Highest Symbol – New Solo Music and Interview with Iwan Gronow

Iwan Gronow, the singer-songwriter and bass player from bands such as The Mutineers, Haven, and Johnny Marr, has today released his 3rd single as a solo artist called “Highest Symbol”.

Iwan had this to say about the new song.

“Highest Symbol is a term used in cards. I never set out to write a song about the issues of gambling.

It happened by accident. Some time ago I watched a program which stuck with me. A story about a man who had a stable career and family and lost it all to gambling. It was something I couldn’t get out of my head. Highest Symbol is about the dominance of betting and gambling within our society. Whether it’s online, at the bookies or casino gambling “there’s no sense in lining your pockets green, it won’t stop the lying and the running fees”. It approaches the false hope “sea of dreams” the loss “you left and failed to mention what threw you out” and the danger “roulette a sense to rush” fuelled by gambling.
The Highest Symbol video directed by Emily Jade Hagan tries to capture this sense of undeniable risk, loss and loneliness. We tried to show how everything can quickly disappear, how a past life can turn to a distant memory “The Highest Symbol, Highest Symbol will save the urge, will save the urge. The Highest Symbol, highest symbol will fade and burn, will fade and burn”.

With the release of the new song, we took the opportunity to ask Iwan our DISARMing questions about his music, art, travel, and life in general.

So check out the new song and read the interview while you listen.

DISARM: What are you listening to right now?

Iwan: Jehnny Beth, Warmduscher, Nadine Shah, Anna Calvi, BC Camplight, and She Drew The Gun

What was the first LP/tape/CD/MP3 you can remember owning, buying, or obsessing over?

My dad use to make Blues and Rock cassettes of artists such as J. J. Cale, Robert Cray, Hendrix, and Clapton. That really got me into the guitar. The first tape I bought was very heavy. I’m not going to pretend to be cool, but it would have been a band like Slayer or Sepultura, Ha!  I grew up in Cornwall and metal was very popular around that time.    

Are you loyal to vinyl or CD/Digital formats?

Recently I found all my CDs in the cellar. I cleaned them up and put them back on the shelf. I try to buy vinyl when I can. My dad has very kindly let me borrow some of his collection. I go through phases of books and vinyl. It depends if we’re gigging or I’m writing. That side of music takes up most of my time.

What bands are hardwired into your musical DNA?

In the Haven days, we were heavily into Velvet Underground, Skip Spence, Stooges and Peter Green. So I guess they have really stuck with me. 

Why do you live where you do? What is your favourite journey?

The late great Joe Moss is the reason I am where I am. We threw everything we had into a van and turned up at his doorstep. Joe kindly let the whole band (Haven) stay in his house until we got sorted. I think he was slightly gutted as it meant his trips to Cornwall would be less often, ha! He loved Cornwall.

My favourite journey is when my wife and I get the chance to go back to Cornwall and see the family. My dream trip would be New Zealand. We were lucky enough to tour there with Johnny. It’s a great place to run; it would be good to go back. South America is ace as well, especially the gigs. Great crowds. 

What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?

Going for a long walk, catching a film, reading and playing my acoustic.

What is essential for your go-bag (plane/train/automobile/tour bus)?

Headphones, iPod, book, toothbrush, ear plugs, eye mask, chargers and passport.

What do you do with 4 hours of free time in a new city?

Go for a run as I think that’s the best way to see a new city and find your bearings, although I generally get lost, ha! Go for food with our tour group.  If we’re near water, I head straight to it and spend time there, sometimes even go in. Doviak and I did that a couple of times on the last American tour. Always feel better by the sea.

Who/what got you into playing music?

My dad was a singer in a punk band called The Wolfboys. They were signed to Rocket Records so there was always guitars and vinyl around the house. From a young age I was really intrigued by the guitar.

What was your most memorable day job?

I use to work at a fish and chip shop in St. Just in Cornwall. My job title was ‘fish boy’. My friends had fun with that one. Think my pay was £1.50 an hour.

What advice should you have taken but didn’t?

That’s a tough one. I try my best not to have regrets as it can have a negative affect and I try to learn from situations that may not have turned out how I wanted.

What should everyone shut up about?

It would have been the ‘B Word’ (editors: Brexit) but that’s kind of done now, which is something I’m very sad about. Personally I will always see myself as European.

What is getting under your skin at the moment?

