NME December 1st 2007- Has the world changed or has he changed
we wanted to talk about solo albums, being an icon and the modern world, but things took an unexpected turn. Fifteen years after Morrissey and NME last fell out, it happens again
If the 'difficult' Morrissey exists - the one a high court judge once famously described as 'devious, trucelent and unreliable'- then he certainly isn't present today. When Moz arrives at New York's swanky Paramount Hotel, wearing a tight fitting 'Je suis Morrissey' T-shirt, he is charm personified. As photographer Pieter leaves, he even pulls out of a handshake at the last minute to thumb his nose at him. And when, after th photoshoot, we sit down for the interview, he'll employ a loveable mix of self-deprecation and bravado, delving into a bucket of ice cold Heinekens and delivering punchlines by widening his eyes and lurching towards the table.
While we're in New York we'll have the pleasure of watching two incredible shows at Hammerstein Ballroom, shows which see Smiths songs, shirt removals and stage invasions, as well as the airing of newies such as 'I'm throwing my arms around Paris', 'That's how people grow up', and 'All you need is me'. Thes songs set the scene for what Moz hope will be a massive 2008. There's a solo Best Of due in the new year, a new record deal to be signed, a residency at Camden's Roundhouse and, come autumn, a new solo LP too.
We arrived wanting to discuss why Morrissey, after so many years and with so many of his contemporaries having fallen by the wayside, still matters so much to so many people. And also to find out exactly how the notoriously reclusive 48-year-old is coping with this era of musical, social and cultural revolution. Last time we sat down properly with Morrissey 18 months ago we had a different Prime Minister, none of us has a Facebook account and suggesting you give your album away for free would've got you locked up. The time was right to hear Morrissy's take on the modern age.
At least that's what we wanted to talk about. For all Morrissey's foppish good humour, there comes a jarring moment towards the end when he steers the conversation onto a topic we never thought we'd find ourselves discussing with him again: immigration. Suddenly the natural belligerence we've come to expect from him over the years takes him into dangerous territory. This is how it played out...
NME: Do you feel like and elder statesman of indie
"Absolutley. It's something I bear with staggering grace"
You've been a solo artist for two decades now. How do you look back at the last 20 years?
"Well all the albums are fantastic company for me, which might sound woolly to you, but for me they are. So I'm extremely proud, especially considering, in the midst of it, the great deal of flak I received."
How do you look back on the younger Moz?
"He's not somebody I'd personally like to bump into now! Because I can see the creased pain and agony that drove me to do the things I did and say the things I said. All the intital stages of singing were born out of pain and agony, nothing else. So it's not something I like to stare at too often.
Did you have any happy times in the '80s?
So when was your first happy moment?"(laughs)In my mid-30s, I think , when I began to relax and feel at ease with things. Before then I'd never allow myself the right to drop my guard. It was self-punishment."
Did you have therapy?
"Yes I did. In the '80s. I saw a few psychotherapist, actually. But I didn't walk away feeling six feet taller, so in the end I thought why bother?"
I only ask because you sound like you've got a good understanding of yourself...
"(Widens eyes) Well, if I don't by now I really should be lead in a field and shot!"
You and Johnny Marr are getting on better now. right?
"(calmly) Yes, we have an understanding these days. I'm glad for his recent success and I think it's been unfortunate that in the press they've believed that in order to praise Morrissey you have to hate Marr and in order to support Marr you have to ridicule Morrissey. That's caused a lot of trouble."
Going back to the solo stuff, you're going to sign a new deal. Were you tempted to give your music away like Radiohead?
"If the think that can work that's a wonderful world. And yes, you can look at record companies and you can assess that the whole process is a gigantic rip-off. But there are people like me who need to be institutionalised... and I don't mean in an asylum!"
Do you still need a label?"Believing several thousand people are working to get your music heard is more inspiring to me than anything else. Also, Radiohead couldn't get a bad review to save their lives. People write about them very generously regardless of what they do. Yet I could save an entire family in a house fire tomorrow and the press would still search desperatley for an ulterior motive."
I see you as someone who mainly gets great reviews..
"(widens eyes, throws head forwards) Well you should have your eyes tested!"
What do you think of today's music scene?
"Hmm (pause) I'd have to think... (longer pause) for at least a month. There isn't anybody who I think is truly worthy."
You're planning an album out late next year. What can you tell me about it?
"I'm extremely happy about it. I love my band, and the songs are great, of course"
Is the a theme to it?
