THE THE’s Matt Johnson and director Johanna St Michaels on their new documentary The Inertia Variations, life, death, and other vices
All the bankers gettin’ sweaty beneath their white collars
As the pound in our pocket turns into a dollar
THE THE, Heartland, 1986
Matt Johnson: If I were to define Britain as a person… if you think back to the school playground, and you know you would have the big bully going around thumping everyone, and there’d be one or two quislings, well I see Britain as one of the quislings. America’s going around kicking and punching. We’re the little sneak, that’s not strong enough to beat anyone up ourselves, but he’s happy to stick the boot in when someone’s down. I feel very ashamed of what’s happened, especially the last thirty years.
Knud Romer: But wouldn’t it be a pensioner?
MJ: An old pensioner.
KR: Yeah, somewhere in the countryside, lost his job because of east European workers, and he now stole a whole new generation’s hope by being reactionary and getting out of Europe?
MJ: It was Winston Churchill who coined the phrase “the special relationship.” And also the phrase describing Britain and America “2 great nations separated by a common language.” In England we had terms for men and women, “blokes” and “birds”. Everyone’s a guy now. We no longer celebrate Guy Fawke’s night… The American version of Halloween has now taken over. We’re also now celebrating thanksgiving! In England. Incredibly. And apparently there’s plans for July the 4th I suppose, as well.
Q&A @ CPH:DOX 2017
Matt Johnson has never been coy about his politics or world view, so when he withdrew from the limelight in the early 2000s, his silence was notable. The death of his mother Shirley, a few years after the death of his younger brother Eugene was a sort of catalyst of grief, and he focused his energies on soundtracks for his brother Gerard, publishing select writings on his own imprint, and hosting Radio Cinéola from his London home.
But 2017 it seems is the springtime of THE THE. Radio Cinéola, grief, creativity, the obscure writings of wish-he-wasn’t poet John Tottenham, and the occasional need to step back and take it all in, are some of the movements in Johanna Saint Michael’s new documentary The Inertia Variations. Named after some of Tottenham’s work, the film premiered at the Gothenburg film festival, and just had a celebrated run at CPH:DOX.
One of the things I always press filmmakers I work with is access. In Saint Michael’s case it’s a no-brainer.
MJ: Do you exercise or are you an athlete?
P: I’m no athlete but I do exercise.
MJ: What’s your favorite thing to do?
P: I love running but I wrecked my knee.
MJ: Ok well you know Johanna was a runner for the Swedish junior Olympic team.
Johanna St Michael: At the national levels.
MJ: Yeah, sorry. Well guess who was the fastest runner she ever ran against… Yeah it was me.
JSM: You were the fastest ex-boyfriend.
MJ: Fastest… ex-boyfriend? Not the fastest person?…”
P: Are you just finding this out now?
MJ: Yeah well…
I remember when Infected dropped, all saturated with lusty rage, piss and vinegar. A socio-politically charged album of unabridged Britishness? A duet with Neneh Cherry? A video for every song, released all at the same time as a film? What’s not to love?
P: I remember listening to your stuff in the 80s-90s and people either liking what you had to say, or getting instantly shut off from the political angle, like music and politics have no business together.
MJ: Living in the US “even good friends would get angry at us, who were Democrats and we could talk to a certain point then no further. Talk about foreign policy and they’d be up and arms, “you’re a foreigner and you’re criticizing us? Why don’t you go back to your country.”
JSM: It was really hard. We both like talking about politics and, for me, living in the states for 20 years and not really being able to talk about it? It really took getting used to.
The steady stream of music and spurted out by THE THE (“Have you tried Googling THE THE? Rubbish. Wish I’d known at the time” M.J.) at the height of the band’s popularity gets little attention in Saint Michael’s film. She gets right into the multi-media aspect of Tottenham’s verses, the Radio Cinéola broadcasts, and a sculpture created by her partner Jacob Sahlqvist, inspired by the Shukhov tower in Moscow.
