New Order Interview: Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris & Gillian Gilbert Discuss New Album ‘Music Complete’

Lori Majewski | September 25, 2015 7:50 am
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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.

Last week, Duran Duran proved they belong in the second category, releasing a much-publicized new album, Paper Gods, which earned a highly-respectable debut at #10 on the Billboard 200.

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.)

The title Music Complete sounds like an ending rather than a new beginning. Did you originally think this might be New Order’s last album?
STEPHEN MORRIS: The title was supposed to be based on the musical style musique concrete. It was only afterwards we thought, Oh my God, it sounds a bit final. Music Complete has a lot of different things on it. It’s not all dance, it’s not all guitar; it’s a bit of everything, really. That’s why we thought it would be quite a good title, not because it’s going to be the last thing we do.

But if you were to decide to pack it in, you’d still have given the world two game-changing bands with Joy Division and New Order. So what makes you want to go back into the studio and make new music?
BERNARD SUMNER: If you’re a creative person, the urge is always within you. It’s just a feeling you get, that you just feel like you want to write a song, or write a poem or do a drawing or a painting. I don’t really know where it comes from. Maybe it comes from not being good at anything else at school. I just know that by the time we came to write — after we’d played [live] pretty much all around the globe — we weren’t short of ideas. There was one point that Daniel came up and he held his head and went, “Oh! Too much music!”

Daniel, what were your initial thoughts about signing New Order to Mute?
DANIEL MILLER: My first thought was, “Wow, that would be amazing.” My second thought was, “Fuck, I hope the music’s good.” Because it’s a long time since they’ve made a record. And, to be honest, my favorites of theirs were the earlier ones, the more iconic ones. I didn’t have a clue what to expect. So the first thing we did was, we went to meet the band. We’d met on many occasions over the years but never really spent a lot of time together, apart from one time in the ’80s when we had a long talk about synthesizers. Bernard offered to send me some music to listen to: “Plastic,” “Singularity,” “People On The Highline.” They were in their very early stages; they didn’t have vocals. What I heard, even then, was exactly how I had hoped it would sound: very fresh, very energetic. I don’t think it would’ve worked for us if it had been a retread of the old stuff without that kind of freshness and new energy.

BERNARD: Daniel’s been very involved in this record. He would come up to our writing space in Manchester. He visited three or four times to see how we’re getting on; then, when we mixed the album, he was there every day. He’s very hands on.

DANIEL: Apart from Tom Rowland, who worked on a few tracks, they had no producer. That can get tricky at certain points, because a band could lose focus of what they’re doing if there’s nobody there. My job was to make sure they didn’t lose focus.

In this iTunes world, listeners often cherry-pick tracks from an album rather than listening to them in order. To that end, which songs would you recommend fans check out first?
GILLIAN: “Singularity”: It’s quite dark and mysterious; it sounds like classic New Order. And I love “The Game” because of Bernard’s vocals, and that’s a fantastic lyric he’s come up with. And “Stray Dog” because it’s got Iggy on it.

STEPHEN: I never thought we’d have Iggy singing on a New Order track! “Stray Dog” sounds like nothing we’ve done before. I’d also pick “Tutti Fruitti.” It reminds some people of “Fine Time,” although I can’t see it myself. It’s a happy song. It just makes you smile when you listen to it.

How did you get Iggy to appear on “Stray Dog”?
BERNARD: I was watching TV with a glass of wine in one hand and a remote control in the other, and I started writing this poem — which is unusual for me, because I don’t write poetry. I ended up writing the words to “Stray Dog.” After working with Iggy — [he sang Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” with New Order at a fundraiser] in March 2014 in New York for the Tibet House organization — I thought, I can imagine Iggy on this. So I emailed him: “Would you like to work with us on this track?” I got an email back saying: “Hey Bernard. It’s Iggy. Sure. I can do this.” It was very succinct. He dug it, I guess.

Daniel, was there any concern about signing a legacy band who’d just lost arguably their most charismatic member in Peter Hook?
DANIEL: To be honest, I didn’t think about it that much. I thought: It’s New Order, they’re making a new record, what’s it going to sound like?; I didn’t think: It’s New Order, they’re making a new record without Peter Hook, what’s it going to sound like? Of course, it’s sad when people are working together for so long and a key member leaves. But the thing you notice in those situations, the band that’s left behind, it can make them stronger and really pull them together.

How has the dynamic within the band changed in Hooky’s absence?
BERNARD: There’s more freedom. The way we worked was, there was an imaginary hat on the table, and it was, “If you got any ideas, put them in the hat.” It could be anything from an intro to a verse to a chorus to a full song. Tom, for example, would go “Can I try playing that synth bass line on the bass guitar?” I’d go, “Sure. If it sounds better, we’ll keep it.” So there was discussion without fear of upsetting someone’s ego. You could go, “I don’t like that part,” and it wouldn’t be a big political thing within the band. That was very refreshing. There was a rule: If you criticized someone else’s [idea], then you go, “How about this instead?” I don’t want to say anything bad about what Hooky did. What he did in the past, it was great but not irreplaceable. But the working environment wasn’t great. It was difficult because of the clash of personalities. I’d read somewhere that he felt he’d reached the point where he couldn’t compromise anymore, and I understand that. He moved on. I hope he’s very happy in what he’s doing.

STEPHEN: The problem with Hooky was he liked the idea of writing stuff as a band, which is great, but we don’t jam as much now. The way that we write [now is primarily] with computers, and it’s very hard to do that kind of band-y thing.

GILLIAN: When I left to look after my daughter, I felt really bad because I had to leave something I really loved. I think Hooky probably [went] through that. He’s probably very angry that we’re still carrying on, but that’s life.

Gillian, what was that was like, being away from the band for a decade? It’s rare to hear from a woman in a classic band full-stop, and you’re one who had to choose motherhood over being a musician.
GILLIAN: When we were making [the 2001 album] Get Ready, I had my second daughter. When she was 18 months old, she was completely paralyzed from the waist downwards. It ended up as being a virus on her spine. We were due to go to Japan and tour Get Ready, but my daughter needed so much physiotherapy, and I just wanted to stay with her. I spent most of the 10 years helping her get on her feet. She’s 15 now and quite independent. She walks, but she’s got splints on both legs. Then, in 2007, I got breast cancer. Five years later, when my health was coming back, they asked me to come back to New Order and do a couple of gigs. I feel a bit more positive about everything now — I just get on with life, take every day as it comes. New Order is like that now too. We don’t make massive plans. We didn’t really think that we’d be getting this far with the new line-up. So this record has been great for us. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

New Order’s new album Music Complete was released today (September 25). Read more or Lori Majerski’s writing by checking out her book Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s.