Q&A: Bernard Sumner On New Order’s Music Complete And The Ghosts Of Manchester
Whenever a band as iconic and deeply influential as New Order decides to release a new album, it’s cause for both celebration and concern. For longtime fans (like myself), it’s exciting when a group that has profoundly shaped your musical life for the past 35 or so years decides to put something new into the world, but it’s also slightly worrisome. For those of us who have had our hopes dashed by the diminishing returns of late-career albums by the likes of Depeche Mode and the Cure — two of New Order’s very few contemporaries who are still making music — we approach the forthcoming ninth New Order LP (their first in a decade) with the overwhelming feeling of “Yes!” followed by a healthy amount of “Please, please, please don’t let this suck.” Judging from the release of “Restless” — the slick first single from Music Complete — we need not worry too much. According to frontman Bernard Sumner, the new record seeks to embrace the best of New Order’s vast history: a dance record that neatly splits the difference between guitars and synthesizers. While the band’s classic lineup has shifted since recording 2005’s Waiting For The Siren’s Call (bassist Peter Hook is out, original keyboardist and vocalist Gillian Gilbert is back in), and they enlisted a variety of friends to guest on the record (Iggy Pop, Brandon Flowers, La Roux’s Elly Jackson), there is still a very palpable feeling that Music Complete has been constructed with the notion of making a classic New Order record, something along the lines of Technique. (They even brought back design legend Peter Saville to orchestrate the packaging.) While it remains to be seen if the record can live up to all of these promises, it’s an exhilarating prospect just the same. At a time when so much popular music can be traced directly back to the roots of New Order and Joy Division, it’s cool to see those very same musicians — more than three decades later — still turning up to show everyone how it’s done.
STEREOGUM: Irvine Welsh wrote a really amazing essay that accompanied the advance of Music Complete that sort of articulates what so many people must feel about your music: that it’s hard to separate one’s feelings about the band from one’s real life, simply because your band has been such a huge part of our lives. I’ve been listening to the advance of the record, but I’m not sure I can even try to be objective about it.
SUMNER: [laughs] Well, thank you. It becomes complicated when you’ve been doing it for this long.
STEREOGUM: You’ve all kept very busy in the decade or so since the band last released an album — in fact, you also wrote a book during that time, Chapter And Verse — so it’s not as if you weren’t well occupied. But was there ever a moment during those years where you thought maybe you wouldn’t ever make another New Order record?
SUMNER: There have been moments where I wanted to get away from the band and take a breather and just stop for a while — you know, when relationships got heated within the band and business problems have proved divisive. I’m talking mostly about Factory Records and the Hacienda. There are moments where you want to take a step back and go, “Whoa, what’s going on here?” But never moments where I didn’t think we’d carry on. I’ve been in the Order for so long that it’s in my DNA now. It’s like an arm or something; you can’t just get rid of it. I think that maybe after Peter Hook left the band, me and Steve [Morris] wanted to take a step back do something else, because it had all left a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. I went off and made an album called Never Cry Another Tear as Bad Lieutenant, with a guy called Jake Evans. Gillian [Gilbert] got ill about that time, and Steve was looking after Gillian, but after that — after she was better and we started playing shows here and there — he saw that the next step was to make new music. After our intermittent touring finished its natural lifecycle, it seemed time to make a record.
STEREOGUM: Music Complete is a very classic-sounding New Order record in that it nicely balances between using guitars and synthesizers, actually leaning more heavily on synthesizers than anything you’ve made in a very long time. Revisiting these very classic sounds — I’m assuming that was a conscious decision?
SUMNER: Yeah, that was a conscious decision. I think if you take Get Ready, Waiting For The Siren’s Call, Lost Sirens — those three New Order albums were mostly guitar-based. There were a couple of dance tunes in there, but they were mainly guitar-oriented. They came about through jamming, a lot of them. If you hear me on the track playing the guitar, it’s generally come about through jamming. If you hear a New Order track that’s mostly electronic, it’s generally come about through one person sitting at a computer and programming it. So those three albums have been mainly guitar-based, if you go back further, the last album I did with Johnny Marr, with Electronic, was guitar-based. The Bad Lieutenant album I did was guitar-based. So it seemed like the right time to go back and make a more electronic-based album.
