Interview: New Order

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 11.05.12 in Interviews

Power, Corruption & Lies [Collector's Edition]

New Order

Few bands have ever proven both their survival and evolutionary skills like Manchester’s New Order. The ultimate post-punk dance band transitioned from their earlier incarnation as Joy Division when frontman Ian Curtis hanged himself on the eve of what would’ve been their first American tour in 1980. Guitarist Bernard Sumner took over on vocals, the remaining trio added keyboardist Gillian Gilbert and, three years later, released what would become the largest selling 12-inch single of all time, “Blue Monday.”

Becoming the flagship band of influential indie label Factory Records, New Order bridged the gap between alternative rock and club music with simultaneously ruminative and euphoric hits like “True Faith” and “Regret,” as well as through side projects like Sumner’s Electronic and Bad Lieutenant, Gilbert and drummer Stephen Morris’s The Other Two, and bassist Peter Hook’s Revenge and Monaco. Then in 2007, Hook announced that the band had split. The truth was, he simply left them. Last year, the band resumed touring without Hook but with Gilbert, who had left to raise her daughters.

Barry Walters caught up with Gilbert and Sumner in San Francisco on the initial day of October’s brief North American tour, the group’s first with Gilbert since 1993, to discuss these comings, goings, and in-betweens.

Gillian, had you missed being in the band?

Gillian Gilbert: I did, because it had been my whole [adult] life — like, 20 years. I was still in the band when I had two children [with husband Morris]. It was very strange trying to do everything, ’cause we rehearsed in our house as well. We were doing [2001's] Get Ready when I had my second child, the first was three, and then it was straight into the studio again. When we were writing, it was good because I could just dip in and out, but the crunch came when they started school, and I’d been thinking that I’d rather be home than in another studio.

You were in the unusual situation of hearing from your husband what you were missing in the band you used to be in.

Gilbert: That was very hard at the beginning, especially seeing Stephen go off to Japan. My daughter was ill and we were due to tour, and obviously I couldn’t do it. Phil Cunningham was our new guitarist; we decided to have a second guitarist to help, especially with Get Ready, because it was more guitar based. He was going to join the band anyway, as well as me playing keyboards, so I learnt him all my parts, and they just carried on.

What was it like rejoining last year?

Gilbert: It was completely out of the blue, which was good, and I thought I’d give it a try. We just thought we’d do two gigs as a benefit for Michael Shamberg, who’s our video producer and has an illness. We did everything low-key because we didn’t know if we’d carry on; we just thought we’d see how this goes first. We have a new bass player [Tom Chapman from Bad Lieutenant], and [Madonna/Killers producer] Stewart Price has remixed some of the tracks, so we’re all relearning the songs. We got new visuals. We wanted to do something different and not be the same as we were in the ’80s and the ’90s.

Has your relationship with your family changed since you’re back on the road?

Yeah, they’re all up for me. This year my dad died, so I’m glad he saw us get back together again, because he wanted that. Everybody’s helped out with the kids, and even they’re happy for me. They weren’t interested in New Order, ’cause it’s their mum and dad, and it’s something that happened a long time ago. But now, with all this coming back, my younger one is mad on the Control film [rock photographer Anton Corbijn's bleak but poetic 2007 Joy Division biopic], which is really weird because she puts it on in the car in the morning. Before that it was Katy Perry.

So you got together for the Michael Shamberg benefits, and then you kept it going because it felt right?

Bernard Sumner: It was for Michael, but it came at a turning point. [Years ago], I had to get away from New Order because it had become difficult again, and I had to get some distance from it so I could see things more clearly. That’s one of the reasons why I did an album with Bad Lieutenant. So when that had run its course, there was a question mark. Do we make another Bad Lieutenant album, or do we pick up where we left off with New Order?

Did you anticipate Peter Hook’s false claim that the band was finished, or were you surprised?

Sumner: It had become increasingly difficult over the last few tours that we’d done, the last year [with him], really. He’d become more — not obstinate — but difficult to work with.

Gilbert: And he was doing his DJ stuff on tour…

Sumner: And he was more interested in celebrity DJing —

Gilbert: — than finishing the album, The Lost Sirens.

