It’s 2002 and David Bowie’s just invited UK post-punk legends The The to play the Meltdown Festival at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Next thing you know, the band are taking an indefinite break with enquiries about when they’ll tour again being met with a blanket, “Never say never, but there are no plans for one-off shows or tours in the near future” response. That placeholder didn’t budge again until last year when The The released its Record Store Day treat and first single in 15 years (‘We Can’t Stop What’s Coming’), and started touring again earlier this year, prompting fans to rejoice as well as ask, what the fuck?
Well, a number of factors were at play. First, despite appearances, the hiatus was a longtime in the making. Second, Johnson’s hardly been idle in the interim. However, if pressed to identify what motivated him, the spectre of death hovers over his answer.
In 1989, Johnson’s youngest bro Eugene died suddenly, which coupled with inexplicable illness wore Johnson down to the point where the very idea of picking up a guitar was anathema. Conversely, bringing him out of the cycle was his older brother’s death in 2016. Andrew ‘Andy Dog’ Johnson, the dude responsible for the iconic artwork on Soul Mining and Infected, was always a source of inspiration for Johnson and his passing was the proverbial kick in the pants necessary to get Johnson back on stage again. However, no sooner had the world tour kicked off when Johnson’s beloved old man Eddie Johnson passed away unexpectedly in June this year. For fucks sake. So much grief, but with that in mind, respectfully, his dad seems the appropriate place to start.
I’ve just been reading Long Shadows, High Hopes [Johnson’s first authorised biography by Neil Fraser]. Your dad sounds like such a lovely bloke.
Yeah, he really was. He and my mum both were beautiful parents and wonderful people. They were friends, as well as parents. We were very lucky in that they showered us with love, not that in our family we didn’t have our arguments and punch ups, like every family – but there was a huge amount of love and affection among us. We’re a very, very close family. Now, out of my immediate family, there’re just two of us left: my brother Gerard, and myself. There were six of us, previously. I’m fortunate, because I’ve got a couple of children and Gerard’s got a couple of daughters, so we’re still a relatively decent-sized family, but it’s hard.
It was a shock when dad passed. He was 86, but it was still unexpected. He was so full of vitality. My younger brother and I spoke to him every day on the phone, and we were very close. But as we get older, we’re going to lose more people, unless or until we die ourselves. It’s the nature of life, isn’t it?
On a happier note, the book, in parts, is roaringly funny, especially the bit where you shave off your eyebrows as a kid and tell your family they’d “fallen off”. What the hell prompted that?
You know, I still don’t know why I did that. It wasn’t anything to do with David Bowie, which is what people often thought. It was just that I found a shaver and I was curious as to what would happen, so I thought, ‘here, I’ll shave this bit, shave that bit’, and then they were gone and I forgot. The next morning my nan had to draw my eyebrows on, and I had to go to school with drawn on eyebrows for weeks.
Can you talk me through the events that led up to The The going MIA?
The hiatus happened in slow motion. My brother Eugene died during the Mind Bomb tour, so I took a break from the tour, went back on tour and then wrote another album, Dusk. It was a tough album to write because it featured songs dedicated to him, such as ‘Love Is Stronger Than Death’.
Eugene’s death changed my perception of life and particularly my career in the music industry. He was 24 when he died. He was very healthy and it was sudden. It was a brain haemorrhage. So, this terrible thing appeared out of the deep blue sky. None of us anticipated it, and it knocked us all for six. My perception of the music industry was that it became trivial. I sort of lost a lot of faith in the future. My focus turned to questions of why we’re here and what life means and the value of our personal relationships, rather than the idea of fame, success and being on the stage. But it took another seven years of hard work, before I just decided to step away from it. It was like a delayed reaction after Eugene’s death in ’89.
Image: Matt Johnson / Courtesy of John Claridge
You went through a period of significant illness as well, which must have added a layer of stress and fatigue. How long did it take before you stopped feeling knackered, and what did you need to do to repair?
Well, it’s a strange thing because I’ve never been quite sure what the roots of it were. It was like a viral thing, but there was a period where I was taking a lot of ecstasy in the early 1980s. I don’t know whether that had an effect. Anyway, at one point I actually lost my sight, temporarily. They could never get to the bottom of it. I spent a week in the hospital for nervous diseases. They did all sorts of tests on me, and just said it was some sort of viral or post-viral thing.As we know now, with viruses, they sort of hang around in the body. Even now, if I undergo a lot of stress, it can trigger a fatigue-like feeling. It was particularly bad when I was living in New York, where I just felt this terrible fatigue all the time and I was battling against it. So, I took myself off to places like the Russian Baths – hydrotherapy, really, lots of ice cold water and boiling temperatures. That really helped, and also dietary stuff. I cut out caffeine and alcohol. I occasionally drink it now, but that helped at the time. Then, general stuff like exercise, yoga and meditation.
