Update: In commemoration with the 40th anniversary of Ian Curtis’ passing, we revisit our 2012 interview with New Order frontman Bernard Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris, who discuss the influence of Manchester on their music.
2012 has been a great year for New Order’s Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris. Following a pair of benefit concerts in 2011, the landmark UK collective — sans original bassist Peter Hook, but once again with Morris’ wife, Gillian Gilbert — set out on a global tour that trekked across Europe, Australia, and Latin America. They appeared at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival. They participated in London’s Olympic festivities. And, somewhere in there, they even released a live album.
In October, New Order also embarked on their first proper North American tour in seven years. One such date was at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom, where they delivered a “stage show that [was] ravenous and creative enough to scream, ‘It ain’t over ’til it’s over.'” While there, Consequence of Sound caught up with the band’s two brain trusts — Sumner and Morris — to discuss their exciting year and how they’ll follow it up in the near future. As you’ll soon discover, the two haven’t lost their chemistry or comedic wit.
Traveling to America over the the last two years hasn’t been easy for you; between problems with your visas to something as catastrophic and unpredictable as a volcano. When you were coming here earlier this year for your appearance at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival, were you at all worried or even superstitious?
Stephen Morris: Well obviously, yeah. There was obviously the volcano again. Anything could happen really, couldn’t it?
Bernard Sumner: Well, almost as bad as the volcano was the immigration at Miami airport. It was like the Gestapo.
Morris: You really gotta get rid of a couple days of your life if you want to get through immigration in Miami. There was like a 747 full of people and they made us walk two miles in one direction — no, literally a mile.
Sumner: And then when we got to the desks there were six workers there. No, there was four. And then just as we got to the desks two of them looked at their watches and said “lunch time” and just walked off. I tell you, out of all the places I’ve traveled in the world…Serbia, Croatia, anywhere…I’ve never come across immigration as rude as them. It’s like ,”What have I done?”
And all for a short trip.
Sumner: Well, what happened was we were supposed to be doing an American tour then — it was on the books. One of the gigs, the Ultra Music Festival, wanted to know if we’d do it, so we had to sign on the dotted line and say we would. We were still thinking about the rest of the tour when we got asked to do the Future Music Festival, which travels around Australia and New Zealand. They said, “Well if you do it, we want you to do it, but it’s this month,” which was when we were gonna come to America.
Morris: So we ended up going to Australia, but we couldn’t not do the Ultra Music Festival.
How did sessions with the band go prior to touring?
Morris: It started a year ago when we were just gonna do two shows in December. And that was it really. It could easily have been just two shows. We didn’t really know how it would go down, but we knew we were going to do two shows, so we sat down and listened to a lot of the stuff and said, “Oh we’ll do that one, we’ll do that one.”
Sumner: We thought we’d update stuff, as well. We thought we’d do some visuals, so there was a process behind that, and we couldn’t tell anyone because it was a secret. We couldn’t farm anything out, so [me] an engineer did the visuals, Steve put a technical rig together, and [producer and DJ] Stuart Price reworked a couple of songs for us, which was “Temptation”, “586”, and I sort of reworked “True Faith”. So, we didn’t just want to play them, we wanted to update the songs and twist them, and add some visuals, which seem to work.
What was the process behind the setlist?
Sumner: We kind of put a hat on the table and everybody threw ideas in.
Morris: It’s a bit difficult, because some songs are like great on paper, but when you try to put them in a set… it just never works. I mean they’re great, if you came out and just did that one song, it’d be alright. But, for some reason, when you bump them in with a bunch of other songs it just doesn’t fit.
Sumner: You’ve got to play “Blue Monday”. [Pause.] They’ll be playing it at my funeral.
What separates this reunion from your return in 1998?
Sumner: Well, this is a continuation of it. Is there something that separates it? Yeah, a bass player.
Morris: It’s a lot more relaxed, everyone’s happy.
Photo by Cap Blackard
You’ve expressed how you want to make another album, though
Sumner: I always put it this way: It’s like pushing a heavy car up a hill — making an album while doing a tour — it’s work. It’s better if you’ve got – how many’s in the band now?
Morris: I think there’s five.
Sumner: But if you’ve got five people, it blows my idea out of the water. [Pause.] Say it was four, not five. It’s better if you’ve got all four people pushing the car up the hill, instead of one – three pushing it up the hill and the other one trying to push it back down the hill. Now, of course there’s five of us so…
Well, and you have Gillian Gilbert.
Morris: No, she doesn’t push.
Sumner: [Pause.] Is that called a simile?
Morris: You could say it was a simile or it — metaphor!
Sumner: Yeah, it’s more of a metaphor than a simile.
Morris: Because you wouldn’t actually push the car.
For the next album, you’ve recently been hinting towards a more electronic effort.
