The legacy of Joy Division and New Order in music is almost unfathomable. Few bands over the last 30 years could not claim to be influenced in some way by either band, or indeed newer bands that were influenced themselves by two of Manchester’s greatest musical exports. That’s a legacy that Bernard Sumner is conscious of, as Jim Murray finds out. It also indicates part of the reason Sumner has had such a bitter falling out with his former Joy Division and New Order band mate, Peter Hook. As Sumner explains, he sees his role in that legacy requiring him to stick to his principles – even at the expense of New Order ever playing live or recording again. “I think there’s a difference between being a gatekeeper of a legacy and preserving a legacy. I think you have to do everything with taste and respect and stick to your early principles.

Sadly, he also reveals that it is unlikely we’ll ever see New Order play together or record again. Sumner quietly says “I don’t think I could work with Peter Hook again. Um, I don’t think I’d like to tour again after what’s gone on. Things have gone too far, too many things have been said and done. I’m not a masochist.”

When asked about the massive popularity in Australia last year of Peter Hook’s tour with his band The Light playing Joy Division’s debut album Unknown Pleasures in full Sumner is quick to point out that what in effect is Hook’s live Joy Division karaoke was the straw that broke the camel’s back. “Things have gone too far, yeah. The flogging of Pleasures is probably a point of no return.”

Moving to safer ground, Sumner is eager to ensure that the legacy of both bands is preserved. Considering that Joy Division only released two albums and a couple of singles, they are one of the most bootlegged bands in history, a fact Sumner is highly conscious of. “Yeah they were. Great thing. The thing that people loved about Joy Division and New Order was the credibility. You know, the way we did things in a non-commercial way. People really respected us for that. Joy Division made an original sound and unusual, unique sound. And New Order were a very forward-looking group. A group of the future. Tracks like ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Temptation’, ‘Everything’s Gone Green’ were pioneering tracks. We didn’t make our reputation by constantly dredging up the past and living off that past. And I know we were talking today about the collecting of the bands’ material, but we’re at a point where we can’t move forward because of what’s happened between the band and Peter Hook. You know, New Order were about the future. I hope people think about that deeply.”

As such a pioneering band, it’s more than worthwhile to ask his thoughts on the music industry in the age of downloading. Are record labels increasingly becoming irrelevant or redundant? Surprisingly, Sumner disagrees. “I’m not sure they’re becoming increasingly irrelevant. A record label can be a great…You can put things on the internet but there’s no focus. There’s 500 channels of television, there’s so much choice and there’s no focus. A lot of you used to watch the same thing so everyone would watch the same thing and talk about it. But the thing with digital media basically is there’s so much choice. It’s like when you go into a large bookshop and you’re like ‘where do you start?’ I don’t have three hours to sift through all the books. I kind of buy my books from airports because someone’s done the filtering for you and there’s less to choose from. So that’s the good thing about record labels, that they do the filtering and if you are linked with a record label, that’s a good thing really. And the thing with the internet is it’s a new realm and you can do it, but there are good things and bad things about it. I still think there’s purpose to record labels.”

He’s also at pains to point out the importance of Factory Records in not just Joy Division and New Order’s output but music in general. Factory’s influence on music can’t be underestimated. “I guess Factory Records being a prime example, within a couple of years, people would buy a record simply because it came out on Factory Records, not because they necessarily liked the band or even knew about the band. Give or take one of Tony’s not so good choices.” You can almost hear Sumner smiling down the phone as he reflects on the unique character that was the late Factory Records founder and music visionary Tony Wilson and the overall incredibly high standards of Factory’s output.

“Yeah, and it means you still know the character and personality of the band. And the record label and band share that personality. There’s probably nothing like it now or nothing like it happening in the future. The thing about digital downloads, people just pull off a track at a time. When I was a kid, you went out and bought a vinyl album. It was a really special event.”

“You’d save up for two weeks to buy the album, then you’d go to the store, you’d buy it and buy the fantastic 12 inch sleeve which was a piece of art in its own right and you’d go home and sit in your room with the record player, in your own space. And you’d give that whole album a great deal of attention. It was a special event and if a great album came out, you’d go buy it and it was special. I think when you just sit in front of a computer screen and press a button which says ‘buy this track’, it devalues the currency of music a little bit. The great thing about the digital, is a huge record collection can be put into a cigarette sized box. But yeah, there are some good things and some bad things about it.”

“And you know, the quality isn’t great on MP3s.  You know, we work in the recording studio with 24 bit and the recording technology is so powerful and it sounds fantastic. After using computers for so long, the music really sounds absolutely fantastic. That’s in the hands of every home recording musician. You don’t need to be in the recording studio every day. But the media you play it through, it sounds crap in comparison. And maybe I’m being too much of a musician and people don’t really care. But it’s come to the point where music doesn’t even sound as good as vinyl any more.”

Sumner also agrees with this scribe that so much music listening is now done through laptop computer speakers due to the ease with which you can access it, but it’s never a true representation of the sound. Sumner explains “Yeah I do the same. We have a system here where I can listen to radio stations from round the world on Internet radio. That’s the great thing about digital, I can tune into music from Australia or America or anywhere I want, the bloody Ukraine if I wanted to. That’s interesting to me as a musician. Some of it’s crap you know, but occasionally you get a good channel. There are good things about it.”  Sumner’s mock indignation at over the top radio personalities reveal that he’s still an enthusiastic music fan, and simply just wants to hear the music. You can get the stations which are quite a novel idea where the station is built around the music, not around the DJ. And you can get stations where they just play music. I don’t want to hear Mr Personality DJ. Depends on the DJ of course though.”

Alas our time is up as we have been talking for an hour rather than the allotted 15 minutes, but when thanked for his time and asked what else we may expect from him musically, Sumner refers back to his points about New Order and Joy Division being forward looking bands as he simply says “Keep watching the future.”

Total – The Best of New Order & Joy Division is out now through Warner Music Australia

Did you miss the first part? Read part 1 of the interview here

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