(This was probably the best day I had in my entire career. I was writing a career retrospective about New Order’s Bernard Sumner for GQ when it was announced that New Order, after a six year break, would be playing live once again – with original member Gillian Gilbert returning to the line-up. I went up to see Bernard, Stephen Morris and Gillian in the New Order HQ in The Peak District a short time after the announcement, so I was able to get this news story/interview for GQ’s website as well as some great quotes for my big story. It was like being summoned before gods in Olympia.)
Aaah, domestic bliss in the New Order household. The kettle rumbles and clicks in the Macclesfield hillside farmhouse that provides shelter and synthesizers to Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert. “How many sugars?” Gillian enquires. Meanwhile, New Order’s manager Rebecca Boulton expounds the virtues of her husband buying jeans at Uniqlo for £30 instead of paying top whack at Hugo Boss. Gillian is unfamiliar with the Japanese casual brand: they don’t have Uniqlo in Manchester. Perhaps Gillian can pop into the Oxford Street “store” (shop, surely – this is Britain) in London during New Order’s upcoming UK tour and stock up.
Stephen is in an adjoining room remixing “True Faith” on a laptop for the first New Order gigs since Buenos Aires in November 2006. Stephen is watched, ominously, by a Dalek from the corner of the room. A Dalek band would be great. Probably quite industrial, like LFO on Frequencies (Warp Records, 1990), but a bit more upfront. Let’s not forget that an imprisoned, chained, museum-piece Dalek in a Christopher Eccleston-era Dr Who episode famously spoke, “How… does… it… feel?”, ripping New Order’s “Blue Monday” (1983). There is a lifesize Cyberman here too, plus cardboard cut-outs of Robert Pattinson and Matt Smith. Stephen has two plastic aircraft kits on the go, both 1:48 scale. One is a Hurricane, the other a Spitfire. Judging by the 1:72 Dambusters’ Lancaster in the kitchen that has been expertly spray-painted and decaled, both WWII fighters will end up mini-masterpieces. Stephen nonchalantly opens a cupboard and reveals his next project, an Airfix Boeing B-29 Superfortress. He also collects real tanks.
“Bernard’s here,” Rebecca hollers. Bernard Sumner, New Order’s frontman, walks through the door without knocking, like he’s visiting family in the Seventies, and takes off a bright yellow Helly Hansen seafaring coat. Bernard has a mark in the middle of his forehead that looks like a bindi. No nod to multiculturalism, this insect chomp was in fact garnered on a yachting trip.
This month, New Order are playing sold-out gigs at the Ancienne Belqique in Brussels (17th) and La Bataclan in Paris (18th) in aid of New Order video producer Michael Shamberg, who is ill with a brain virus. With sugars stirred into our hot beverages and aircraft kits placed back on their stands, New Order’s Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert confirm they are playing their first UK dates in five years, with a possible South American sojourn to follow.
The re-emergence of New Order – was this a bolt out of the blue, or is it something that’s been simmering away for a while?
Stephen Morris: Was it a bolt, or was it a simmer? It was a simmering bolt, really. I’m not a big fan of the comeback gig. If it was just a matter of “do a comeback gig”, we probably wouldn’t, but because there was a bit of a reason for doing it, because of Michael [Shamberg], it just seemed all right. Then there was, “Can we actually do it?” The simmering bit was about if it was possible to do it. The other thing with comeback gigs is that I don’t like old blokes pretending they’re 16.
The New Order break-up came after a South American tour in 2006.
Bernard Sumner: The last thing we did was a tour of South America, and we played Brazil and Argentina. And it had all gone pear-shaped.
You split shortly after the gig in Buenos Aires.
BS: It’s not strictly true. Nothing had happened. We hadn’t said we were not going to play together any more, but Peter Hook decided we weren’t going to play together any more. But let’s say he forgot to tell the rest of the band. We didn’t split up. He left. He said that we’d split up, but he didn’t tell us. Surely for a band to split up, you have to sit down with other members of the band and all agree to split up.
