Update: In commemoration with the 40th anniversary of Ian Curtis’ passing, we revisit our 2010 interview with New Order frontman Bernard Sumner, who discusses the legacy of Joy Division and an alternative fate for his late colleague.
There’s a scene in Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 faux documentary, 24 Hour Party People, where Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder holds the master tapes hostage from Factory Records and, more specifically, Tony Wilson. While wailing a gun around, he demands money on the spot, to which Wilson willingly hands him over whatever cash he has in his pocket. Oddly satisfied, Ryder hands the tapes over, walks out nonchalantly, and life goes on. The joke turns out that the tapes, which would lead to the financial disaster that was the Happy Mondays’ fourth studio record, Yes Please!, features only instrumentals and no lyrics whatsoever, all of which were taken from a highly expensive recording session in Barbados. It ends up sinking Factory Records. It ends up destroying a lot of people’s careers. But, folks around that time were familiar with such madness.
This sort of chaos blanketed the Manchester scene, so much that it was dubbed “Madchester” at one time. There’s a fabulous quote in the film, where Wilson contends, “It was like being on a fantastic fairground ride, centrifugal forces throwing us wider and wider. But it’s all right, because there’s this brilliant machine at the center that’s going to bring us back down to earth. That was Manchester. That is the Hacienda. Now imagine the machine breaks. For a while, it’s even better, because you’re really flying. But then, you fall, because nobody beats gravity.”
Many could argue that Bernard Sumner has.
Chaos, tragedy, and madness riddles his career, but he still champions on. When frontman Ian Curtis took his own life in May of 1980, Sumner and his fellow Joy Division band mates marched ahead, instead creating New Order, where they found even more success. Though drama and conflict plagued the Manchester group — including a five year hiatus in the ’90s — they issued eight albums to critical and commercial acclaim, fielded over 30 singles, and toured the world again and again. Phenomena properly describes Sumner’s career, which continues to this day with his new outfit, Bad Lieutenant, whose debut album, Never Cry Another Tear, surfaced late 2009. Promotion started late in the States, however, as the band experienced a scuffle with the INS last fall, when some international paperwork wasn’t filed, forcing the cancellation of its highly anticipated tour. But with a string of club dates and an appearance at this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the hype machine heats up. For the 54-year-old musician, he finds himself embracing the chaos once again.
“I’m absolutely fucking exhausted,” Sumner exclaims, following it with a sigh as he discusses his pre-tour hometown gigs in Manchester, as well as in London, where he had “a few late nights.” He may sound tired, but he laces his elegant British accent with this sly enthusiasm that’s hard to ignore. “The gigs were great. I met a few ol’ friends, kept me up all night.”
Such good spirits may lend itself to his current band.
“The chemistry is great,” he adds. “We have our moments like any band. But no one holds a grudge. We’ll have an argument and the next day it’s all over. The chemistry is really good in this band. We had a great time making the album. It was always positive, and everyone was pushing in the same direction and encouraging everyone to do good work.” But he’s been doing this for too long to know it’s not always sunshine and rainbows, as he counterpoints: “But any new band is bound to be like that. If you come back to us in 10 years time, we’ll probably be at each others’ throats. [laughs] It’s just the way bands work, isn’t it? At the start it’s always hunky dory and everything is good, you know?”
The group spawned (somewhat) out of the ashes of New Order. When bassist Peter Hook left in ’07, Sumner and guitarist Phil Cunningham decided to start anew, working with longtime drummer Stephen Morris and Blur bassist Alex James on a few tracks.
“We were working at [Alex James’] studio, which is about 180 miles south of where I live in Manchester,” Sumner explains. “We knew each other, but we didn’t know each other musically. When you work with a new band, I’d say the first four or five months, you spend some time learning each others’ tastes. Their music tastes, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, whether they like playing uptempo or whether they like playing down tempo.”
