A Year with New Order: The Quiet Power of Legacy

on April 20, 2017, 12:00am

Photography by David Brendan Hall

Consequence of Sound Associate Editor Lior Phillips saw New Order perform multiple times during her 2016 travels around the world as the band promoted their brilliant new album, Music Complete. Over the course of several months, she spoke to the band about how this present version of New Order has evolved both as a live act and as a studio band. 

… How does it feel?

Bernard Sumner doesn’t have time for your nostalgia. “I’m the kind of musician that isn’t sentimental. I always look forward! I think New Order has always been like that: ‘What’s next? What’s coming around the corner?’”

But even if he isn’t looking back, we are. In fact, a single New Order song can both crystallize a moment and grow new ones, create new experiences and shine as a steady, prophetic moment that impacts your mind like a harsh blast to the face. As New Order prepare to take their next step, the band have announced their most recent spate of headlining shows, inching closer to another watershed juncture.

On their most recent tour, I saw New Order perform all around the world, everywhere from Chicago to Copenhagen and in atmospheres ranging from a stunning classic theater to a smoke-filled festival tent. It’s everything a long-standing fan would want it to be: expansively euphoric, mammoth with musicality, illuminated by cult favorites, and resplendent with new additions fitting into the set seamlessly, without divisions, without boundaries. Watching New Order live is like being hugged from behind by a long-lost friend and then having that friend stomp, clap, and dance their jiggly body alongside you — an inimitably powerful reason why loving this band is so damn easy.

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While plenty of musicians have stories spanning across decades, few have tales that constantly evolve and adapt the way that New Order’s does. Born out of tragedy, this band is the definition of necessity being the mother of invention, a fact that they’ve had to come back to time and time again — most recently in the shape of Music Complete, the 10th official New Order studio album and first without founding member Peter Hook. The last few years had seen massive changes for the legendary band — the departure of Hook, the return of Gillian Gilbert, the arrival of relative newcomers Tom Chapman and Phil Cunningham. All that change made the development of new material a real challenge, but the result of that long road was an outcome that may never have been expected.

As they’ve done countless times before, New Order faced insurmountable odds, reached deep, and found kinetic, thrilling music at their core. They stepped out of the shadow of their own massive legacy, needing to produce new music rather than merely revel in the constant adulation their catalog so rightly deserves. And the resulting album, Music Complete, carried that visceral, urgent energy, an inspired document of a long-tenured band acknowledging both their own past and the realities of the present.

Perhaps the clearest example of the impact of the past on their present is Gilbert’s return to the New Order fold, contributing to her first album with the band since 2001’s Get Ready. She naturally ties it all back to her first time onstage with Joy Division and her eventual husband, Stephen Morris. “Ian Curtis had hurt his finger on a broken bottle and Stephen, he knew I could play ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ on the guitar,” she laughs. “So, that was it. I think both of them said, ‘Could you play G and then A?’ And I went, ‘Uh, yeah…’” She was then a mainstay in the band through the 2001 album Get Ready, at which point she decided to take time off to raise her daughters. “I had my second daughter during Get Ready,” Gilbert says. “I had a week off, I think, and then went back in the studio at home.” Despite a decade-plus absence, her return has been smooth and rewarding — likely thanks to the fact that she and Morris spent that time producing music for television projects and piecing together their own songs.

As founding and constant members, Sumner and Morris have their own unique perspective on the many changes that the band have seen over this long stretch. For Sumner, this evolution has been a decidedly positive experience, growing to new strengths. “I think that the way we do things now as a band is much better than it was in the 1980s. We were just hedonists and party animals,” he says, slyly. “At the start, I just wanted to be in a small cult band and do my thing. But it mushroomed and grew until the band got bigger, much bigger than I expected it to become. My way out of that was, as we say in England, to get shitfaced.”

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A shitfaced stone gathers too much moss, and the constantly rolling Sumner refuses to keep still. In addition, he finds that getting older has given him fresh perspective on his live performance. “You start to care less about what people think about you,” he says. “You actually perform better, and it frees up your psyche. It’s a liberating experience.” Morris, meanwhile, sees their constant adaptation, particularly in their lineup, as key to the New Order sound. “We seem to find an urgency, really, a change of circumstances, with different people,” he says, smiling. “You just find yourself doing something different, which is great, instead of just sleepwalking and doing the same thing over again. We like being challenged, I think. And I usually hate being challenged.”

In the meantime, Tom Chapman joined the band at around the same time as Gilbert’s return, transitioning from his role as bassist for the Sumner and Phil Cunningham side project Bad Lieutenant, with which Morris was a touring member. “Bernard got in touch with me, as he was looking for a bass player based in Manchester,” Chapman explains. “I met them, and we had an audition, and it went really well!” Bad Lieutenant had been playing a few New Order songs in their set, so when an opening came up for a bassist in the big band, Chapman was the natural next call. “But I have to be honest, it took me a while to realize I was actually playing in New Order,” he laughs. “It didn’t sink in straight away.”

Coming in at this point gave Chapman unique insight into the band’s return. This new version of New Order came together for the first time to perform a charity concert to benefit Michael Shamberg, the operator of Factory New York in the ‘80s who had fallen ill and needed aid to pay for medical care. “In fairness, we were going to play those two concerts, and that was going to be it,” Chapman recalls. “There was no plan to tour, but the reception was amazing, and offers started to come into play all around the world. It was weird for us because we didn’t have a product to tour; we didn’t have an album out. We were just playing New Order songs.” But as anyone who has seen the band since that 2011 return can attest, that’s more than enough.