The comeback gigs this month are to help Michael Shamberg [who produced a number of New Order videos, including the award-winning “True Faith”] pay for his medical costs in America. Could you tell us about his illness?
BS: He came back from Beirut and went down with something, was hospitalised, and we saw he’d lost loads of weight, was really ill. What it was, he’d got like a brain virus that he’d picked up over there. He lost loads and loads of weight, down to eight stone something, and spent a lot of time recuperating in England because he couldn’t travel. He’s from New York. He was travelling between Beirut and Paris and England and New York, but then he got so ill that he couldn’t travel, so he recuperated in England and went back out to America. After a lot of tests, the last I heard, it was a genetic brain disorder. I’ve not seen him because he’s been in America, but we’ve been in contact by email over the years and he’s really desperate for money. He’s got to pay for medical care over there, for 24-hour care. He asked if we could do a fundraiser for him. So initially it was Bad Lieutenant, but we thought we’d be able to raise more money for him as New Order.
Which is certainly the case – the two European dates have sold out.
BS: So that was one of the reasons. Not the only reason. Other reasons were, as we said, he [Hooky] left. I’m not going to criticise him but I will respond to anything that he’s said about me. But I’m determined not to go out and criticise him. The truth was, he was going out without speaking to us and playing Unknown Pleasures, Closer, and had declared his intent to go out and start doing New Order albums.
Peter Hook wasn’t stopping with Joy Division material – he was going to do New Order as well?
BS: He was going on to do New Order, after Closer, yes.
Working through the back catalogue?
BS: Album by album, through the catalogue. Without us, he was selling Unknown Pleasures T-shirts with… he couldn’t use the name Joy Division on it, so it says “Manchester Unknown Pleasures” on it. We just thought, “F**k it, if he’s doing that, what are we doing holding back?” So that showed us the way.
You were saying in the kitchen earlier that you’re getting into shape for the gigs.
Gillian Gilbert: Stephen’s already in shape.
So are we to expect a Kaiser Chiefs-style leap-about on stage?
SM: We never did that anyway.
SM: Popular music is still the domain of the young. There’s a reason for that.
But as a drummer, you build up a sweat. It’s the most physical aspect of being in a band.
SM: Being a drummer. Yes, that’s the bit that I like. The drumming’s fine. I can do the drumming. The rest of it… [To Gillian] What about you? Do you perspire?
GG: No, I have a fan at the side of the stage.
SM: Oh, you’ve got a fan?
Was it difficult to entice Gillian back into the band after a 13-year absence?
BS: It was Rebecca that suggested it to me about a year ago when I came off holiday, and I was shocked that she’d suggested it at first. But the more I thought about it – not just Gillian coming back in, but going out as New Order again – the more I thought it would be a good idea.
Gillian, were you still practising and keeping your hand in, just in case the call ever came?
GG: No. We did some TV work, didn’t we?
SM: And a little remixing.
GG: Yes, we were remixing Factory Floor.
SM: And Nine Inch Nails as well.
GG: We weren’t rehearsing for New Order. I didn’t want to go back. Not with everything happening at home.
There was an illness with your daughter…
GG: Yes, when she was 17 months old. She became disabled. She had a lot of physical disability. There was a lot of physio, but because her condition was very rare, there wasn’t much, you know… ?
What was the condition?
SM: It’s called transverse myelitis. It’s a bit like polio. It’s a funny thing – it’s more common than you think. Some people get it, and some people recover from it. Other people get it and never recover.
GG: You get a virus in your spine. Some people have had it in their neck and are paralysed.
And she needed round-the-clock assistance?
SM: It becomes a 24-hour-a-day job. We didn’t know what the hell was going on.
GG: It was dead scary.
Gillian, are you nervous about coming back into the fold?
GG: In a weird way, no.
SM: You’re not nervous?