Sumner: Yeah, well, probably because the past few albums have been pretty much guitar-based. The Bad Lieutenant record and the last two New Order albums — Waiting for the Siren’s Call and Get Ready — were pretty guitar-based. Personally, that was important because I needed a break from electronics. Sometimes you need to get a bit of distance away from something to see it clearly again, you know? So, for me that was one of the reasons…
I mean, “Crystal”, for example, was written as an electronic song first. The first demo was like a house track, and then I made a conscious decision to twist it and make it a guitar song, which worked I think. So, we moved away from electronics because a) we needed a break, b) there’s so many damn genres these days that you don’t know which genre to frame it in, and c) if you write a rock song, you just gotta write a good song.
If you write a dance tune, it’s like, for us, you feel a little like you gotta reinvent dance music in a lot of ways, because we were pioneers, you know? You reach a point where that’s impossible. I mean, look at Kraftwerk for example. But, what I’ve come to realize, really, is just write a good song. Stop trying to reinvent the wheel. You can’t, you know? Levi’s never managed this; reinventing jeans did they? They came up with a great idea straight away.
There’s quite an electronic scene out there right now.
Morris: It’s ubiquitous. It’s the same as rock music was nowadays… and any recorded chump… it’s everywhere. It’s kind of a cyclical thing that like, it’s our music that comes in for a bit and then everybody else synthesizes them. But nowadays, everything has got a bit of Kraftwerk in it somewhere. EDM is a very American thing; it’s kind of a big blanket with anything that’s got a synth and a 4/4 beat.
There’s also been a rise in electronic festivals across the world. Are you at least entertained by that?
Morris: Yeah, there’s some interesting people doing it.
Sumner: We played with Hercules and Love Affair in Serbia, and they were really good fun — and they don’t take it too seriously. Obviously Stuart Price, Chemical Brothers, you know…
Morris: I just like anything from DFA. Because I think that kind of blueprint that [James] Murphy did with LCD Soundsystem makes for a happy marriage.
Are these all things you’re keeping in mind for the next effort?
Sumner: Well, we still have to have a meeting where we all sit down and decide how we’re going to write some new music. I think the feeling in the air is we will. I think we’ll probably do the same; we’ll put the hat on the table and go, “I like these tracks. I think we should do something like that” and someone else can put there tracks in – “I like these” – and, you know, take a few influences and go back to school. We were electronic music pioneers, but doing it professionally as we’ve done for 30-35 years kind of kills your passion a little bit for listening to music.
And you can always learn something, especially from young kids that come at it for the first time, because they don’t have the back catalog in their heads that you’ve got. They’ve got a different back catalog and for them, everything’s new and fresh and they hear it in a different way. I remember being a kid and hearing something in music in a different way to how old people were hearing it. So, it’s important, I think, if we do something close to someone or some people who are interesting.
Photo by Michael Roffman
You have a rolodex of talent that would climb onboard without pause, though.
Morris: Which is fortunate really…
Sumner: We have to write the ideas first and just keep them in a basic form — like chord progressions and riffs and stuff. Just keep it basic, don’t like write a whole song, though. When you’ve got something that you feel is a good seed, then you get someone in to help you at that point, just to get that kind of helicopter view of stuff.
Have you been trying to come up with stuff?
Sumner: If I hear anything trusting – I got one this morning, like a little riff – I’ll just sing it into the voice memo on the iPhone.
Morris: Which is what iPhones are good for.
Sumner: So yeah, sort of. Over the past year I’ve been accumulating small, tiny little ideas, whether they’ll make any sense at all when I listen back to them, I don’t know, but we did toy with the idea of bringing a laptop on tour and a keyboard, and then I just wanted to transcribe those ideas onto it, but it never happened. [Looks over to Morris.] I’ll give you the iPhone and you can listen to it and transcribe it all.
Morris: I’m fairly busy over Christmas. Something to do on Boxing Day.
Sumner: I’m going on holiday over Christmas.
Morris: [Laughs.] Yeah, you’re right, I’ve got nothing to do this Christmas.
Is there any order to the recordings?
Sumner: [Pause.] It’s like a scrapbook, actually. I kind of like the idea of starting with nothing because that puts you on the spot and when you’re on the spot, your creative juices start flowing.
Morris: Yeah, your mind has to work in a different way.
In regards to touring throughout the year, was that always the plan?
Sumner: Well, the three dates in Europe — Brussels, Paris, and London — turned into our tour. We did them and that was great. We really enjoyed it. Then we were asked to play South America, knowing that we really love playing [there]. It went really well.
Morris: It’s nice to be asked, isn’t it? I mean, the reaction to the gigs has been great.We really didn’t know that we’d go down that well. Someone asked us to go to South America, then we got asked to do Australia.
Sumner: So we just put on a little bit at a time and we just kept going.
Morris: But it’s been a year and two weeks now.
How were the Olympics?
Morris: It went swimmingly. I must admit that the idea of England doing the Olympics in our present financial situation was one that did fill me with a little bit of…if not dread, worry, that it would be absolute shit. But it was great, everybody got in waving flags, it was really good.
Sumner: Danny Boyle did a really good show. Everyone seemed to enjoy it.
Morris: Yeah, everyone got behind it.
Sumner: So, it was kind of the best thing that could happen
Did you get to check out games at all?
Morris: Oh, everyone turns into a fucking fan – the 800 meter, this and that – people who don’t even know what that is.