After years of excess, was clean living a rude shock to the system?
It was a drag, because I loved partying and I loved drinking heavily and taking drugs, but my body just couldn’t do it anymore. I just had to make a lifestyle change. I’d be out for one big night and in bed for a week. It got to the point where it just wasn’t worth it.
Did you feel betrayed by your body?
Nope. My general philosophy is that our bodies are just temporary clothing for the soul, and I've become less attached. I try to take care of myself, but I realise that this particular body’s not really me. Who is “me” is this sort of consciousness that temporarily inhabits this body for this experience in this particular life.
Having, unfortunately, been around a lot of deaths, seeing family members dead and looking at their bodies, you realise, “that’s not them”. That’s just temporary clothing that they had, and now they’re somewhere else. I’m not a religious person, but I have very deeply held views about this world just being a school for the soul. We’re only here temporarily, and then we move on.
That view doesn’t have to be grim either does it, it could be liberating?
Sure. Once you develop that understanding, you get less attached to the material world, including our bodies, and you start to think about the experiences the soul’s having. That’s the important thing in this life – our experiences, what we learn, what we feel – and you start to do things differently.
As you get older, you have to accept that we live what we could call a life of loss. You have to get used to losing things. Not only do you lose your childhood as you’re growing, you lose friendships, your grandparents, and later parents, friends and health – everything. But it doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It’s just continual change, and letting go. We’re all gradually breaking down with bits dropping off, and that’s natural.
Being Peter Pan is overrated anyway.
Agreed. I think there’s a lot to be said for the concept of the elder – wise men and wise women that you go to for counsel. We’re sort of losing that concept. Who wants to be around perpetual frigging teenagers all the time? It’d be horrendous, although they’ve got that in America. The American government is being run by a teenager – a spoiled brat, restless teenager with no humility, no wisdom, and who’s an aggressive bully. That’s a manifestation of a perpetual-juvenile culture, where you get a government in a country that’s narcissistic, self-obsessed and bullying.
You’re renowned for the political content of your songs, but it strikes me that you’ve never shied away from them being sexy either. Is that a fair call?
People talk about the politics of my songs, but there’s always been a very strong sexual and personal thread through them as well. Some of them have been misconstrued though. ‘Out Of The Blue’ was labelled sexist, but the only people that ever said that were politically correct men. Women used to love that song. It’s that’s that old chestnut of people making assumptions about what other people think, and getting it wrong. In my experience, women love that song.
Image: Matt Johnson / Courtesy of Johanna St. Michaels
Various articles would have us believe that you’d dropped off the face of the earth after Meltdown, but that’s not right is it?
The thing is that, in this social media age, unless you’re permanently in the public eye, people think you don’t exist. I was quite happy to be out of the public eye though, just to start to fall in love with music and being in the studio again. It was actually a really satisfying period, because I had to rebuild.
Plus, I didn’t want to sign another major label deal. After I left Sony, I went to Universal, then I went back to Sony, and then I left again. After all of that I didn’t want to be part of the major label machine, but it took time for me to build up myself as an independent artist. So, I formed my record company, started employing staff, got my own studio, and gradually built it up, particularly with heaps of film-soundtrack work.
I was happy to do all of that out of the public eye. It made it less pressured and more enjoyable. It was like building up a small cottage industry, just gradually building it and building it. It’s actually been idyllic, especially because I’ve got some wonderful people that I work with, who’re friends as well as collaborators. That's one of the benefits of getting older – if you’ve been around the block a few times, and taken a few knocks in life, you just want to be working with people you like working with.
What was the tipping point into touring again?
There were several reasons for this, but the death of my older brother, Andrew, which occurred halfway through the making theThe Inertia Variations documentary in 2016, especially played a role. During the making of that film, the film’s director, Johanna St Michaels [Johnson’s ex-partner], was encouraging me, or sort of persuading me to write a new song, and I was having trouble with it. When Andrew died, I decided I wanted to write a song for him. So I wrote the song [‘We Can’t Stop What’s Coming’] and performed it during a live broadcast, which was filmed and included in the documentary. That, in itself, had an impact. I quite enjoyed singing again.
Also, when I first saw the film, I saw the bit where my eldest son says, "I really think it’s a great thing that my dad is making a comeback in dedication of Andrew”, and I thought the comeback has to be more than just one song. It has to be more substantial than that. Now, with that in mind, I had my annual meeting with my agent. Every year we’d meet and he'd say, “look, how about doing some live shows?” And I’d say, “yeah, maybe”. But this year, because that was in my mind, I decided to say yes.
The The play The Melbourne International Arts Festival 3-4 October 2018. Click here for more info.