GG: That’s what Julie [Gillian’s sister] keeps saying. I will be when I’ve lost half a stone. I’m sort of nervous, but because I’ve not been doing it for a long time, because I’ve been doing all the house-y stuff…
SM: You’ve been singing.
GG: Well that was sort of a warm-up.
Stephen and Gillian were working on the Other Two, Bernard and Stephen were working on the second Bad Lieutenant album, and Bernard, you were making an electronic album with Stuart Price of Les Rhythm Digitales. What’s the current status concerning those releases, or is it all on hold at the moment?
BS: We’ve not decided what to do with anything. We’ve said we’ll do these gigs and see how it goes – take one step at a time. And that’s the first step, although we’ve been offered quite a few gigs, but we haven’t made any announcements.
SM: If you want to get New Order back together, do an Other Two LP. Every bloody time. Because with Republic we were halfway through an Other Two album.
GG: And then our album came out after New Order.
SM: Then we were doing Superhighways, it was, “Oh, let’s do another New Order one!”
GG: It would be better putting a New Order album out first, and put ours out later.
Are New Order planning to compose new material, or are you not allowed to talk about that?
BS: Yes, we’re not allowed to talk about that. Erm, we have written some new music but we’ve put it on hold because we’ve been so busy rehearsing and sorting out the visuals.
SM: It’s a bit early. The thing about us doing the Bad Lieutenant stuff is it was a lot of fun, because there were no expectations at all, so it was great. I’m not nervous, I’m just slightly apprehensive because we’ve got something to prove. And will they like it?
I’ve been told there will, possibly, be some South American dates.
SM: Possibly, yes.
It’s been put to me that the latest New Order line-up is Bad Lieutenant with Gillian joining the group. Will the material that Bad Lieutenant have been working on go out under the name New Order?
SM: No, bloody hell. You can’t do that. Yes, we’re doing a Bad Lieutenant album, but it’s a Bad Lieutenant album and we’re putting that on the shelf for a minute and started doing this.
When Bad Lieutenant were in London in 2010, you played a number of New Order tracks.
BS: Well that was his [Hooky’s] excuse, if that’s what I’ve read in the press, about him doing the albums. And we do [play New Order tracks], but at most it’s only a third of the set. I think it was three New Order tracks, two Joy Division and some solo stuff. Stuff that I’ve done with Johnny [Marr, with Electronic], stuff that I’ve done with the Chemical Brothers. But we’ve only done one album with Bad Lieutenant, so it’s really difficult when you write an album, because you write an album, not a live set, so we need more material really.
People are wondering how New Order will sound without Hooky’s bass, but Joy Division and New Order have historically been able to change their sound. So will there be much of a difference in your sound?
BS: Well we’ve got no choice, really.
The sound of the bass will have to be subtly different, won’t it?
BS: Yes, but it’s not going to be that difficult. Tom [Chapman]’s doing it, and Tom’s already done it in Bad Lieutenant. We’re just getting someone else to play his [Hooky’s] parts, because there’s nothing else we can do. He said it’ll never work, that it’ll be Queen without Freddie Mercury.
Or Sooty without Sweep, as Hooky’s press release stated.
BS: I don’t know which one’s Sweep. But with Bad Lieutenant it was all right, wasn’t it? Tom’s a good bass player. Needs must, you know. You’ve got to move forward and that’s what we have to do. It changes over the years, because Gillian didn’t play with us for a long time.
SM: Tom Chapman was the first bass player we came across. There he was. And he knows the tunes.
GG: I think everything happened so quickly. It wasn’t planned for a whole year. They asked me to go in [to New Order] in July, didn’t they?
SM: What would you be doing? Because you said you wanted to do some singing.
GG: I felt like doing the Other Two stuff. I felt this year a lot better about everything. It’s not a big plan. It’s not like we’ve been planning this against Hooky for a year. It wasn’t like that. He probably thought it was.
SM: It’s really hard to be new. The great thing about New Order was it was always going forward.