One of the reasons that we took a break from programming was that there was a period for about five years where we didn’t really work together. We weren’t split up; we just didn’t work together. So when we did start working together again, it seemed logical not to sit there in front of a computer with a mouse in hand. It seemed logical to all get in a room and sit round and jam things out, because there’s more interplay between the band when you’re doing that.
This album has been written in a different way: by me sitting at home, in my home studio, with a computer and maybe three synthesizers and a lot of plug-in synthesizers. Steve and Gillian would write at their place, and Steve’s got loads of vintage synthesizers and modules. Tom [Chapman] and Phil [Cunningham] would write a bit as well — and this all could be anything from a finished song to just a little bit of music or a melody. Then everyone would bring their ideas in and say, “Look, this is what I’ve come up with.” And then some people would go, “Right, I’d fancy playing something on that…” And we’d either keep it or reject it. If it was good, we’d keep it; if it was bad, we’d reject it. So it was that kind of interplay that was still achievable, but we wrote in a different way than jamming.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting to think about how technology has changed since New Order started making records. Unless you were actually doing it, most people don’t understand how hard it actually was to make electronic music three decades ago, compared to how relatively easy it is now. You guys have always been seen as pioneers in the way you’ve integrated electronic sounds with guitar sounds, mostly because no one was really doing that back when you started — and technology at the time actually didn’t make that very easy.
SUMNER: I think in the earlier days, when we first started making electronic music, our imagination was much more advanced than the machines we were using. I would hear a song in my head and try to record it as quickly as I could, but sometimes the machines just couldn’t do what we were imagining. So we would have the machines modified so that they could — we’d take them out and customize them so that we could make the sounds that we wanted to make. Actually, it wasn’t really to make the sounds we liked to make, but make the rhythms we wanted to make to be more accurate. It was kind of cool, because it was a bit like cracking a code. You’d go, “Yeah I have an idea for a piece of music!” and then you couldn’t make it with a synth.
There was a guy that we used to work with called Martin Usher, who was a basically a scientist. We’d take the equipment to him and say, “We want it to do this.” It would be something like: We’ve got two machines; we want to plug the drum machine in this socket and then we want it to play the pitch from the keyboard … and he’d modify it for us to make it do that. So we were constantly fighting with technology and there were terrible reliability problems with the equipment when we took it out live on the road, but also in the studio.
A lot of these problems have now been overcome, obviously. When we started to make this record, I made a list of about 25 plug-in synthesizers that we were thinking of using. Then I spent a couple of weeks just sitting down with these plug-in synthesizers and going through them, finding the ones I really liked. I narrowed them down to four, and then I just used those four on the album. I used the bass synth that we used on “Blue Monday” as well. So the technology … well, people used to say that the recording studio was an instrument and that you could play it. But nowadays, the computer and the software package you use is an instrument in itself, and you can play it. Not only can you play it, you can make it do almost anything: You can bend and stretch sound, you can do all sorts of things with sound that you couldn’t years ago. That was what was nice about coming back to electronics; the technology had advanced, but in a good way. It was reliable and it sounded good.
STEREOGUM: New Order is a band that, from the very beginning, was operating under the shadow of this tremendous legacy because of Joy Division. When you’ve been around for so long — and when you have this massive back catalog of huge hits — how does that weigh on you when you go to make something new? Do you ever feel like you’re competing with your own history?
SUMNER: No, I don’t really think about it because we’re so in the present and the experience of being in New Order. I could say the last three years feel so much rooted in the present because we’ve been out there doing lots of gigs. I’m not the kind of person … What do you call a person who looks backwards? A person who reminisces a lot?
STEREOGUM: Sentimental? Nostalgic?
