New Order Interview: Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris & Gillian Gilbert Discuss New Album ‘Music Complete’
Classic bands tend to fall into one of two categories. There are the ones who ride the nostalgia train round and round an endless loop, content to play their greatest hits for fans who want to relive their youth. Far fewer, though, are the artists who continue to make new records, who strive to remain relevant and push boundaries, and who cringe at the idea of being labeled a retro act.
This week, their contemporaries, New Order, give birth to their first album of new material since 2005. And while theirs doesn’t make as obvious a grab for the contemporary pop market as the Durans’, New Order’s Music Complete (grab it on iTunes) finds the veteran electronic-dance act delivering some of their freshest material in years.
“We needed [to record a new] album to keep New Order a vibrant, vital band,” frontman Bernard Sumner tells Idolator. “This quote is gonna probably come back and haunt me in a few years, but if you don’t continue writing new material, you become simply a performer, and you stop being a musician. I want to be a musician. Although, it’s incredibly hard work.”
Sumner says the band toiled “ten hours a day, five days a week” for months while making Music Complete, New Order’s tenth studio album. Their first for the indie Mute after years on Warner Brothers, it’s a rebirth for the Manchester group that was formed in 1980 by ex-Joy Division members Sumner (guitar, vocals), Peter Hook (bass) and Stephen Morris (drums) — along with Morris’ soon-to-be girlfriend, now wife of 22 years, Gillian Gilbert (keyboards) — in the immediate aftermath of singer Ian Curtis’ suicide. It’s their first release without the charismatic Hook and his trademark melodic playing style. (The outspoken bassist departed in 2007 after a long-simmering feud with Sumner boiled over, leading the two to trade jabs in the press and resulting in Hook bringing a yet-to-be-settled trademark litigation case against his former bandmates.) It also marks the return of Gilbert, who left in 2001, first to care for her sick daughter, then to battle her own breast cancer.
Rounding out New Order 2.0 are Hook’s replacement, bassist Tom Chapman, as well as guitarist Phil Cunningham, both of whom spent the last few years touring with Sumner, Morris and Gilbert. “The natural progression was to try and write some music together,” Gilbert explains. “We were like, not fed up of playing our old stuff, but like: ‘Can we write together, especially with Hooky leaving? Would it work?’”
After testing the waters with a couple of energetic new dance numbers, “Plastic” and “Singularity,” they decided it would, and committed to making a long-player.
“What informed the writing of this album was playing live and seeing people’s reactions when we played the dance stuff towards the end of the set,” says Sumner, referring to a run of tunes that started with “Plastic” and was followed by a rush of old favorites: “True Faith,” “The Perfect Kiss,” “Blue Monday” and “Temptation.” “They would really go crazy, because people love to dance, don’t they? Those beats get you going. Also, the past two New Order albums and a solo album that I did [with Cunningham in 2009] called Bad Lieutenant were guitar-based, so it just felt time to return to synthesizers and sequencers. Because we’d had a bit of a holiday from those instruments.”
“Another thing that drove us,” Morris says, “was there’s been more and more current bands citing New Order as an influence, especially early New Order — it used to be everyone was [citing] Joy Division. That made me listen to New Order again and want to do something electronic like we used to, since all the young people are doing that now.”
To that end, they invited famous fans of New Order to contribute guest vocals to Music Complete: La Roux’s Elly Jackson spices up several tracks, including the euphoric “Tutti Fruitti,” and Brandon Flowers appears on the album’s wistful closer, “Superheated.” (Says Morris: “Brandon stole his band’s name off a New Order video” — for 2001’s “Crystal,” which features a fictitious band, The Killers — “so it’s only fair we got him to sing on one of our records.”) And they enlisted one of their own heroes, Iggy Pop, to record a dialogue for the darkly cinematic “Stray Dog.”
For the most part, Music Complete never strays far from the tried-and- true formula that made New Order the most seminal of electronic dance bands. Like their worldwide breakout hit, 1983’s “Blue Monday,” “Plastic” — “or ‘the Giorgio Moroder one,’ as it was affectionately known when we were writing it,” says Morris — was also inspired by the disco legend’s work with Donna Summer. Meanwhile, the first single, “Restless,” feels like an update of 1993’s “Regret,” and Morris admits other tracks “completely unintentionally” harken back to their 1989 album, Technique.
Yet Music Complete — which features Mondrian-esque artwork by Peter Saville, designer of iconic covers for both Joy Division and its successor — still manages to “sound like New Order should sound today, not how they sounded in the ’80s or early ’90s,” says Mute founder Daniel Miller. “It doesn’t sound like a band who’ve been away for 10 years — it doesn’t sound like a band that’s been around for that long. It just feels really a good, modern record.”
Read on, as Sumner, Morris and Gilbert, as well as Miller — the electronic-music maestro who gave us Depeche Mode, Moby and Goldfrapp, as well as his own, genre-defining 1978 single “Warm Leatherette” under the name The Normal (which Sumner happened to listen to in his headphones right before this interview) — talk about the making of Music Complete, how the band’s 35-year dynamic has changed in the wake of Hook’s exit and more. (All of the interviews were conducted separately.)