“I just got a bit fed up with singing and dancing for other people’s profit” – interview with The The’s Matt Johnson
Earlier this year, with Theresa May putting troops on the street during a general election campaign in the UK, I got in touch with The The’s management to see if Matt Johnson might share his thoughts on the political situation in the UK, and also speak about The The’s then recently released single “We can’t stop what’s coming“. He agreed to an interview by email, but unfortunately we ended up not using it. With tickets going on sale this morning for The The’s first live shows in 16 years I thought you might be interested in reading it – not least for the bit where I asked him whether he had any plans to ever play live again…
Q: A lot of your work over the years has focused on the more worrying aspects of authoritarianism. We are going into the last couple of weeks of a general election campaign with armed troops on the streets. How do you feel about that?
Matt: I’ve heard some of the families of victims of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester speaking on radio in recent days. It has brought tears to my eyes listening to the level of pain and bewilderment these poor people are going through. What I also find upsetting is how ill served the British public are by our own media. Very rarely are connections properly made between the carnage that western militaries visit upon populations abroad – via our secret proxy wars and bombing campaigns dressed up as humanitarian interventions – and the atrocities that are increasingly happening against citizens of the west. It’s as if we’re living in a parallel fantasy universe whereby we go around the world bombing countries back to the stone age, killing children, women and the elderly whilst not expecting a violent reaction in return. Back in 2003 the millions of us who took part in the largest protest event in human history against invading Iraq weren’t just pleading for peace for the sake of the children of countries targeted for bombing, but for our own children too. Anyone with an ounce of common sense knew a direct result of the Bush / Blair ‘War On Terror’ could be terror on our own streets. Now we have a situation where, as a consequence of these calamitous misadventures abroad, we’re being forced to live under an increasingly authoritarian surveillance state. It seems to be a case of destroying our freedoms to protect our democracy. Or maybe it’s the other way round?
Q: When I saw you at the first night of the Infected screening at the ICA, in the Q&A afterwards you were highly critical of the mainstream media, in particular the BBC and the *ahem* the Guardian, for allowing left-wing ideas to become marginalized. Could you elaborate on that?
Matt: I think I was reacting to the shocking treatment being handed out to Jeremy Corbyn by both of these media outlets. Love him or loathe him we at least know where we stand with Rupert Murdoch but in some ways I found the behaviour of the BBC and the Guardian almost as pernicious.
In the case of the former, it is publicly funded and supposed to at least give the impression of impartiality but their vicious campaign against Corbyn has been brutal, leaving no doubt at all just where the BBC stands when it comes to protecting the Establishment status quo. I’m not sure if the BBC has ever behaved in such a disgracefully biased manner against the leader of a major political party in its entire history.
In the case of The Guardian, despite featuring excellent journalists and articles from time to time it has never been that radical or left wing. It is a newspaper of the extreme centre and historically it has thrown it’s weight behind the likes of the SDP and Blair’s New Labour. Corbyn seemed to offer a refreshing alternative to the endless warmongering and privatised profiteering we’ve all grown so weary of the last couple of decades and yet the Guardian’s response? To do it’s utmost to strangle his leadership of the party in its cradle by an endless stream of sneering articles against him.
There is a screeching political correctness about the Guardian in recent years that has seen it transformed into a sort of mirror image of the Daily Mail and consequently its readership has been plummeting. Therefore it was ironic to say the least that whilst the membership of the Labour Party under Corbyn was soaring to become one of the largest political parties in Europe, the circulation of the Guardian was simultaneously circling the drain and they had to resort to sending out e-mails begging for contributions to stay afloat.
Q: The Internet has been a wonderful tool for communication – you obviously have used it yourself for Radio Cinéola – but it also has had a dark side in radicalising extremists, whether it’s Jihadi terrorists or the white supremacists of the alt-right. Where do you stand on regulation of the Internet and the way it has developed?
I’ve always been in two minds about censorship of the Internet. On the one hand, as a father, I fully understand the importance of protecting innocent, impressionable minds from violent and obscene material but on the other hand, as a curious, questioning adult, I wonder who will be overseeing the censoring and what will be the excuse. Extremism? Fake news? Hate speech? Pornography?