Phil Cunningham, meanwhile, had joined New Order in 2002, again crediting the mercurial Sumner as the connection that brought him into the band. Cunningham was a friend of Johnny Marr, with whom Sumner had been working in alt dance supergroup Electronic. “I’ve known [Sumner] now for 20 years, and still I never know what to expect,” Cunningham chuckles. “He constantly amazes me. When you think he’s going to say something, he’ll wind up saying the opposite.”

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One sizable shift came when New Order were offered a set of shows in Brazil. “We played in front of 40,000 people, and I thought, Shit! I can’t believe this, I’m in New Order!” Chapman reminisces. While it was a flashpoint realization for the bassist, it was a reminder of the glory days for Gilbert and an inciting moment for the decision to write and record new music. “The people there were so fantastic. Their reaction to the music was incredible, both old people and young people,” she remembers. “At that point, it was like: ‘Instead of just playing old stuff, let’s try and write something new.’”

It was clear that the band had a lot to live up to; while the response to their live shows full of classic songs was monumental, the constant touring on the legacy card alone wasn’t enough — for the band or the fans. “Wherever we went in the world, people were like, ‘Well, are you going to write any more music? Are you going to record anything?’” Cunningham recalls. “Everybody’s creative, and everybody writes in the band, so there was an itch we needed to scratch … a creative itch.” To be sure, part of that prickling comes from Sumner’s constant push to move forward.

To scratch that itch, they tapered off of the live shows and shifted into the studio. The process of writing differed from previous New Order albums and featured a new lineup, yet the result fits in line with their impressive catalog, the subtle differences powerful. “After three years of playing with each other, that was a natural transition to going to the studio,” Chapman explains. The band members came to recording just as naturally, each with their own configurations and pre-written ideas — Morris and Gilbert, Chapman and Cunningham, and Sumner each bringing sketches that the group would hash out together. That teamwork was one way to take any potential ego or self-consciousness out of the process, though it seems clear that that didn’t need to be much of a concern in the first place. “It’s a product of getting your conscious mind out of the way so your subconscious force can start flowing,” Sumner explains. “Songwriting is a combination of self-discipline — you need a lot of self-discipline to write lyrics and vocal melodies, because that’s the bit you do on your own, no one else is around — and losing yourself.”

Though he’s been a part of the band now for 15 years, Cunningham saw Music Complete as the sign that he’d finally made it as a full member of New Order, rather than being an outsider in their midst. “I finally feel like a real part of this thing,” he says. “I’m not the new guy anymore.”

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Music Complete feels at once like a vital explosion and a natural return to form, as if it were at once easy and thrilling. We find Sumner telling stories and sharing universal struggles, always feeling familiar, renewed, welcome. New Order has often grappled with their legacy, staking out a continually complex sense of self in the simplest forms and synth tones. Music Complete reflects that quest.

But that quest hasn’t always been easy, and Morris agrees. “I find it sometimes quite bewildering how much things have changed,” he says. “From how you listen to music, to what people’s attitudes are toward music and bands, even the way you buy it, and what it’s actually made of … It’s just completely different. You could see a lot of things when we started, a lot of things that were going to happen in the future, but some things are just beyond comprehension now. If back in 1984, you said to me that people would be listening to music on phones, I’d have said, ‘That’s just bloody ridiculous!’”

Having come back into the band after time off, it feels like starting all over again for Gilbert — though she has no less interesting perspective on the changes. “When you’ve gotten a break from it completely, you come back fresh,” she says. The band rides that line sonically as well as with their songwriting, as some songs sound as though they’ve been snatched from classic albums and others implement new approaches, particularly in the rhythm section. “This was us trying to experiment with different sounds, trying to think outside of the box,” Chapman adds.

From the album’s announcement forward, it was clear that the band approached this as a New Order record, even if they were also trying to reinvent formulas. Music Complete is, explicitly, a dance record, one designed to get to the core of what made their best songs so kinetic and expanding from there. “It wasn’t just a reaction to checking out all the dance music and wanting to do our take on that,” Cunningham explains. “We played a load of shows and realized that people reacted to the New Order songs where people can actually literally dance to them.”

And, as with any good dance music, the true test came when the band took those songs out on the road. “We had to learn new songs off the new album and also arrange it for a five-piece band,” Sumner explains. “And we had to do different versions of the old songs because we didn’t want to go out and play the same set again.” The resulting shows were a step better than the already phenomenal sets of their previous tour, showing that New Order are once again evolving, creating, and thriving.

This is a legacy band, and I went into seeing them live the first time on that tour with a lot of nostalgia, but I learned quickly that if you’re seeing New Order live with a backward focus, you wind up stuck in a bubble that masks the fascinating present they’re still developing.

In fact, they’ve made an effort to bring older songs into their live set after figuring out a way to make it their own, to bring it into the present moment of New Order. There is, however, one song that defies that challenge, a melody so perfectly crafted that it demands play even without a new form: “Blue Monday”. The song that fans across the world crave and go ballistic for, the one where they sing along to the synth line before the first note is played, the one that the band slips into so easily and yet look good in whatever city, setting, or decade it’s played. “It’s impossible to reinterpret it,” Sumner laughs. “We’ve got it in the back of our minds to do it, but it’s like redesigning a pair of Levi jeans. You got the design right the first time.”

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