New Order: “You Don’t Mess Around With Joy Division”

The band played at FIB 2012, so we had a word with Bernard Sumner (and his new band mates), who had a thing or two to say about their former bassist

Fifteen minutes with New Order in a relaxed atmosphere, talking with a lot of tongue-in-cheek humour about Peter Hook, their new live show, the importance of Joy Division, football and the climate.

Something got twisted in the world of New Order, back in 2007. After the release of their last album to date - the somewhat discreet “Waiting For The Sirens’ Call” (2005) - a greatest hits compilation and a world tour, Peter Hook said in an interview that the band was to call it quits. His declarations were quickly denied in an official statement by the band, but the years of silence that followed had everyone fear the worse. Nevertheless, in September 2011, they announced they were to do two charity concerts in Brussels and Paris, which many thought would be the final chance to ever see the band play live again. But then, after the original bassist was replaced with Tom Chapman (who had worked with Bernard Sumner on his side-project Bad Lieutenant) and Gillian Gilbert joined the band, back after a ten-year break, they announced more gigs.

Among their 2012 concerts is the closing ceremony of the London Olympics on 12th August, alongside Blur and The Specials, a double appearance at Sónar 2012, and a performance at Festival Internacional de Benicàssim. We had a 15-minute chat in Benicàssim with Bernard Sumner, Phil Cunningham, and Tom Chapman, while Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert were talking to other journalists five metres away. Laid-back and quite tongue-in-cheek, they talked to us about Peter Hook, their new live show, the importance of Joy Division, football and the climate. New Order from up close.

Hi, Bernard.

Bernard: Hello, I’m sorry for being so late, we were in the middle of the pre-gig preparation. We want to make a great show tonight.

What was the preparation about?

B: Press-ups!

Phil: Health things!

Tom: Drinking!

So how was the whole dynamics of getting back together, touring and stuff?

B: We never split up really. It’s just that Peter Hook left the band and when he did he tried to say that we had split up - but we made a press announcement saying we didn’t split up, that we were still together. He’s left, so we had to get someone in to replace such a great figure as him. It was very difficult, of course. We eventually found Tom Chapman here, our new bass player. But… it was quite easy, really. We just got together in a room and started rehearsing.

T: They gave me three weeks to learn the bass guitar parts. I could do it in three weeks…

You could?!

T: I’m alright, I’m alright…

How was the whole thing about replacing such a great figure as Peter?

T: It was simple. They just said me: ‘We’ve got some gigs coming up, can you play bass?’ And I was, ‘Yeah, okay’. As I played with Bad Lieutenant and knew some of the New Order songs, I didn’t find it that daunting. They made me feel really at ease, there was no pressure.

"That has been a very joyous experience because you are not selling anything. You are just here like ‘hey, guess what? We just want to play a gig!’"

So Bad Lieutenant was sort of a warm-up for this?

T: Yeah, well, when I was doing Bad Lieutenant I was doing Bad Lieutenant.

B: It was very important. Whatever you do is equally important.

Yeah, but I mean it could be seen as a preparation for what was coming…

P: We didn’t know it was gonna happen. But, I mean, when we got the set of songs together, we spent time in the rehearsal room. We knew we didn’t want to do the same thing; we didn’t want to do the same New Order set as in 2006. We wanted to freshen up some of the tracks. Bernard spent a lot of time reprogramming parts.

T: We worked with Stuart Price, as well. He got involved with the new live version of “586”.

B: We did the visuals as well. We didn’t want it to be the same as it was at the start of 2001 or 2005. We reprogrammed some of the musical material, we put a lot of new visuals together which you’ll see tonight…

"All I can say is ‘yeah, we’ll probably write some new material and that shit, but you never know what might happen’."

I saw you back in Sónar and you played some of the more obscure and classic New Order material such as “586”. Had it something to do with not having to support a new album?

B: Because we didn’t want to play just the mainstream stuff, we wanted to play some obscure stuff as well. It was as simple as that. It was nice that we were not promoting a new album. That has been a very joyous experience because you are not selling anything. You are just here like ‘hey, guess what? We just want to play a gig!’ We are not selling you anything, you can’t buy anything. We are just here to play and that is refreshing.

P: You end up being in and around America, or in a studio for however long. You go out, promote the album, tour the album and then same again, same again…

B: It’s nice not to have an agenda. The thing about Joy Division and early New Order was that we never really had an agenda, we just played, we weren’t interested in selling units and taking over the world. We were just there because we wanted to be there. This new tour, that started last November and will end this November, has been very refreshing and pretty much as we did it in the old days.

How did you get Gillian back in the band?

B: Just ask her! [ Everyone laughs.]

