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The Fathers Of Invention
As Joy Division, and then New Order, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris have been responsible for some of the most spellbinding, groundbreaking and downright brilliant music of the past twenty-five years. With their new album Waiting For The Sirens' Call in the top 10, the legendary trio here sound-off about the legions of bands they’ve influenced, Madchester, Ian Curtis, 24 Hour Party People, Bez, Gwen Stefani, and why they intend to continue their quest for sonic innovation for some time yet.
Tanya Sweeney, 15 Apr 2005
I have no idea why, but there’s something about Scandinavian music journalists that makes me laugh. Ahead of a round of scheduled interviews with the Manchester legends, a group of European journos gather in Salford’s Lowry hotel to listen to New Order’s forthcoming release Waiting For The Sirens' Call. In this room, it’s clear to see that the Scandinavians are a breed apart from the otherwise leery, beery or world-weary rock critic. With a blackberry in one hand and an iRiver in the other, they sneakily eyeball each other’s horn-rimmed specs, while feverishly scribbling notes in their pocket PCs. It’s all so very un-rock’n’roll.
Meanwhile, I’m marvelling at the wonder of New Order’s eighth studio album, a masterful triumph of style in which indie’s most revered survivors sound entirely fresh and vital, all the while maintaining their singular (though oft-imitated) sound.
“That’s a bit like saying, ‘how come you’re so fucking good at making your sound seem current?’,” laughs bassist Peter Hook when we sit down to talk later. “It’s called practice!”
Immediately, one gets the impression that, whatever room Peter Hook walks into, a kind of party starts. As electronic podfathers go, he’s decidedly animated and convivial. Even when he’s having a moan about Gwen Stefani, he reduces his bandmates to apoplectic bouts of laughter.
“Don’t mention Gwen!” warns drummer Stephen Morris, affecting an underwhelmed air.
“She got me to do loads of work on her fucking record and then she didn’t use it, but still used our name!” gasps Hooky. “I’m really pissed off about it. I was asked to write something, so I worked really hard, got some great riffs together, and was treated terribly. They got me to play and they didn’t use the material. It was a complete waste of fucking time. And I’ve still not been fucking paid yet! It’s just the fact she’s used our name so much, but she fucking ignored everything I did.”
Effectively, vocalist Bernard Sumner is the unpredictable, votalite yin to Hooky’s effervescent yang. Having been warned about Bernard Sumner’s notoriously inconsistent interview manner, I had spent many a sleepless night in the run up to the Manchester trip getting New Order’s tangled history straight in my mind. With that, it’s a surprise to find that the first thing Sumner wants to talk about is ex-Happy Mondays dancer Bez, who had been holed up in the Celebrity Big Brother house with highly amusing effect.
“He suddenly wigged out, ‘cos they gave him a small amount of booze when they felt like it,” he muses. “He likes to have as much booze as possible – every single night since he was 9 years old or whatever. Probably the first week he got by on the pure excitement of being there. But when there were no drugs and alcohol, it was slightly detrimental.”
“I got asked to do (Celebrity Big Brother) before Bez, and I couldn’t do it,” offers Hooky. “I’m not surprised he cracked up in there – all that small talk would drive me crazy. In a studio for as long as we were, where you’re holed up in a funny environment, then I’d go mad, I couldn’t have done it. And all that dressing up shit is bollocks.”
“He should have been on Britain’s Worst Driver,” interjects Sumner. “When we were in Ibiza, Bez was like, ‘I think we need a hired car. I’ve left me license at home, lend me your license’. After givin’ it to him, I said to Hooky, ‘I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing, I’ve just lent Bez me license’. He goes, ‘you WHAT? Have you seen this week’s NME?!’ He pulled it out and it was this story that Bez crashed his car into four parked cars outside the Hacienda. Midnight then, he arrives back, and he’s covered in sweat! He’s only gone and crashed the fucking car! He couldn’t fucking read the signs!”
Enough of the small talk, lads. It's time we talked about New Order! Well, for starters, the band members are unanimous that the addition of 30-year-old guitarist Phil Cunningham, formerly of indie never-rans Marion, has strengthened their direction. Having already performed on the band's Get Ready, by this stage Cunningham has all but replaced sort-of-ex-member Gillian Gilbert, who has taken time out to raise her children with partner Morris. If that isn't too confusing...
