Music made for the flipside of The X Factor

October 26, 2007

Profile - Johnny Marr visiting professor, Salford University. "Absolutely" is Johnny Marr's deadpan response when asked if he wants to be known as "professor", writes Tariq Tahir.

It is perhaps fitting that the man who co-wrote the soundtrack to a generation of student angst should now find himself in academia. The Smiths may be long gone, but Marr, the band's former guitarist, is ready to share his knowledge with a new generation of musicians.

He has been appointed visiting professor at Salford University, where he will deliver a series of workshops and masterclasses to students on the BA popular music and recording degree. Marr is full of enthusiasm about his role and his desire to help students unlock their creativity.

The 43-year-old musician was approached earlier this year by John Sweeney, business and finance manager of Salford's School of Media, Music and Performance. He did not give an answer immediately, instead waiting two weeks before he got back to them.

"Before I was asked I hadn't considered anything like this and I wouldn't have accepted if I had thought I couldn't make a contribution that would be of benefit to one or two students at least," he says.

His work at Salford will fit around a busy touring schedule - he is currently playing with US indie rock band Modest Mouse.

Marr takes up his position at Salford 21 years after a Smiths show at the university that has gone down in the annals of local music folklore.

He reflects wryly on his more sober return. "God, I haven't actually considered what I would have said (then) if somebody had told me that I would be doing this."

The details of how often he will teach and the exact format that his teaching will take are yet to be finalised, though he has ideas about the areas where he wants to help.

"Rather than explaining how a mixing desk works it's about what kind of picture you're painting. It's the influences and direction, the artistic side of making a record, rather than explaining how to switch machines on - people can read manuals for that."

Marr gets into full flow when he begins to talk about his desire to help students make better music and he is adamant that he is not there to bring the department free publicity.

"People have ideas about production, for instance, that I might be able to help with, and also with song arrangements and the philosophical side of making records.

"There are people whose job it is five days a week to teach you how to use a machine, but there is the business of how a group can operate in the studio and what to expect of a producer.

"For example, some producers are very good at making sure that the song is worked out properly before you record it.

"What used to happen back in the old days was that groups would make sure that all the song was arranged and rehearsed before they even went into the studio.

"That might not suit everybody, and other groups can use the studio itself like a writing tool and take advantage of the technology - in effect use the studio as an instrument.

"I want to dispel some of the mystery of what a producer should and can do."

He does not subscribe to the view that rock'n'roll is best made by starving musicians and that studying it at university goes against its DIY ethos.

"It's easy to look back with nostalgia and say that now it's all too easy. But I remember what it was like to be struggling to find a rehearsal room, to find places to play and a guitar at an affordable price and it wasn't great - it was horrible.

"No amount of facilities is going to make someone more artistic but having absolutely no facilities at all can definitely kill somebody off.

"You can't explain away the experience of being a rock musician but you can maybe give some people a little bit of a nudge up."

Marr, who was born near the university in the Ardwick area of Manchester, says he wants to inject passion into an industry where fame now seems to be the motivating factor.

"I'm trying to stir it up a little bit and, if anything, paradoxically, use an academic position to put some of the fun and enthusiasm into it.

"As long as I'm in the city it doesn't take too much for me to come along and help out a group of people for a couple of hours every so often."

One of Marr's missions is to turn students away from the manufactured pop spawned by reality TV talent shows. "Whatever the opposite of The X Factor is, that's what I'm doing," he says.

"I grew up in a time of British pop culture and I have a mixed relationship with it, but I'm quite happy that I've had a life in it, with its great stuff and weirdness too, and I can perhaps help people along with their passion and learn something myself along the way."

I GRADUATED FROM - St Augustine's Grammar School a year early to form a band and record. I was qualified.

MY FIRST JOB - was in a clothes shop for Perry Boys in Manchester city centre, called Stolen From Ivor.

MY MAIN CHALLENGE - is to strive but be natural.

WHAT I HATE MOST - are all aspects of boozed-up high-street culture - new- century "Costa del UK".

IN TEN YEARS - I want to be the same as now but involved with more art, painting and film and maybe some record production.

MY FAVOURITE JOKE - Who remembers jokes?

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