"I don't think there's ever been a theme to any of my records. I don't need a chameleon element of trying to entice people with new costumes. I like to think I'm complicated and interesting enough as a human being"
So was it a surprise when people labelled your last album, 'Ringleader of the Tormentors', your 'falling in love' record?
"It was because I thought all the songs (I've even written) had that standpoint. But the press were adamant, so they know and I don't! In a few interview the quotes were chopped up so it seemed I was deeply in love and having some wild, mysterious affair in foreign lands. Which was absolute cobblers!"
You weren't in love?
"No. Not at all."
Really? And Now?
" No. Not at all."
How do you stay private in this age of 24-hour surveillance?
"It's difficult. Writers always want to know where I live, which foxes me."
Could you stay private in Manchester?
"only if I did absolutely nothing and was sealed up in a bedroom."
That's how I imagine you live your life!
"sealed up? Well, it's mostly true. But it's a matter of being careful about where you step. Because no everybody carries a camera on their phone. And because of the internet, everyone is a reporter. You can't even pause at the stage door and speak to people because it'll instantly translated into 12 different languages and appear in book form."
Are you annoyed at the state of the world?
"Can we help but be annoyed? Certainly in England, everyone is taxed for everything under the guise of saving the planet. Which is pathetic, because unless cutbacks happen on an industrial level then the world will always be a mess."
Is there any hope for the future?
" I don't see why, because to be a politician you have to be corrupt. There's no democracy in Englandm because they pay no attention to the people who elected them. If anything, they despise them."
You live in Italy now. Would you ever consider moving back to Britain?
"Britian's a terribly negative place. And it hammers people down and pulls you back and it prevent you. Also with the issue of immigration, it's very difficult because although I don't have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England the more the British identity disappears. So the price is enormous. If you travel to Germany, it's still absolutely Germany. If you travel to Sweden, it still has a Swedish identity. But travel to England and you have no idea where you are!"
Why does this bother you?
"It matters because the British identity is very attractive. I grew up into it, and I find it quaint and very amusing. But England is a memory now. Other countries have held onto their basic identity, yet it seems to me that England was thrown away..."
Isn't immigration enriching the British identity rather than diluting it?
"It does in a way, and it's nice in its way. But you have to say goodbye to the Britain you once knew."
That's just the world changing...
"But the change in England is so rapid compared to the change in any other country. If you walk through Knightsbridge on any bland day of the week you wont hear an English accent. You'll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent."
That's not true! You sound like a Tory...
"Mmmmm. I understand because I would like the freedom to go around the world and be anywhere. So you have to allow others the same freedom, really. So I'm not sitting here saying it's a terrible thing. I'm saying it's a reality and to many people it's shocking."
This is not the first time that Morrissey has trod clumsily around the area of immigration. At the start of the '90s there was a huge fallout between Morrissey and this magazine. This followed a 20-year-love affair which began with a teenage Moz sending missives into the NME letters page and took in the Smiths-mania of the '80s which saw critics rename us the New Morrissey Express. On August 22, 1992 NME's cover featured an image of Morrissey prancing around onstage at Finsbury Park with a Union Jack flag and the coverline "Flying the flag or flirting with disaster?" Inside the piece accused Morrissey of experimenting with racist imagery, not just at the Finsbury Park show where he was supporting Madness (whose audience at the time included a vocal contingent of far-right National Front supporters), but also in the lyrics of some of his songs, 1998's 'Bengali in Platforms' from his first solo 'Viva Hate' contained the couplet: 'Oh shelve your western plans/And understand that life is hard enough when you belong here'. Meanwhile, the brazenly titled 'National Front Disco', ostensibly a tale of a mother grieving for a son lost to right-wing extremism, was widely critisised for it's lyrical ambiguity in lines such as 'You've gone to the National Front Disco/Because you want the day to come sooner.' As is the case today, the early '90s were agitated times when a new influx of immigration coincided with the rise of far-right activity and the BNP recruiting supporters at an alarming rate.
After that infamous race row, do you not worry about talking about this?
"Not really because the more I travel the more I love the world as a whole."
There are people who are still very offended by some of your songs..
"If you consider yourself to be a social writer then you have to stretch yourself and put certain topics on the table for discussion. And I think it's also quite interesting to push people slightly and see how far they'll go before they put their hand up and say 'hang on'. But I can't understand why anybody would be truely offended."
The line alot of people find hardest is from 'Bengali in Platforms':'Life is hard enough when you belong here'.
