Matt Johnson’s scene is calming. The legendary THE THE founder states: “My scene is meditating, playing chess, and having as much silence as possible.” Currently Johnson’s reality is anything but silent. He is conducting interviews in between soundchecks at the Sydney Opera House where he subsequently played. However, his patient sincerity during the interview shows no sign of annoyance even when added to the fact that he is “a bit jet-lagged” and “woke up at four o’clock this morning, which wasn’t ideal” and sleep was a distant dream.
Influenced at a young age by bands such as The Beatles, Tamla Motown, The Move, The Kinks, Johnson’s “tastes later became a bit more leftfield” when he became “more interested in experimental music”. Also, “mostly American songwriters and singers, people like Tim Buckley” and “of course it was Blues singers like Howling Wolf” that Johnson “found very inspirational”. Johnson continues: “It was experimental British bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle … American experimental bands like The Residents, German experimental bands like Can, so very … oh, and also the classic singer-songwriters like Hank Williams, so a very broad taste in music really.”
As for his heroes, Johnson states: “I’d say when I was a little kid, George Best, the footballer, the famous Manchester United winger, and then after that another George, George Orwell, I enjoyed his writings. But generally, I tended not to be someone who had heroes, because they only let you down, don’t they, in the end?” In Johnson’s case, however, he “tries not to let people down” and really does “not like being called a hero”. He continues: “I don’t like anything that affects the ego too much. I’m very, very weary at my own … we’re all egotistical and I want people to like the music and be moved by the music, but I don’t go in for much of the celebrity stuff and that sort of stuff, I switch off. I don’t really take much notice.” As for being hailed “post-punk royalty” for the Australian tour, Johnson states: “It’s flattering, but flattery, criticism, I try to sort of keep them both at a distance, and keep a very calm head and my feet on the ground.”
Grounded yet not indifferent to societal labels and expectations, Johnson is vocal in his beliefs – whether they are social, political or even personal. He states: “I’m quite an open person. I’ve gone through a lot of therapy over the years, because dealing particularly, when Eugene died, he was only 24. It came so out of the blue. It was so hard to make sense of that. And it sent all of us into a bit of a tailspin as a family. It devastated our family and our mother became very ill, and she eventually died from the grief from that. So to make sense of that, I went through a lot of therapy and self-reflection and soul-searching. And generally I’m a pretty open person, I don’t find it hard to talk about emotions a lot of the time.” Johnson continues: “I try to be pretty open, I think it’s important to put those things out there. And, a lot of people have trouble with their emotions and they can be helped by other people … maybe, expressing feelings that they can’t express, whether through songs or books or films or poetry, or other forms of expression. So, if it helps other people as well, I think it’s well worth doing.”
Even when he’s on stage, he states: “It feels good to sing those songs. I love to sing. I do always ask the audience to please put their iPhones down, because it’s irritating being on the stage where people are just holding their phones up. I like to see people’s faces. When I’m singing I like scanning across and seeing the audience if they’re singing along, or they’re laughing or they’re crying. It’s the connection with the audience, and I don’t like the technology getting in the way of that. And it feels … the songs for me, they still resonate with me personally. I still feel I can sing them with conviction because I wrote the songs from a very emotionally sincere viewpoint. I tried as hard as I could when I wrote the songs, and I wrote them as honestly as I could, so there’s nothing for me to be embarrassed about with the songs. They were written with a good heart and a lot of them I think have stood the test of time.”
Political and sexual content of The The songs are still extremely relevant and as Johnson states: “Human nature doesn’t change that much. Does it?” Johnson agrees with that sentiment of “knowing how to live” and that “it is not just about the material aspects of knowing how to live, living a good life … but knowing what’s important in life.” He continues: “It’s things like, kindness, trying to be a decent person, reflecting upon your life, considering your life … where you’re going. I suppose these are all important aspects of knowing how to live. It’s not just how to earn the most money, or how to drive the biggest car. It’s how to interact with other people in a meaningful way. How to get the most out of your experiences in life, so that you evolve as a person.” That may sometimes mean that both success and failure are feared. Johnstone explains: “Part of the fear of success is that I always had a mistrust of the celebrity culture. I’m a fairly private person although I’ve had quite a public life. But I’ve also had a very private life. People don’t know that much about me. I’m not that recognisable in the street because I’ve chosen to maintain a certain level of anonymity because I don’t want to give everything away. So the fear of success … it’s really that terrible celebrity culture that’s sort of vampire-like and feeds upon people’s souls. And particularly, we’re living in an era of narcissism … cultural narcissism. And I suppose it’s really that fear of success … what it will take from me, what it will rob me of. That’s the fear, with the fear of success. And fear of failure is not having made the full use of the life that one has been given.”
We’re all given specific talents, and a fully lived life is realising those talents to the full.”
Politically Johnson has been “heavily critical of the Washington regime”. He explains: “For decades, the war-mongering around the world turns my stomach. I’m very anti-war and I can’t stand the way that they’re bullying other countries continually. And it’s sort of these continued sanctions. It’s basically, they’re waging economic warfare against half the planet. You look at the situation in Russia. I think a lot of that stuff is fake. All that stuff about Russian interference in American elections. The country that’s interfered in more elections than any other country is America. They’re always fiddling. And it’s now come out that some wealthy Americans were even funding the pro-Brexit movement in England. In Britain. And so they’re continually fiddling around and undermining various intelligence services, the economic warfare … I think it’s an appalling regime. I think the American people deserve better. Because America has become the most despised country in the world, because of the actions of these criminals in Washington.” He continues: “I differentiate between America and this criminal regime of extremists that seem to have hijacked Washington. It’s insane. And what they’ve done with the Middle East … it’s perpetual wars, which benefit nobody but the war industry – the military-industrial complex. And American politics is saturated in corruption – the lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industries, or big agriculture, or the war machine industry. So it’s not really a functioning democracy anymore. It’s a fake democracy. It’s irrelevant … voting for the Republicans or the Democrats, it’s a bit like choosing Pepsi-Cola or Coca-Cola. You know? It’s just superficial differences. So my views haven’t really changed. But I’m equally scathing about the British establishment. The fact that we kowtow and get dragged along with, get into all these wars. We have a very right-wing permanent state in Britain. And you have somebody like Jeremy Corbin from the Labour Party. He’s continually demonised by the British media. The BBC is now extremely right-wing. There’s no attempt at being impartial. It’s highly manipulative and politicised. So I feel … thing’s haven’t certainly changed for the better over the last 30 years.
Lastly, before he rushes off to another interview, Johnson discusses his love of touring: “It’s been wonderful, actually. I’m a bit older and my band-mates, they’re wonderful. We have a good laugh. The audiences have been wonderful. It’s been probably my most pleasurable tour so far. It’s been a good band and crew, and it’s been very enjoyable.”
Catch Johnson and The The at the Melbourne International Arts Festival.
Melbourne International Arts Festival presents
Thursday 4th and Friday 5th October 2018
Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre
Tickets on sale now!