We are at present in very unsettling times. My pet peeve would be people that don’t listen to expert advice, especially health advice. The NHS need us more than ever and we should be doing everything we can to support them.

Who are your perfect dinner guests, living or dead? What’s on the menu?

Would love to have dinner with the late great Arthur Lee (Love) and Iggy. I would cook a veggie roast, ply them with wine and get as many Rock and Roll stories out of them as I could.

Who is your favourite hero of fiction?

Miss Havisham from the Charles Dickens book Great Expectations, I studied in college. She was super dark. My favourite quote of hers is “Break their hearts, my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy!” I always felt there was a bit of humour there which I liked.

Tell us about one of the best live gigs you’ve ever attended.

Recently we played the Rock En Seine Festival. The Cure headlined I was blown away by them especially Robert Smith, his voice was flawless.

What are your must-reads?

I mainly stick with books. David Bowie – a life by Dylan Jones, Salt Path by Raynor Winn. At the moment I’m reading The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather. Johnny also got me into the writer Yuval Noah Harari. For light relief, I really like the Off Menu Podcast by Ed Gamble and James Acaster.

What’s something that you consider a mind-altering/reality-reframing work of art?

Anything by Joan Miro. Me and my wife went to the Miro Exhibition in Barcelona; mind blowing. I also like Wassily Kandinsky’s work. Upward is a particular favourite. 

What does the next six months look like for you?

Unfortunately due to recent events, our touring and festival schedule has thinned out. Right now people’s safety is far more important. We are booked into to play with ‘The Killers’ in the U.S. in August. Until then, I will be mostly writing and preparing for the single release on the 10th of April.

Editors:  Fingers crossed we’ll see you at the Toronto date with the Killers!

It’s been said about musical or film icons: “Never meet your heroes.” Agree or disagree?

I would say go for it. What have you got to lose?

Thanks Iwan!

Johnny Marr Live in Toronto and Interview with Iwan Gronow

Johnny Marr at The Phoenix in Toronto, October 19th 2018

The hardest ticket to get of the last two years in hand thanks to the kindness of others, we make our way to Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre early, a place rich in 80s and 90s history for us, one which offers a variety of experiences depending on what time you arrive and where you plant yourself and how you manage those first moments. The merch table is a blur as we attempt to “coolly” gallop the hallway into the main venue and manage to secure a spot at the front, where our photographer will shoot the first three songs from the crowd. There, the best front crowd we’ve seen in years gathers amiably, shoulder to shoulder, no pushing, like it’s indeed our youthful days again, when nothing could sink our spirits, floating on Doc Martins’ indestructible souls before the British bands that were all we cared about.

But we never saw Johnny Marr or The Smiths, back then. And no one we know in this city ever did, either. It’s the stuff of legend.

The new era of Johnny Marr’s music and the band he’s built over a decade or so is like everything the uber-cool and laid-back iconic guitarist has ever done in his musical life over the decades: seemingly effortless, but the end result of a lot of hard work built upon a foundation of an innate and original talent. Now on his third solo record, Call the Comet, the singular guitarist whose sound is the most identifiable in the history of British Indie has grown into the front man he always could have been, but perhaps preferred not to. Timing is everything, and no one knows that more than a brilliant musician.

Marr has launched his solo career with care and grace, something much missed and sadly devalued in the world of music today. Seeing his 2014 Toronto show for second solo album Playland, jaws around the room dropped to find what a spectacular live singer he was, something neither assumed or even needed when one can play and compose like he does, and with the music he’s given us. On the long wait for his return, the music, band’s vocabulary, and vocal comfort level has grown exponentially on display tonight, as evidenced by the current setlist, now equally divided between musical periods past and present, Smiths and Electronic songs sitting comfortably next to the solo material, each fitting astoundingly well together. A Johnny Marr show could take many turns through the projects he’s been part of since The Smiths era, all of which would be welcome and interesting (The The, Modest Mouse, Billy Bragg to name a few) but this tour is (coolly) about centering and grounding the Johnny Marr narrative in the larger musical landscape. On that front, Marr has always mostly let the music do the talking while other artists noisily clamored for control of a recent history which is much misunderstood. Those in the know will observe the delightful and just slightly pointed inclusion of the beautiful “Getting Away With It” in the set tonight, a song slowly decoded by fans who wanted to know more about Marr’s point of view on then and there and them.

