I meet New Order in Manchester Central Library, which has had a makeover. It was always a beautiful building, but the entrance has been redesigned and the whole place has a new feel: modern, airy, welcoming.
It would be easy to use the library as a metaphor for New Order – a Mancunian institution, born out of the city’s industrial past, refreshed and equipped for the future with contemporary add-ons – but, you know, let’s not. Instead, let’s say that in 2015, New Order is the same, but different. Though the lineup has changed over the years, the band is consistent, still about the same thing: revolutionary music made by anti-musicians who use machines to produce emotion, who mix electronic sounds with guitars, who represent the racket and attitude of the city that binds them together. That’s what New Order is. Although most of their fans – and I am one – would say that music is only part of it. We could also mention the aesthetics, the tragedy, the bloody-mindedness, the out-of-your-mindedness; the ability to unite hooligans and hedonists, swots and drop-outs; to give something to clubbers and those who can’t get out of their bedroom. There is all that, too.
Today, New Order consists of: Bernard Sumner, vocals, guitars, keyboards; Gillian Gilbert, keyboards; Stephen Morris, drums and programming; Phil Cunningham, guitars; and new boy Tom Chapman on bass. Each wanders into the room without ceremony or fuss, husband and wife Morris and Gilbert arriving together. Even Sumner, whose timekeeping used to be pathologically appalling, isn’t late. There are jokes, as there always are, with New Order. The others take the mick out of Sumner, try to persuade him he’d look good in a beard. He hasn’t changed his haircut in 40 years (“short at the sides and back, but not cut too high”). Facial hair is a hipster step too far.
It might come as a shock to anyone who has worked with New Order in the past, but they’re here to get on with the job. And the job today is promoting their new album, Music Complete – a surprising LP, for various reasons. Some are to do with personnel – this is the first New Order LP to be made without bassist Peter Hook, who departed in 2007; the first with Gilbert since she took a decade-long break in 2001. But Music Complete is also a revelation because, as a piece of work, it’s not what you expect.
After a couple of under-performing, guitar-laden albums (2001’s Get Ready and 2005’s Waiting for the Sirens’ Call), and a collection of archive material in 2013, New Order’s 10th LP is cheerful, synth-y and eclectic. It boasts a full-on, stabbing piano house track, People On the High Line; Plastic, a disco banger with an I Feel Love feel; Tutti Frutti, a Technique-style floor-filler featuring a deep-voiced Italian man announcing – you guessed it – Tutti Frutti; a dark, film-noir soundscape enlivened by the growling spoken voice of Iggy Pop (“It reminds me of Breaking Bad,” says Morris). Other featured singers are Elly Jackson from La Roux; the Killers’ Brandon Flowers; Denise Johnson; Dawn Zee. A couple of the tracks were produced by Tom Rowlands of the Chemical Brothers; super-producer Stuart Price had a hand in Superheated (“A cool pop song,” says Sumner, “which is the hardest thing to create”). There are remixes by people such as Andy Weatherall. The new single, Restless, sounds like classic New Order, but the album hops all over the place – it’s packed full of ideas.
It was made democratically, with everyone contributing, including newbie Chapman, who pushed hard for People On the High Line to be housey. And it sounds full of joy.
“Not just joy,” corrects Sumner. “Not straightforward joy, I’m not interested in that, it’s too cheesy. Bittersweet. That’s what Johnny Marr says about our songs. He also says that Bitter Sweet would be a great name for a New Order cabaret band.”
New Order are not quite at the cabaret stage. They are, though, in the third part of their career. Most bands – the ones that last longer than two albums – go through changes. New Order, a band that has existed for 35 years, has been through more than most. And though they’re now a five piece, these changes have always been marked by absence. There’s always someone not there.
Initially, that someone was Ian Curtis. The lead singer of Joy Division, who had epilepsy, killed himself in May 1980, on the eve of the band’s first ever US tour. He left behind a wife and child, as well as bandmates Sumner, Hook and Morris. New Order was formed because Curtis died; Sumner reluctantly took over singing duties, and Gilbert, Morris’s girlfriend, joined on keyboards. That version – the classic New Order, we could call it – made seven albums, opened the Hacienda nightclub, moved from doomy indie through to acid house, and lasted until 1993 when, after a triumphant show at Reading festival, the band… stopped. No announcement, no tantrums, they simply walked off stage and didn’t talk to one another for five years. Apart from Morris and Gilbert, of course, who used that time off to get married and start a family.
