FOREWORD: Brooding The The brainchild, Mark Johnson, made some of the catchiest indie pop you’ll ever hear. After spending the ‘80s and ‘90s garnering college radio attention, he drifted into obscurity after ‘00s Naked Self (promoted by the following piece) and ‘02s less worthy 45 RPM. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Currently living above a laundry shop in Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown, The The mastermind Matt Johnson is a self-described “restless, nomadic person wandering the world in anonymity.” A veritable musical chameleon, he has constantly re-invented himself through a series of scattered albums drenched with dark political themes, melancholic despair, and bleak desolation.
On The The’s ‘83 breakthrough, Soul Mining, Johnson’s bass throbbing Goth melodrama “The Sinking Feeling” captured the abandonment, detachment, and moodiness which has blanketed his entire life, cynically lambasting “I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country.”
After ‘86s Industrial beat-driven Infected secured further US club exposure, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr came onboard to enhance ‘89s downcast diatribe, Mind Bomb (featuring the apropos “Armageddon Days Are Here Again”), and ‘92s compelling, yet confounding, Dusk. Following an impressive leftfield tribute to Country & Western legend Hank Williams (Hanky Panky), Johnson had to deal with record label fiascoes before bringing ‘00s blustery implosion, Naked Self, to Trent Reznor’s Nothing Records.
Joined by Iggy Pop guitarist Eric Schermerhorn, MC 900 Ft. Jesus drummer Earl Harvin, and bassist Spencer Campbell, Johnson’s latest entourage pits burbly electronics against acoustic retreats and eruptive guitar noise against hypnotic dreamscapes. Lyrically, Naked Self condemns manipulative corporate greed and advocates individualism. Johnson’s at his passive-aggressive best when he takes up the cause of the oppressed proletarian, dispatching a vigilant streak of palpable emotions and hushed anxiety.
Brooding, cacophonous dissonance unsettles the melodic acoustic bed of Naked Self’s first single, “Shrunken Man.” “Swine Fever’s” brusque aggro-techno resilience contrasts soft-spoken verses with loud, resonating choruses in a manner similar to Nine Inch Nails. And the urgent “Voidynumbness” crawls out of “Weather Belle’s” ethereal slumber into a deluge of manic mayhem.
I spoke to Johnson via the phone.
Naked Self seems mired in bleak desolation, perhaps detailing a post-Armageddon world.
MATT JOHNSON: There’s an optimistic undercurrent running through it though, which is important. I believe in embracing your demons in order to release the goodness. One can only look at one’s life to understand the different insecurities and fears, as well as hopes and desires. We’re all different, but underneath it all we’re more similar than we think we realize.
In “Global Eyes,” you sing of “Kentucky fried genocide.” Does this relate to the stock market and multi-national corporations manipulating and corrupting individuality?
MATT: Absolutely. I think we’re facing a world of the corporation versus the individual. Corporations are becoming more powerful than entire nations. There are no rules and regulations to police them because they’re shifting money around the world to get the best tax break. Whenever they shift production around the world depending on whims and doing favors for other countries, they’re completely undemocratic and unaccountable. I think we’ve got to start limiting how powerful these entities can become and start breaking them up, particularly when you add into the equation the latest advances in genetic engineering and biotechnology. I think it’s alarming that there’s this company that’s trying to patent the human gene map. It will probably reach a situation where you’ll have to apply for a royalty every time you want to have a child. That’s taking it to an extreme level, but it’s heading in a strange direction and big business is too influential, particularly in America with its corrosive lobby system.
Does “Voidynumbness” intentionally reflect the insensitivity of corporate phonies?
MATT: It’s about the layers of insulation people surround themselves with and not being able to face the cause of their pain by numbing themselves through alcohol and sex and isolation. My favorite line is “you got to know your pain by its real name.” Pain manifests itself through many disguises – depression, jealousy, and anger. It’s important to cut through the layers, like the layers on an onion, to find out what’s at the heart of what you are.
Do you feel more secure than you were in ‘81 when your debut, Burning Blue Soul, came out?
MATT: I feel pretty positive now. “Phantom Walls” and “Soul Catcher” have a lot of hopefulness. To me, Naked Self is an ‘up’ record. But perhaps I have peculiar taste compared to some people. I’m 38 now and I’m happier now. I had difficult teenage years and had a very lonely period of my life. I’m more stable.
Naked Self is probably closer to Burning Blue Soul than any other album though. I’m really going back to my roots. I come from the British post-punk industrial movement of the late ‘70s/ early ‘80s, like the bands Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle.
Are any of Naked Self’s songs from the unreleased Gun Sluts album from a few years back?
MATT: Just “Diesel Breeze.” Gun Sluts is an album I completed between a ten month period when I was out of contract with Sony Records. That will come out on my own label, Lazarus, next year. It’s slightly more dissonant and unstructured than Naked Self.
What lyricists and poets inspired you as a teen?
MATT: More than anyone else, John Lennon is my biggest influence. Sylvia Plath and Yeats were poets I enjoyed. Songwriters I liked were Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, and Bob Marley.
You mentioned Hank Williams. Is that why you assembled the Hanky Panky album?
MATT: Instead of trying to copy the originals, it’s a real challenge to see how elastic songs could be and push them in different directions. If people cover my songs, I want them to be radical with them. It was a real pleasure working on Hank Williams’ songs. His daughter wrote me a letter saying, “My daddy would be proud with what you did.” I plan to do LP’s of John Lennon’s and Robert Johnson’s songs in a series that began with the Hank Williams album.
What have you been listening to lately?
MATT: Japanese flute music or Classical music. Japanese flute music is very calming to hear in the background.