Boz Boorer (left) and Tim Polecat (Tim Worman) performing with British rockabilly group the Polecats, at the Summer in the City festival at Crystal Palace Bowl, London, in June 1981. Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images
Tell us about your major influences as a guitarist.
It’s weird songs more than players, really. I’ve loved the Cramps since I saw them a few times in 1978 in London, and there’s some rhythms from Cramps records that I use a lot in my writing. I’ll write something and think to myself, “Now where did that come from?” and it’ll dawn on me that it’s from “Thee Most Exalted Potentate of Love” by the Cramps. That’s one rhythm that I use quite a lot!
I love noisy guitars. Of course, I love the rockabilly thing with Scotty Moore, and Carl Perkins, and Les Paul, and fingerpickers—that stuff is obviously huge for me. Then there was the punk movement, with the Sex Pistols and Steve Jones. I swallowed Never Mind the Bollocks... when it came out in the ’70s and it was huge for me. Another big influence on my playing is John McKay from Siouxsie and the Banshees. That first Siouxsie record was quite incredible sounding, and it started me in thinking that music didn’t have to be any certain way—that there could be many different influences in music and it didn’t have to be a single, strict avenue. That first Banshees album has a lot of jarring guitar that rubs against what you’d think was going to or maybe should happen over a part, and that changed my thinking quite a bit.
I also studied harmony for four years and studied history of music for a long time as well, and there were weird pieces of music that I had to study for my exams in which I had to do things like take the “Trout” quintet by Schubert apart and rebuild it, and then write three parts of harmony beneath the top bar. I also played in an orchestra for three or four years, so I’ve done a lot of classical playing and understand music from that essential, fundamental perspective, too.
You’ve said that Marc Bolan was a major influence on your playing. What of his influence has stuck with you the most?
Well, it’s the little things. Usually he was quite simple, and he’d often end his phrases by slipping down to a sixth note, which I notice myself doing a lot. It’s never the plan, but I notice not a lot of people—if they’re in, say, E—slip down to a C#. Sliding down to a sixth isn’t a typical thing to do. That’s one major Bolan-ism that’s stuck with me.
I’ve read that when you and Morrissey work together, you typically bring in full-fledged compositions. Is there not much give and take?
Oh, no. Sometimes he completely rewrites stuff, changes the key, or asks for things to be added. He gets very specific about things, so there’s certainly a push-and-pull sometimes. Other times, they’re exactly as they are on the demo. It’s from all ends, and I have to say that it’s worked out pretty well for 25 years now!
With all the projects you’re involved with, how do you decide which ideas are best suited to be Morrissey tracks?
Well, I don’t—which means I have to write loads of songs and just keep writing! I have a big backlog of stuff that just sits there for a while, but they don’t really belong to any particular style of music, so the tracks always sound fresh. Of course, I would prefer to write for a particular artist rather than just pass songs around, which is something I did do many years ago because I had so many songs lying around. But I’ve found over the last 20 years that working with a particular artist and lyricist helps because of how that relationship works—where you can bring stuff out from them and they can bring stuff out from you.
I’ve always been intrigued by the symbiotic role of a guitarist as a sideman and foil to a frontman, and you’ve certainly developed that with Morrissey. Do you have any advice for those working as a guitar foil for a singer and building that relationship?
I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but it’s a way of listening and doing things in a sympathetic manner. Trying to hone in on and write things that are sympathetic to other people’s melodies and lyrics… It’s more a case of listening and finding ways to fit in, or finding something else in your head that has the same feeling as that which the singer is working around, and voicing that into the new thing you’re working on together.
Between owning a record shop, operating your studio, being Morrissey’s music director, your solo work, and various production and writing projects, how do you stay inspired?
I listen to all different kinds of music. I think that has a lot to do with it. I listen to classical music all night while I’m sleeping, so I’ve got those ideas flowing all night. I just found a wonderful punk band from Wales called Estrons that’s got a female singer that I’m really enjoying. I still listen to tons of old punk, old glam, and old rockabilly. I just try to listen to a lot of different types of music and stay in it, and listen to the things that I love to listen to. It doesn’t feel like work.
Also, working with Morrissey over the course of a 25-year career together, we’ve really not recorded the same song twice. It can be anything from a light and airy folk song to a dark and dingy progressive rock track, with anything in-between and any instrumentation, which is certainly very satisfying and freeing.
What was it like working with one of the best there ever was, Mick Ronson, on Your Arsenal? Did you learn anything from that experience?
Well, we talked earlier a bit about being sympathetic in your approach, and I think Mick’s whole self was sympathetic, in his approach to recording, writing parts, the sounds he’d come up with. The first time we played a track with Mick there, Alain [Whyte, former Morrissey guitarist and current cowriter] started playing through a Marshall stack exceedingly loud, and ol’ Mick just walked in the room and stood right in front of this huge amplifier while it was blasting and started playing with the EQ, finely tuning the thing. He was very hands-on. He also did all of those really great, really simple string parts on songs like “Perfect Day,” where it was maybe two violins in harmony. Very, very simple, but so effective and not really featured—occasionally they’d do a big swoop or something—but he knew how to write very effective things in a simple way. He had great little tricks, too, like when we did “Certain People I Know” he really wanted for the bass to sound Motown. So, they played it through my little Fender Champ, but he put a bit of sponge beneath the strings to stop it dead—which is something I still do! We did some great ambient recorder playing together on “We’ll Let You Know,” where we didn’t really listen to the track, and that was fun.
It was just a great experience. I had a lovely drive with him when he played at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert. He and I drove from the studio to Wembley and then back again, so to spend some time with him and just speak to him one-to-one was really nice. He was super into the Shadows and Duane Eddy; he loved twangy guitars. It was a joy just to be around him. The little things stick out more than recording stuff, like, in the morning we’d get up and both go through the racing forum and pick out our winners for the day and go down to the OTB and place our bets together.
Enjoy a quick guitar lesson with Boz Boorer as he explains how to play Morrissey’s “Irish Blood, English Heart” from 2004’s You Are the Quarry. On display: the song’s three core guitar components, Boorer’s mastery of delay, and a classy Gretsch White Falcon.