MJ: why the Shukhov tower, was because it was commissioned by Lenin, it was erected in Moscow, I don’t think it was finished until I think 2 years after Lenin died. But it was to broadcast across all of the new Soviet Union. And as I mention in the film, the irony, that in Britain particularly and of course in America there are people crowing about “we won the cold war” and I think; to what cost? Britain and America particularly we have CCTV, everything is monitored. We are the most spied upon country in human history. And yet we crow about winning the cold war. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
You would think by now that people would know better
Than to ask me what I have been doing with my time.
And you would think by now that I would have come up
With an answer that would silence them.
John Tottenham, A long hard lazy apprenticeship of doing nothing
Inertia Variations is a touching exploration of creativity and its place in a creator’s life as he looks towards the future, but can’t escape his past. Johnson has reinvented himself over the last 15 years, eschewing the spotlight for a different role, as shepherd of a radio broadcast, composer of soundtrack music, publisher: in short everything except rock and roll.
Radio Cinéola acts as an odd hybrid, as Johnson welcomes political scientists, healers, and poets, as well as bands who re-interpret THE THE’s music catalogue. The film gives us glimpses into the workings of his broadcast scheme, but continuously runs back to John Tottenham’s texts, until you’re not sure where one ends and the other begins. At the same time, access or no, it becomes clear pretty quickly that Johnson will let us in only so far and no further. Maybe sharing Tottenham’s voice made the process easier to bear.
JSM: It Started as a different film. An art film. But we couldn’t get funding.
MJ: I was going through a particularly lengthy period of procrastination. Creative Inertia. I was living down at my dad’s. And so I received this (the poems) through the email. And I sat and read it in one sitting. And it made me laugh, it made me cry. I found it very profound, very poignant. But a lot of black humour. It was very, very funny. And then I said I’ve gotta do something with this. So I contacted John and I said listen, I really want to do something with it. So I recorded a spoken word project with soundscapes, and I was just gonna release that. And then I played it to a few friends, and I played it to Johanna. And she absolutely loved it. And she said, “look; this is you!”
P: And the line in the film where you say “There’s nobody in prison who’s spent more time staring at the wall than me” That is you right?
MJ: That’s John. That’s the thing. It’s sometimes hard to tell who’s saying what, because it’s so similar. What he’s writing is what I could have written myself. And so people often think is it you or is it… It could have been me.
JSM: Well yeah, it was SO Matt. But that was the whole intention with the documentary. That you wouldn’t know. That you would think that the poem was Matt’s.
MJ: There are some clips on youtube of him doing readings. And I’m not being vain but I prefer mine to his. (laughter) No, no, no, but in some ways he reads them in a very comical, almost like a stand up comedian the way he… I mean they’re his words. Obviously it’s his voice. But I suppose the way I interpret them, and you could a third or fourth or fifth person, and they’d all be very very different. And John reads them comically which, they are very very funny. But they’re also very very poignant. And so each person that read them would give them a different interpretation. It’s be interesting to hear a woman read them. I think that’d be beautiful. That’s not a bad idea actually.
P: That would be interesting.
MJ: And get lots of different people to do readings. But when John heard my readings he went “ugh.”(laughs) because my voice was too soporific for him. But that’s the beauty of those words. That they are so pliable. And you’ll see in them whatever you want to see in them.
JSM: But you do have a good reading voice. Lots of people comment on that.
MJ: Some people have said I said it like Michael Caine. (laughter) “Not a lot of people know that.”
JSM: in the beginning you were like I don’t want to be private in the documentary. I don’t want to reveal anything about myself. I want to do a political station. And then read the poems. But you have to get someone to be the main character as well. And then I thought the poem would be his inner self in the project, when we decided it was going to be a documentary instead of an art project. I think we took about 5 years of rejection before we started getting any money from kulturbryggand. They were the first ones to give in. We almost had a theatrical project to begin with: Matt was going to read the poems on stage and then we were going to have an art film, and that’s what we got money for.
MJ: It went through so many changes. We were gonna have this room installation where you had 7 rooms, each representing a different section of the day. But, there was a lot of interest from these people that loved it as an art project but said “well, a 45 min art film a bout a poem is kind of boring.” So what happened was that…”
JSM: you wanted to do the radio station with it and then it got really confusing, like how are we gonna do this.
MJ: Well it was just sort of merging 2 projects. And then Johanna went off to these workshops. In Croatia and Norway. And then she came back.