An issue near and dear to our mandate at DISARM is to question and correct the accepted idea that music from certain eras and genres is “classic” and important while others, particularly the 1980s and 1990s, is just “retro” or trendy. And dismissed as unimportant. This lie persists well past the onerous commercialized Baby Boomer tripe of our youth that devalued classic music for my generation, and into the now-retrospective period of narrowly and cynically defined nostalgia for our beloved 80s, one that is continually reduced to terrible wigs, completely silly wardrobes and one or two perfect songs they don’t deserve. Almost no one gets it right (I’m looking at you, Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why). While The Smiths enjoyed the precarious & fraught position of media darlings in their brief ascendancy in the early 80s, and a universal mourning period followed (of the kind the media loves even more than christening “Best Ofs”), the social media age has flattened and reduced so much understanding about a generation’s art form into memes – the lowest form of humour, commentary and contemporary fandom.

The greatness and originality of the music made by The Smiths (in an incredibly short period) is untouchable but is something hard for outsiders to place in today’s faux nostalgia which never could make commercial fodder of this music, these artists, or indeed, an entire youth culture movement that extended into the early 90s.  To those of us self-raised on it, who’ve followed the work of Johnny Marr through to Electronic, his guest appearances across music and through to his formalized solo career of today, there are almost no words to articulate the joy of music that says what we struggled to as teenagers, silently supernova-ing inside, hearts breaking daily, that scored our operatics on the front porches of our suburbias, as we spun, untethered, out into whatever of the world we could afford to see, understanding so little about the specifics of British life but knowing innately what it meant to dance our legs down to the knees alone in upstairs rooms of ugly houses in nowhere places, and to want to flee.

Johnny Marr’s music was and is the sound of mobility despite what you might have been given and resistance in the face of oppression. He holds the guitar as lightly as a key, one that unlocks everything inside a generation, and now, a next generation who has been raised right.  There are mothers and their grown daughters in this crowd, singing along to the words old and new. It is a joy to see. Marr arrives on stage without fanfare, launching immediately into “The Tracers” followed breathlessly into “Bigmouth Strikes Again”. And therein lies the tone of the evening. It’s all here, it’s all good, and it will all be present. This is not a man who has ever liked to be idle, a man with much to say (musically), and much to do, a bundle of controlled, directed energy, a light in the darkness. The only nostalgia is that your teenage self feels healed note by note, no longer sad and reeling, but here, alive, mere feet away, and so is he: relevant, alive, soaring vocally and musically creating sounds no one has ever been able to imitate, that are his very own language that we think belongs to us because it was long ago imprinted upon our psyches. Artists who take care of themselves and their art only improve with time, and this is an artist in his prime, free of baggage and full of life.

Marr’s band for the past few albums and years is a tight, fluid unit, made up of long time friends and musicians who’ve worked together for many years: Iwan Gronow on Bass, Jack Mitchell (both ex-Haven) and Doviak on guitar. They look just right, and they sound like a unit. Doviak switches to keys to allow us to die and return as ghosts for “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” among others, and Gronow (who gave us an interview which follows this report) handles backing vocals. As expected, recent single “Walk Into the Sea” is an expansive, anthemic tune, and there are subtle shades of The Smiths in the new record, because why wouldn’t there be? Johnny Marr is as much The Smiths as anybody, perhaps more.

Johnny’s closing words to us are “We win.” And what more needs to be said?

During Johnny Marr’s Toronto tour stop, bassist Iwan Gronow took time out before soundcheck to chat with us about the new album and the tour, which will now embark on its UK leg to close out the year. Asked about how the group came together, Gronow told us that Marr had produced music for his previous band Haven, which also included drummer Jack Mitchell, and they had worked together as far back as the period when Marr had joined Modest Mouse in the mid-aughts. The collaboration developed organically, and the group worked quickly to put together Johnny Marr’s second solo record Playland, which was partially written and recorded on the road. An impressive three years was spent touring Playland. With Call the Comet, more time was taken building the project (as the band was off the road). This is evident in the layered sounds and the big ideas explored on Call the Comet. Gronow confirms what we’ve always believed as listeners and fans “Johnny’s always looking forward.” And, as we would find out that same night “singing better than ever”, a fact never in doubt but nonetheless astounding to hear first hand because most artists can sing well or play well but few can do it all, well, at once. Gronow describes the new music perfectly: it’s “cinematic” a “complete sound” and the live show is getting tighter all the time, in that push and pull that only fellow musicians with their perfectionism that sails over our heads understands. Gronow is enjoying both the new music that he’s been part of building as a band and “the back catalogue”, a term I mull over while being gobsmacked by said catalogue in a rousing, riveting, two hours that sees our own underappreciated (but maybe gradually more appreciated) quiet genius Kevin Drew take the stage (a surprise since he was also at the New York stop) for a duet on “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” By the show’s four (!!!) song encore, we’ve had the big celebration we’ve dreamed of forever, we want nothing more than to do it all over again, but we know we’ll keep it close to us as the best intimate show we’ve ever seen in our lives.

