Interview by ELISABETTA PORCINAI and ANDREA QUARANTOTTO
‘It was waves and waves of ecstasy… but without drugs. The cheapest drug I’ve ever had!’ This is how Mike Joyce – best known as The Smiths’ former drummer, observant vegetarian since Meat is Murder and eager Manchester City supporter – summarises his feelings at the peak of his experience with the legendary Mancunian band. But it’s not all about The Smiths: a warm and friendly Mike greets Andrea and myself backstage before one of his DJ performances in Bologna, and tells us his story. Starting from the early Manchester years, taking us through his extremely diverse career as a drummer, which has seen him playing with outstanding artists the likes of Sinead O’Connor and Buzzcocks, and finally offering us insights on his radiophonic career and possible upcoming musical collaborations.
ELISABETTA P. — Which are the main musical influences that went on to shape you as a musician? Do you have a drummer in particular who you took as a model?
MIKE J. — Yes, absolutely! My model has always been John Maher from Buzzcocks. I went to see Buzzcocks in Manchester and I fell in love with the band, and I fell in love with John Maher; that’s when I said: ‘I must do that! That’s what I want to do, I want to be a drummer like him’. I was looking to play with them, in fact, I did play with them in 1991. But definitely that was a major influence on me.
ELISABETTA P. — So it must have been a major achievement, a dream come true, to actually get to play with them…
MIKE J. — It was indeed! When I got the phone call from the bass player Steve Garvey, asking me to join the band, I couldn’t contain myself, really… I tried to be cool, and I said: ‘Yes, ok maybe… I’ll see…’ and he said ‘Do you want to do a world tour with Buzzcocks?’, and I replied: ‘Yes, sure, why not!’. Then I put the phone down and I screamed.
ELISABETTA P. — How did you first get in touch with The Smiths? What do you remember about your early impression of them and then your first encounter?
MIKE J. — A friend of mine, a guy that I was living with called Pete Hope, knew Johnny Marr who was getting a band together at that time. So Pete just said to Johnny: ‘Do you know Mike? He plays drums, he lives with me so maybe try him out as a drummer’. So then I went down and met Morrissey and Johnny. I had seen Johnny in Manchester quite a lot in clubs and shops, same hangouts, so I knew him, he was a cool guy! So I went down and played with them for maybe an hour or so and I thought straight away: ‘This is great, this is a great band!’.
ELISABETTA P. — So you got that feeling straight away, right?
MIKE J. — Yes, absolutely! Johnny Marr’s guitar playing was phenomenal, even at such a young age! I must have been 19 back then. I’d never heard a guitar player like that. So I was really interested in playing with them, although I was with another band from Manchester at the time called Victim, and I didn’t want to leave them because they were good friends of mine. Johnny kept on saying: ‘You must join the band, you must join the band!’ and I kept on saying I didn’t know. Then one night I went to a club in Manchester called The Gallery and a band called The Church was playing, an Australian band – then was when I said: ‘Ok, I’m going to join the band, let’s do it!’ and then the rest is history, I suppose.
ELISABETTA P. — So, still on the same subject, forgetting about the unpleasant recent events between yourself and Morrissey for a moment…
MIKE J. — Well, there weren’t any unpleasant issues to me, that wasn’t The Smiths, all the rest happened afterwards…
ELISABETTA P. — Can you recall any funny episodes or meaningful moments belonging to the period you spent with The Smiths? Do you have any very good memories of those days that make you want to say: ‘That was a great time!’?
MIKE J. — Oh there are too many to mention, really – all the time was a great time! Even when it wasn’t so great it felt good. Even the bad times felt good, because we were a gang and we were all in this together. I remember playing at a concert in Boston, a place called the Great Woods Theatre. We came off stage and there were thirty – maybe fifty – thousand people. I went for a piss and I could hear people stamping their feet and going: ‘Smiths, Smiths, Smiths!’… 50,000 people shouting this, and I just thought: ‘I’m in this band, this is the band I am in, they’re shouting for the band I play in!’. That was an incredible experience, but there’s so many different situations that I could bring up now. It was like that every night, because between the band and the audience there was a real affinity, so when we played well and they loved it, they told us and that made us play even better: it was waves and waves of ecstasy… but without drugs [laughs]! The cheapest drug I’ve ever had!
ELISABETTA P. — How did it feel to be in Manchester in the 80’s? Did you feel like being a significant part of music history? Did you feel things were changing?
