The Newest Order
Published September 29, 2009
Like the Lazarus of Manchester, Bernard Sumner is back. Having birthed New Order (with bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris) out of Joy Division following Ian Curtis’ suicide nearly three decades ago, the 53 year-old musician is making another foray into the pop realm with his new project Bad Lieutenant. Forged in the wake of Hook’s departure in 2007 with some early help from Blur bassist Alex James, the band–Sumner, Morris, New Order’s Phil Cunningham, and Rambo and Leroy frontman (and fellow Manchester virtuoso) Jake Evans–has dropped the melancholic synthesizer beats that made The Hacienda the stuff of legend for a folk-infused, three-guitar pop style that blends Sumner’s wistful lyrics and melodic high notes with summery riffs from Cunningham and Evans. “It’s a combination of youth and optimism, because Jake’s like 29 and Phil’s like 32 and they’ve still got that youthful optimism, and I’m going to try my hardest to beat it out of them,” jokes Sumner, who’s gearing up for a new tour to promote the band’s first album Never Cry Another Tear, which opens with a straight shot of New Wave pop from Sumner (the album’s first single, “Sink or Swim”) and closes out with a soulful Scottish-style folk acoustic number from Evans (“Head Into Tomorrow”). “They’re just really happy to be making music, and there’s a good vibe in the band,” says Sumner. “There’s no ego problems or complicated personalities. We’ve got a simple formula: we just get on pretty well and it shows on the record.”
Before a dead phone battery killed our wide-ranging conversation, the singer sounded off on his new synth-less sound, another dance record he’s got in the works, why he hates touring, and a fateful encounter he had with a giant shark last month off the west coast of Scotland.
MS: How’s it going?
BS: It’s going alright. I’m just hoping this phone works okay because it’s a cordless phone and I’ve got two and on one of them the batteries are no good.
MS: Well, we’ll try to make a go of it.
MS: So I read an interview you did this year in which you said this is a critical album, in a way, because if it doesn’t work you might stop making music. Is that true?
BS: [Laughs] Sometimes I say things and I think, “Did I say that, really?” It was true at that moment in time and there’s a definite chance of that, yeah, because it’s really, really hard work making music. We work 14 hours a day making this album for at least the last six months and it just seems to get harder because the album is available on the internet now, and the last two New Order albums we made were out on the internet before they came out in the shops and you do get disappointed thinking, “Fuck, why am I doing this?” Perhaps that was one of those moments. But I don’t know, sometimes I just think I can’t go on making music forever. But other times I think well what would I do?
MS: What would you do?
BS: I have not found the answer yet, I’d probably just watch a lot of television and drink. I don’t know what else is there apart from music. I think it was perhaps a momentary thought, but if it came down to it I’m a creative person and I have been since I was a kid and it’s hard to quash that creativity.
MS: Another thing you said in the same interview is that you don’t want to go on making music as New Order.
BS: Well, it’s not that I didn’t want to continue with New Order, it’s just that it was impossible to continue with New Order because the bass player [Peter Hook] left and with him we wouldn’t be New Order anymore. That’s what I meant. It’s like when Ian Curtis died, we weren’t Joy Division anymore. So we changed the name and started again and that seems like the right thing to do right now with Bad Lieutenant. It’s probably commercial suicide for me, but what can you do about it? Plus, he wouldn’t let us use the name, so…
MS: What kind of sound were you trying to get with the new band?
BS: Well, I just wanted to work with people that I got on with, first of all. I wanted my life to be a more pleasant place to be because when you’re in a band you spend a lot of time together and I wanted that to be a happy place, and it wasn’t a happy place at certain periods with New Order, and I didn’t want that to happen. Musical direction was just a combination of coming from the chemistry of the players, it just so happens Phil Cunningham happens to a be a guitarist, who replaced Gillian when she left New Order, and Jake Evans plays guitar. There’s a lot of guitar on the record and he’s a great guitarist as well, he’s been playing since he was five years old. And I play guitar as well, so we have three guitarists in the band so it just made common sense to make a guitar album.
MS: It’s like hearing an old familiar voice with you there but then it’s got this light instrumental thing, which like you were saying is happy. It is a happier sound.
BS: Yeah, I think that’s their influence though because I’m just a miserable fucker, you know? [Laughs]. And I’m not going to change, but they’re two happy guys, so that’s their influence over my miserable vocals. [Laughing again].
MS: And the name of the band came from where?
BS: It comes from a film. It’s a very black, heavy film featuring Harvey Keitel about a cop who goes bad. He gets really hooked on drugs and gambling and just high all the time on cocaine and then he tries to redeem himself-I won’t give the end of the film away. I was at Johnny Marr’s house when I was working with him and I took a break from the studio and went upstairs and watched a bit of this film with this guy, and said, “Whoa, what’s this film you’re watching, it’s so heavy?” And you have to see it really, it’s extremely black, but it’s so bad. I’ve got a quite dark sense of humor and some of the scenes were so over the top I found it quite funny. Not the same way a Tarantino film would be, but in a Tarantino film it’s intentional, but with this film it was unintentional. I remembered it and thought it was a good title really.
MS: Well now there’s that Werner Herzog movie coming out with the same title.