Sumner: We wrote so much material for the last New Order album, [2005's] Waiting for the Sirens’ Call, that we had to start another album. We had seven songs and the idea was to get together after [playing] South America, write and record another three tracks, and bingo, we’ve got another album and no one has to wait for ages to see us again. But he refused to come to the studio because he had DJ bookings. That’s what I was told, anyway. So the next thing we know was that he releases a statement on the radio just before the Cannes Film Festival, where Control was showing. French journalists were asking us, “We just heard New Order had just split up; can you tell us about it?” “Well, you’ll have to ask Peter Hook, who’s staying at the hotel down the road, because he’s told us nothing about it.” We knew he was unhappy, so it didn’t come as a complete surprise, but the way he did it was pretty arrogant.

Where those Lost Sirens songs at the demo point, or were they finished?

Sumner: They needed mixes done. Some sounded OK and some sounded not so OK. But it became so difficult to get everyone, I’m being really nice about it, to get everyone to agree on mixes, that we’ll put them out [in November] pretty much as the demos were. To me it’s a non-completed album, which we’ve never released before. I find that a bit frustrating, ’cause seven tracks don’t make an album. But we needed to clear the blockage in the pipe work before we could move on. And hopefully we will be doing some new material. I want to as soon as possible because you get that creative itch. Playing live has been good fun, but it’s purely a reproductive thing.

Had working together as New Order become more difficult having learned how to work on your own in your various side projects?

Sumner: Not to me, because those had gotten other things out of your system that you probably couldn’t do in New Order. Everything had to be a total democracy in New Order, and we took votes. In Electronic, it was [also] a democracy, but no one was being bloody minded about it. If someone said, “I don’t like that guitar part,” they wouldn’t become offended for the next three weeks about it, whereas that was the situation with New Order. Johnny [Marr, formerly of the Smiths] was a very open-minded and easygoing person.

Gilbert: It became a very personal thing, because we’d been together for so long that you took it as a slight. Well, some people would. It’s like when you do mixes. If somebody did a remix of New Order and left a particular person’s instrument out, you’d get offended.

Sumner: I wouldn’t.

Gilbert: No, I wouldn’t, but some people would [both laugh] because they think that’s the only part of the record that’s making the song.

Sumner: To me the song is the god, not you.

Gilbert: And it’s just a different interpretation of it.

Sumner: I think by the time I’d been working with Electronic, the situation in New Order had become fraught because we had business problems, and problems with the nightclub we owned [the Hacienda], and problems with Factory Records. And it was just like you were sick of shouting, “Get your shit together!” It was like seeing a car crash on the street. At first you look, but then you just wanna get away from it, ’cause you can’t fix it.

Your point about New Order being a democracy is interesting because the music itself is so democratic. No part is more important than the other.

Sumner: In Joy Division, one person wrote the vocals: Ian. One person wrote the bass guitar: him, Hooky. One person did the drums: Stephen, and one person did the guitar and keyboards: me. So the math, as you call it in America, we call it maths in England, the math worked out very well. But in New Order, it didn’t work out so well, the maths. At first, I couldn’t sing and play at the same time. When I wrote parts, I couldn’t play ‘em, so that’s why we got Gillian. And I was doing a role that I didn’t really want to do, be a singer. I wanted to bloody play guitar or play keyboards, but [having me sing] was the only way forward.

The other thing about the maths was that we started making a lot of electronic music. You had to go, “All right, I’ve got an idea. Let’s program it.” Operating a computer terminal is not a democracy. Only one person can operate that keyboard at once, so that meant the rest of the band has to sit around. These were the early days of electronic music, and some of them weren’t even computers, but little sequencers where you put the notes in by manually writing it all down. The synthesizer that we did “Blue Monday” on wasn’t MIDI, and that’s why it sounds so tight; there wasn’t so much processing. It was a sequencer I’d made from an electronics kit; to buy one would cost you the equivalent of a house. Also, when you get into that style of writing, when you’re not just jamming with a guitar, when you’re programming against a beat, you hear the rest of the song in your mind, so you know what the other parts should be.

So the person programming the computer has the arrangement, and then he or she tells the other members their parts?

Sumner: It varies from song to song.

Gilbert: Sometimes when you couldn’t come up with stuff, you left a gap, didn’t you, and I filled the gap. But it’s all different, really, ’cause we jammed some, like “Age of Consent.” We did both because we didn’t want to be completely electronic.

It’s been written that you, Bernard, don’t like traveling to North America, and that this lead to the long gap between 1993′s Republic and 2001′s Get Ready.

