“We’re at the bottom of a mountain, struggling to get to the summit.” There’s a browbeaten inflection to Bernard Sumner’s words. “There’s a big task ahead of us and you can’t really look forward to it… well, mountaineers do. But I’m not a mountaineer.” His affable laughter skips with fatigue.
With a career trajectory spanning four decades, as co-founder of Warsaw (the band shortly rebranded as Joy Division), and later New Order, Sumner is lodged between overriding optimism and a sense of weariness about the industry. Here, he’s outlining his work process leading up to the release of New Order’s ninth studio record, Music Complete; the first record without longstanding bass playing affiliate, Peter ‘Hooky’ Hook. “We were doing 50 hours a week,” he sighs. “Recording throughout all of the winter months. I was particularly stressed by the end of it. Quite ill. But now we’re back on the hamster wheel.”
The wheel Sumner speaks of is now spiralling in Nth gear. As the release date of Music Complete teeters ever closer, the group are facing vigorous interrogation from fans and critics alike. With the absence of Hooky, what really are we to expect from this ‘new’ New Order? Considering their legacy, their reputation, their towering creative estate, there’s a lot riding on this record.
The band’s biography is a puzzle patchwork of breaks, break-ups and reformations. Following the death of Joy Division’s enlightened frontman, Ian Curtis, in 1980, Sumner, Hooky and drummer Stephen Morris chose to reevaluate their sound. They could no longer continue under a name that carried such torment and regret. So the trio, along with Morris’s future wife and synth enthusiast Gillian Gilbert, formed New Order. Consolidating the angst and ethos of punk with the other-worldly privileges of electronics, they forged something strangely neoteric, becoming a prerequisite to dance music’s impending ascendancy. Having received commercial success through singles including Blue Monday (still the best selling 12” single of all time) in 1983 and True Faith in 1986, the band defined an era, forbearing a Mancunian heritage rooted in their relationship with Tony Wilson and Factory Records.
However, by 1993, New Order had dissolved, with members opting to work on individual side-projects, only to reform again in 1998. Due to family commitments, Gilbert left the band in 2001 to be replaced by Phil Cunningham. After a handful of guitar-led LPs, the working relationship between Hook and Sumner began to ferment, with Hooky departing in 2011, to be replaced by Tom Chapman. And yet, despite this floundering chronology of events, New Order return; something a newly reinstated Gilbert initially found worrisome.
“It’s not a full jigsaw puzzle really,” she tells me over the phone in between band rehearsals, her voice exuding warmth. “Hooky’s gone. It is a bit strange. But I wasn’t really around during the fallout. I made a decision to not go in the studio during my ten year sabbatical. I just spoke to Stephen really. I went to see the new New Order with Phil. I taught Phil all of my synth parts, which was peculiar. But the decision to leave New Order temporarily was a no brainer. Mine and Stephen’s daughter fell ill when she was eighteen months. There was no question of me staying in the band at that point. But after about 12 years I think coming back was quite refreshing and new to me, regardless of how daunting it was at first.”
With Gilbert’s redeemed synth work, Sumner reassessed New Order’s marriage between guitar and electronics. Borrowing from the group’s affiliation with dance music, Music Complete maintains a vast spectrum of modular hardware and advanced computer plugins, boasting a diverse audible compass.
“The only concrete decision that we made for Music Complete was to make something synthesiser based,” Sumner says. “The last few albums were pretty guitar based and the music was really quite simple.”
This decision is striking, as it was when the band’s innovative use of synthesisers forged their name. In the studio sessions that birthed Blue Monday, Sumner built his own sequencer from an electronics kit, using complex binary code to programme it, and eventually enlisting a scientist to sequence it to the drum machine. The track took inspiration from a Donna Summer B-Side, the heady aesthetics of New York house and disco, and the melodies of early electronic music innovators such as Kraftwerk. With their fusion of guitar and electronic music driving them to stardom, off the back of the track’s success the outfit famously bought the Haçienda, the iconic Manchester club which played a huge role in popularising dance music in the UK.
As the genres they helped propel into popularity splintered and diversified, the band withdrew from electronics. “It reached a point around 1997 where music became very compartmentalised,” Sumner explains. “If you wrote an electronic track it became hard to define. Is it house? Is it deep house? Is it shallow house? Is it drum’n’bass? Is it jungle? Is it grime? It was too genre based and I found it confusing as I’m quite an indecisive person. So I thought, ‘fuck it, just pick a guitar up and write a song’.