New Order Mark 2 formed five years later, when manager Rob Gretton persuaded them that it might be good to play some festivals, and they realised that, yes, they could all be in the same room without killing one another. In 1997, the Hacienda shut. In 1999, Gretton died of a heart attack, aged only 46. Gilbert left soon after, to look after her and Morris’s two daughters; Cunningham was drafted in on guitar and keyboards. More absences.
In 2007, after two albums, Hooky went on to XFM to announce that New Order was over. This came as a surprise to the others, and the band went into pause mode once again. Sumner, Morris and Cunningham formed Bad Lieutenant, which also contained Alex James from Blur, and Tom Chapman.
Bad Lieutenant lasted until 2011. And for some time of that, Sumner and Hooky seemed to be on the same page. Sumner told Interview magazine in 2009 that “[Hook] left and without him we wouldn’t be New Order any more”; though he also said that it was because “he wouldn’t let us use the name”. Then New Order were asked to play a couple of benefit gigs for film-maker Michael Shamberg, an old friend, and though relations with Hooky were still too bad for him to play, Gilbert returned. The gigs went well – the audience in London chanted Gilbert’s name, to her surprise – so the band decided to play a few more, with Tom Chapman playing Hooky’s parts. Gradually these turned into a major, worldwide, on-off tour. They decided to make an album. And here we are.
New Order Mark 3 is without Hooky, who is touring as Peter Hook and the Light, performing songs from Joy Division and New Order’s back catalogue. Charismatic, emotional, rock’n’roll Hooky has not been quiet about the situation, which has irritated the others (“They’re pretending to be New Order,” he said recently, as well as calling Sumner “a complete fucking twat”); now there’s a court case looming between him and the rest of the band. And Tony Wilson, the rumbustious leader of Factory Records, New Order’s original record label, who died in 2007, has left a gap, too.
A lot of missing people; and a lot of new ones. I’ve interviewed New Order in the 90s, the 00s and now the 10s, and each time, the lineup has been different. (In 2001, they even had prize pranny Billy Corgan, of the Smashing Pumpkins, playing guitar with them.) Cunningham – hardly a new boy now: he’s been in the band for 15 years - and Chapman fit in well; both are easy-going and humorous.
It’s a strange thing, New Order’s legacy. You would think it weighs heavy, but the band members don’t often think about it. “I’m not interested in the past,” says Sumner, “or in talking about myself. But that’s what you lot want, isn’t it?”
New Order have been through ups and downs…
“Well, there’s only two choices when life goes wrong,” he says. “You deal with it, or you check out, and like 90% of people I go for the former. There’s challenges in life that present themselves unexpectedly, and if you rise to them, then those challenges will toughen you up.”
Have you toughened up?
“If you’re a lead singer, then you can’t afford to be sensitive. On stage, everyone looks at the lead singer, even if you don’t want them to – in America, they have those massive follow spots on you all the time, it does your head in. So, if you are a lead singer and you don’t toughen up, you’re in the wrong job, and you have to get out. And I was never going to get out, because the alternative for me would have been to become a tramp.”
Written down, his answer sounds quite harsh, but it’s delivered, as Sumner’s answers always are, with a sense of mischief. He likes to be accurate, he’s careful to get things straight, but he’s almost always having a laugh, too.
Dressed in black, like the rest of the band, still far from looking his age (he’s 59), Sumner sits on a stacking chair in an empty boardroom and talks about Music Complete. The album came about gradually, born of New Order’s late-blossoming relish of playing live. They noticed that their audiences responded best to the more electronic numbers, even though the band had avoided making them for some years. Blue Monday, the band’s revolutionary and massive-selling 12” dance single, was simply too influential, says Sumner: he’d felt he couldn’t make electronic music unless it was completely innovative. On this album, he’s used four synth plug-ins, plus a Moog that was last dusted off for Blue Monday.
It’s interesting that this album came out of touring, because Sumner used to find being on the road really difficult, mostly because he couldn’t rein in his partying. He likes to say that he “fell in with a bad crowd” (New Order’s roadies are notoriously hedonistic), although, really, he was that crowd. He drank Pernod, orange and ice – “a very refreshing drink,” he insists – but it didn’t agree with him. “It’s the crystals,” he says. “Pernod turns into crystals in your stomach, so when you wake up and have a drink of water, you get drunk again.” He had award-winning hangovers that moved “from being like a rap on the knuckles to getting beaten up with an iron bar”; he was sick a lot. In the past, he’s regaled me with stories such as the time he woke up with his head in a bucket because he’d chucked up in there during the night and got his head stuck; or when he threw up in JFK airport and had to put a shopping bag full of puke through the security x-ray. Lovely. Anyway, the new Sumner now drinks beer, wine when he’s writing lyrics, and, generally, has started “sipping. That’s my approach.”