With special thanks to Johnny Marr and Iwan Gronow.

Jacqueline Howell

Photos: Dave MacIntyre

Johnny Marr: Call the Comet

Johnny Marr is a man that needs no introduction to anyone who grew up listening to his music with The Smiths, his perfect 1990 super-group with Bernard Sumner, Electronic, his contributions with The The, Billy Bragg, and many more. Marr has made a habit of guesting on more albums than has been publicly tracked, but you know his unique sounds when you hear them. In the 2000s, Marr kept innovating and collaborating with up and coming bands, joining Modest Mouse and The Cribs for periods of time. This month, Marr has been touring album three across the U.S., with a full slate of dates in the U.K. and Europe to follow into early December.

Music fans in Toronto and the same clusters of kids around the globe would talk about Johnny Marr over cases of Molson Special Dry in dark, loud living rooms of their teens and twenties the way sports fans talked about Michael Jordan, George Best or Wayne Gretzky. This beloved star was a natural, but also, a champion, one who weathered the pressures and obstacles of his profession with an impossible grace. We were not nostalgic, rather, eagerly awaited Marr’s next appearance on other bands’ records and tried to best each other with news. Fans like us were well versed in the U.K. music press from downtown music stores that were this city’s beating heart, passed from hand to hand and cherished, dog-eared, like hardcover books, and we were innately tuned to his signature sounds in a way that is almost impossible to articulate without sounding like bad poetry. But it’s true. Once, our hearts beat to jangly guitars, the sound of our own beating, hopeful lives. Once. This is the place Marr’s music holds for many and it’s a flag held aloft, with joy, to this day.

A bit of history: we got The Smiths late over here. Once we found them, they were already flirting with Strangeways. Most people never saw them play live in this city, and the lore of such a thing is treated to this very day with reverence and skepticism. That was the downside of being Canadian. We kids had no mobility, or notion of following a band, or of an overseas flight. We got the music just a little late, but like all great music, the rarest great music, The Smiths transcended not only genre, place and time, but also space and geography for a generation and now, the generation that has followed our own. There is a strange sort of nostalgia going on in the youth today, one that wants to know and understand a phenomenon that cannot be synthesized through retro TV shows and films. The places where everyone is dressed just a little too day-glow or cookie-cutter Goth, in a climate where everyone’s references are Tumblr-shallow. The attempt is endearing. They want to know. They want to believe. And that’s a good thing, because they are right to covet what was special and forever misunderstood. Curiosity is welcome as long as the young leave the memes and imagined silly feuds alone, and know that art never sits still or it would turn to dust. The past is long gone. Johnny Marr can only talk about the work he did at 23 for so long. His Smiths legacy matters. It’s not either /or. But what matters most is what lives on within us. What we took out of our own youths, and what he gave us in his. It’s here, before the crowds who understand, on tour. Some are still seeing this artist for the first time.

Bonus Material: We still remember, and treasure, poring over this chart from the late great SELECT magazine about how the world of Pop Music itself revolved around Johnny Marr. And this was early days.

On his 2014 tour, Johnny Marr, on the stage of Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall, produced something indescribable to fans who’d been waiting a lifetime. 90 minutes slipped away like a music video: we wanted to hit repeat, repeat, repeat. To hear him sing the songs our young hearts beat to, our older legs still dance to: “Big Mouth Strikes Again” and “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” (and so well) in harmony with those guitar riffs left a standing concert hall of people gobsmacked. JFM T-Shirts were seen everywhere in block text that even ex-Catholics can’t wear in the street, flown like flags that night. The new material fit seamlessly and energetically with the classics. The only thing to do the next day was to fantasize that we were rock stars: that a trip and a ticket could be procured for the next tour stop, stateside. It was one of the five or ten greatest sets of a lifetime of shows we’d seen, even as none had ever had more anticipation built up, or more risk for the nostalgic.

