New Order return: forget the rows, play the music
Despite splits and court cases, New Order are playing and recording again – and coming to Electric Picnic
True faith: the new-look New Order. Photograph: Andrew Benge/Redferns/Getty
True faith: Joy Division at Bowdon Vale Youth Club, in Manchester, in 1979. Photograph: Martin O’Neill/Redferns/Getty
True faith: Stephen Morris drumming with Joy Division at Bowdon Vale Youth Club, in Manchester, in 1979. Photograph: Martin O’Neill/Redferns/Getty
True faith: New Order – Bernard Sumner, Gillian Gilbert, Stephen Morris and Peter Hook – in 1989. Photograph: Bob Berg/Getty
Given their past it may not be a surprise that New Order’s recent history has been an eventful one. The alt-electro pioneers return to Electric Picnic next weekend. The 10 years since they last appeared has been defined by a hiatus, members falling out with the band, members rejoining the band, members suing the band, and, last September, a return to form with album number 10, Music Complete.
Its success was strategically important. It deflected attention away from the disputes and back to the music while striking an impressive balance between forging new ground and harking back to their signature of straight-faced dancefloor anthems (much to the delight of fanboys everywhere).
“We eased our way back into writing because we were playing live again. Doing it that way, you couldn’t help but notice that the dance stuff went down well,” says Stephen Morris, New Order’s drummer, explaining why it played to their strengths. “We had thought, Wouldn’t it be good to have a couple of new songs in the set that would work well? So we were writing to fit into the set rather than go into the studio with no ideas and hope to come out with an album at some point in the future.
“It started out with Singularity, which we did with Tom [Rowlands] from the Chemical Brothers, who did a spot of production. We thought we’d help him out,” he says. “Then we did Plastic, and once we did two or three we decided not to worry about doing the gigs and concentrate on writing a record. And the reaction’s been great: it’s gone down fantastically.”
The only issue with the praise is that many compliments were backhanded, often having a little dig at the band’s previous two albums, Get Ready and Waiting for the Siren’s Call. Recorded without Gillian Gilbert, Morris’s wife, adding her keyboard magic, these albums were more indie than usual, as suggested by the lead singles Crystal and Krafty. With the benefit of hindsight, what does Morris make of their early-2000s output?
He’s on the fence, it transpires.
“You always look back on it and you can’t be objective about it; your opinion is always coloured by the experience you have making it,” Morris says. “Siren’s Call was like a marathon. We had too many songs, and we knew they were good, but we couldn’t see the end product. Get Ready was the opposite: we knew where we wanted to go but didn’t know how to get there.
“Get Ready was also the last album where we went away to record it,” he adds. “Up to that point we worked by messing about at home, and then, when we wanted to get serious, the only way to do that was to spend a hell of a lot of money to go to a posh recording studio with nice food, and stay there for as long as you could manage.
“As far as the albums go, I think they’ve got good songs, but I can’t listen to them in the way that other people hear them.”
It was the same, he says, back in the late 1970s, when he first began drumming with Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook in the bleak northern English town of Macclesfield. After four years of live shows Joy Division began recording with Martin Hannett, who was responsible for both Closer and Unknown Pleasures, and arguably their inimitable sound.
“We had an idea of what we sounded like in our heads from what it was live, which was all very raw and aggressive. But Martin pulled out something else. It was a shock. With Unknown Pleasures everyone was – what’s the word – upset with how it turned out. We were like, ‘You’ve ruined our songs!”
The talk of Joy Division is bitter-sweet, mostly because of Curtis’s untimely death, in 1980, and now also because of their acrimonious split with Hook, who’s calling the reassembled group – completed by Tom Chapman, replacing him on bass, and by the guitarist Phil Cunningham – a “New Order tribute band”. Ouch.
“The whole situation is desperately sad,” Morris says. “But Peter seems happy doing what he’s doing, which is playing New Order and Joy Division songs, and that’s fine. We’re doing what we’re doing, which is fine.” In suing the rest of New Order over royalties, however, Hook is obviously not happy with what they’re doing.
“It would seem not. We’ll sort it out one way or another, but a lawsuit is an expensive way to go about doing it. Hopefully one of the parties will go bankrupt first,” Morris says, seemingly not wishing for New Order’s bankruptcy. “Until then the meter’s ticking, and the only people who come out on top are the lawyers, which is sad.”
Burning his bridges by no half-measures, Hooky is also adding fuel to the fire by releasing Substance: Inside New Order, an autobiography about his time in the band. What does Morris make of its timing?
“You’ll have to wait until my book comes out! Except I’m not going to write about Joy Division or New Order, because that’s been done to death,” he says, markedly.
He won’t be leafing through Substance, then, in anticipation of what a man with a chip on his shoulder might recall?
“No. I’ve lived it, and that’s enough,” he says. “I’ve tried reading Bernard’s book, and Debbie Curtis’s, and Lindsay Reade’s. There’s loads of them. I just get a bit annoyed. The thing is, it’s just one person’s point of view. And when you’re writing a biography you always cast yourself as a hero – unless you’re being brutally honest.”
While Hooky busies himself with the book and his current venture, Peter Hook & The Light, New Order are rounding off a summer of festivals. After Electric Picnic and, the following weekend, Lollapalooza in Berlin, their focus will return to a long and tricky project: a definitive New Order box set. It has been on the back burner for years – understandably, given the difficulty in representing 36 years of seminal, consistently relevant music.
“It’s the most difficult thing in the world. Everyone else has a great box set, but when it comes to doing ours it always seems like we can never get it right,” Morris says. “And I don’t think there’s any point in doing something if it’s not going to be at least 99 per cent right.”
Will Hook be involved in its creation?
“Peter talks to the record company, so I suppose he’s involved in that respect. We’ve got to agree on it all. So I guess we just have to come up with a list of things for it . . . and then argue about it afterwards.”
The Electric Picnic festival takes place at Stradbally Hall, in Co Laois, on the weekend of September 2nd-4th