MIKE J. — No, not really. I just thought that I was in a great band. It was really selfish in a way perhaps, because I thought The Smiths were the best band that I had ever been part of, that was what I enjoyed and I didn’t really pay too much attention to other groups, really. I was much more interested in what I was doing with The Smiths. I knew we were a great group but I didn’t realise at the time that we would have had this longevity… it was 25 years ago, it’s a quarter of a century!
ELISABETTA P. — Was there a particular vibe in Manchester in those days?
MIKE J. — No… well, at least I didn’t feel it. Probably because I was right in the eye of the hurricane, I was kind of producing this. Obviously I wanted people to think it was great, and to buy the records and to come and see us play live but I didn’t think at the time it would have had such a great impact.
ANDREA Q. — What can you tell us about Tony Wilson, was he interested in having The Smiths as part of Factory Records? Is it true that, technically speaking, Factory Records couldn’t ‘afford’ to have The Smiths?
MIKE J. — No, that’s not true, because we didn’t sign to Rough Trade for a lot of money. The thing is, I don’t think Tony Wilson really liked The Smiths. He probably thought we were ok, but he didn’t love The Smiths. Rob Gretton from Factory didn’t like The Smiths either. Him and Tony Wilson actually used to make fun of Morrissey, they used to think he was ‘the funny guy’. But I think we were nothing like Factory Records, we didn’t belong there, we belonged on Rough Trade, that was a much better label for us and I think that was a good move.
ELISABETTA P. — Your career spans over 30 years and is extremely varied: you played with lots of different artists. Are there moments or things you’re particularly proud of, and others you maybe wouldn’t do again?
MIKE J. — No. Every group that I played with I did for a reason and the reason being that I love that group: Sinead O’Connor, Buzzcocks, Public Image Limited, Julien Cope – I loved these bands and I loved these people. So no, not a regret. I wouldn’t play with a group if I think I would have any regret, that wouldn’t come into the equation. I only want to work with the people that I love and that’s what I’ve always done.
ELISABETTA P. — The Smiths were considered as a rather politically outspoken band, as well as very intellectual, how did you feel to go from that to, for instance, the Buzzcocks, who were rather aligned with punk aesthetics and had a different attitude towards music? Which context did you feel more at ease to perform in?
MIKE J. — Well, I don’t think they had a very different political ideal. I think it was exactly the same. In fact, it was a carbon copy, great songwriting, talking about real issues and real life and that’s what Morrissey writes about, that’s what Pete Shelley writes about, and that is what attracted me to Buzzcocks in the first place, that’s what attracted me to The Smiths, that’s what attracted me to Johnny Rotten. All those talented artists – they all speak the same language and they all have the same aggressive personalities in terms of the lyrical content. Even if it’s a slow song: in fact, it doesn’t have to be a ‘punky’ fast song, even a slow song can be quite full. Like Meat is Murder. I became a vegetarian in 1985, after we recorded this song, and I’ve been a vegetarian ever since. So, the power of the words is very important to me and it has to be with every band I work with, every artist.
ELISABETTA P. — It’s impressive how deeply this issue touched you…
MIKE J. — Well, there’s no argument. Like you probably wouldn’t eat your pets, I wouldn’t eat any animal, there’s no difference to me. All animals are beautiful: a horse is beautiful, a cow is beautiful, a sheep is beautiful, and a cat and a dog and so on. They’re all beautiful animals, so I don’t eat them.
ELISABETTA P. — A very important part of your career has been marked by your experience as a host in radio shows, first with East Village Radio and then with Beatwolf Radio. How does this activity compare to your live performing as a drummer?
MIKE J. — Well, it’s kind of the same thing. I’m playing records that I think people might like, it’s as simple as that. But I’m 49, and I think that when people get outside of 17, 18, 19, when they get 25, 30, 40, sometimes they find it a bit difficult to go into a record shop, because there are thousands of records there… what do you choose, what do you buy? Who do you like? Who’s cool, who’s not cool? What’s the best record of the moment? And it’s very hard to find that out and to know what that is, and I feel as I’m providing a service by finding out what the new music is.
ELISABETTA P. — You’re acting as a filter…
MIKE J. — Absolutely! And also for records that haven’t been played before on radio, records that people don’t know about or may have forgotten, or records they haven’t heard for a long time. So, I enjoy that aspect, because when I play the records, each of them is significant for me in some way, whether it’s a new group, an old group, a group I like, a group that I didn’t like but I like now or a group that I think people should like; every record has a reason for being played, it’s not just because it’s a record.