JSM: Yeah. They said basically that it was so shitty, how are you gonna do this. It’s so boring. Matt is so boring. And I said he’s not really that boring, he’s self obsessed, and…
MJ: I’m not self obsessed.
JSM: No but they thought so.
MJ: Anyway… But then, she came back with this idea.
MJ: That we do a live radio show. And I was resistant, because I said no. I’ll just do the radio show from my normal studio. And Johanna insisted it’s got to be live. It’s gotta be authentic, and we’re gonna do it on election day. Which was…
JSM: In three months.
MJ: In three months.
JSM: No it was six months actually.
MJ: That long? So we set up the radio show, hired producers, I then approached various people I wanted to interview. Which were either friends of mine through local campaigning, or geo-political writers that I admire like William Engdahl. An old friend of ours in NY Abdi Assadi, a very highly rated spiritual counselor. A political professor chum of mine from Manchester. So it was an interesting group of people. And then I did a lot of research for the interviews. And then we built the radio set in my own studio.
JSM: But before we actually got to that point we did an art show with the tower, in Gothenburg. Because we had money that had been sitting in an account, that we needed to use.
MJ: Otherwise they take it back.
JSM: So what can we do with this money? And then we got Jacob involved, the architect of the tower, which is my boyfriend.
P: You want to keep it in the family.
JSM: So we built the tower. We did an 18min loop of the art film that I wanted to do. We projected it down in the snow. It was actually so well liked, standing there it was supposed to stand for like 2 weeks; it was standing there for 3 months, right underneath the bridge in Gothenburg.
MJ: It’s like a disused power station, that’s now an art gallery. And fantastic space and location.
P: So that’s the building in the beginning of the film.
JSM: Yeah. We thought it’d be great to have a… What would you call it? Something to tie it together.
MJ: A symbol throughout the film that repeats. And initially we wanted to take it to New York. To put it on the end of a pier of a seaside English town. We were going to …
JSM: Put it on the ice in a Swedish lake.
MJ: We had plans to take it everywhere, but the expense of dismantling it … it proved prohibitive. It is going to Edinburgh.
JSM: And London.
P: Because you’re premiering in Edinburgh.
JSM: Yeah so it’s taking a little tour.
In our lives we hunger for those we cannot touch.
All the thoughts unuttered & all the feelings unexpressed
Play upon our hearts like the mist upon our breath.
THE THE, Love is Stronger Than Death, 1993
Most artists have a running theme that permeates their work. Johnson, it could be said, is largely defined by a streak of social and political commentary, very British and very outspoken. Personally, I’ve been drawn by the personal stuff; raw shots of naked lust, or sadness, or confusion that I can nod my head to in recognition.
But one running theme that has influenced everything from his work to his inertia is loss. Sure enough, as the inertia Variations was gathering steam in 2012, a fresh dose of bad news arrived, about his older brother and lifelong collaborator.
MJ: When Andy got sick my youngest son had just been born. I was publishing my dad’s book, I was preparing the release of a soundtrack, and whoosh. Andy’s sickness just overshadowed it all. I remember being there with my dad and my other brother when the doctor gave us the diagnosis. Andy asked the doctor when it was obvious it was bad news, ‘so tell me’. And the doctor said ‘do you want the numbers?’ And he said yeah. 6 months. My dad started crying, I started crying. We all did. Andy was just calm.
JSM: That’s Andy.
MJ: Yeah, and when he started the treatment, I mean he had surgical procedures done… What was supposed to be 6 months was suddenly 2 and a half years. And then there was one time… Whenever Andy went to get examined he’d call us up afterwards to let us know what how he was doing. But this one day we waited and waited. Finally we started calling each other asking ‘have you heard from Andy?’ ‘No.’ Finally I worked out that… He’d got bad news, and he had probably gone to my dad’s to tell him face to face. And sure enough, that’s what he’d done.
JSM: And that took it all away from you. You couldn’t do anything for ages afterwards.
MJ: And you too. You were close you and Andy.
JSM: Yeah we were. We were family.
MJ: We are.
P: That’s kind of an amazing thing about your story; family. There’s you two, and I read your dad’s book, how your mom and uncle helped run the pub you grew up over, and THE THE had their debut there. Family is a big part of your story.
