with: Agnes Obel
It was more than ten years ago that Matt Johnson first read lines, penned by the British-born, Los Angeles-dwelling poet in his 2005 volume, The Inertia Variations. Sent to him by their mutual friend JG Thirlwell, the words struck a chord with Johnson, having found himself in what he calls a period of “limbo…a twilight world.”
“It made me laugh, I nearly cried,” he says today. “I just thought, God, I could’ve written this myself. It was just so close to the bone. I knew I had to do something with this and so I contacted John.”
The result is a multifaceted, multimedia project from THE THE, comprising an 84-minute documentary film The Inertia Variations (set to have its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June) and various other elements, including a new THE THE single, “We Can’t Stop What’s Coming”, which will be released as a limited edition 7-inch for Record Store Day.
The Inertia Variations, the film (directed by Johanna St Michaels), is a bold, insightful and moving work centred around Matt Johnson’s recent twelve-hour conceptual shortwave Radio Cineola broadcast, which involved previously unreleased music and interviews with geopolitical commentators from around the world to provide a much-needed alternative to mass media. A long the way in the documentary, through his recitations of John Tottenham’s poetry, Matt Johnson examines his sometimes troubled relationship with celebrity and the creative process and, through the tragic deaths of his mother and two of his brothers, how bereavement has informed his work and outlook.
As a singer and songwriter, Matt Johnson has been silent for many years, with the last THE THE album, 2000’s NakedSelf, capping a remarkable run of records – from his debut Burning Blue Soul (1981), through Soul Mining (’83), Infected (’86), Mind Bomb (’89) and Dusk (1993) – which earned him an enduring reputation as a brave and uncompromising artist dealing with both the dark matters of the heart and prescient socio-political commentary. Over time, however, Johnson felt a growing disenchantment with expressing himself through the tired medium of the album-tour-album-tour model.
“I just felt burnt out by it all,” he admits. “I went through a very low period. I’d lost all my recording and publishing contracts, I lost a fortune on my last tour, and became trapped in a very difficult position financially. To clear my debts, I went back to my dad’s house just to sort of regroup. And I then descended into quite a lengthy period of self examination and ego death, which can be healthy for us, but then this very lengthy creative procrastination took over.”
In the midst of this, Tottenham’s poetry chimed strongly within him, not least the lines: “In the intervening decades I have shifted from prodigy to late-bloomer to non-bloomer/I have passed my peak without having peaked or even begun the ascent.” Johnson’s initial idea was to make a spoken word/soundscape album of The Inertia Variations – which he did – before Johanna St Michaels suggested to him that they collaborate on an art film using it as its soundtrack. The idea expanded to take in the Radio Cineola broadcasts he had been occasionally transmitting since 2010, before the 2016 passing of his older brother, artist and collaborator Andrew Johnson (aka Andy Dog) found Matt once again facing familiar demons of grief and inertia.
As a positive result, however – through St Michaels’s persistent urging, as seen in the film – it inspired Johnson to write an elegy to Andrew, “We Can’t Stop What’s Coming”, a live performance of which closes the film. “That song wouldn’t have happened without Johanna hassling me,” he laughs. “I was going to just do a cover version of one of my old songs. She said, ‘Absolutely not, you’ve got to perform a new song.’ As a sort of ‘comfort blanket’ I’d been playing this simple piano melody over and over again through the period when Andrew was ill and dying and then through the bereavement process, and I thought, well, this is the obvious thing I’ve got to do. But it was not an easy song to write.”
“We Can’t Stop What’s Coming” is a highly poignant THE THE song, in which Johnson refers to his artist brother’s “pen moving across the page” before addressing the impossibly sad inevitability of mortality. Fittingly, the sleeve for the 7-inch single features an illustration taken from one of Andy Dog’s sketchbooks. The track reunites Johnson with former members of THE THE – Zeke Manyika (percussion), Johnny Marr (guitar), James Eller (bass) – alongside new collaborators Meja Kullersten (vocals), Chris Whitten (drums) and Iain Berryman (keyboards).
Film meanwhile has always been an integral part of THE THE, whether in the form of the amorphous group’s evocative videos or the movies Infected (shot in Bolivia, Peru and New York and seen by a total global audience of 50 million) and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. In recent years Matt Johnson has also been a prolific soundtrack composer, for projects including Nichola Bruce’s Moonbug and his director brother Gerard Johnson’s Tony and Hyena as well as numerous documentaries by Johanna St Michaels.
“The film aspect is crucial to THE THE,” says Matt, “because I’ve always tried to make the music very cinematic. Film soundtracks were something I’d always loved, so that is a natural outlet for me.”
In many ways, The Inertia Variations project is a culmination of Matt Johnson’s original idea for THE THE, as a conceptual group (inspired by the Plastic Ono Band) featuring an ever-changing cast of members in a multimedia collective not focusing solely on music. The project pooled contributions from poets, sculptors, photographers, architects, political journalists and filmmakers, as well as musicians. Interviewees in the film range from geopolitical analyst William Engdahl to Iranian-born spiritual counsellor Abdi Assadi,while the musicians interpreting songs from THE THE’s back catalogue include: Thomas Feiner (“This Is The Day”), Meja Kullersten (“Slow Emotion Replay”), Liz Horsman (“December Sunlight”), Anna Domino (Pillar Box Red) and Thomas Leer (WeatherBelle).
All in all, it represents a period of intense activity for THE THE, entirely at odds with the documentary’s depictions of Matt Johnson’s stasis, which he says has now come to an end. Tantalisingly, there are also plans for a new THE THE album to be recorded in 2018.
“I’ve already got a collection of semi-completed songs and I’m in talks with a collaborator to co-produce with me,” Johnson says. “The documentary gives the impression that I’m just lying on the sofa and ruminating all day. There definitely was that period from 2003 to 2010 where that was true. So it’s rooted in real truth in my own life. But I’ve worked very hard to break out of that and now I’ve never been busier in my life.”