Sumner is in a good mood. Over the summer he completely forgot about the album and went sailing for six weeks with family and friends. He has his own boat. He taught himself to sail, as he did with music. “I can’t learn anything if someone else teaches me,” he says. “It just doesn’t go into my head. I came out of school knowing how to read and count and that was about it.”
He hated school; in his autobiography, Chapter and Verse, he describes how he was actively discouraged from learning by a primary school teacher, who told him to put down the poetry he was reading because it wasn’t for kids like him. Sumner grew up in Salford, with his mum and grandparents, in a terraced house with an outside toilet. He never knew his dad; his mum had cerebral palsy; his stepfather hit him; his granny lost her sight due to medical negligence.
“It sounds bad, I suppose, but I was happy,” he said. “I still dream about those days. I had a dream about Alfred Street last night. It doesn’t exist any more, but in my dream all the houses had been renovated and turned into loft apartments. Noel Gallagher was going to buy a couple.”
Ah, the past. Never far away with New Order. Sumner has known Hooky since the late 1960s, when they went to Salford Grammar. They formed Joy Division together. I ask Sumner how things are in the band without his old friend, and he turns the question back on me, “What is it that you miss?”
The symmetry, I say. The history. Also, I have a theory that the best bands are an argument-stroke-love affair between the two central characters. Usually the singer and the guitarist, but in this case, the singer and the bassist.
“Yes, but this was an argument-stroke-argument,” says Sumner. “Even at the mixing stage of Get Ready, all that time ago, it wasn’t right. And it got to the point where it was like a football team with two strikers, and one of them won’t pass the ball, ’cos he wants to score. But he keeps missing the goal. I don’t think Sir Alex would have stood for that, would he?”
It’s still sad for fans, though. It’s like mummy and daddy arguing.
“There’s no point in staying together for the kids though, is there? Look, Hooky’s said some unforgivable things, disgraceful. Gillian wasn’t in the band for a bit and she never said anything bad. He was angry – he’s an angry man – and the anger was inside the band. And a lot of the anger was focused on me and that isn’t very nice to have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. He was jealous of me.
“He’s said it himself, he’d got to an age where he felt he couldn’t compromise. He wanted things done his way, or not at all. In a way, he was right to leave.” Sumner smiles. He doesn’t seem rancorous. He seems happy, no matter how much he’s toughened up.
Music Complete was recorded, as all New Order LPs have been since 2001’s Get Ready, at the studio at Morris and Gilbert’s house near Macclesfield. From 2001 until 2011, Gilbert had kept away from the band, apart from teaching Cunningham her keyboard parts. She came back when Grace, her and Morris’s younger daughter, who has a physically debilitating condition, transverse myelitis, had got to an age where she could cope more easily.
Another factor was that, in 2007, Gilbert got breast cancer. She made a full recovery but, she says, it made her want to be bolder, to live her life in the present. She wanted to rejoin New Order, so she did. “Though it would have been nice to have been asked,” she says drily. “But they didn’t. So I joined anyway.”
Gilbert – shyer than the others, less noisy and attention-seeking – found it odd, at first, being in the band without Hooky, and with Cunningham and Chapman. The balance was different. “It used to be quite even, in New Order, with four of us. If there was a split decision, we’d get management to decide. Now, you’re going to get out-voted because there’s five, so…”
Though Gilbert’s absence from the band wasn’t really a choice, she doesn’t regret it.
“Actually,” she says, “I think it was really good. Before we had children, that was all we’d do, me and Steve, talk about New Order. And we used to move around everybody else. We could stay up all night and do the music, we could stay up with Barney, we could stay up with Hooky. But now, if I need to go and do stuff for the kids, I will. I’ve changed. Having kids, and having to stand up for them… I became more confident in what I was doing. I know my ideas are good. And I think the others could have avoided some of the problems they’ve had, if they’d had a break too.”
The Gilbert-Morris daughters are now themselves into music. Tilly, the eldest, has formed a band with a couple of friends and decided to make an EP two Christmases ago – actually on Christmas Day – with Morris producing. Grace is trying her hand at songwriting. “I’m quite happy about it,” says Gilbert. “You don’t want your daughters to be the ones making the sandwiches. Or cakes…”
No, I say. I don’t understand the current obsession with baking.
