Bernard Sumner: ‘We made music because we hated work and normality’
New Order’s frontman on Joy Division, Morrissey, Trump and the far right, giving up Pernod (‘alcoholic toothpaste’), and how he finally learned to enjoy touring
It’s been a disappointing summer, but the sun is shining and New Order are back in town. Speaking of sunshine, their singer, Bernard Sumner, in his 2014 memoir Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me, notes how the blue skies of Los Angeles spawned the Beach Boys. He also adds that Dusseldorf produced Kraftwerk, New York birthed Chic, and Manchester hatched Joy Division, who, like the city itself, sounded “cold, sparse and, at times, bleak”.
At their Trinity College show, New Order play five Joy Division songs. Even if some of these songs could be construed as bleak, Trinity’s cricket pitch hosts scenes of pure, unadulterated joy, fuelled by love, sunshine, alcohol and one of the greatest back catalogues in pop.
These incredible songs are haunted by their own unique ghosts, namely Ian Curtis, Rob Gretton, Martin Hannett and Tony Wilson, all deceased participants in an astonishing tale. New Order are now managed by Rebecca Boulton and Andy Robinson, who took over after Rob Gretton died of a heart attack in 1999, aged just 46. The Joy Division/New Order story has been messy, seldom pure, and never simple.
Keyboardist Gillian Gilbert was an occasional substitute guitarist in the early Joy Division days, later joining New Order after singer Ian Curtis’s death in 1980. She married Stephen Morris in 1994, who is widely considered to be one of the best drummers in musical history for his pioneering percussion in both bands. Gilbert stopped touring in 1998, and took extended leave in 2001, to care for the couple’s children, later rejoining in 2011.
In a recently published book, This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else – Joy Division: The Oral History, England’s Dreaming author Jon Savage unearths a brilliant quote from Tony Wilson, the Factory Records supremo.
“Yes, it’s a fabulous story, the story of the rebuilding of a city that begins with them,” Wilson says. “The story of a tragic suicide, a moral story and a cultural, academic, intellectual, aesthetic story, but at the heart of it it’s only here because they wrote great songs and great songs never die.”
Ian Curtis and Tony Wilson are in the grave, but their legacy endures. Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures has just entered the top 40 album charts for the very first time, 40 years after its release in 1979, when it went to number 71. Last month, it peaked at number 5, and its Peter Saville artwork was projected on to public buildings in Manchester.
Initially, Sumner was the ultimate reluctant frontman, unwittingly catapulted into the position by the death of Ian Curtis. Yet, on the Trinity stage, he delivers a triumphantly uplifting performance that is streets ahead of his early career. A few hours before the Trinity show, as he sits in a hotel room overlooking Stephen’s Green, he reflects on what inspired him to join Joy Division.
“In the early days we were just happy to make music because we hated work and normality,” Sumner says. “Doing a nine-to-five put the fear of God in you. I never envisaged doing that, but I tried it for a bit. I left school and I had to get a job because we didn’t have any money. I somehow got a job at Salford City Treasury at the town hall sending rates demands out and stuffing envelopes. I was 17 and worked in a general office sending these out, thinking, ‘Jesus, to quote a Peggy Lee song, is this all there is?’ Some of the people who were in there for a couple of years were great, but some of them were like the living dead.”
Sumner wanted to be more creative, so he contacted every single advertising agency in Manchester and got work as a runner, as he had a Lambretta scooter, and then progressed to animation. “It was like conveyor belt art, so I wanted to do something else,” he says. “Then, the band just came together from going to gigs and meeting like-minded people. By some incredible miracle, it worked, and it is still working. Thank goodness, because I don’t need a plan B now.”
New Order: Ultraviolence live at MIF
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I always tidy my room before I check out, because I don’t want to give the cleaners a more difficult job, and my grandmother was a cleaner
Sumner enthuses that he has never enjoyed touring so much, as they now do everything at a healthier pace. “The old New Order shows used to follow the pattern of doing a great show and going out and celebrating. We’d celebrate way too much with a party in the dressing-room after the show, go to a pub, bring a load of people back to the hotel, get trashed – but not trash the hotel because I don’t believe in that sort of carry-on. I always tidy my room before I check out, because I don’t want to give the cleaners a more difficult job, and my grandmother was a cleaner. So I’d tidy my room, but I’d be throwing up because I’d drank way too much.
“I used to drink Pernod and orange juice, which is like drinking alcoholic toothpaste, but I drink wine now. All that only went on for about 15 . . . no, 20 years,” he says, breaking into laughter. “But eventually we learnt our lesson. Now, it is like being hit by a big stick. As you get older, the stick gets bigger until it is like being hit by a six-by-seven breezeblock on your head and something has to change.”
In Chapter and Verse, Sumner recalls being so sick at an American airport on a promotional tour with Electronic, he placed a carrier bag full of his own vomit through a security scanner. His bandmate, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, stopped drinking around this time. “Yeah, I think I put him off,” Sumner laughs. “We did a festival in Athens about three weeks ago where we played Get the Message. Johnny was great and in really good form, but he doesn’t drink, and neither does his band. They all go jogging together, apparently.”