Johnny Marr is no nostalgist and deserves to be free of same from fans and reporters. The Smiths’ break up assured their greatness, mourned as it was, hijacked as the narrative might have been at the time. Marr is a musician’s musician, brimming with ideas, full of creativity, a musical prodigy.  And so he didn’t sit idle, allow himself to become melancholy. He never will. Which brings us to the new era of Johnny F*cking Marr. Through his continued musical collaborations, Marr took his time going solo. It’s clear that the man likes to work and play with others, to be part of a band. This was the way for many years. But when he was ready, Marr carefully waded in and did it in Johnny Marr fashion: with care, grace and quality. It couldn’t have been an easy or natural progression to begin to sing after so many years standing beside others in control of the mic, other frontmen. His playing is intricate and unique, and this would be like adding another job to the list to be done simultaneously. But Marr built his vocal sound like everything else he’d done before: with care. Gradually. Step by step, layer by layer, the hard work unseen, unpaid, until it looked effortless.

There is something rare and special about the artists that came from Manchester, that global kids knew at the time was a hotbed of innovation, of cool and of talent. Some are household names, others are not, but their own culture and scene was and still is something to behold. It is, to this observer, loving and kind, the biting, quick Mancunian wit reserved for keeping oneself humble, for football commentary and that world of sport that serves as therapy for everyone in the UK, while their unabashed affection and familial ways are reserved for one another, bottomless, awe-inspiring. They cheer for each other, whether on Glasto’s pyramid stage or trying out new sounds in intimate rooms, through the waxing and waning of the fickle and brutal industry and the shifting sands of American culture and the music world with all its seduction, heartbreak, and brutality. These great men and women can laugh and still weather all that has happened to music, to the business, to the radio, to journalism. They are stalwart, iconic, they carry on.

Johnny Marr’s cool, measured return to music as a solo artist brings along his signature traits: he will always have a crisp haircut and a relaxed but well-turned out look, head to toe. He stakes a new marker in his long and beautiful journey with a new band who he collaborates with and with whom he finds new colours. Marr is still evolving, never falling back into the self-referential. Call the Comet hits that third record sweet spot. He’s found a niche, he’s grown more comfortable and playful with his vocals and with each strum, the long ago past falls another inch away. So much is happening today. So much urgency, so much need for pure and driven music to keep us aloft, fighting, getting out of bed.

On Call the Comet Marr, joined by former members of Haven Iwan Gronow (bass) and Jack Mitchell (drums) as well as Doviak, casts his keen eye at the world, issues he cares about, and the diciest of all subjects today, the news, interpreting each of theme artistically and calmly. There’s a global perspective here that Manchester artists, uniquely, have a way of capturing. It’s rare, and impossible to generate from within an American mind. There is something in the mix that Johnny Marr has always expressed, something about being northern. That context versus London, versus the neon blinking myths of America, gives an outsider perspective that can allow for detached reason even when you’ve lived everyhere, and it’s coupled with a sense of humour that relates well to the one Canadians like to think of as our own.

But then there’s this:

“I’d climb in under skies so blue it yearns
Hand over hand, carried all the memories
And don’t look down in fate or fame
I tumble and glide into the white wide tide
Whirling and whirling
And let the slamming waves decide my fate
Because hope is all I need” (Walk into the Sea)

This reads like the energetic and open-hearted song writing of a young man, a fearless sort of writer. It is the eternally open creative mind at work, but it’s also the work of someone with life under his belt, survivor stories, brushes with fate, a cool kind of fame that is understated, and an ability to reflect on life. He has said in earlier press for the album, which came out in June, that he explored magic realism on this album. Marr is having fun with literary approaches that people don’t often link with music, but they should. All great writers find their way to the surreal, the magic realism, and the archetypal stories, if they develop enough. This is the album on the other side of a very well-received autobiography, Set the Boy Free. This is also the album made in a time of increased risk for artists and crowds, stages and arenas. It’s made by a man who stepped on the stage in Manchester one day after the attack in May 2017, with our own Broken Social Scene, no less. (Kevin Drew had also appeared on Johnny Marr’s Toronto stage in 2014, to the delight of all of us in a crowd that sees little spontaneity in big Toronto gigs, but is ever hopeful, and waits for news. Call the Comet is Johnny Marr’s strongest yet (and we loved Playland) further, with its storytelling, layered riffs and psych references, an innate ability to create anthemic sounds, and having come into his own as a singer, it stands up next to anything Marr’s done in his storied career.

Jacqueline Howell

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