New Order's next album is coming: Bernard Sumner talks "Complete Music," Peter Hook and why it's important to "glow for a very long time"

Salon talks to the New Order frontman about writing, touring and why you shouldn't go into business with bandmates

Published March 22, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)

New Order   (Nick Wilson)
New Order (Nick Wilson)

There’s been a dark cloud over New Order ever since Peter Hook left in 2007, and a lawsuit looms in the distance, but on the phone from a tour stop in Los Angeles, frontman Bernard Sumner is serene. For one thing, he’s got something out of his system: his memoir, “Chapter and Verse,” published last November in the U.S., offers what he has called his “final word” on his spectacular falling out with Hook, after the two of them traded barbs in the press for years. For another, the band’s new album, “Music Complete,” hit No. 2 in their native U.K. in September and has won over critics as well. As Sumner reveals, there’s a companion piece on its way, called—what else—“Complete Music.”

This new release, he says, will “radically” rework “Music Complete,” whose songs continue to inspire New Order. “It’s very unusual for bands to stay successful—and then this deep into your career, make an album that doesn’t sound tired.” While Hooky’s melodic, chorus-laden bass lines are irreplaceable, the hooks themselves, the heady counterpoint, and the euphoric wistfulness remain, and New Order enlist both fans (Brandon Flowers, La Roux) and a longtime hero (Iggy Pop) to help fill out their most synth-heavy sound in decades.

As for Sumner, once something of an enigma, he comes across in “Chapter and Verse” as determined, defiant – his former band, Joy Division, was an escape from being “parked in one of life’s culs-de-sac, thwarted by society” – and able to laugh at himself, spinning out cautionary tales of the hedonistic ‘80s. Now, at the end of a whistlestop U.S. tour, he’s charming and somewhat sheepish (“We had the night off last night and drank a little too much”), telling Salon about his creative process, his distrust of fame, his fears about the world, “Complete Music” … and yes, his erstwhile bandmate.

The last time you toured North America, you were exclusively playing older material. How different is it to be out on the road with Music Complete?

It feels really fresh, and “Music Complete” does really lend itself to be played live. It’s very easy to sit down and write slow, introspective songs; it’s more difficult to write something that’s got a lot of energy, so the house rule was that we write all the up-tempo, upbeat stuff first. We never did write the slower ones [laughs]. So we could play virtually any track off the album.

It’s your danciest album since “Republic” [from 1993]. Did you have in mind the popularity of electronic music now, and the way this record would fit in with it?

No, just a coincidence. We never pay much attention to what’s going on in the musical world. The music you make is a combination of the music you’ve listened to throughout your life. I write from within, not from without. You just catch snippets of little things that you like and retain them in some sort of memory bank, and then they become influences, on a subconscious level. There was one nice little instrumental piece that I wrote that didn’t make it on the album; the inspiration came from a German TV series I saw as a child when I was about 9 years old. The references go that far back.

The opener, “Restless,” seems topical, with lyrics about the “fiscal climate” and the lines “Get out of town / the streets are running rivers full of blood,” which I’m guessing is a reference to Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration “Rivers of Blood” speech? Especially as you’ve been travelling through America, with the rise of Donald Trump and his similar rhetoric about immigration, is that particular track resonating right now?

That track is a little diary of a day, and what’s going on in the world around me. Part of it is about how materialistic we’ve become. I’m as guilty as anyone. Can buying the new iPhone make you any happier by the end of the day? It’s just a diversion, and the question is, what is it a diversion from? Why do we want to be diverted? … The streets with “rivers full of blood” is a comment on violence throughout the world. It’s the clash of cultures and ideologies, and what are we going to do about it? It is worrying, and Donald Trump’s worrying.

The other night, in Chicago, we drove past the Trump Tower and made a few derogatory comments about Trump in the cab. When I was paying the driver, he said, “Actually I like Trump, because he will ignite Islam,” which sent a cold shiver down my spine. This guy, who was obviously radical, an Islamist, was into Trump because he would create a rift between the West and Islam. I said, “Surely we want peace?” And he shrugged and drove off. It’s a bit scary. … Also we played in Paris the week before the attacks—not at the Bataclan, but we played there the previous time we played Paris. Events like that bring it close to home. It worries me, what sort of world my kids are going to end up with. It’s like there’s some unseen, dark hand at work somewhere.

In your book, you write about the violence that crept into the acid house scene in Manchester, and into The Haçienda [the legendary, now-shuttered club that New Order co-owned in the ‘80s and ‘90s], with gangs holding meetings there. Often your music has an uplifting feel but your lyrics are ambivalent or sardonic, and I wonder if that comes from your having encountered that side of life …

[From the book] I presume it sounds a bit like I grew up in a violent hellhole [in working-class Lower Broughton, outside of Manchester]; there were occasional events of extreme violence, but for the most part, it was a pretty safe, fun place to live. I told the story about a guy coming in the club with a machine gun, trying to shoot a bouncer—well, it didn’t happen every day. There would just be these eruptions. So you’re right about the music being quite uplifting and my vocals being sometimes a bit melancholic. I do that because it forms a contrast: I like to temper or twist the mood of the music with perhaps a more plaintive vocal, so it takes you on a winding journey. It doesn’t deliver it all on a happy plane. I think I did write one uplifting song once.

World in Motion”?                            

[Laughs] I guess part of it is the way I write, which is to sit there on my own, late at night—I start at about 6 p.m. and work until about 2:00 in the morning, and I always work in the winter. I sit in the dark and dream with a bottle of wine … Quite simply I don’t want it all to get too sugary sweet, because I don’t like music like that. It’s like chocolate—it’s great because it tastes bitter and sweet at the same time. If you get chocolate that just tastes of sugar, what’s the point?