We understand that for the new gigs, you’re taking the equipment to its extreme capability, which has been New Order’s way all along.
SM: That’s what I quite like. In a way, I’d like to do a couple of old songs that we haven’t done for a while. It’s like reinventing the wheel. In the old days, you’d just turn the volume down and let it drop out for a bit, and then you’d turn the volume back up. You can’t do that any more. So something as simple as turning the volume knob up and down, you now have to think, “Bloody hell, how are we going to do that?” Something that should be really simple is actually quite painful.
BS: What we’re doing now is using visuals that are highly complex. Interestingly, we’re making these visuals for the show and we’re pushing the technology to its utter limit of what it can do. At the side of the computer we’ve got two fans blowing because the computer’s getting so hot. We’re pushing it to the limits of what it can do, so it’s exciting, but every day we say, “Shit, it won’t do it.”
Did you see Kraftwerk in 2004 when they played in London? Their backdrop while they were performing took you into the album sleeve, into the world.
BS: I did. I thought it was fantastic. I remember I went with Stephen and Gillian. We got on the tube afterwards with all the Kraftwerk fans. The only thing with the visuals is deciding how active the video should be – whether you have an active video that’s part of the live show, or an active video that’s more like a film that engrosses you. It’s how much you want to engross people.
Kraftwerk had to do it, because they’re four blokes nearing retirement age in front of synthesizers and there’s not a lot going on, and yet, just the fact they were shaking their legs meant they were really enjoying it.
BS: I know! Funnily enough I was watching some Kraftwerk stuff last night. Very old video with the original line-up, with Karl [Bartos], a very good friend of mine. You should check it out, cos it’s quite interesting. It’s this TV show, and everyone in the audience is old biddies, on German daytime TV. And you’ve got these guys who look like your worst nightmare.
Stephen, do you have an update on the book you’re writing?
SM: The book? The book that is called What Is Jazz? It’s not about jazz!
Is it about Joy Division?
SM: Yes, it is. It’s just the story of my life, you know, but a bit of a novel. Write about what you know.
Is there a timescale for this?
SM: I’m a bit late for this Christmas. Shaun Ryder’s got in there before me. So next year. I like doing it, because it’s like sticking pins in a voodoo doll and you write loads of stuff and get lots of things off your chest. And you think, “That’s great,” and then you read it back… You’ve just got to do it and then give it to somebody else.
We spoke to Peter Saville a few weeks ago, and he was saying the whole thing about Factory is that it doesn’t go away. It gets bigger and bigger. People are still interested in what went on.
SM: Which is great. It was genuinely different. We were trying to do things different to anybody else. It could have easily lasted a week and fallen flat on its face, but it was very successful and in fact became a victim of its own success. As these things do.
Are there any surprises in the new gigs for fans?
SM: Yes, no Joy Division songs! Maybe one Joy Division song. We’re just going to try and do New Order songs.
Are you going to be playing tracks that you haven’t played in a while?
Which you can’t tell us about.
SM: Because we don’t really know. We’re doing stuff off Power Corruption & Lies.
GG: Is there anything off Movement?
SM: No, we’re not doing anything off Movement.
Maybe “Truth” would be a good track to play live!
SM: That was just a drum machine, with a little switch on it. Try playing that with a sodding computer!
Maybe “This Time Of Night” might be a good one to do.
SM: Yes… we’re a bit low on Low-Life.
“Sunrise” would be great.
SM: “Sunrise”! That always sounds good! It’s a bit of a rock-out.
GG: Yes, I love to play that one.
“Everyone Everywhere” worked fantastically well at Reading in 1993. That three-way guitar section towards the end of the track… the crowd went wild.
SM: Wasn’t that Alexandra Palace? No, it was Reading.
GG: Alexandra Palace – we were very ill that night.
SM: Oh, illness, was it? The New Year’s Eve illness. Bez on stage, too. Bloody hell.
To find out about New Order’s upcoming gigs, go to neworder.com