“And there was almost too much expectation from us,” he continues. “After Blue Monday, there was an expectation that if we did write a dance track we’d have to reinvent the wheel. Kraftwerk, who were our peers at the time, suffered from the same thing. The pressure got a bit much. I followed the path of least resistance. It’s been interesting to see how technology has moved on and thankfully how alive and user-friendly it is.”
Considering Sumner’s newfangled bestowal of modern day mechanics, there is something prototypical about New Order’s sound. Would it be right to argue that it’s equally en vogue to recreate the ‘vintage’ modular synth sounds heralded during the group’s late-80s, Ibiza-glossed Technique era? “Stephen is in the process of buying his old equipment off of eBay,” Gilbert groans. “Some of the early synths could do so much more. We would play a chord, sequence it and take that out on the road. That’s what was so exciting about New Order. The technology we were working with didn’t want to be taken out of a wall in a studio.
“You can get loads of plugins on computers that make you sound retro but people want something physical,” she continues. “Something they can see and fiddle with. On a computer, you have sliders. On a synth you have envelopes. It’s the same reason people want vinyl. It’s physical. In our studio we’ve got loads of modular synths and I think the new age of bedroom producers are reevaluating that sort of sound that triggers off your senses; creating a sound that conjures images in your head.”
Gilbert and Sumner counteract each other regularly in their approach to work. The former collaborates with her husband. The latter works almost in complete isolation. Yet somewhere in the discord, records are completed and a sonic harmony is established. “We all lend our hands to different instruments,” assures Sumner, “It’s not like I take on a singular role. It’s like a hat on the table that gets filled with ideas. It could be an intro, chorus, verse, sound. We’ll put six ideas in to this proverbial hat and we’ll take three out to work on. Personally, I used four real synths for Music Complete. But a week before we started I got 24 plugins and reduced them to around five I thought would work. I’ve used the four real synthesisers for years and know exactly what they’re good for. So I had something that I didn’t know that sounded exciting, coupled with something that was easy and familiar.”
There’s an assuaging familiarity to New Order. A nostalgia that can’t be ignored, almost hounding the group’s appetite to progress. “I think there’s been a few surprise turns in our career,” he begins. “Some of them welcome and expected. Some of them unwelcome and unexpected. But I don’t think there’s an overall persona. Maybe there is. It’s difficult. It’s like living in a house your whole life. You never get to see the house from the outside. You know what the house looks like from the inside, but not the outside. I’m guessing people have caricatures of the band that they’ve gained from interviews or on television or even performing live. From brief instances like that you do get a caricature. You don’t get what the real people are actually like, which is one of the reasons why I wrote my book, Chapter & Verse. There’s a bit more to everyone than what you see.”
Indeed, Sumner’s character was portrayed in two high profile films: firstly 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, the Steve Coogan- starring British comedy drama about Factory Records, and then in 2007’s Control, the striking biopic about the life of Ian Curtis. “The two films weren’t about me, but I got a cursory glimpse of my own caricature,” Sumner admits. “I love those films but there’s more to people than what you see.”
Overall, Sumner is reluctant to let the band’s historical relevance define their current output. “The past is obviously part of our story. But I’m not sentimental. The reality is you can feel, touch, breathe, smell, see the present, so it just seems logical to stay in the present. There’s a legacy to New Order that no one can ignore. But we’re focused on today. Not the past. Not even the future. If you do plan everything too far ahead, life becomes predictable.”
“It reached a point around 1997 where music became very compartmentalised. So I thought, ‘fuck it, just pick a guitar up and write a song’."
Presently, New Order are focused solely on Music Complete and their imminent headline appearance at this year’s Warehouse Project, an event they have yet to tick off of their expansive bucket lists. “We’re very excited,” Gilbert admits, “because my nieces go. I’ve never been. I don’t want it to be too retro like one of Factory’s Haçienda nights because that’s just going back in time and we don’t like that.”
“We thought it would be an interesting place to play,” Sumner concedes. “The last few times we’ve played at home it’s been at The Apollo, which is great. But Andy, our manager, goes to Warehouse Project every year. I think he’s the oldest raver in town. It was his idea. We’ve been asked in the past but we were either in America or concentrating on the album. But we’ve finally got time to do it.”
Caught off guard in a moment of wistful reminiscence, Gilbert submits to the nostalgia. “It would be nice to be in a club environment again. We haven’t done that for such a long time.”