What resulted is an album that’s very modern and very guitar-driven. Though if you listen closely, you’ll hear the ghosts of Sumner’s past lurking about. Lead single “Sink or Swim” sounds vaguely familiar to material off of New Order’s 2005 comeback record, Waiting for the Siren’s Call, while “Twist of Fate” digs deeper to even Joy Division territory. But that’s bound to happen, especially so late in one’s career, and for the most part, Sumner embraces it. He finds solace in his past accomplishments. “I love those songs,” he admits. “I don’t want to just drop them and forgot about them. They’re part of my musical history.”
“If you write just one album, it’s very difficult to tour just playing that one album,” he says. “We want to showcase Bad Lieutenant, but we know fans want to see stuff from the past, as well. We play some Joy Division, some New Order, and some from my solo career. The problem is that we’ve got so many songs, you can’t fit them all. We played for an hour and a half and we had to drop ‘Blue Monday’, we just couldn’t fit it in. It’s more difficult, like if you’re playing a festival, you’ve got to trim it down. It’s a great position to be in, really. We could play for four hours.”
Sumner may have an affinity for his back catalogue, but he insists that he’s “not the type of person” to look back, which comes off as quite a surprise given his explosive history in Manchester, including the vibrant drug scene and the ensuing yet oddly-enviable nightmare of a scene around him.
“I’m not a reflective person,” he says. “I think that I’m happier now as a person. I like my present. It’s good. Everything’s good about it. In those days, not everything was good. And you’ve gotta think about the past, you can’t touch it, can you? It almost seems like a dream. It almost seems not real. No, I don’t look back, I always look forward.”
If anything, he’s more apt to think about his time before the band even started: his childhood in Manchester. Much like any town or city, things change and evolve, and the North Western English metropolis is no different. This seems to bother Sumner though, who digresses on the subject: “The area where I lived before I was in a band has been completely decimated. It’s like a wasteland now. So even the school I went to, the primary school — I went to that from being five-years-old to 11-years-old — has been completely destroyed. It’s not there. The house I lived in. Destroyed. The whole area has been obliterated and by the city council. Now, that’s left a big hole in my memories really. The fact that you can’t go back there and the fact that it’s no longer there. It always draws me to that period because it’s not anything that I can go up to and touch. So that period is interesting.”
Sumner exhibits an intriguing personality trait. He’s reflective yet highly engaging. He doesn’t dwell so much as he works things out in his head. When asked about the late Ian Curtis, he quickly states that he doesn’t think of him much, only because “he’s always there.” He further adds that he “can imagine him now, exactly what he’d look like.” A dazed tone washes over when he touches upon the subject.
“It would have been interesting if Ian had not committed suicide and we would have gone on to make more music together and seen what direction we would have gone,” he says, sighing some. “I’ve no idea where it’d have gone. Because Ian liked rock, but he also liked synth music. He liked Kraftwerk. However, I just don’t think we would have carried on. Strangely, I think through Ian’s death, it gave us more of a future. Because by the end of Joy Division, in the last six months, his health had deteriorated with his bout with epilepsy. I don’t think he could have taken it on the road. It’s very tiring on the road. The months I’ve spent on the road, even last week, it’s very tiring. I don’t think his health could have taken it. I think, personally, what would have happened was Ian would have left the band and become a writer, doing something like that, something he could have done at home.
“I only wish he hadn’t had such unfortunate luck with his health,” Sumner continues. “I think if he’d been healthier, he wouldn’t have been on such strong drugs. I think the barbiturates that he was on — because that was what they gave you in those days — were extremely potent drugs and his judgment clouded his emotions, as well. He was less able to deal with the relationship problems that he was having. If he didn’t have the epilepsy, he wouldn’t be on the drugs, and he would have been able to deal with the situation… without self destruction.”