There’s all sorts of weird shit going down that never would’ve been accepted a few years ago
Did Johnny broach the subject of his former bandmate, Morrissey, and his increasingly questionable endorsements of a far-right fringe party called For Britain?
“I think we questioned his dubious politics,” Sumner answers. “He has become a bit toxic, hasn’t he? The world has gone a bit like that at the moment. We were only discussing this at dinner last night. It’s gone a bit pear-shaped. These are very strange times and a lot of things don’t seem to make sense. We’ve got Brexit in the UK. I’m not a fan. Obviously you’ve got Mr Trump. I find it difficult to call him President Trump. Let’s call him Resident Trump.”
Sumner is as bemused by our times as anyone else. “There’s all sorts of weird shit going down that never would’ve been accepted a few years ago,” he says. “Trump seems to be able to get away with everything under the sun. I remember the days when a member of parliament would lose their job for being whipped by a dominatrix and getting caught, which seemed to happen very frequently. I remember a Bernard Manning joke, which doesn’t really apply now because the tables have been turned. It concerned a Conservative MP who had hung himself with an orange in his mouth so he couldn’t breathe. He was dressed in stockings and suspenders and a bra, but apparently he had a Manchester City kit on underneath it all, but they kept that bit out of the papers so not to embarrass his family. Now, that joke has gone full circle. I’m a United fan, so it’s been a testing few years.”
Sumner mentions Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, noting that it is hard to keep up with the insanity. “Take the Harvey Weinstein scandal,” he says. “He quite rightly shouldn’t have a career anymore, but on the other hand, before Donald Trump became president, there was audio released of him talking about grabbing women by the vagina. Harvey Weinstein quite rightly gets his career destroyed, but Donald Trump becomes president.”
Sumner posits an intriguing theory. “The best thing I read or heard recently was a 14-year-old kid on YouTube coming up with a theory about when they turned on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, which is a huge particle collider that goes around the city,” he says. “There was a lot of fear that it could create a black hole, or cause a nuclear explosion, or the end of the world. His theory is that when that was switched on it created an alternative universe where Trump becomes president and all this weird shit goes down. I found this amusing and shocking all at the same time.”
The bittersweet euphoria of New Order and the skeletal minimalism of Joy Division are a perfect antidote and soundtrack to the times. Sumner says they don’t have any immediate plans to follow up their well-received late career album, Music Complete, from 2015, but he does have about 150 sound snippets and ideas that they could work with to write songs.
“This is a busy summer, but now I’ve actually some time on my calendar that actually says ‘time off’, which is quite surprising,” he says. “We had a reasonably quiet year last year, which wasn’t as hectic as Steve [Morris] was finishing his book, Record Play Pause, and renovating his studio, which is a lot bigger than mine. He had to put a new roof on it and pest control had to come and remove the dead rats from the ceiling.”
They’ve just released a live album with a difference, entitled New Order + Liam Gillick: So it Goes, which captures a performance in the Granada studios in Manchester. “We were approached by the Manchester International Festival with the brief to come up with something modern and original,” Sumner says. “I thought we should do something with an orchestra, but reinvent the orchestra and instruments.”
The results are another dazzling reimagining of their repertoire.
“The band sat through the entire catalogue for a couple of days and we picked the songs,” Sumner explains. “It was hard work because it had never been done before. It was a case of inventing a wheel rather than reinventing it. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever done a synth orchestra before. Our first television performance as Joy Division was at Granada Studios. Tony Wilson, the boss of our label, Factory Records, was also the presenter, so it was very sweet homecoming for us in more ways than one.”
To date, Sumner has penned one book, while his former bandmate, Peter Hook, has published separate memoirs on the rise and fall of the Hacienda, New Order, and Joy Division. Does he want to catch up with Hooky’s bibliography? “There is one other I’d like to read, but it will be published after my death about a person,” Sumner replies. “I’m not going to say who it is. I just want to get the truth out about a certain situation, but legally, I could only do that after my death.”
I found it as hard work as writing an album, which surprised me, as I’d thought writing books was a lazy man’s profession
Writing Chapter and Verse proved to be more challenging than Sumner thought. “It’s difficult because you’ve got to get all your facts and chronology right,” he elaborates. “I found it as hard work as writing an album, which surprised me, as I’d thought writing books was a lazy man’s profession. It had to be done because someone else had written a biography about me, which in one word is shit. I was signing copies of this crap book, and people in South America were telling me that they’d paid $300 for it, so that’s why I wrote the book, and also to correct a few misconceptions about me and paint a personal history that shows people what is behind the music.”
Finally, the last time Bernard Sumner spoke to The Irish Times, he told Patrick Freyne in 2014: “I’m happier in myself. Better behaved. Less of a f**king idiot.”
“Well, I’m still a bit of a f**king idiot because I drank too much last night,” he laughs. “However, I did say less of a f**king idiot.”
New Order + Liam Gillick: So it Goes is out now