It was just that we got into so much bloody trouble over here. There are certain hotels that I can’t stay in now because I’d get dreadful flashbacks to hedonistic nights. [Laughs] We made Motley Crue look like kindergarten children, but we kept quiet about it. The worst for me were the airports in the morning because we flew everywhere. I’d throw up in the airport toilet, and then just flake out on the floor of the airport concourse. I think we saw America as a kind of playground; I was being very childish at the time. But if you’re given the opportunity to stay up all night, go to as many parties as you want, drink as much as you want, and the rest, you know, that goes unsaid, who wouldn’t do it? Isn’t that the reason for joining a band? The music is important, but you’ve done that work back at home and in the studio, and you’ve toured up and down, and you go out to British clubs in foggy winters. And suddenly you’re beside the swimming pool in Los Angeles with girls throwing themselves at you, asking you to go to parties with them. It’s great, and we took full advantage of it until it took a few discreet turns and started taking advantage of us.

How did that play out for you, Gillian?

Sumner: Oh, she was very demure. She went to bed early —

Gilbert: I’d read a book!

Sumner: Knitting patterns. [Laughs.] She was the worst. She was.

Gilbert: Well, it was great. Yeah. But we don’t do that anymore. Stephen’s become the opposite now. He doesn’t drink or anything, really.

Sumner: I had two moments of, what’s the expression, my road to Damascus. I used to drink Pernod and orange juice, which is a lovely drink. If any of you readers are laughing at that, just try it. I started out the tour with an inch of Pernod and four inches of orange juice, and by the end of the tour it was an inch of orange juice and four inches of Pernod, and I ended up in a hospital in Chicago because I burnt the lining in my stomach. In fact, that’s when I stopped touring the States, ’cause I thought I don’t want to end up dead like Jimi Hendrix. So I went back to the UK just as acid house music was starting to happen, and I was out of the frying pan and into the fire. I’d used to go to the Hacienda with the Happy Mondays doing E’s, and ended up going out all night to warehouse parties and acid house parties, and just being as bad if not worse over there.

But then my second road to Damascus, which actually sorted me, was a party at a club, a place called Northside. Everyone was trying to get in, but one guy with a big beard and an orange jacket was trying to get out and someone punched him, ’cause he was causing a lot of trouble. But we all got in and everything had settled down. I remember having a drink and then everyone in the room spread like bulrushes in the wind. I just thought I was having a trip, and then I noticed the guy with the orange jacket coming towards me, only this time he had a balaclava and a big fucking gun. And he came right up and pointed it at me to see if I was the guy who punched him. Then he pulled away and went into the other room to find this guy, to shoot him dead. After that, I just stopped going to clubs and wised up. I don’t get drunk a lot, but I drink a lot. But with drugs, I could definitely just stop, and not have a problem. With chocolate, I do [laughs], but it’s not like heroin, is it?

I recently saw [1979 German WWII film] The Tin Drum, which has a new director’s cut. The central character looks like a smaller version of you in the ’80s. Have you ever seen that?

Sumner: Yeah, but a long time ago. I went to see it with Ian Curtis, actually.

You did an illustration for Joy Division’s first EP, An Ideal for Living, that also looks like that Tin Drum character.

Sumner: I did draw that, but that was before the movie. I remember thinking when the film came out, “That looks like the sleeve.” We used to watch a lot of Werner Herzog films; quite an odd quality about them. I liked Nosferatu the Vampyre. I remember seeing that with Ian, and Taxi Driver.

That may be my all-time favorite movie.

Sumner: That was Ian’s as well.

Before you entered the conversation, I was telling Gillian that you were the first real musician I interviewed.

Sumner: [Deadpan] That’s the first time I’ve ever been called a real musician. [Erupts in laughter] Thank you!

New Order were about to play [legendary Manhattan disco] the Paradise Garage.

Sumner: It was a fantastic club, wasn’t it? A great sound system in there. The DJ [proto-house icon Larry Levan] had a joystick. On the walls was the PA, and he could play his records and pan it ’round the walls with the joystick. We used the DJ’s sound system, and so that show was in surround sound.

My friend and I snuck in that afternoon and you agreed to an impromptu interview, and then wanted to go record shopping with us the next day.

Sumner: I don’t remember any of that.

It was particularly memorable for me when Peter jumped onto the bench you and I were sitting on, pulled his sweatpants down, and waved his dick at me.

Sumner: [More deadpan] My interpretation is that he was saying, “Look at me, I’m a dick” [more laughs from both].