Self-destruction played into much of the Manchester scene, taking its share of casualties: the work ravaged Tony Wilson, enigmatic-yet-irritable producer Martin Hannett, the aforementioned drug rattled Shaun Ryder, etc, etc. The rogue’s gallery could go on forever. Yet within such a tumultuous time, true art surfaced. Some could argue (and many have already) that this scene — this era — ranks as one of the best in modern music history. It wasn’t about the attitude, nor the image… it was about the ethics of it all.
“We didn’t want to become famous and sell millions of records,” Sumner says. “We did it… honestly… because we loved music. I think that if you love music, and you’ve got a record collection, you love listening to music, you can reverse that process. You love the output, you love writing music.
“In a strange way, the music sort of wrote itself rather than us write it. We just waited for the music to fall in front of us. In the early days of New Order and Joy Division, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We’d just sit there until we were bored and then we’d pick up our instruments and hope that something would happen. We didn’t have a method for doing it. In fact, the more we thought about what sort of song we should write and the more we thought about what techniques we could use it became harder for us to write. I remember when we first worked with Arthur Baker in New York and he was busy with another group, so he put us in a recording studio to write some ideas. He put us in for five days… we didn’t come up with a single idea, because he wanted us to write to order. And we couldn’t write to order because we didn’t know how we did it. We just waited for the music to fall into our hands. Again that’s much more comforting.
“Tony [Wilson] was very, very encouraging. He never asked us once, “Am I going to get a hit single?” He didn’t put any pressure on us like that. He was more like a patron of the arts, who came in and encouraged us to do our stuff and enjoy doing our stuff. He had courageousness which gave us confidence, really. Which is what we needed, we didn’t want anyone breathing down our neck, and we think we knew what we were doing.”
While it may have been a creative nurturing environment, problems surfaced over time, especially for Tony Wilson. Factory Records skated on the edge of bankruptcy for years, floundering money to a variety of projects and events (e.g. The Hacienda), and most of that financial support came from the chart-topping successes of New Order. Between the drugs, the never-ending parties, and the late nights that segued into sobering mornings that returned back to the same late nights once again, those held accountable offered little to no order.
“Tony [Wilson] was a great person, as well as our manager Rob [Gretton],” Sumner starts. “But there’s a thing about great people… they’re not very good organizers. The thing is… Tony’s thing… is that he was acting like a musician but really he was the boss of a record company.” Even after all this time, Sumner hardly seems fazed by it all, even despite all the money lost, partly because he believes he was at fault, too. “We stopped going to meetings about the Hacienda, because we’d start falling asleep during them. It wasn’t our bag. It wasn’t until you got in a big mess that you took any notice. When you get in a mess, then you start taking notes. We never knew how much money we made, but we didn’t care. We had a “didn’t care” attitude towards money, really. So long as we were doing what we wanted to do in life — and what we wanted to do was be in a band, travel around the world, make music, get drunk…”
These days, Sumner continues to do what he wants. He values his time and he tries to live a fruitful life. His club days may be over, but he finds excitement in other facets of life. When he’s not recording or touring, he switches his mind off of music, to more sacred things like family and friends. He owns a sailboat, where he dwells off-tour, and later this year he plans to sail across the Atlantic. This is his “way of keeping [life] fresh and interesting.” He prides himself in being able to switch gears, adding that it’s been his course of survival after all this time.
Time. A subject that concerns the songwriter these days. As is the case with most people these days, he’s shocked that we’re in a new decade already, though he explains: “I think there’s this strange effect that physicists haven’t discovered yet… that as you get older, time seems to accelerate. When you’re a kid, time seemed to go really slow, it’s weird, and it’s not something I particularly like. The truth is as we all get older, we all get busier and busier and that’s why time flies because you’ve got your head down doing something all the time. Yeah, I don’t really like it.”
When he finishes discussing the fast times and the chaos of his youth in Manchester, Sumner pauses for a moment, allowing over 30 years of work to hit him all at once. There’s some background noise, a sigh, and a short laugh. He finally adds: “It was crazy, it was chaotic, but it was shit loads of fun.”
He laughs again, most likely because he can.