The The’s Matt Johnson visits HOME this October for a post-screening Q&A following a preview of documentary The Inertia Variations. In the meantime, he speaks to our Artistic Director of Film Jason Wood about returning to the spotlight…
Jason Wood: The Inertia Variations is an incredibly personal and probing work. Were you reluctant to lay your soul so bare on screen, even though this has been one of the motifs of your work as a writer? Also, did the fact that it was made by Johanna St. Michaels, a former partner, encourage you to open up to the process?
Matt Johnson: I’m normally extremely private in my personal life even though, as you say, I’m known for laying my soul bare through songwriting. Probably at another point in my life I wouldn’t have gone ahead with such an intensely personal documentary but due to a combination of life events, the subsequent self reflection and the fact the director is obviously someone I know very well, I felt comfortable enough to proceed. There’s also the strange fact that the older you get in life you genuinely start to care less and less about what other people may think of you, so there’s a sense of freedom which means I’ve become a bit more open in recent years.
JW: The film reveals how you have been spending the last 15 years and though the film and its title suggest inertia this is not necessarily the case given the work you have completed for the soundtracks of the films by your brother, Gerard. Could you talk a little about the move into soundtrack composition on Hyena and Tony and the creative freedom this offers?
MJ: You have to remember that the title The Inertia Variations is originally from the poem by John Tottenham, which inspired the documentary so they are his words I am narrating for much of the film. Although there was a period in my life that I really was trapped in a state of inertia, procrastination and limbo – from between 2003-2009 – I’ve actually been extremely busy the last 8 years, composing soundtracks, publishing books, forming a record company, restoring old buildings, getting involved in local politics, being a dad and trying to deal with family tragedy and more besides. In fact, I’ve never been busier in my life than I am at this moment, so it’s a bit ironic really that I’m currently promoting a project about inertia.
But the soundtrack work I did for my brother Gerard – and also for Johanna’s documentaries – were something of a catalyst for me as they re-sparked my interest in becoming fully involved in music again. They have been low-pressure collaborations, which was just what I needed to get my creativity flowing again. To be honest, I’m not really that interested in working with many other film directors or even on big budget films. I prefer working on smaller, intimate projects where I can be more involved creatively and where I have a good one to one relationship with the director. My brief experience with Hollywood was not especially pleasant so although I do occasionally receive tempting offers from there it is not something that interests me greatly at this moment in time.
JW: There is a strong family dynamic and sense of collaboration throughout your work. As well as working with Gerard, there was an important creative relationship with Andy Johnson (aka Andy Dog) that defined the visual aesthetic of The The. The film reveals the tragedy behind the loss but also the bonds that continue to exist between the rest of the family, including your father Eddie, whose life as a publican is covered in the illuminating Tales from the Two Puddings. Could you say something about these collaborations and the theme of family in general?
MJ: I’ve been extremely lucky in my life to have been surrounded by some very creative people that I enjoy working with. Many of these relationships have been within my own family of course but also in the personal relationships I’ve had. One of my previous girlfriends, Fiona Skinner, designed THE THE’s logo. She also helped create original typefaces for me, worked on sleeves and even directed a video for me. Latterly I’ve collaborated a lot with another ex-girlfriend, Johanna St Michaels. She’s taken photographs for me whilst I’ve composed music for her documentaries. Within my own family my collaboration with Andrew started at an early stage. We used to share studio space in the cellar of our parents pub when we were teenagers. We’d spend countless hours down there together working, chatting about ideas and our own personal ambitions, all while drinking cans of beer and smoking packs of fags we’d pilfer from the pub’s stock room.
In more recent years I’ve obviously been scoring Gerard’s brilliant films and I also edited and published our dad’s memoirs. Our dad is such a great raconteur that I really wanted to publish his book not just as a gift to him but also as something for the younger members of the Johnson clan to have as a reminder of part of their family history. Outside of my own family I’ve been lucky enough to count many brilliantly gifted people amongst my friends, many of whom then became collaborators – or the other way round. It’s odd really because although THE THE is known primarily as my own creative vehicle it’s always been about collaboration. I love having a fluid line up that can change from project to project. I also love that people from THE THE’s past can effortlessly come back into the fold. I see it as one big family in many ways and still keep in touch with many of my old collaborators.
JW: As well as the soundtrack writing, the Radio Cineola project has been at the heart of your activities. This project seems increasingly important in a current climate in which the media seems increasingly dictated to by mainstream and right wing propaganda. Despite your own tendency, as you say in the film to ‘simply do nothing’, did you feel a personal responsibility to present an alternative and to challenge notions concerning local, national and international notions about politics and democracy?
MJ: Again, it is John Tottenham’s words about “doing nothing” and not mine. His poem really resonated with me because I really did spend 6 or 7 years or something being a flaneur with all of my instruments locked away and untouched. But then I managed to shake myself out of this torpor and one of the things I was heavily involved in during my most recent hiatus from the music business was local politics and fighting against the ruthless destruction of London by property developers and their quislings within the local planning authorities. To be honest it proved to be one of the most exhausting, fruitless and negative experiences of my life. The game is rigged. The board is tilted. The general public are shut out of the democratic process in this country. We may think we live in a democracy but we don’t. Unless you count being allowed to tick a box on a piece of paper once every four years as democracy? Surely it has got to mean more than that? So, the Radio Cineola ‘Midday To Midnight’ broadcast – which forms a central part of The Inertia Variations documentary – was really a reaction to this. Asking a wide range of guests their thoughts on democracy on a local, national and international level. We had some wonderful people involved, from geo-political analysts, teachers, spiritual healers, journalists, media analysts, artists, local activists, actors and others.
JW: The moment where you perform the new song for the first time seems incredibly cathartic. Was this a moment of pure release and did the warm embrace of the song from colleagues, contemporaries and audiences inspire you to return to live performance for the first time in many years? It’s shaping up to be a period of increased activity for you and The The…
MJ: Yes, performing ‘We Can’t Stop What’s Coming’ for the first time was incredibly cathartic in more ways than one. On the one hand this was the first time I had sung publicly in 15 years – plus I had cameras stuck in my face and it was being broadcast live across the world – so that was slightly unsettling. Secondly, of course, I just wanted to do the song justice for Andrew. I think you can see from my face how completely and utterly emotionally worn out I look from all the stress we’d gone through as a family the past couple of years. But the reaction was so warm and loving, not just from the immediate, small audience who were present but also from the release of the song on Record Store Day too. It really made me sit back and take stock and think about what I wanted to be doing over the next few years. Do I want to continue beating my head against the wall fighting losing battles against corrupt local councils and property developers or getting back to doing the thing I do best – being a singer/songwriter. So the documentary became both the catalyst for this decision as well as documenting it too. Obviously since then we’ve started announcing a series of shows which all seem to be selling out instantly, and this is all incredibly encouraging. As I’ve been out of the game for so long I really didn’t take it for granted that I’d even still have an audience if/when I decided to come back. So I am feeling very humbled and very excited to be getting back to business.
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