“It’s been a gradual sort of initiation,” explains Cunningham. “I joined the band to help them out playing live on the back of Get Ready ‘cos they needed someone to play guitar, and I worked with Bernard through Electronic, briefly. Then we became mates over a period of touring. As Bernard likes to say, I’ve gone from an amateur outfit to a semi-pro one.”
“Yeah, Phil’s been a fresh influence on the band ‘cos he’s younger, all credit to him,” concedes Sumner, sounding more like a Manchester footballer rather than a Manchester rocker. “Working with different producers has kept it fresh. On two of the dance tracks, ‘Jetstream’ and an as yet untitled track that we might call ‘Guilt Is A Useless’ emotion, on those we worked with (two minute silence, followed by perusing of mobile address book)… Stuart Price. He were in Les Rhythmes Digitales.”
In addition to this collaboration, New Order have also been known from time to time to employ various young electronic upstarts for remixing duties.
“If I’m gonna be annoyed again, I’ll say that they usually leave the fucking bass off! It really pisses me off!” notes Hooky.
“They change the drums, which I don’t mind, you’ve got to start somewhere,” adds Morris. “When we’ve paid them, it’s like paying them to be insulted. Some of them they don’t even leave the fucking singing on.”
Prior to the release of Waiting For The Sirens' Call, there had been much speculation as to whether the album would signal a return to the band’s glorious dance period, or whether they would continue in the rock-driven vein of their previous offering, Get Ready. The rock/dance dichotomy is an issue that has stalked the band for years, and they themselves appear slightly entertained by the media’s obsessive need to label New Order’s sound.
“I find it fascinating that people have to do this,” muses Hooky. “Man is the only animal that has to name or label things, and why do we have to get it so wrong? I get it that as a music journalist you have to say, it sounds like this or it’s a bit like that, this is that. Well, we’ll fuck them right off, ‘cos the album’s a cracker.”
“It’s more sort of murky grey than that,” says Morris. “The songs have synths on them, they’re electronic, and then they’ve guitars that rock. Also they’re recorded electronic and treated electronically.”
“I just think we’re better at hiding the drum machines now,” laughs Hooky. “The Monaco (Hooky’s mid-90’s side project) albums were both done with drum machines, yet because we spent so long programming, it sounds like real drum machines. We could have found a bloody drummer but (points to Morris) you were doing your own stuff at the time, you bastard!”
“I think it’s more ‘New Order’ sounding than the last record,” says Cunningham. “(Producer) Steve Osbourne had a vision of it being a bit more Joy Division than the last one. There’s definitely a few more dance tracks on this one, and there was a conscious effort to get back to that electronic sound.”
In addition to Cunningham’s input, collaborations with various artists, including Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic, have helped to breathe life into the New Order sound.
“That collaboration came about at the last minute,” explains Hooky. “It was Paul, our all-seeing A&R man who sorted it. As soon as he said Ana’s name, we were like ‘Fuck off… what you talking about, knobhead?'”
“No we weren’t,” counters Morris.
“Well, I was,” continues Hooky. “Anyway, I couldn’t see it, and he kept going on and on about it. After he mithered us for six months, he went ahead and did it behind our backs anyway. None of us could see it, but when he did it, it turned out really well and we were really happy with it.
"It’s a relief from hearing him (gestures to Sumner) sing for hours…it gets on your tits after a while,” he adds.
Once in the studio, the band ended up writing two albums’ worth of material with a roll-call of name producers in attendance, among them John Leckie, Stephen Street and longtime collaborator Steve Osbourne.
“We started writing and couldn’t stop,” recalls Sumner. “By the time you go in to the studio to write again, you’ve forgotten how to write. For the first few days we’re pretty self-conscious, and then as we get used to the process, the songs start to flow, which is why we stayed on writing. There was a constant creative process going on there. The producers were like, ‘Not another one!’”
“With Steve (Osbourne) we seemed further apart than the last time, and it didn’t work, which was a real shame,” says Hooky. “In fact, he got sacked twice, which must be some kind of record. He must be the first person to be sacked off the same record twice! Stephen Street were fantastic, but John Leckie was a turkey. He was a lovely guy, but a joke!”
“John Leckie is a lovely bloke, nice to be with and have a drink with,” offers Sumner. “He’s quite laid back, though, and we worked at a lot quicker pace. While we want to crack on, John analyses and likes to live with the song for a while before he gets his bearings.”