The Internet is the greatest disseminator of information since Gutenberg’s printing press and we need to ask if the agenda behind censoring it has more to do with preserving the positions of those in power than protecting the general public.
In the wrong hands legislation may be passed that brands anyone contradicting the government narrative of the day a political extremist or terrorist. Remember, George Washington was considered a terrorist by Great Britain, as was Nelson Mandela by apartheid South Africa. There are countless examples throughout history of radicals and freedom fighters being persecuted for disseminating uncomfortable truths including, most famous of all, Jesus Christ. So we have to be very, very careful about this.
We also have to be very careful about how we define ‘hate speech’, weighed against what may morally be considered legitimate criticism of a particular state, regime or group of individuals. There are powerful lobby groups who will do everything possible to ensure certain information never comes to light but it is vital we fight to keep the Internet as free and open as possible in order to at least try to hold the feet of those in power to the flames.
There was a real sense from the audience at the ICA in that Infected screening of absolute love for your work. I got the impression that you were taken aback a bit with how warmly you and the movie were received that night?
Matt: Yes, I was a little taken aback by that as I have little contact with the music industry or even with my own audience these days. As I grew less comfortable with fame I intentionally kept a low profile – or no profile – for so many years that I honestly had no idea if many people even remembered who I was let alone the specific songs and albums I created. We were originally going to do one night at the ICA I think but we just kept adding more dates as they sold out.
With the single and the documentary film, this feels like a gradual re-emergence of The The into the limelight. Is that how you would describe it?
Matt: I suppose it could be seen as that but it has all happened very naturally and with no contrived game plan to make a ‘comeback’. The documentary, The Inertia Variations, grew out of my conceptual shortwave station, Radio Cineola, and the new single grew out of the documentary. In fact they are both part of a larger multi-media project which properly launches at Edinburgh International Film Festival on June 21st and which is Anglo-Swedish in origin and highly collaborative in nature in that it brings together poetry, politics, sculpture, architecture, filmmaking and photography as well as music.
Q: After so long without making something that wasn’t what could be described as a new “The The pop song with vocals on it”, We Can’t Stop What’s Coming sounded absolutely effortless and timeless. Clearly, from the blurb around The Inertia Variations and the trailer, that hasn’t been the case. What have you made of the reaction to the single?
Matt: The reaction has been beautiful. I can’t think of any other words to describe it but a beautiful feeling of genuine warmth. As I hadn’t finished a lyric based song in so many years the biggest concern for me was writing a song that did justice to the importance of Andrew in my life. I’ve been faced with this kind of situation before, when I wrote ‘Love Is Stronger Than Death’ for my late brother Eugene and ‘Phantom Walls’ for our late mother. So, it was important I came up with something equally strong that Andrew would have felt proud to be associated with. I was also fortunate to be able to call upon some very talented musicians, including ex band mates, Zeke Manyika, Johnny Marr and James Eller plus some new ones I hadn’t worked with before. People hearing the recording for the first time don’t realise until the clapping at the end that it was mostly recorded live. Actually not just performed live but also simultaneously broadcast live on my radio station whilst I had film cameras inches from my face! Bearing in mind I hadn’t sung live – in fact barely sung at all – for 15 years, you can imagine this was mildly daunting. The main thing I was worrying about was forgetting the opening line. Luckily I didn’t.
Q: I have to ask – everyone would love to see The The play live again. Is that something you are considering?
Matt: To be honest, many years ago I just got a bit fed up with singing and dancing for other people’s profit but although there are no immediate plans to play concerts my attitude is never say never as it is definitely something that enters my mind from time to time.
Q: The The is a really unfriendly name for looking up stuff on Google and YouTube and Spotify etc. Now people mostly interact with music through the Internet, apps and digital services, do you regret picking such an awkward name? ;-)
Matt: I was always fascinated by underground music as a youngster and now that I’m older I sometimes lament the fact that, due to the Internet, it is virtually impossible for anything to remain underground for very long. However, as luck would have it, I may have inadvertently hit upon a solution to this dilemma by having a band name that is virtually un-Google-able! Viva la underground!