“Oh God,” says Gilbert, with fervour. “Tilly said, dead excited, ‘Mum, will you watch Bake Off with me?’ No. The look of horror! My mum’s not supposed to say no! Once you’re cooking every day for kids – which I don’t mind doing, I quite like it – but, once you start doing that, you go off baking. I can’t stand Bake Off. It’s just cakes. It’s not important.”
Morris was happy to have Gilbert back, though she has a tendency, he says, to listen to something he’s spent ages doing, and then dismiss it. “She’ll say, ‘I don’t like that, it was better before’.”
Is it important for New Order to have a woman in the band?
“Bands are essentially an extension of a youth club, all lads together. When girls turn up, everything changes. What happens is, when something comes up, an idea, your lad head says, ‘Yeah, we should be doing this,’ and Gillian says the complete opposite, and you’re like, ‘Why’ve you said that?’ And then two days later, you think, hang on, actually, she’s right.”
Morris, like the rest of New Order, is funny and easy to talk to: he’s nervy and eccentric, like a mad professor, but he’s also very honest. He tells me he has been thinking about roles. He’s writing an autobiography that isn’t so much about himself as about the times he’s grown up in, and he’s interested in how what you do becomes who you are.
“The way that circumstances evolve the people,” he says. “You start with the band as four individuals, four blanks who have come out of this terrible thing [Curtis’s death], and one picks up a guitar and one – reluctantly – picks up a microphone, and the one that picks up the microphone goes in one direction… And I become the drummer who starts acting daft. Because drummers act daft, it’s what you’ve got to do.”
Do you get on each others’ nerves?
“The thing about a band is, it’s never all peaches and cream. It’s like a relationship. It’s a bit weird, because Hooky’s off playing the same songs that we’re playing, he seems to enjoy it… it’s just a bit strange.”
When Gilbert left, no one assumed that the band had finished. Is New Order over without Hooky?
“No. It’s a contradiction, but the whole thing is riddled with contradictions… As a band, we don’t talk about things. We never have. It’s a northern male thing, not being able to express your emotions very well. And it’s the whole basis of a dysfunctional family, isn’t it?”
Maybe, I say, if you could express your emotions properly, you wouldn’t make music.
“Well, yes,” says Morris. “And then where would we be?”
Where would we be? It’s hard for many of us to imagine a world without New Order. They’ve been a constant for 35 years. So if they want to change, to make music in a different way, to cope with yet another absence by creating something new, then, really, it’s up to them. The rest of us should let them do what they want. Just be grateful that they still bother.
Music Complete is out now on Mute
The perfect mix: New Order’s musical teamwork
New album Music Complete sees the band teaming up with the likes of La Roux, Stuart Price and Tom Rowlands from the Chemical Brothers. And the band are no strangers to the collaborative process…
Gwen Stefani – The Real Thing (2004)
Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook sat alongside Prince collaborators Wendy & Lisa on this forgotten track from Stefani’s more-80s-than-deely-boppers debut solo album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. With Hooky’s declamatory low end bass high up in the mix, it was Stefani’s own sun-kissed, Californian take on Bizarre Love Triangle.
Billy Corgan - Turn My Way (2001)
The Buddha-headed misanthrope turned up for New Order’s Turn My Way, on 2001 album Get Ready. Corgan sounds like he’s phoned in his vocal from 1998
Keith Allen - World in Motion (1990)
Although he would later inflict Fat Les on us, Keith Allen helped pen the joyous lyrics to World in Motion – aka the only football anthem which managed to transcend the echo chamber of the terraces.
Bobby Gillespie - Rock the Shack (2001)
Rock the Shack, New Order’s slightly tardy take on the new rock revolution, featured the Primal Scream lead singer on backing vocals.
Brandon Flowers - Crystal (live at T in the Park, 2005)
‘The Killers’ were named after the fake band in the video for Crystal. So it was fitting that Flowers joined New Order for a live festival performance in 2005, during which he attempted to outstrut a posturing Peter Hook. Flowers also appears on Music Complete track Superheated.
Iggy Pop - Stray Dog (2015)
After joining the band for stirring versions of Joy Division’s Transmission and Love Will Tear Us Apart at a Tibetan fundraiser at New York’s Carnegie Hall last year, Iggy Pop provides the spoken-word part to Stray Dog, a cinematically poignant slice of tragi-disco, which marks the halfway point of Music Complete. In a bit of macabre symmetry, it was Iggy Pop’s The Idiot that was found still spinning on Ian Curtis’s stereo after he committed suicide.