“He was a bit of a night owl as well, he wouldn’t get going ‘til evening,” recalls Cunningham. “Hooky’s the reverse, up with the morning birds. He gets up at six in the morning.”
Production squabbles aside, New Order have achieved the almost impossible; as the forefathers of the Manchester sound, they have retained a core relevance – and a new wave of indie high-fliers have tipped their cap towards the four-piece as a result.
“When you work in music, the last thing you want to do is put The Killers or Radio 4 on,” explains Hooky. “I wouldn’t want to nip down to The Roadhouse (Manchester venue).”
“Yeah, I’ll think I’ll see what local talents I can spot and what good advice I can give them,” deadpans Morris. “Paul our A&R guy is fucking mega, and says, ‘Listen to this’. It’s more annoying though when he brings you stuff, and you say, I bought it. At the moment, the Secret Machines are my favourite…but can I 'ave me drum riffs back?”
“I like The Killers, Snow Patrol…Razorlight sound like Television, though,” states Hooky. “My son was listening to Razorlight, and I said, ‘That sounds like Televison. I’ll dig it out for you.' Kasabian are so fucking Stone Roses it’s fucking obscene. For someone to be that Stone Roses, you think, oh come on, fucking pack it in. The Clone Roses don’t sound so much like the Stone Roses as Kasabian do.”
Of course, the likes of Franz Ferdinand admit openly to paying sonic homage to New Order and Joy Division.
“They nicked my shirt!” shouts Morris. “There’s pictures of Joy Divsion we did in Strawberry studios in 1977, and one of their shirts really looks like mine. I guess they sound different, but look a bit like us.”
“Yeah, they even dress like Joy Division,” agrees Sumner. “That’s fine, because we were influenced by Iggy Pop, Velvet Underground, The Sweet, Mud, Gary Glitter...everyone, really!”
So when all is said and done, how does it feel to be constantly name-checked/ripped off/whatever?
“I’m insulted to high heaven!” scoffs Morris. “No, of course it’s flattering.”
“We’ve always taken someone like The Cure ripping us off as a compliment,” argues Hooky. “Which is what always amused me about John Denver, when he sued us. Like so fucking what? It wouldn’t matter if he were stinking rich anyway. We’ve ripped off loads of people… music has thrived on piracy.”
“We rip off our own stuff,” interjects Morris. “We sit there, put a Joy Division track on and say, ‘let’s rip that off’. And we can’t. It’s our own ineptitude.”
“Again, with my son, the whole name-checking thing has a big effect,” says Hooky. “’The Killers like me dads’ band’. So I’ve gone from being uncool to being cool. It’s kind of weird.”
As you might imagine, 24 Hour Party People, a film based around the death of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, the birth of Madchester (and all points in between) has further bolstered New Order’s credibility in their own kids’ eyes.
“It was a bit surreal, but nice to watch a film where you’re not dead,” laughs Hooky. “If they made an accurate portrayal, they’d have to do Carry On Up The Factory Records, which would be more fucking like it. That film made him (Factory records boss Tony Wilson) look slick and professional. In essence they were a bunch of fucking idiots. Next time, bring Sid James in to play Tony Wilson!”
“As it was the Factory story, it could have gone for two angles really,” reckons Morris. “It could have gone for tragedy or comedy, and they went for comedy, which was the right choice. Steve Coogan put a bit too much of Tony Patridge into Tony Wilson…I think he was being a bit too kind to him. The thing that made the film interesting were the things that were wrong to us, really.”
“I thought it was pretty funny, a bit ‘The Gospel According To Tony Wilson’ ‘cos it was through his eyes,” notes Sumner. “John Simm did a really good job (playing me). Steve Coogan was great as Tony – there’s a bit of Alan Partridge in Tony. But then, Tony’s more pretentious than Steve Coogan. In a funny way, though. In all, a few things were left out, but it was basically how it happened.”
Aside from the obvious comedic element, the film is one of the first to explore the final days, and ensuing tragic suicide, by hanging, of Ian Curtis.
“I found the bit about Ian very moving. It was something us lot hadn’t really addressed for a long time, and that bit shocked me,” says Hooky quietly. “My feelings about THAT bit, we were fucking knocked for six, we were fucking floored by it. We don’t talk about that bit.”
