There are everyday interviews with artists and then there are interviews which feel like milestones in the life of a publication. When Tone Deaf received the exclusive Australian opportunity to speak with Bernard Sumner, founding member and guitarist for Joy Division and then guitarist and vocalist for New Order we were pinching ourselves wondering if it was real. Tone Deaf ‘s editor Jim Murray tried to play it cool during an epic one hour conversation with Sumner as he discussed Joy Division front man Ian Curtis’ suicide, the nasty fallout from the dissolution of New Order and the release of the new compilation Total – The Best of New Order & Joy Division. Here’s part one of our interview.
After a few failed attempts to connect Sumner by the operator, then a call from a record company publicist in London who is desperately trying to track Sumner down, suddenly the phone rings again and Sumner’s Mancunian drawl is apologising for the summer cold afflicting him. “I’ve got a bit of a cough I’m afraid,” he explains dolefully.
He reveals that he’s in a studio, taking a break from recording a new project and pondering completing the new Bad Lieutenant album, his current music project with former Joy Division and New Order band mate Stephen Morris.
“I’m in Manchester, in a recording studio. Just the south of Manchester actually. I’m finishing off this album all week. Still a bit more to do next week. And I’m working on the next ‘Bad Lieutenant’ album which is a bit over half way through.”
He reveals that he’s just about to get to work on the lyrics for the new Bad Lieutenant long player, and that he’s also making good progress on the music. “Well yes, it’s just over half way through, except for the lyrics. But it’s building up and I just need to get into lyric mode as soon as this promotions done and get a shitload of lyrics. I should really look involved.”
Asked if that was always the process with New Order’s song writing that the lyrics came last, Sumner confirms this was always the case. “Yeah it’s same with Bad Lieutenant and collaborations. I think you need something to fire you up. You need an inspiring track; a hot piece of music to create an atmosphere in which to write lyrics. You also need something to hang a melody on. So a nice bit of music to ‘inspire ya’. The music is the fun bit for me anyway. You know, the bit before the solitary bit. Writing lyrics is a bit like book writing, it’s a solitary profession. There’s no other way to do it, you sit in a room and sweat it out. Actually you know these days, when I get a good vocal line and lyrics, I enjoy it but it’s really hard work. There’s no two ways about it. And I really don’t like hard work…” he says slyly.
Discussing his lyric writing process (and let’s face it sometimes the rhymes New Order songs utilised were, well, ‘unique’ Sumner says “Well I have a computer with two screens. One with the music on it and a multi-track program, the other with a word processor. That way you can re-arrange the instrumentation and put a lead vocal down while writing lyrics.” Discussing an interview Nick Cave gave some years ago where he revealed that the dark prince of music wrote all his lyrics on a computer, Sumner is happy to confess that he’s got both his feet firmly planted in the same camp. “Yeah, it’s the same thing isn’t it really? Pressing keys instead of twiddling a piece of plastic around. I mean, it’s a means to an end. I just got so used to using computers over the years. We used computers very early on; as soon as they were available in New Order, we were always pretty tactiled up. We used the very very first Apple computer ever produced to make music with. As soon as it became available. We’ve used computers ever since. We’ve got used to them over the years.“
Indeed as pioneers of electronic music, the band actually built their first drum machine. Sumner reveals the primitive origins of the sampler. “The first drum machine was a little thing called ‘Doctor Rhythm’ built by Roland and we couldn’t do much with it except a stereo output, or maybe even just a mono output. It didn’t do what we wanted it to do, so we got one made by a local guy in Manchester. He made it for cabaret artists, so sort of an accompaniment to the classics. We pulled that apart, put more triggers and outputs on it and then, well it didn’t sound very good. But we could trigger our synths with it which is what we really wanted.”
Moving on to Total – The Best of New Order & Joy Division, it seems pertinent to ask why a Joy Division and New Order compilation? After all, New Order in both name and for the first 18 or so years of their career made a painfully conscious effort to distance themselves from their previous incarnation as Joy Division before the death of iconic front man Ian Curtis. That said, particularly from 1999 onwards, the band weren’t making the obvious effort that they made throughout most of New Order’s career to separate themselves from Joy Division but instead seemed to embrace that history and past; playing Joy Division songs live and acknowledging the huge debt contemporary music owes to Joy Division. Does that perhaps influence why they’ve put a joint best of together?