Sumner: Apparently the women’s beach volleyball was the one to watch. Actually, I’m thinking of taking up women’s beach volleyball. I’m prepared to have a sex change, that should do it.
Morris: And we won a lot of medals, which isn’t always surprising really that we might actually be good at something, as a country.
Sumner: Remind you, we have the dope testing this time, we were controlling that.
Morris: We did have the dope testing. I’m not suggesting anything like that happened, but yeah…
You played alongside some great acts; Blur, for example.
Morris: Yeah, that was good. It was a really hot day, though, wasn’t it? Really hot.
Sumner: And then we were flying out to Korea the next day.
How was that?
Sumner: Then we went to Korea, Japan, and Singapore and there were heavy thunderstorms all over. But Korea, I mean, the food in Asia’s just… [Smiles.] It used to be the drugs, didn’t it? Now it’s the fucking food.
[Laughs.] So, you do get time to be a tourist-of-sorts?
Morris: When you have a day or two, or when you have one traveling day, it turns you into a bit of a touring machine. If you have a day off, it’s really nice to take in a bit of culture. Go to an art gallery…
Sumner: Well, we did go into Buenos Aries, didn’t we? We actually rehearsed in Buenos Aires at the gig before. It was nice. We met a few people, couple of local people. And here last night, we got in last night from San Francisco…
Morris: New York! [Laughs.] It’s all a blur.
Sumner: [Laughs.] From New York, as Stephen quite correctly states, and we did two nights [there], we stayed up and we were fucked, but we got some good friends here in Chicago. We went out to meet them, just nothing to do with music, just a social thing. We like Chicago because it’s kind of oddly a bit like Manchester–
Morris: It is a bit like Manchester.
Sumner: I don’t really know why, because it isn’t, but it is. [Turns to Morris.] You know what I mean by that?
Morris: I do.
Photo by Michael Roffman
Well, a few years back, you spoke of changes happening in Manchester.
Sumner: When we were in Joy Division and making those records, everything was industrial grime and smashed windows and disused factories, red brick buildings, disused… [Pause.] I mean, you must have seen some of the Joy Division photographs where we’re rehearsing in what used to be a factory for a hundred people.
We used to light a fire of garbage just to keep us warm in the winter, it was that cold. And, it was kind of all this Victorian era decay and industrial decay and grime. And now, Manchester is — not all of it – but the center’s kind of like a shiny new city. I suppose I’m supposed to say I preferred the Victorian/industrial grime. I don’t, though.
Morris: It’s good that it’s gone, but…
Sumner: It was good for our music because your environment does shape your music to a certain extent. Manchester gave us Joy Division and L.A. gave us the Beach Boys, for example.
Morris: You’re looking out at a window covered in dirt and rain, and like something just sinks in, and then it comes out somewhere else.
Sumner: When we go back, it’ll be going dark a quarter past four in the afternoon and they have these sodium orange street lamps that make you feel like you have the flu. So, if there’s no external stimulus then you turn in on yourself and you make your own stimulus, and in our case, that was music. If there’s nothing on the outside, then you have to look on the inside because, in those days, you couldn’t get a hold of any drugs.
People probably turn to drugs now. You know, if you live in a kind of brutal landscape, there’s no stimulus and everything’s shit. Well, you’ve got to find an escape from that. For some people, its drugs. For some people, it’s sports — football, whatever — and with us, it was music…and drugs. [Laughs.] That was a joke.
Yeah, but that was part of the thrill.
Sumner: It was, but all I can say is that I’m enjoying touring much more now, because I don’t do that. Its nice to wake up feeling good.
Morris: It’s nice to just wake up.
Sumner: They say that drugs are addictive, but the biggest addiction for me after years of doing that – and I do mean decades – was waking up in the morning and being able to feel yourself walking, and when you have a shower, you can feel the water. You don’t feel numb and you don’t have a throbbing head ache.
That’s the most addicting thing in the world. It’s more addicting than drugs. You start using more of your brain, because what you’re doing with drugs is switching parts of your brain off. I didn’t know that and it’s nice to welcome an old friend back, if you know what I mean.
Odd question: Tony Wilson was commissioned a Factory number post-mortem for his coffin. Would you ever entertain that idea?
Morris: You can’t really. They were all dished out by Tony, by some arcane thing. [Pause.] Actually, I have one in the hundreds for some computer game that I was supposed to do. He never actually told us about it. We just sat in his living room and said, “Oh, I’ll do a computer game and it’s got a FAC number,” but we never did it.
Sumner: I’ve got an idea. I would like the Unknown Pleasures image on my headstone.
Morris: Yeah, that would be nice.
Sumner: For you, I’ve got an idea for you.
Morris: What’s that?
Sumner: You just have a normal run-of-the-mill headstone — whatever you want, I’ll let you have what you want on it.
Morris: Oh, thanks.
Sumner: But, get this, the flowers that we put near your grave are exactly like–
Morris: Power, Corruption, and Lies.
Sumner: That’s right: Power, Corruption, and Lies.
Morris: Yeah, that would really last in Macclesfield Cemetery. Oh yeah, that’d last forever.
Sumner: [Smiles.] Creative to the death.