A new, much-awaited Ian Curtis biopic, with Ian’s widow Debbie Curtis at the helm, is currently in the offing. Rumour has it that celebrated photographer Anton Corbijn will direct, and while casting has only begun, that Jude Law has been approached for the role of Curtis.
“I haven’t seen Debbie Curtis, the last time I saw her I was completely off me fucking head,” recalls Hooky. “I hadn’t seen her for years…we didn’t have much in common anyway, even when Ian was alive, so we’re bound to have less in common now. It’s interesting, you always have that thing, you know…'ooh, I wonder who’ll play me?’ Knowing Debbie, it’ll be the fucking Hulk. (Turns to Stephen) I wonder who’ll play you?”
“Mr. Bean,” Morris shoots back drily.
“Who’ll play Bernard? Giant Haystacks?” cackles Hooky. “Hey, if you’re gonna get your own back, you might as well fucking go for gold, you know? The singer’s ex-wife, who he crossed mortally and went off with another woman? You’d better beware, hadn’t you? You better watch out, ‘cos you’re going to look like a right bunch of twats.”
“I would like to be involved in the story of Joy Division and Ian, just to make sure it’s accurate,” adds Sumner. “You see the photos of that time when Ian was in our old rehearsal room, with his head in his hands, a week before he died. It’s horrible that that’s the only image of Ian that came out to the world and came out in 24 Hour Party People. That wasn’t the Ian I remembered, he just wasn’t like that.
“Some people think he did loads of drugs ‘cos of some of the television performances, but he didn’t,” he continues. “There was just this incredible energy that came from the back of his head somewhere. He’d get that glazed look in his eyes and he’d rip the stage apart. Literally, one day he ripped the wood off the floor and threw it at the audience. He’d get bottled onstage, and his reply was to dive on the broken bottles. Then again, he could be the nicest, most polite person you could ever meet. He was really nice, never arrogant or big-headed.”
With the 25th anniversary of Curtis’ death looming on May 18th, interest in the Joy Division frontman is at an all-time high. The surviving members contend that while time is a great healer, Curtis’ spirit and influence is still very much alive and well.
“There are still unanswered questions, as to whether there was any way you could have stopped what had happened,” reflects Sumner. “I was keeping my eye on him, but as soon as he left (my house), it was a matter of days. It felt like he had slipped through my grasp to be honest but if you’re a person with a frame of mind to do that, you can never understand it. There’s a real anger there, like ‘why the fuck did you have to do that and throw it all away?’.
“I feel anger but also incredible pity. People say that those with epilepsy will end up killing themselves, but in the end it was sudden, as he didn’t have (epilepsy) until he was 23. He was on very heavy barbs to control it because in those days it was old-fashioned drugs. At the time it was very distressing. We’d put five years of hard work into Joy Division. We served our dues and just as it was paying off, that’s what happened to Ian. But we learned that he was in fact very ill.”
“It’s funny talking about that, as it’s like he’s never actually completely disappeared – ‘cos you’re still very involved in Joy Division and we play his songs occasionally,” explains Hooky. “In my office, he stands behind me…two great big pictures from the ‘Atmosphere’ video, so I’m never really free of him.”
“Of course, you’re being asked about his appearance in films from time to time,” offers Morris. “There’s no getting away from him!”
“The interesting thing now is that we’ve reached the age where our children can play us in the fucking Ian Curtis film!” laughs Hooky. “They could get Oliver to play Tony (Wilson), I could get Jack to play me…”
“Did you read that article in The Margate Express?” interjects Morris, brightening considerably. “About the bloke who found Ian?”
“Found him where?” asks Hooky, confused.
“In the kitchen!” says Morris. “He was the next door neighbour. He goes, ‘I see you’re making a film about Joy Division, I’d like my son to be in it playing me!’”
“What, Debbie got him to come get him (Ian) down?” asks Hooky. “I don’t think that’s in her book, but there you go. The next door neighbour remembers, though I suppose you would. Next thing the fucking milkman wants a go! ‘I left milk there on his doorstep that morning, I want to be in it…’”
As the Ian Curtis biopic takes on what can only be described as a life of its own, what do they think Curtis would make of this film malarkey?
“God, he would love it,” enthuses Morris. “Rest assured, he’s up there somewhere, laughing his bollocks off.”