Sumner concurs. “Yeah yeah, I hear what you’re saying. After Ian died, we made a conscious effort to separate ourselves from Joy Division. We didn’t use any Joy Division material for about ten years, maybe even more like fifteen years. We didn’t play Joy Division songs in sets. But now many, many years later, I think it’s ok to embrace that legacy. Now to touch on the same album, one of the commercial reasons; to sell more records – it’s not come from us, it’s the record label making us do that. That was a slight bit of a joke really…” Sumner pauses to giggle.
He digresses. “The other reason is to really show the chronology, how the sound and band evolved over this period of thirty years I believe. To show how it evolved. It’s more like a ‘complete history’. So the latest music and the earliest music put into one package so you can see where it’s all come from. But we can’t fit everything on one package…”
The record company press release for the Best Of release contains a poignant quote they’ve taken from Sumner. “I’m glad people still talk about Joy Division and New Order, there’s still a sense of self-discovery when they find out about both bands. One of my friends brought his daughter round – she’s 14, and she had her iPod on. And I said to her, what are you listening to? And she said, it’s this group called Joy Division. And I had to smile a little bit”.
When asked about this Sumner, concurs that it seems rite of passage for every teenager to go through their Joy Division phase. “Yeah, haha. Well that story is true. She’s actually said “it’s this band called Joy Division”. So really it proves that there’s a music culture and it’s for every age. Right down to a baby, haha. And the parents of the baby love New Order because the baby bounces when it comes on.”
Particularly in light of Sumner having had films such as 24 Hour Party People and Anton Corbijn’s Control based on his career, does he sometimes feel perturbed or some weight on his shoulders to think that films are being made about him and that he’s on millions of teenage bedroom walls 30 years later?
Sumner is frank in his assessment of he and Joy Division’s place in not just the rock n’ roll canon; but pop culture and art. “Not really, I got so used to being the public eye that way. Joy Division, I was 21 years old when I started. It was the first band I was ever in. I just got used to it. You get used to making videos and seeing yourself up there and being on stage. I got used to it but saying that, I do like to have my own private life and space because apart from when I’m with the band, I’m a pretty private person really. But yeah, I’ve got used to it, but people ask “is it weird to see yourself up there on film?” No it’s not weird to see myself up there, but is it weird to watch it…It was emotionally upsetting, but you have to remember that that film has been playing around in my head since events happened all those years ago. And that film is constantly there in my head. I still think about it.”
Sumner’s voice grows very soft as he reflects on Ian Curtis’ suicide. “I think there’s a sense of frustration with what happened to Ian; you certainly can’t do anything about it now. I tried talking to Ian many times but after he tried to commit suicide the first time…the problem with Ian was he’d tell you what you wanted to hear. So, if you wanted to hear that he had recovered or that he was feeling alright, that’s what he would say. It was kind of the opposite thing really, when you were talking to him, it was the person you wanted to talk to. But he wasn’t communicating with his deeper emotional feelings. But in his lyrics, where it was a burden…see myself I’m more comfortable to tell these things to a close friend, but to an audience it’s a public thing. But Ian was the other way around, he didn’t mind putting his thoughts in his lyrics for everyone to hear. I tried to talk to him, to ask him to see the good things in life. You’d always think you were getting through to him, but you never really knew”
It begs the question – did anyone ever really know Ian? Sumner pauses before continuing. “Ian knew Ian. He was a really, really nice person. Really pleasant. Really polite. But then also explosive. He’d suddenly explode over certain things. Usually he had a right to explode about issues, they weren’t unreasonable things to explode about. But when someone was being unreasonable with him, he would have a reaction to it. Not an measured logical reaction, but an explosive reaction and sometimes physical reaction when people did stupid things to him. But he wasn’t an angry man, it would never last long. And he was fun as well you know. He was good fun to be around. I guess he was a bit obsessive. He really, really, really wanted it.”
Sumner confirms that although Curtis was desperate for fame and success, he found it to be a double edged sword. “He really wanted to be successful. I remember being on holiday and he was unhappy because we were wasting time that we could be progressing the group. But when he did get what he wanted, it was all happening; he kind of didn’t want it any more. I guess that’s because the pressures on him were increasing and as a performer, he gave 200%. Joy Division were a fantastic band to watch live, very different to anything else. And really exciting to watch. And part of that was mainly because of him on stage. He gave so much you know. The more gigs we got and the offer to go to America put a great deal of pressure on him. I can understand that. Even now I can understand that. When he started getting what he wanted, the depression developed.”
Check back on Monday for Part Two of this epic interview where Sumner discusses the legacy of New Order, his bitter fallout with Peter Hook and why it means New Order will never reform.
Total – The Best of New Order & Joy Division is out now through Warner Music Australia