Matt Johnson of The The talks comeback gigs and the strange times we're living in
1980s pop subversives The The are back in Belfast tonight after a break of almost 20 years. David Roy spoke to bandleader Matt Johnson about reviving his band as a live entity after a self-imposed exile from the stage
DO CALL it a Comeback: it's been 18 years since shape-shifting politicised popsters The The last played in Belfast as part of a run of dates which proved to be band leader Matt Johnson and co's final live work before an extended hiatus.
From 2002 until May this year, The The remained an entirely studio-based entity. Perhaps unsurprisingly after 16 years away, tickets for the band's cheekily titled Comeback Special Tour – which visits Belfast's Mandela Hall tonight and Iveagh Gardens in Dublin tomorrow – flew out the door.
All eight of the initial dates sold out almost instantly, including the Royal Albert Hall – one of a trio of hometown shows for the band along with fixtures at Brixton Academy and Troxy.
London-born Johnson (56) has been trading as The The since 1979. A prodigious musical talent who secured a major record deal by the age of 21, Johnson enjoyed success throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s with his band's first four critically acclaimed LPs, Soul Mining (1983), Infected (1986), Mind Bomb (1989) and Dusk (1993).
The recent shows have found him revisiting the highlights of The The's back catalogue, including signature tunes such as Infected, This Is The Day, Uncertain Smile, Heartland, Sweet Bird of Truth, The Beat(en) Generation and Love Is Stronger Than Death.
However, the sudden death of Johnson's father Eddie early last month has cast something of a shadow over the Comeback proceedings.
"I was very close to my dad," says the The The man, who has previously weathered the death of brothers Eugene and Andrew [the latter having been responsible for much of The The's iconic artwork] and their mother.
"We spoke every day, and he did say to me and my brother Gerard [whose acclaimed 2014 movie Hyena was soundtracked by The The] that if anything were to happen to him we had to carry on working hard and making him proud.
"So that's what we're trying to do. Career-wise, things are great at the moment, but it's definitely been a bitter-sweet year."
Indeed, there's never been a better time to be a The The fan: followers recently gained unprecedented insight into Johnson's life and work via Neil Fraser's new authorised biography High Hopes & Long Shadows and Johanna St Michaels' documentary The Inertia Variations.
The Comeback Special incarnation of his band finds Johnson backed by a mix of seasoned The The heads – DC Collard (keys), James Eller (bass) and Earl Harvin (drums) – and new recruit Barrie 'Little Barrie' Cadogan (guitar), the latter having come personally recommended by former Dusk-era The The guitarist Johnny 'The Smiths' Marr.
"The shows have been going very well so far and I'm very happy with the band I've put together," Johnson enthuses.
"They're great guys and great musicians. I did check with Johnny about whether he could play with us again but unfortunately he'd literally just released his own album and has his own tour to do.
"The first and only one name he suggested was Barrie, who I'd actually already heard of because his band did the theme tune for [Breaking Bad spin-off] Better Call Saul."
As for why their appearance at David Bowie's Meltdown festival in 2002 proved to be the last The The live performance for so long, Johnson explains that it actually wasn't planned that way.
"I knew I was tired of the music industry and that I needed some time away," he tells me. "Months have a habit of turning into years and years can turn into decades with you barely noticing. My personal life got very complicated and I was living in various countries, so there was a lot going on for me.
"It felt like the right time to put away all my equipment and walk away for a while."
Of the overwhelming fan response to The The's live return, he adds: "I really didn't have expectations. I was hopeful, but I certainly wasn't overly expectant. As you get older you tend to have a more balanced attitude to ups and downs. I think it's healthier to try and stay fairly neutral minded regardless of what's going on.
"But I was pleased, it's been a very very positive reaction."
While he might not have been gigging, Johnson certainly remained active during The The's live hiatus. He formed the film soundtrack company Cinéola, set up publishing company Fifty First State Press [its first book was Eddie Johnson's memoir Tales From The Two Puddings] and got involved in efforts to fight property developments in east London.
"I'm always busy," he tells me, "I just wasn't busy in the public eye."
But did he miss playing live?
"Yeah, I did miss it – although I don't believe in having regrets. I can't then think, 'oh, maybe I should have been playing and recording the last 15 years', because it just wasn't the right time.
"But it has been thoroughly enjoyable. Just being in a room with other good musicians who are good people and having a good laugh, it's like for a swimmer diving back into a pool. It feels good, it feels comfortable."
Despite being written in the 1980s, The The's politicised songs like Heartland ("The hearts are being cut from the welfare state / let the poor drink the milk while the rich eat the honey / let the bums count their blessings while they count the money") and The Beat(en) Generation ("reared on a diet of prejudice and misinformation") continue to feel worryingly relevant to the world of 2018.
"I've tried to write about subjects that are eternal – love, sex, death, God, religion, politics," says Johnson.
"Human activities go in cycles and human nature doesn't change from one decade or one century to the next, unfortunately. We're still full of the same flaws as we always have been."
Thus, the abundance of Trump, Brexit, Tory and terrorist-related turmoil underpinning modern life will no doubt be fertile inspiration for the first new song-based The The album in 18 years.
"It certainly is," agrees Johnson. "With what's going on in Europe, America and all over the world really, it's very strange times we're living through."
:: The The, tonight, Mandela Hall, QUBSU, Belfast / Saturday July 6, Iveagh Gardens, Dublin (sold out). Belfast tickets via Ticketmaster.ie