BS: Yes, well what happened with that is that we played around with a few names and we kind of liked Bad Lieutenant. This is ages ago before we knew about the Werner Herzog film and I might have done one interview where I said, “We’ve got a name, the name’s Bad Lieutenant.” One little tiny interview for a small magazine, and then I remember hearing about the Werner Herzog film. Then went to Steve–our drummer’s–house and I said we’re thinking of calling it Bad Lieutenant after the old film but there’s a new film coming out from Werner Herzog, so I’m not sure. And Steve went, “It’s all over the internet, you can’t change it now.” All the fans are talking about it, so we couldn’t change it then. So, you know?
MS: Have you been playing out together?
BS: We’re just rehearsing now. We’ve got some concerts coming up in about three weeks. We’re busy finishing the set. We’re coming to America as well, kind of the end of November. We’re just playing a few gigs just to get used to it again and we’re playing in New York. We’re doing our own day and supporting the Pixies, and in Chicago we’re doing the same thing, and playing our own dates in Toronto. It’s just part of this promo trip really.
MS: Do you want to be back touring again?
BS: No. [Laughs] Let me think about that. There’s parts of touring I like, I like the actual performance part but the bit when you’re in the airport waiting at the carousel for your bags to come around, I don’t like that a bit. I think you’d be a fool to put all that effort into making a record and then not go out and take it to people. Because that’s the real direct line you’ve got. It can be an educational thing to play your songs to people, because you see where you’ve gone right and where you’ve gone wrong. Touring is not my favorite bit of the whole process. I toured a lot in the early days with New Order and I had all the fun that is humanly possible for a person to have in those days so I feel full up with the fun side of touring, but it’s a record I’m proud of so I want to take it to people.
MS: It’ll be cool to see the old stuff with this new instrumental arrangement. There’s hardly any synthesizer on the new album.
BS: No, there’s not and there’s a reason for that really. One of the reasons is that these guys are guitarists so it would be silly for me to say, “Put your guitars down, here’s a couple of synthesizer, write songs with them now.” But also I was writing another album at the same time with a guy called Stuart Price, otherwise known as Jacques Lu Cont. He’s in Les Rythmes Digitales and he produced The Killers last album and produced Madonna’s [Confessions on a Dance Floor] album and I was making a synthesizer album with him at the same time as this album, so it all got a bit too much for me. So we put the Stuart album on hold, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is some synthesizer stuff lined up for the future.
MS: For Bad Lieutenant or just you?
BS: Don’t know yet, haven’t decided. But we’ve got a few tracks recorded. But it’s quite difficult for me to write electronic music, because it’s normally something you would do on your own sitting in front of a computer with a keyboard, mouse and synthesizer and it’s a lonely pursuit. But I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted to work with other musicians because quite simply it’s more fun. The other reason is that the other electronic music I made with New Order was primarily dance music and to make dance music you have to go to dance clubs and find out what’s happening and be in on the scene and I don’t go to clubs anymore so I don’t know. And dance music has split off into so many genres I wouldn’t know which genre I fit into because it’s got so clique-y that I find it a bit of a turnoff to be honest.
MS: It doesn’t seem like after the height of the Madchester days that it might be a little bit of a letdown for you.
BS: Um, it’s not that, it’s just that I’ve been through that period where I felt clubs were a vital and relevant part of my life and now it’s time to do something else. I don’t want to stay up til five o’clock in the morning taking vast quantities of whatever and drinking vast quantities of whatever because I’ve done it and I want to do something else now. And also with electronic music it’s very easy into the trap of writing synth pop and I’m a little bit weary of that. It’s difficult.
MS: So are you saying if you don’t think too far ahead there might be a New Order reunion on the horizon?
BS: Oh, I don’t think that will happen, no. Things have gone too wrong and it’s very, very broken this time and I don’t think it can be fixed.
MS: Is Alex coming out on the road with you?
BS: No he’s out on the road with Blur because he did what New Order won’t do, which is get back together again. That’s okay though because at the end of the day Alex is only rightly involved in two tracks on the album.
MS: What are you doing outside the recording studio, listening to anything?
BS: No, I don’t really listen to anything while I’m making a record but I can recommend this one song from this Manchester band called Cherry Ghost. The song is called “Mathematics.” Other than that I just watch TV.
MS: Anything good?
BS: Not really. How about this, I did have some time off when I finished the album. I do like sailing, that’s what I do as my pastime so I bought a yacht and I was sailing up on the west coast of Scotland and was rammed by a giant shark. That actually happened.
MS: How long have you been sailing?
BS: 25 years. But that was the hairiest moment I’ve had in 25 years.
MS: What exactly happened?
BS: They had to get the helicopter out. The boat nearly sank, I was out in a really rough part of sea called The Minch that’s got all these shipwrecks in it and I had a collision with a 30 foot shark. I was sailing out from an island and I got about five miles out and there was this god almighty crash like I’d hit rocks and the boat was going to sink but I looked around and checked the charts and there was no rocks so I called the Coast Guard and he said some of the other boats that had been up there that morning had reported six large sharks in that part of the sea. And when I got to the place I was going to, which is this small Scottish island called Barra and I got a diver to go down to the bottom of the boat and he said that there was a big imprint of a huge shark in the paint on the bottom of my boat. At the time I was sailing with my family while my family was in bed so I’m pulling the floorboards up every ten minutes to see if we’d taken on any water. How many musicians do that in their pastime? [Phone batteries die].
Bad Lieutenant’s first single “Sink or Swim” drops today. The album, Never Cry Another Tear, will be released October 13.