THE THE’s singer and songwriter Matt Johnson is often depicted as elusive, a bit of an enigma and something of a recluse. Huge gaps between releases, even in THE THE’s heyday, coupled with an austere persona as well as a seeming reluctance to engage very much with the music press, only enhanced his reputation as a bit of a moody non-conformist.
And then, following the low-profile release of the last ‘proper’ THE THE album, 2000’s ‘Naked Self’, he pretty much all but disappeared from the radar altogether.
There have been a couple of THE THE songs between then and now, including a download-only single called ‘Mrs Mac’, which was supposed to be the precursor to an album called ‘The End of the Day’ which was supposed to be supported by a “massive world tour”. Neither of which happened.
But, by and large it’s been very quiet at THE THE HQ for the last decade or so. More recently, though, there’s been increasing signs of life with Matt first resurfacing for a few public appearances to promote the deluxe re-issue of classic THE THE album ‘Soul Mining’ in 2013.
There was also a book about his father’s pub (‘Tales from the Two Puddings’), published and edited by Matt, and a growing collection of beautifully packaged instrumental soundtrack albums to tiny independent films, mostly directed by his brother Gerard.
A similar burst of activity was witnessed for the 30th anniversary of THE THE’s album ‘Infected’, last year, with Matt doing more press interviews than he ever did before. And, once again, he made a series of public appearances for Q&As, this time after screenings of his full-length ‘Infected’ film at the ICA. He spoke to BASCA around this time, reflecting on the on-going influence of ‘Infected’ and revealing his thoughts on the state of the industry today and offering his advice to up-and-coming composers.
Fast forward 18 months and Matt is back, back, BACK with a vengeance. He’s announced the first THE THE gigs in many, many years – which all sold out in seconds – and is the subject of an intriguing feature-length documentary called ‘The Inertia Variations’, directed by his ex-partner Johanna St Michaels.
It’s a fascinating film; a documentary with a difference, centring on the build up to a lengthy live broadcast Matt was organising for his online ‘shortwave’ radio station, Radio Cineola.
The broadcast was to include political and social commentary from a range of folk as well as a series of cover versions of THE THE songs played live from THE THE HQ in Shoreditch. It was to be broadcast on election day 2017 and, tantalisingly, St Michaels managed to convince Matt to reluctantly agree to write and perform a new THE THE tune to mark the occasion.
Interwoven throughout the film are snippets of Matt reading a poem by John Tottenham called ‘The Inertia Variations’, which are used to set the context for the lack of tangible ‘product’ that’s come out of the THE THE camp for the last 15 years.
“There was a time when I thought
I might have done something by now;
But that was long ago, and over the intervening
Decades I have shifted from prodigy to late-bloomer
To non-bloomer; I have passed my peak without having peaked
Or even begun the ascent”
John Tottenham, from The Inertia Variations
While, on paper, the idea of constructing a documentary around the recital of a poem about intertia may not sound all that appealing, it works surprisingly well as an indicator of Matt’s lethargic mindset at the time. It works in helping the viewer more readily understand the kind of life he’s chosen since the glory days of modest fame and fortune when THE THE was at its commercial and creative heights.
You get the sense through ‘The Inertia Variations’ that Matt has always felt like an outsider – a man out of time. One of his early songs, ‘Dumb as Death’s Head’, kept springing to mind while watching, with its lyrics: “If life be measured in seasons, my autumn has arrived before my spring. I’m becoming trapped in a tomb of my own making.”
Dealt a pretty tough hand by the music industry – tied into a very ropey deal with Sony – and uncomfortable with the role of pop star or being a kind of spokesperson for a generation, he was never going to be Bono or Morrissey. In fact, he seems to be in an ongoing struggle to define exactly what he wants to be. He doesn’t dismiss the idea his lack of output may be down to fear of failure but also seems willing to accept it might have a lot to do with fear of success, too. This leaves him “in limbo,” he says.
One thing that’s continually in evidence in ‘The Inertia Variations’ is the closeness of his family and friends. His dad and son feature prominently, as does one of his closest friends, the director Tim Pope. It’s clear the untimely deaths of two of his three brothers has had a massive impact on Matt’s outlook on life.
His elder brother, Andrew Johnson (who was the artist behind many of THE THE’s iconic record sleeves) died during the making of the film, and his death hits hard. The film shares really intimate moments, and it’s difficult not to feel a little like you’re intruding, when the family should just be left to grieve in peace.
Andrew’s death changed the direction of the new THE THE song Matt had already started writing for the big Cineola broadcast, moving the theme away from the destruction of London to become a deeply personal response to the death of his elder brother.
The culmination of the film sees Matt playing the finished song, ‘We Can’t Stop What’s Coming’ during the much-anticipated live broadcast, satisfactorily tying together the different strands of the film – death, music, love and the creative reinvigoration of Matt Johnson.
THE THE fans should relish the opportunity to get a little glimpse into Matt Johnson’s life, and while they won’t learn a great deal they didn’t know already about THE THE, the band, they should certainly feel more connected to Matt and his music.