MJ: Yeah, family is the most important thing. And you know, Johanna and I have been separated for ages but she’s family and we have Jack together. And my family still treats her as family.
JSM: And mine treats you the same. And we certainly get on better than we ever did when we were together.
The through line of the film is Saint Michael prodding Johnson to write a new damn song already. There’s always a reason not to, always too much to do. The death of his beloved brother though, is the turning point; when it’s clear that time runs out, that there’s a purpose, a catharsis in finishing the song.
It begs the question: would it have been easier for Johnson to write the song in his heyday? Has there been a shift in his process?
P: Do you spend time staring at the walls? How are you both different in the way you work?
JSM: I’m not such a perfectionist as say Matt is. Because I’d rather try and do things, but I seem to spin my wheels trying many different things. Like this film I spent maybe 4 months editing on paper, until I got it right. Then I went to the editor, who’s very fast, and I could say “no, no that’s not right.” And so back to editing on paper. And then we went back and forth like this because we had a tremendous amount of material. So I’m very slow in my process. I’m not so much sitting there not doing anything, but I’m pretty slow. It’s taken nearly 13 years to do this film. And my previous film took 5 years.
MJ: That’s not a fair indication. It wasn’t continual focus for 13 years. It was very much stop start stop start. And the project’s evolved and gone off in different directions. So it’s not fair to compare it to the other film. Because it’s so multi-faceted and has so many other people involved
JSM: Yeah. But I would say my process is slow. I’m not very quick. I’m saying “bap” that’ll be like that.
MJ: Whereas, oddly enough, when I’m in the studio I’m fast. As opposed to someone like Mark Hollis and Talk Talk. He would be in the studio for years at a time. “That note is not right”. We never met, but we knew a lot of the same people. So it would drive them mad, friends of mine that would work with him. They would quit cos’ they can’t take it. Like 10 days on one note. “ding ding ding ding.” So he would be in there for years whereas I don’t go in for years. But when I do it’s very fast. So I’m a hard worker, I just avoid going in there.
J: Yeah we’re different. I go in there but I don’t come out.
MJ: Boredom is such an important part of the creative process. You know in England on Sundays, or even Wednesday afternoons the shops would close. And it was so… boring. In England. There was nothing else to do. So I formed a little band. We would rehearse, and get into trouble with the police sometimes. I worry that if I was young in this day and age, 14 or 15, whether I would have the same impulse to create. I probably would be one of these kids looking at the phone all the time. And I worry that we could be losing generations that could become writers, painters, artists, poets. Because they’re just trapped in these little digital prisons. We can remember the alternative. But younger people have nothing to compare it to. It does worry me.”
Q&A @ CPH:DOX 2017
For all the productivity of Johnson’s peak output, St Michaels does go out of her way in the film to make inertia a central character. Partly I think, because it’s such a universal characteristic, particularly when you have to cope with grief and loss, and the love-hate relationship with celebrity (“it’s a toxin!” M.J.), and the always-connected assault of daily life, like the speakers in his hotel lobby that never turned off.
MJ: You can’t escape music. It drives me nuts. I think it’s desensitised our aural nerves. And I listen to a lot less music because I want to get away from it. I live in the party capitol of London. When I first moved there in the mid 80s there were only maybe 15 bars. Now there are 300. All I hear is boom boom boom boom. Driving me insane. Now… I figured I’d at least get some sleep here in Copenhagen. Early night, nice shower. Boom boom boom boom. You’ve gotta be fucking joking. I’m hyper sensitive to noise.
JSM: At home I love it when it’s just quiet. Jacob likes to have the TV on because he feels lonely. I just turn it off.
MJ: One of the things John really liked (in the film) was when I said; what people want doesn’t exist anymore. Whereas you often have people pretending to be who they used to be; cashing in, continually regurgitating something that they don’t even believe in anymore. Because everyone’s obsessed not only with youth but with their own youth. And that was an interesting point that he made, that…
JSM: But it’s sad really that they are so youth obsessed. And I used to work as a model and you’re like a package of milk: Every day you get worse, with best before dates. And a lot of old model, they’re hanging onto their beauty… Trying to find a rich man to support them. And my previous film Penthouse North is about a woman who’s 60.
