes that favours are discretely heading in the opposite direction. Of course, I have no absolute proof of this and so I won’t name names publicly but my intuition and instincts are generally pretty good.

THE INERTIA VARIATIONS trailer from THE THE on Vimeo.

Charlie: What was it in the 80s London scene that artistically inspired you?

Matt: I was too young to be a punk and I found most punk music incredibly dull and one-dimensional. But what I did love about punk was its raw energy and D.I.Y. ethos. This led directly onto the great ‘post-punk’ movement of the late 1970s / early 1980s. This is where the roots of THE THE are firmly planted. Bands and artists like Wire, This Heat, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Thomas Leer and Robert Rental weren’t just a huge creative inspiration to me as a teenager but many of them became friends and collaborators too. All of these artists sounded incredibly different from each other and from anything else that was going on at the time. To me this was the true spirit of punk, not a bunch of green-haired clones with expensively ripped clothes.

Charlie: Where do you find your inspiration now?

Matt: I’ve been an avid follower of geo-politics for many years and so I read a lot of alternative news and independent journalist websites - primarily as an antidote to the awful corporate-state media whose Ministry of Truth type propaganda seems to dominate the airwaves these days. I always try to seek out the other side of the news headlines so I can make my own mind up rather than being told what to feel, what to think and who to love or hate. I also crave peace and quiet for inspiration and spend a fair amount of time meditating each day. But we’re surrounded by so much noise in the city these days that it’s often hard to even hear yourself think. But then I get bored if I’m in the countryside for too long! I suppose many people feel the same way.

Charlie: What advice would you offer those suffering inertia to break out or is it something to be indulged in?

Matt: As an occasional flaneur I think perpetual activity is overrated. I’d advise others to also sometimes take time doing nothing, just thinking, laughing, crying, remembering who you really are. Just ignoring that nagging little voice telling you that you always have to be doing ‘something’. Just ignoring that vague fear of being left behind by your contemporaries. Personally, I think boredom is hugely underrated. When I was a youngster I remember those endless Sundays with nothing to do – which I resented at the time - but which, looking back, were times of intense reflection and personal growth. In fact it was through being bored that I was inspired to form a band to create my own excitement. I don’t think young people are allowed enough time to just be bored any more. Although I gently try to discourage it I see my own children and their friends spending too much time connected to electronic devices of some sort. I don’t want to come across as some sort of a curmudgeon though and everyone has to learn through their own mistakes and experiences.

Charlie: Having a documentary made about you by somehow who knew you so intimately, must have left you feeling very vulnerable. What do you think was her motivation to make the film and how was the experience?

Matt: Well, Johanna and I know each other pretty well after all these years and although we’re obviously no longer in a relationship we’re still close friends so I trust her. I also know that, as a documentarian, she can be quite fearless and unflinching so I wasn’t surprised she tried to get as up close and personal as possible. But she also has a gift for being extremely discrete during filming and so is able to allow a very natural and personal environment to develop. As far as her motivation goes then that is obviously a question for her but the documentary itself grew very slowly out of the art film project we’d intended to make out of the poem The Inertia Variations. Due to difficulties with funding we decided to merge it with another project of mine, Radio Cineola, and this then allowed the project to grow in various directions we’d not originally anticipated and it became both more political and personal. I should make clear that I was not involved in the editing process at all. I allowed Johanna full control over the film otherwise it would be in danger of becoming an egotistical puff piece which neither of us wanted.

Charlie: So 2018, you’re about to make a much-awaited comeback with your first gigs in 16 years - including gigs at the Royal Albert Hall and Brixton Academy! Are you afraid you’ll get on stage and do nothing??!

Matt: Over the years I’ve been away from the stage I have had a few disturbing dreams where I’m about to perform a large show but belatedly realise I can’t remember my words or that I’m hopelessly under-rehearsed on my guitar or that I have no trousers on! In reality I have no fear about going back on stage as I’ve been playing gigs since I was a kid of 11 so it’s in my blood really. I wouldn’t have decided to come out of retirement if I didn’t want to do it or didn’t feel I could do it. Obviously I can’t expect to run around the stage like I did in my twenties but I’m very excited to ‘climb back in the ring’ and I can’t wait to get THE THE back into the rehearsal rooms. I really do miss the banter of band-mates, the smell of old valve amplifiers warming up and the excitement slowly building as the countdown to the first concert begins. I’ve turned down many sizeable offers to perform live again over the past decade because it just never felt right. This year was different because of the recent death of my older brother Andrew (who designed many of my record sleeves). His passing caused a huge amount of soul-searching within me and forced the inevitable realisation that time is really quite short for all of us and so it’s high time I just get back to doing what I was born to do rather than all this messing about beating my head against the wall of local politics.

Charlie: What should we expect to see - the classics or will there be new material? What should viewers expect from the film?

Matt: With the concerts there will be some new material and a selection of songs from every album. In terms of the film I’d say it’s an honest portrayal - painfully so at times - and pulls no punches. It tells the story of why I spent such a long time away from songwriting and performing and also why I decided to come back. I think Johanna has done a fine job even though there are times in the film where I’m put on the spot and I do squirm a bit, but then again one of the unexpected joys of growing older is that you genuinely care less and less about what other people think of you so I feel no embarrassment about it. Despite its emotional candour and depth the film is a snapshot in time and shows just one segment of me. All people are very complex and I’m not sure many of us really know ourselves or know each other that well. One of my best known lyrics is the line from the track GIANT, “How can anyone know me when I don’t even know myself” and decades later I probably know myself less in some ways. At times over my life I’ve surprised myself with my courage whilst at other times I’ve disappointed myself with my cowardice. I imagine this is true of most people. We really are a mystery to ourselves and to everyone else.

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The Inertia Variations
various times, 20 Oct 2017 – 26 Oct 2017
at the ICA
Info and tickets

THE THE’s Infected - The Movie + Intro
20:50, 20 October 2017
at the ICA
Info and tickets

 

The The - The Inertia Variations - ICA, London