Yeah, right, but she’s there attending to other media…

B: She just said yes. When she left the band she had some health issues. I don’t want to go into this because it’s personal family issues which are private, so… She needed some time off to do that. But she loves doing it. She admires me very greatly really, she feels like it’s an honour for her to play with me as a singer. [ Everyone laughs.]

Any plans for new material?

B: We don’t make plans really. We only plan if we have to play somewhere in a couple of weeks, three weeks or a month because we have to book a hotel or a flight. All I can say is ‘yeah, we’ll probably write some new material and that shit, but you never know what might happen’. We’ve got no concrete plans to do that. I think we are all getting the creative itch. When we get back home for three or four days after playing some festivals, we are all itching to write material so I can only guess that yes it will happen.

Peter Hook said that New Order isn’t New Order without him.

[ Everyone laughs ironically.]

Wait, wait… what do you think he’s doing with Joy Division?

B: Well, apparently Joy Division is Joy Division without Ian Curtis, so it’s a bit hypocritical, isn’t it? About what you’re asking… I think Joy Division is a very revered group and you don’t mess around with Joy Division. He’s messing around with it. Joy Division was all about non-commercialism, about not selling out. I think what he’s doing is selling out like bananas in a market and I don’t like it at all.

So you’re saying it’s something complicated to use the legacy of Joy Division, but you are playing more and more songs…

B: Well, no, no, no… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using the legacy of Joy Division. I think that if that’s the only thing you are doing, then it’s wrong. If you are doing other stuff as well, it’s OK. He’s part of the legacy and I agree with that. You look and remember the past, enjoy the present and look to the future. Unless you aren’t doing all three it’s not very natural.

Every day there’s a new band sounding like New Order. Are there any particular ones you like?

B: I really like Arcade Fire. Who else… what about you two?

T: I like a band from Manchester called The Whip, they are really good.

P: I like Miike Snow, love what they are doing! Grimes is also great.

B: I like all the bands that sound like New Order strangely. [ Everyone laughs.]

Spain has just won the European Cup, but we have crappy songs for these kinds of events. That’s something that always makes me remember “World In Motion”, which is fantastic. How did it come up?

B: We just got asked to do it by the Football Association in England. We were always up for new challenges and we thought it was a challenge to write a football song that is actually good because, as you say, they are all pretty crap. But you got good football, you can’t complain! Maybe you can’t sing, but you can play football. It was like, ‘we haven’t done this before, yeah, let’s try it!’

P: There is that thing that a lot of bands make football records but, let’s be honest, they are not great bands.

B: I think the difference is we got asked to do it by the Football Association in England, so it was an official song.

"Look forward, don’t look back. If you’re looking back all the time it means the present is not a great place. For us, the present is a wonderful place"

You are also playing in the London 2012 closing concert. What do you expect about it?

B: We just hope Hyde Park is still there when we play with Blur and The Specials.

T: The rain is being awful, we hope it doesn’t spoil the park. We are having a terrible summer in England.

P: It’s been raining every day for a month. We are worried the park won’t be there. But we’ve got contingency plans. We are going to get an ark, like Noah’s Ark, where the stage is on there so we can float it out and fly away.B: We think it’s the worst summer in England. But not just in England, but the whole of Northern Europe. We played in Hamburg and the weather is terrible… we just hope that the weather changes. You are very lucky here in Spain!

Well, it’s really hot here, so… everyone complains for a reason.

B: It’s too hot here and too cold there.

P: Now seriously, it’s going to be good in London at that time, the vibe in the city will be great. It’s going to be a great ceremony.

T: I think it’s going to be a real good gig. We are quite looking forward to it.

B: But we have to be very well behaved because we leave for Korea the next day to play there. The guys of Blur are my friends, Alex and Damon. I know Damon quite well, but I really know Alex. So we can’t enjoy ourselves that much and we have to go to bed early, which is a bit of a downer. But it’s good to play in places like Korea, Japan… we really realise how lucky we are to live this life, this fantastic life in which we are able to go to all these different countries and meet people. It’s just a gift. We never forget that for one minute.

“Blue Monday” is turning 30 next year, any plans for a remix or a new version?

B: We haven’t, but I bet Peter Hook has. [ Phil and Tom laugh] It’s always the 30th anniversary of something in this life. Look forward, don’t look back. If you’re looking back all the time it means the present is not a great place. For us, the present is a wonderful place.

For a huge hymn like that, what made it so special?

B: “Blue Monday” was a machine really, rather than a song. It’s not the best song we’ve ever written, but it’s a machine that electronically works together like a gearbox in a car. All the musical parts work together like a gearbox. And its rhythm was boiled down to its basic elements. You can only do that once, you can only invent the wheel once. It was the ultra-simplification of rhythm and it was designed as a machine to make people dance. We worked very hard at that.

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