P: Have you had different reactions from different generations?
JSM: I think people just recognize themselves in when they see the film.
MJ: But really young people, I don’t think they have that life experience, to have that sense of regret and time wasted. And I think it’s only once you get a bit older…
JSM: But I don’t think that’s really true, because Moa… Jacob has 2 kids, 20 and 18, and Moa is one of them and she said “You know my generation they’re so paranoid of growing old! Life is passé now at 20.
MJ: Is that what she said?
JSM: Yeah, you know I think that’s when life is just starting but she says her friends are depressed because they’re turning 20-21. Because they’re so youth obsessed.
P: Well it’s strange how creativity has a shelf life. You can try and reinvent yourself and then the fans are like “no we want more of that.”
MJ: Yeah. Well you’ll see it in many bands’ careers, when they hit on a winning formula, bands like Status Quo, Dire Straits, they pretty much across the border hit on a winning formula and they stick to it. The band members hate each other but they have to stay together. To me, even as a young boy I thought that is my idea of a living hell. Which is why I wanted a band that was fluid. So the members might change but also we might do collaborations with filmmakers and painters and such, so that it stays alive. And unfortunately, commercially that’s a bit of a suicide note because… when I put out these soundtracks that I do which I love, they sell a fraction of other albums, and people want me to sing and go on stage. But I don’t really want to do that. So if you’ve made that decision you have to be prepared to take that financial hit. Say I’d rather be happier, than richer.
JSM: But I think that’s interesting with the film actually. Your fans obviously when they come to the screenings, I had some in Stockholm, they’re like “get Matt to write! He doesn’t even have to sing, just write the words down. “ (laughs) And then you get somebody who’s forty, or under forty five. I had a very interesting experience at a party in Sweden. I met somebody who was maybe 50, who was “Oh you’ve been together with Matt Johnson! Can I touch you?”
MJ: Touch you where?
JSM: And then I met somebody who was forty who asked “who is that? I didn’t know who Matt was but the film really touched me.” Not musically so much but the subject matter. That’s nice, that you can reach out in different ways.
There are no voices – as the time approaches
I wanted to be like Bobby Dylan
Until I discovered Moses
Matt Johnson, Another Boy Drowning, 1981
Looking back on my own life is occasionally harrowing; sometimes lamenting who I was, or who I thought I’d be. I do take comfort on Johnson’s can-do attitude to his own path, as he recycles a lot of what he used to do, and continues to evolve. To that end, The Inertia Variations could practically be a blueprint for sharing culture and creative reinvention. He certainly talks with more spirit about his many projects than he does about singing more songs.
MJ: It was very much a collaborative process. Johanna and I are the main faces of it at this stage. And obviously John Tottenham, Jacob with the tower, Thomas Feiner took the photo of me in the poster, designed a 3-D version of the tower, and performed his version of This Is The Day in the film. There’s a huge amount of people involved. So it’s probably the most collaborative project I’ve ever done.
JSM: So many people.
MJ: Next I’m releasing a box, with three books and CDs; performed music from the film, my soundtrack, and the spoken word recordings.
P: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Tottenham’s books started selling millions…
MJ: I hope so! That’s the dream for me, for it really to come full circle, to that original inspiration that he provided.
JSM: We tried to get him over for the radio show but we really didn’t have it in our budget.
MJ: But we did get him on skype. That was the first time we ever skyped. And he’s hilarious.
P: That’s a wonderful piece in the end credits.
MJ: “Ah poetry is a disgusting, filthy habit. But I keep doing it.” (laughs)
A big chunk of the interview recording was lost (which is why I got to talk to Johnson and St Michaels twice), but we talked about the arrogance of creation (“you! Listen to my message!”) and the narcissism of youth culture when our kids spend half their device time looking at pictures of themselves.
Mostly I was happy to see a pair of artists happy to be moving forward instead of looking eternally behind themselves. And while I found myself mourning the restlessness that used to be simply natural, and which they still wear on their sleeves, I was mainly inspired by it.
By the way, I forgot to say face to face; thanks for all the music Matt. They made those years a brighter place. Especially when I was just staring at the wall.