SUMNER: Yeah, I’m not an overly sentimental kind of person. You could dig up interviews of mine — I’m sure from both Joy Division and New Order — where I’m saying that I don’t think about the past, that I only think about the present. That’s pretty much still true. I guess if the present isn’t very pleasant, then you do tend to reminisce more. I mean, everyone has moments of that. I’ve been less than happy at certain stages of my life, and I find that you tend to start looking backwards. But in general, I don’t really think about it. Still, you can’t really escape from your own shadow. It’s funny; I can’t help sounding like me when I’m singing, for obvious, physical reasons. But also I can’t help sounding like me when I play guitar or I play keyboards, for less obvious psychological reasons. You are who and what you are.
STEREOGUM: The dynamic in the band has obviously shifted pretty radically over the past decade. How will it be to go out and play these new songs?
SUMNER: I think it’ll be cool. I mean, it’s essentially the same lineup that we’ve been playing with for the past couple of years. I think personnel-wise it’ll be cool. The difficult thing will be orchestrating the new songs. I think we do play some European dates in November, but we’re busy until September. So in September we’ve got to get together and take songs from the record and then rearrange them in order for a five-piece to play them. It’s quite difficult, but when you’ve got purely programmed drums, how do you translate that for a live drummer? It’s difficult. If you’ve got a heavily sequenced bassline but you want to play it on a bass guitar, is that possible? Stuff like that, really. It’s taking what might be an eight-piece on a certain track and then rearranging it so it’s for a five-piece. So the rehearsals take a long time because you’re orchestrating all of that stuff.
We were talking about this on the train yesterday. We got the Eurostar back from Paris to England — which is a very fast train, by the way — and we were talking about all of this rehearsing, and wondering how we were going to do it and if we had enough time to do it. We also want to change some of the visuals we’ve been using, so there’s that to figure out. So there’s a lot to do in September. I’m afraid of September.
STEREOGUM: Do you enjoy playing live? Are you someone that enjoys the studio more than being on the road?
SUMNER: I enjoy both. I enjoy playing live more now than I used to. I believe that the vibe of the band is better and I think that’s a big contributing factor. I think also — and this is my own fault — it’s better now because I don’t get as fucked up as I used to. I think that accounts for some of the hit-or-miss gigs that we did. Perhaps for the ones that weren’t good gigs, I might have been hungover and a bit of a miserable fucker. That’s what you’re like when you’re young, you know? You’re hedonistic, aren’t you? Not you necessarily, but I … well, I was hedonistic and enjoying life to the fullest, shall we say. As you get older, you kind of take a more sober view of life. I still like to drink, but I’m not too intolerable. I’ve seen the differences now; I’m older and wiser. I like to have a drink, but I don’t like to get drunk. Fortunately, I’m just about capable of doing that now, drawing a line. Because of that reason, I don’t end up with hangovers on tour and being ill and all the rest of it. So I do enjoy it more.
STEREOGUM: I visited Manchester a couple of years ago for the first time. Someone from the tourism bureau actually drove me around and showed me all of the famous music locations in the city: Here is where this happened; here is where the Smiths first played; here is the parking garage that was once the Hacienda … As an American music nerd who grew up obsessed with all that stuff, it was surreal. It must also be interesting for you guys — so much of your band’s history is now an iconic part of Manchester’s history.
SUMNER: I don’t think about it much in terms of our music, but I think about it in terms of my childhood. Where I grew up was a place called Salford, which was the industrial heartland of Manchester. And where I lived in Salford, I could walk to the center of Manchester within about 20 minutes. So I lived really close to the center. I spent most of my childhood hanging out, hanging around the city center, because there was nothing much else to do in Salford. I spent a lot of time in Manchester, so I always associate it with my childhood more than I do with music, but I can understand why people who have grown up on the music tend to make a physical connection to the city where it was made. I understand that. But I don’t. Mostly because, if I go past the Hacienda, for example, I just think of all the problems we had there. And if you go past places like where Factory started, it is a bit sad really, because Tony [Wilson] died. Manchester is full of ghosts. There are a lot of ghosts there. If you go back to the place where Joy Division used to rehearse, nothing’s there anymore. It’s just gone. So yeah … too many ghosts.
New Order’s Music Complete is out 9/25 via Mute.