At the end of the book, you write, “Shit does happen in life, but you can get over it. Don’t let it defeat you.” Do you want to be an inspiration for people just as the Sex Pistols were for you when you saw them in Manchester?

Erm, yeah, I would like to be, but I never thought about it until you just mentioned it now. I like reading biographies and historical books because you learn the way other people have lived, what they’ve achieved. I didn’t learn a lot in school, but I’m finding that my thirst for education has got greater as I’ve got older, and I learn off other people and the way different people behave. I’m not perfect, by any means—I’m no angel. If I was, I wouldn’t have a hangover today.

The other potential moral of “Chapter and Verse” might be, “Don’t go into business with your bandmates” (beyond music).

It needs mentioning, there’s one in particular I wouldn’t go into business with again. Diversification is not my bag. That’s a lesson I learned. I don’t want to be worrying about whether we’re going to put some cheeseburgers in The Haçienda when I’m trying to write a song, or whether we should get a metal detector at the door or bulletproof vests for the bouncers. All of that was an enormous distraction, and it weakens you. Our [hedonistic] behavior was a distraction. We’ve not got any of that now, and I think that’s why things are working really well. I think that shows itself with the success we’ve had with this album.

This past December, the News section of your website mentioned, “‘Music Complete’ album sales more than doubled (+107.9%) in the week ending 4th December following the court hearing [that gave Hook the right to sue for allegedly unpaid royalties] and Mr Hook's statement. Seems like there's no bad publicity for record promotion or is it the glowing end of year accolades driving sales?” Do you think all the press about the fallout actually helped bring attention to the band?

It is true, sales went up, and I don’t really know why. It could have been that we were touring at that time... The court hearing was just an initial hearing, with a certain spin put on it, but it’s not the end of the story. I can’t talk about it much, but I don’t think it’s beneficial to anyone. None of this shit comes from us. It all comes from the opposite direction. You left the band; get on with your life—that’s my advice. You’re doing what you want to do, and we’re doing what we want to do. What’s the problem? And I have to say one thing: We pay Peter Hook a license fee for all our activities; we pay him a percentage of everything we do. It’s just not enough for him. He wants more money. But he doesn’t pay us anything when he goes out and tours the albums, like “Unknown Pleasures” and “Power, Corruption and Lies.” He thinks that’s OK, but he thinks that we should pay a lot more than what we pay him. Let’s be kind and say it’s a bit unfair. But I can’t talk too much about it, because it’s ongoing.

Parts of your book are very funny, for instance being driven around by Bez from the Happy Mondays in Spain —

That is not a memory I look back on with great fondness. At the time, I’m thinking, get me out of here! I was being driven around by a drug-crazed maniac—funny in retrospect, but not at the time! And when we got back to the studio, in Ibiza, where we recorded part of “Technique,” I told Bez that the waiter, Herman the German—only a young guy—had some drugs, and Bez dragged him over the counter and started chasing him around the studio. Me and my girlfriend locked ourselves in the bedroom while Bez was trying to get his drugs! [laughs] Don’t get me wrong; I love Bez. He’s a great guy, and a good friend, but just in those days, it was on the edge, shall we say, of craziness.

And now he’s a politician.                 

There’s a lot more stories like that, but I find it vaguely embarrassing. I don’t behave like that anymore. The most I get up to is too many glasses of wine, like last night.

Despite all of your success, you still seem somewhat like a cult band – the kind of band that people can discover for themselves.

We were on Factory to begin with, and we -- not just Factory -- were incompetent as well, so we weren’t clever enough to ram [our music] down people’s throats. In a weird way, this backfired in our favour. I think the secret of our longevity is that we make good music. The attitude is, “If you feel like discovering us, take a look,” rather than world domination. You either burn really bright for a short time, or you glow for a very long time, and I think we glow for a very long time. I don’t love being famous; I love music. [Being] a super worldwide famous guy—not like me—just means you can’t do anything. You can’t go out of your hotel room; you can’t go shopping; you can’t go on a plane without someone making a fuss out of you, so probably the only upside is you can get a really good table at a restaurant. I like the way we’ve done things, in a very natural way.

You wrote that in ’93, when you’d been playing to bigger venues than ever, you decided to pull back from the band.

Yeah, I think all of the stress would have made me super-unhappy… After I finish this conversation, I’m going to go up to the swimming pool and lay down by the pool, have a recuperative cocktail, lounge about in the sun, and that’s going to make me happy. You’ve got to learn to observe little things like feeling the wind on your skin or getting out of the city and going for a walk on a beautiful lakeside path, or watching a really good movie or reading a really good book. Of course, other human beings make you happy, but things made out of plastic and glass don’t.

Apart from CDs, sometimes.

[Laughs] That’s just the delivery method. Can I just mention, too, that there will be an album coming out called “Complete Music”; it’s extended and reworked versions of the [“Music Complete”] tracks, and is coming out very soon—not quite sure when. We’ve given [the music] to different mixers, and they’ve chopped it up and rearranged it and stripped it back, so it’s like another take on the original album.

Can you tell me some of the people who were involved?

Erm, I don’t know if I can release that yet. I’ve got to speak to Daniel Miller [head of New Order’s label, Mute] —it’s only a couple people. That’s what’s nice about it as well.

We’d send it off to the mixer, and then he’d send it back and make suggestions; we’d send it back, and we played Internet tennis with the songs. Some of them are radically different, but rather than like a remixer who would write a new set of music, they used the music that we’d already incorporated in the songs, but warped it in a way that was very interesting.

By Mike Doherty

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Bernard Sumner Music New Order Peter Hook