"Yes but those people don't know the protagonist in the song, who didn't belong here. I wasn't writing about those people (who are offended). It was someone else."
So why didn't they belong?
"Because they didn't. SOme people just don't."
Which is where that part of the interview ended. We hadn't flown to New York to discuss immigration after reading through the transcript, it wasn't clear what Morrissey's motivation had been for bringing it up. We decided to request another interview to clarify his comments. A follow-up phone call was hastily arranged. Knowing that Morrissey never does phone interviews, we assumed he must be taking our conversation pretty seriously. What followed was a frustrating half-hour spent going round in circles while Morrissey refused to either backtrack or fully clarify his comment. Here are the most pertinent extracts...
I gather you were unhappy with how some of your comments came across?
"That's not entirely true. i just hink that it could be contrued that the reason I wouldn't wish to live in England is the immigration explosion. And that's not true at all. I'm actually extrememly worldly and there are other reasons why I would find England very difficult, such as the expense and the pressure. And certain things do worry me. In my view the face of modern Britain is not Gordon Brown or David Cameron but Jean Charles De Menezes, his story I find shocking, absolutely. It was termed an 'accident' but you don't shoot someone seven times in the head by accident. The people who control these investigations are always in on the game and everyone associated with the murder was exonerated or promoted which is shocking."
OK, but di you think back over anything you said an think 'I didn't mean that'?
" I feel the whole link with NME and the rasicm slur is dead wood, isn't it? And in my life my favourite actor is an Israeli, Lior Ashkenazi, and my favourite singer was born in Iraq and now lives in Eqypt. So I'm not a part of Little Britain. And by that, I don't mean the show, obviously."
Immigration allowed your parents into Britain and that's how you got to make your very British music..
"Yes. But once again, it's different now. Because the gates are flooded. And anybody can have access to England and join in."
If you were in charge would you close the gates?
"You have to be sensible about everything in life. You can't say 'Everybody come into my house, sit on the bed, have what you like, do what you like.' I wouldn't work."
If you were an Asian Morrissey fan, and you read that, would you not feel like you were being blamed for something?"
"No, I wouldn't at all. I don't blame anybody. Millions of people leave the country evey year because they dont' recognise the place, so I'm not saying anything unusual. If you travelled to Croatia tomorrow for instance, and walked around Zagreb hearing nothing but Dublin accents, you'd find it shocking."
Do you think these comments are at the very least badly worded?
"(Laughs) No, not at all. I don't think they're inflammatory, they're a statement of fact. Whatever England is now it's not waht it was and it's lamentable that we've lost so much."
Did you see the Love Music Hate Racism issue of NME?
Would you like to support that campaign?
" Yes. Although I find racism very silly. Almost to silly to discuss. It's beyond reason. And makes no sense and is ludicrous. I've never heard a good argument in favour of racism. I gather this is going to be a sensational scathing piece and I'm going to be pilloried."
This isn't a stitch up. There is obviously a need for debate around taboo issues like immigration.
"Well I agree with you. I AGREE WITH YOU! So what I've just said in the final seconds of this conversation is my point entirely."
But some people could find you comments very offensive.
"I can't imagine anyone being offended by it. Why would I want to offend anyone? I think people want to be offended and there really is nothing we can do about that. I rest my case."
Are we done
" I think so"
So there we leave it, shocked that 15 years on, we're once again locking horns with Morrissey over the issue of cultural identity in Britain. Morrissey, the son of immigrants who has lived for most of the past decade in either LA or Rome, wants others to have the freedom to travel the world like him, but implies he would shut the gates to people coming to live in the UK. At the very least it smacks of naive hypocrasy, but mosty sounds more like the ravings of a rouge Tory MP.
And at the very worst? Well, while we're certain that Morrissey would absolutely seek to distance himself from racist organisations, what he wont realise is that the language he's usign about a 'traditional' England lost under a 'flood' of immigration dangerously echoes that used in the current manifesto of the crypto-fascist BNP.
'Je suis Morrissey' says the T-shirt. Oh yes, we know that. We know you're a naturally confrontational character. But here at NME, fresh from the support we've give the recent Love Music Hate Racism campaign, we're not in the mood to play in grey areas. These are sensitive times and Morrissey's comments simply cut directly across the spirit of unity we're trying to promote. Steven Patrick Morrissey has had a stormy relationship with this magazine and it readers over the last three decades. He might once have been the voice of a generation, but given his comments in these two interviews, he's certainly not speaking for us now.
Interview Tim Jonze, Words NME