When The The’s singer/songwriter/prime mover Matt Johnson became the focus of a documentary, The Inertia Variations, back in 2017, it had an unexpected impact on him.
As the title suggests, he hadn’t been too productive in the proceeding few years. Other than low-key film soundtrack work, he hadn’t released any song-based material or played live for around 15 years. Having written and performed a song for the documentary’s climax, though, he rediscovered his muse and promptly signed up to do a series of tour dates. “Genuinely, the film was the catalyst, as well as capturing the moment that I decided to do it,” Johnson told Northern Soul at the time. “It was an essential part of that happening to me.”
He wasn’t to know, of course, that a global pandemic was on the horizon that would curtail everybody’s plans. Nevertheless, late 2021 finds him still motivated and fired-up. Speaking to Northern Soul, Johnson says: “I feel very excited, very passionate…yeah, I feel really lucky at the moment.”
A full album of new The The material is in works, but for now we have The Comeback Special, a document of the band’s June 2018 Royal Albert Hall show available in assorted formats, including an album on vinyl or CD and a concert film on DVD and Blu-ray.
“This project was supposed to come out in 2020, but of course then the world got derailed into a dystopian science fiction nightmare,” Johnson says. “The positive thing is that we had more time to work on the mix and the edit of the film. It ended up being a much bigger and better project than it would have been.”
Johnson is promoting the release with select public screenings of the film which he’ll be attending with director and long-time collaborator Tim Pope, taking in HOME in Manchester and Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema.
The Comeback Special is a stark, pure document of the entire Royal Albert Hall gig without a single song excluded. There’s no tricksiness in the presentation, just the band, dressed in black, playing songs from right across The The’s discography. “Our stage lighting is quite atmospheric, a bit sort of film noir-ish and shadowy, and with the cameras Tim’s able to use, we can capture that. Somebody has remarked that watching the film almost feels like being a ghost on stage. You’re really close to the interaction between the band. It feels very, very intimate, despite it being in a large space like the Albert Hall.”
Johnson describes the show as “intense” and “difficult”, and not without reason. He hadn’t played live on a London stage for 16 years and, in addition, his father Eddie Johnson, who appeared in The Inertia Variations, had died unexpectedly only two days previously. Cancelling the gig, or rearranging the filming, wasn’t really an option.
“No, I had to just go ahead. I mean, I’ve been in bands since I was a young age, so I’m professional in that regard. And my dad…we were very close, and he would have been in a box in the audience watching us. I was very much aware of that as I was looking up from the stage to where he would have been. It was very emotionally charged for me, that night.”
Back in 2017, Johnson told Northern Soul that he revisited his own records very rarely. “I don’t even have my own catalogue…I never really listen to them”. For The Comeback Special shows, though, he performed a wide range of his old songs, some of them up to 40-years-old. Was it difficult, then, to re-inhabit them and bring them back to life?
“I’ll give one example and that’s my most famous and successful song, which is This is the Day. I wrote that as a 21-year-old. The strange thing was, on tour, singing it as a man in his late-50s, I felt it was a song I’d grown into. It seemed to have more relevance to me later in life than it did when I wrote it. I didn’t expect that. I mean, it talks about memory and family and various other things. Having gone through, on a personal level, many bereavements of close family members… there’s that line ‘the memories that hold your life together like glue’. At the moment, my brother and I are just clearing our dad’s old house, going through boxes of photographs and letters, and my God, I think this song was a premonition, really. I was worried I suppose that I’d get on the stage and feel I had no relationship to the songs anymore, but the reverse was true. I actually felt more connected to them than I did when I wrote them, which I was pleased about, obviously, because then I could sing them with sincerity and not fake it.”
Conversely, any The The songs that Johnson didn’t resonate with anymore “would have been ones that I didn’t perform in the set”.
The pandemic lockdown saw Johnson looking back in a different way, though, as a participant in Tim Burgess’s Twitter listening parties covering four classic The The albums. As with many other artists, he found it to be an unexpectedly revelatory experience.
“It was quite astonishing, really. I did Infected, Soul Mining, Dusk, Mind Bomb, and I may do some more. I’d prepared quite extensively for them. I don’t often listen to my own old records, so I listened to them again. I was writing down anecdotes and finding old photos and things to make it interesting. But what was a revelation was that the listening party would start – you’d put the album on, I’d have a glass of wine next to me, and it takes up a lot of time, because you’re cutting and pasting, trying to react to all the comments that are coming in – and it’s so strange…it’s the closest thing to a concert without doing a concert. Everyone is listening to the same track, so you’re getting all these comments on the tracks as they’re playing and also the anecdotes that I’m posting up. The adrenaline gets going and there’s a sense afterwards that you have participated in a communal event, even though you’re in a room by yourself with a laptop. I was very surprised by the first one I did. I think it was a brilliant idea of his, particularly at that time where people felt so isolated and at a loose end. It was deceptively powerful.”
The last couple of years have also seen Johnson begin work on a new project in collaboration with Jason Wood, Manchester HOME’s creative director and avowed The The fan.
“We’re in the early stages, but Jason and I are working on a book together. There was a biography a couple of years ago called Long Shadows, High Hopes by Neil Fraser. I think of that as being from the outside looking in, whereas the book I’m working on with Jason is more autobiographical. It’s going to be more extensively from my perspective as a songwriter, the experiences I went through. It’s going to be more a case of ‘from the inside looking out’. We’ve done a lot of work on it, but there’s a lot more to do. It’s almost like a series of conversations. We’ve been meeting up regularly, having very in-depth conversations. and Jason records them. We get along well and have a very intuitive sort of way of working together. The ideal time for that to come out will be when there’s a new record. “
With inertia and the lockdowns now behind him, that new album is firmly in Johnson’s sights.
“I wanted to be further on with the album than I am, but obviously, during the lockdowns, with the band members being in, what, Berlin, Chicago, they’re very far-flung and so it’s been very difficult. It certainly slowed things down. It’s bit ironic, just as I’d got back up and running, that this should happen. But I think lyrically, what’s happened over the the last 18 months is going to be a source of good inspiration. It’s been such a strange, surreal time in history, not just in our country’s history but in global history, and there’s many, many layers to what’s been going on. Obviously, there’s the very personal stuff, the way that people are changing their lives. They’re maybe re-evaluating their careers, their relationships, where they live, after reflecting on things they took for granted.”
He adds: “You’ve got that on the personal level. On the geopolitical level, during this pandemic some of the behaviour of democratically elected governments has been quite outrageous. In Australia, for instance, it’s virtually a police state. Canada…it’s appalling. Governments are supposed to serve the population, but it’s all been turned on its head. So that’s very, very worrying, disturbing, but fascinating in equal measure. That’s something I’m finding inspiring to write about.”
By Andy Murray, Music and Film Editor
Main image: The The at the Royal Albert Hall. Credit: Andy Paradise
The Comeback Special is available across various formats from The The’s dedicated online shop.
Matt Johnson and Tim Pope will be appearing at special screenings of The Comeback Special with accompanying Q&A sessions at HOME Manchester (November 13) and the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle (November 14), plus Glasgow Film Theatre (November 15).