This is the day . . .The The play at Digbeth Arena, Birmingham
Matt Johnson was one of indie music’s greatest stars. The frontman of The The was politically engaged and critically acclaimed, creating music that railed at the social injustice of the 1980s and releasing must-have records Infected and Soul Mining.
And then, without warning, Matt disappeared. The reclusive singer/songwriter took a 14-year break from his band so that he could step away from the demands of pop music and do more interesting things, like write soundtracks.
“I intentionally fell off the radar and disappeared from sight,” he says. And now, 18 years after his last tour, he’s back. Now aged 57 and both older and wiser, he’s thrilled. “It is 18 years since I last toured. You could fit the Beatles’ career two-and-a-half times into that. I am coming back into a world that has changed.”
Their new tour includes just five gigs, including a headline at Digbeth Arena tonight, and comes fast on the heels of a sold-out show at London’s Royal Albert Hall and Brixton Academy in June. Those dates sold-out within minutes of going on sale and followed a headline slot at Heartland Festival in Denmark and concerts in Münchenbryggeriet in Stockholm in June and Iveagh Gardens in Dublin in July.
Tehre’s also a three-disc set called Radio Cineola: Trilogy, on Cineola, as well as The Inertia Variations, an 84-minute documentary about Matt Johnson directed by Johanna St Michaels.
The latter had its world premiere at last year’s Gothenburg International Film Festival and UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It also had a run of screenings at the ICA in London before being shown at art house cinemas around the UK.
Matt walked away from the music industry after being overwhelmed with grief. His younger brother, Eugene, had died suddenly in 1989 while The The were halfway through a world tour.
Matt says it hit his family very hard because they were very close.
“I was suffering from undigested grief. I relocated to New York and had a relationship breakdown. I lost faith in the future and the whole music business career thing felt shallow and irrelevant.”
Matt also developed chronic fatigue syndrome, having been on the road for too many years. Sleeping in different beds each night of the week had taken its toll.
Music had overwhelmed him, though he remained proud of such totemic achievements of Soul Mining. “I was pleasantly surprised by the fantastic response to the reissue! I still get a lot of letters from people asking about it. I hadn’t heard it for a long time until I went into remaster it and I thought it sounded great. So I was hopeful other people thought the same way; and I’m pleased that the album still means a lot to people. My key collaborator was Paul Hardiman. Funnily enough, I saw him for the first time in 30 years a few weeks ago.
“I did a radio show about the Garden Studios in Shoreditch that I used to own. He came round to my place, we turned a tape recorder on and he hadn’t changed. He’s very, very funny. After Soul Mining, we did a track called Flesh And Bones. I don’t know what went on, whether there was a dispute between his manager, who was his wife at the time, and my then manager Stevo. In those days, I wasn’t thinking about themes . . . when you’re doing your early album, you just write. You have songs you’ll possibly be working on for years – I was just a teenager when I wrote some of the songs on Soul Mining.
“Later, once you’ve established yourself you can approach a project and place certain parameters over the subject matter. In the early days, it’s all instinctual, just how you feel. I grew up listening to The Beatles. John Lennon used to say: “Tell the truth and make it rhyme.” You can’t get simpler advice than that. That’s what I wanted to do, be truthful: ‘This is how I feel at this moment in time’, rather than intellectualising it.”
Curiously, Matt decided to reform his band following the death of his older brother, Andrew, in 2016. He’d been diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2012.
So he started to write again, creating work that was featured in The Inertia Variations.