Matt Johnson is more than willing to reminisce about his 23-year career as frontman of the U.K. rock group the The; he’s gladly pushing Epic/Lazarus/Legacy’s definitive best-of, “45 RPM: The Singles of the The” (released May 21), and he’s thoroughly behind Legacy’s first batch of the The album reissues on July 2.

But truth be told, he’s happiest about three new tracks included on “45 RPM.”

“This project chronicles a 20-year period, although the group was started three years before,” Johnson said recently. “Putting it together brought back a lot of memories. It covers every era, but to me the strongest tracks are the newest ones. I’m pleased about that, that my career is still developing and is very contemporary. I didn’t want to get locked too deeply into one era of my career. The ’80s were just one period.”

Two of the new tracks, “Deep Down Truth” and “Pillar Box Red,” were co-produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. The third cut, “DecemberSunlight,” is a reworked track off his 2000 album, “NakedSelf,” featuring vocalist Liz Horsman.

“Pillar Box Red,” which Johnson says is a direct descendant of 1986’s “Heartland” (which also appears on “45 RPM”), will be issued June 3 as a single in Britain.

“I’ve lived in many different places, like London, New York and now in Sweden,” Johnson said, “so that song touches on my own roots. It’s all about the British mentality, from someone who’s lived outside the country for about 10 years now.”

A limited edition of “45 RPM” contains a second disc, featuring eight rare 12-inch vinyl mixes that have never appeared in the United States.

The The has never had a pop hit in America, but its albums have sold moderately well and two songs, “Jealous of Youth” (1990) and “Dogs of Lust” (1993), made the Top 10 on Billboard’s modern rock tracks chart. The lack of big U.S. commercial success has never stifled Johnson’s penchant for intelligent, topical songs. In fact, one “45 RPM” highlight, “Sweet Bird of Truth,” hits close to home even in 2002. The story line follows a U.S. fighter pilot lost in Arab territory. The song came out in May 1986, just as U.S. tensions with Libya were heating up.

“I’m not sure where I dreamt that story up, really,” Johnson said. “I was just interested in, at that point, in this sense of a burgeoning conflict between the West and Islamic cultures. It seemed to be brewing up, but I suppose it was one of those weird coincidences.”

Elsewhere on “45 RPM,” “Armageddon Days (Are Here Again)” and “The Beat(en) Generation” come from the The’s 1989 album, “Mind Bomb,” inspired by Johnson’s reading of the Bible and the Koran.

“What strikes me more than anything are the similarities than the differences,” he said, “and that’s what’s so tragic about it. Institutionalized religion seems to find differences and conflict where maybe there shouldn’t be. People are striving and looking for the same thing.

“My view around the time of the ‘Mind Bomb’ album was, ‘I believe in God; I just don’t believe in religion.’ ”

Over the The’s 23 years, Johnson sees the “Infected” album as his most ambitious and challenging work. Using 62 musicians and three producers, the politically themed LP was released with a full-length video and an accompanying book. The film, shot in four countries, employed four directors.

“I have to say the project got off the ground because of the tenacity of one of my former managers, a chap named Stevo,” Johnson said. “He was really responsible for getting CBS to cough up the money. Just choosing and working with four different directors, it gave it a real wide range. If it had been done with one director, it wouldn’t have had as much visual impact.

“The subject matter on the album, and the fact that nobody had done anything like that before or since, made it special. We went all over the world. When it came out, I toured with it. We would rent old cinemas to show it. It was shown on television all over the world, which is very unusual. You wouldn’t get that now.”

Johnson estimates the “Infected” film cost $1 million, a sizable investment considering the The wasn’t in the big leagues of hitmakers.

“But, you know, they said the ‘Soul Mining’ album (1983) wouldn’t sell more than 30,000 if I didn’t tour,” he said. “It sold half a million, but there were no videos, no tours, no hit singles. It was all word of mouth, so at that point, I was in a very good position with Sony. I could pretty much ask for what I wanted.

“I have done films since then, but none had the same impact, even though I think the film ‘From Dusk Til Dawn’ was probably a better film. In some ways, I’d like to do it again. It might be cheaper today, what with all the advances in digital video technology.”

Johnson has a busy year ahead. In addition to the straight reissues of “Soul Mining,” “Infected,” “Mind Bomb” and “Dusk” on July 2, he has plans for a box set of DVDs and he’s preparing a box set of pre-Epic albums, slated for next year. He’s also working on a new studio album and an album of film music (both to be released through Johnson’s Lazarus label, with a distributor to be determined).

As for tours, Johnson is planning a European trek for the fall. Till then, fans can whet their appetites with a one-off summer performance June 25 at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of David Bowie’s Meltdown 2002.

THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “The first single I ever bought was by B. Bumble & The Stingers, called ‘Nut Rocker.’ My first album was by Marc Bolan and T. Rex – ‘Ride the White Swan.’ It was a wonderful album.”

THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “Believe it or not, Black Sabbath. Not out of choice. My dad was given some tickets; he had two pairs of tickets, two for Pink Floyd and two for Black Sabbath. My older brother grabbed the Pink Floyd tickets and I got Black Sabbath, who I had never even heard of before. It was a nightmare. I loathed it. My ears hurt, my chest hurt, it was so loud. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience.”

THE WORST JOB I’VE EVER HAD: “I’ve only had two jobs, but the worst one was definitely working in an insurance office. I used to have to carry documents to the Document Exchange in a little red suitcase. I got a chance to be on my own on the train, but I couldn’t bear the people at the office. There was a particular man who had it in for me; I had to go around to all the offices collecting the letters and putting them in envelopes. I would check his office during the day and he never had any letters, until I was about to go, after I had done all the work, he’d bring me a gigantic pile he had saved up. He was a vindicative man. When I left there, I made sure I vandalized his car. I spied and watched him come out and look at it. I twisted all the mirrors, the aerial, ripped up the hubcaps, stuffed a sack of potatoes up the exhaust pipe. Sweet revenge.”


BWF (before we forget): The the The album discography – “Burning Blue Soul” (4AD, 1981); “Uncertain Smile” (Maxi, 1982); “Soul Mining” (Epic, 1983); “Infected” (1986); “Mind Bomb” (1989); “Dusk” (1993); “Hanky Panky” (550 Music/Epic, 1995); “NakedSelf” (Nothing/Interscope, 2000); “45 RPM: The Singles of the The” (Epic/Lazarus/Legacy, 2002).