ELISABETTA P. — You’re known for shows such as ‘Alternative Therapy’ and ‘The Record Store Chart’, where you pick and select records from independent music stores. I believe that played a significant role for some shops and labels, such as Rough Trade, to get noticed. Do you give independent labels and independent music particular relevance? Do you want to make people aware of it?
MIKE J. — Well I think it’s more about independent record shops, the independent record labels are doing very well because they have a bit more of a major record label attitude in terms of promotion. But independent record labels used to struggle a lot back then, because they didn’t really fit into the mainstream, and ‘money talks and bullshit walks’, it’s the same [laughs]. But now things have changed. Independent record shops are something completely different though: people are now downloading music for free, which is taking money out from the artists and the record shops, but they sell other things as well: they sell T-shirts, books – they’re interesting places. If you like music, then you must like independent record shops. I remember I used to go there when I was younger and I used to be quite scared of them, and Johnny kind of helped my hand…
ELISABETTA P. — Why were you scared?
MIKE J. — Because I didn’t know what to choose. I’d pick up a record and ask myself: ‘Is this a good record? I don’t know’. Johnny Marr really introduced me to a lot of music that I wouldn’t have normally gone down the route to notice. Artists such as David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, just great music and great artists. So, I think independent record shops are really important. Independent music labels are doing very well I think, there are some amazing ones now: Bella Union, Rough Trade, Transgressive, Domino. Domino Records, for instance – everything they pull out is just great! So, they could be considered at the level of a major label now, in terms of distribution and promotion, via Facebook, Twitter and social media, they really get their message heard, and I don’t think it’s so much like Rough Trade 25 years ago, or Mute Records – they were so small at the time and really struggled. I think people want to work with a label that has the same understanding as the artist rather than just a major label. I’ve always thought that a major label would just buy an artist as they’d buy washing powder, and promote and advertise that washing powder, rather than understanding the beauty of their art and I believe independent labels tend to do that instead.
ELISABETTA P. — I completely agree, they believe in your cause and in your art rather than just using and then dumping you when you’re no longer of any use…
MIKE J. — Absolutely. If people don’t buy it off the shelf then you can go!
ELISABETTA P. — Do you have any recent or future projects you’d like to tell us about?
MIKE J. — I do. I don’t know how much of a secret this is meant to be but… there are a couple of bands which have been in touch with me, asking me to play drums. I haven’t been playing drums for about a year, I’ve been mainly focusing on the radio, and that takes a lot of time: the Chart is every week, so it needs to be prepared, and there are about 20 new releases every week, so it’s a lot to listen to! Also, it takes me a couple of days to prepare the show, so it’s a lot of time and effort going into it, so playing in a band couldn’t really happen. Said this, there’s a band in Manchester that has contacted me and asked me to play with them, and I think I will. But there’s another artist as well, a London artist, that has been in touch with me asking me to play a gig with them next year.
ELISABETTA P. — Just one gig, or is it meant to be an ongoing job?
MIKE J. — Well, I guess we’ll see how that one gig goes. And if it goes well and they get on well with me and I get on well with them, then I think there may be a toll, they’re quite a big-name band.
ELISABETTA P. — That’s great news! So, we’ll certainly stay tuned and see what happens…
ANDREA Q. — Do you still live in Manchester?
MIKE J. — Yes, I do.
ANDREA Q. — Last week I was speaking with Kevin Cummings about the importance of football in Manchester… is it true then? Is football really that important?
MIKE J. — Yes, it is! I am a Manchester City supporter myself, and so is Kevin Cummings, I’ve seen him at the matches every now and then.
ANDREA Q. — This is quite unexpected: cities like Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool, which have always been really important on the music scene, are also really passionate about football…
MIKE J. — Yes that’s true… I believe the two things go together really well: music, football and fashion.
ANDREA Q.— What do you think about Italian football?
MIKE J. — I think Italian football is amazing. I think it has a great passion, but I hear that not long ago there was a court case about corruption in Italian football and hearing that makes me really sad. Because I think corruption in business is everywhere, but corruption in sports is shocking.
I stand on the terraces as a fan, my heart is with them and if someone says to me: ‘Here’s a thousand Euro, say something bad about the team’, I’d say no. ‘Here’s 5000, say something bad’ and I’ll still say no, and so on. But if it gets to the point when you can be paid the money by somebody to change their opinion on the game, then corruption spoils everything for everybody: the players, the fans, the officials. It’s over. And that’s a shame. But in British football, is there corruption? I don’t know… maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. I hope not. But I think Italians and British people have the same passion and intensity.