It All Comes Back Around for Stephen Morris

Published October 18, 2012

Stephen Morris’s journey as a musician has been longer than most. The drummer is a founding member of Joy Division and an enduring fixture of New Order, the band that rose out of its predecessor’s tragic end to pioneer electronica in its earliest days. Fast-forward to today and New Order’s music is more relevant than ever, inspiring a new generation of musicians and producers to revisit the sound that took many of its leads from New York’s early 1980s club scene.

After a temporary breakup in the 1990s, the band went on to release a new album in 2005 and their first Joy Division-New Order compilation last year. A soured relationship between bassist Peter Hook and the other band members was splashed across media in the subsequent months, with both factions going their separate ways in what seems like an irreparable split.

Throughout all this, Morris and vocalist Bernard Sumner (also of Joy Division) have remained the soul of New Order. Rejoining last year with former band-member (and Morris’ partner) Gillian Gilbert, new bassist Tom Chapman and second guitarist Phil Cunningham, the band set off on tour with a set list that embraces the music of Joy Division, uniting it with that of New Order. On the eve of the New York leg and the final few shows of the tour, Morris reflected on their legendary journey and looked to New Order’s next step.

TEMPE NAKISKA: So how has the tour been?

STEPHEN MORRIS: Fantastic. It wasn’t really meant to be a tour, though; it started out as two gigs for our friend Michael Shamberg, the film producer. When we started a year ago, I didn’t think I’d be here right now!

NAKISKA: How has the line-up been, playing with Gillian and Tom and Phil?

MORRIS: It’s nice having Gillian back; I was a bit lonely without her. The good thing about there being five of us is that you have more freedom live. You can have two or three keyboard players then change it up and have a couple of different guitarists. It’s more versatile.

NAKISKA: Your new set revisits a lot of your older music, right through to Joy Division—how would you describe New Order’s identity today?

MORRIS: Well, hopefully, it’s an identity that’s moving forward. When we started working on the set, our process was to listen to pretty much every song we’d ever done and pick out the ones we liked most. It was kind of like reinterpreting your past. Some things really resisted being reinterpreted, like “Blue Monday”—you couldn’t really do much to it, and I guess you wouldn’t want to.

NAKISKA: Do you feel like you’re coming full circle, back to Joy Division?

MORRIS: Joy Division never needed us to come back to it; it had a life of its own. But revisiting it live is great because you now appreciate its simplicity. You didn’t have computers then, and you carried the music around in your head. Like Heart and Soul, you can’t write that stuff down. Joy Division was a feeling.

NAKISKA: So will you be working on new material soon?

MORRIS: Yes, hopefully we will work on new material—interesting stuff, though. I’m not mad on the idea of knocking out an album for the sake of doing “an album.” Nowadays there’s a bit of a question mark over why you need to do that when there’s so many other, more interactive ways of putting music out there, like films or even just downloads.

NAKISKA: I guess ultimately it should be about creating something fresh that you’re all excited about?

MORRIS: Yeah.

NAKISKA: What kind of project would achieve this?

MORRIS: I think it would be best to just focus on a couple of tracks and really perfect them. I always get excited over James Murphy’s work and everything that comes out of DFA. I really like the way that Murphy and LCD Soundsystem mix electronic, dance and rock together. It’s kind of like what we were doing when we started out. It would be cool to work with people like that.

NAKISKA: Well the electronic music you pioneered as New Order is so popular now, it’s influencing a new generation. How do you feel about that?

MORRIS: The thing about music is that if you stick around long enough—like anything, really—it does come back around. It’s as simple as that—young people are picking up on the stuff that we were doing 20 years ago and reinterpreting it, just as we have been changing up our old material for this tour. It’s great to see loads of kids excited to see us live, to have had that resurgence.

NAKISKA: From Joy Division, you became something entirely different as New Order—your experimentation with music technology pioneered a new kind of music. Did it feel like freedom?

MORRIS: No. It was like thumping about in the dark. We’d started playing around with drum machines and new technology as Joy Division but it was still a big challenge. When Joy Division finished, it was obvious that we had to go in an entirely different direction, but a lot of it was defined by “I don’t know what it will be but it’s not going to be that …” Movement, the first album, was us figuring out what we were as a band. It was when we did Everything’s Gone Green that we hit on this dance thing and it became the definition of what was different about New Order as opposed to Joy Division. But it was a tortuous evolution.

NAKISKA: I’ve read that you and Bernard were really into the experimentation, creating new sounds with the technology you had…

MORRIS: We were like impatient kids at Christmas. You could see where all the technology was going, but back then it was very limited. That was actually a good thing to an extent, though—when you couldn’t do much with the gear and had so many limitations, you had to be more creative. At the same time it was very frustrating. I suppose that makes me a geek, doesn’t it?

NAKISKA: [laughs] So would you say technology isn’t necessarily freedom?

MORRIS: Technology is always a double-edged sword. The greatest thing about it is that today a person with absolutely no musical experience can knock up a tune on Garage Band. It goes back to the punk ethic, where anybody can do it. Then again, I was reading a survey the other day that said music is more similar today than it has ever been, since first recordings.

NAKISKA: Why’s that?

MORRIS: Well exactly, it should be more different because there’s so much you can do with it. But the problem is that when you create something new, it takes about five years before people think it’s any good. There’s a fear of the new in music. It’s easy to make something that ticks all the commercial boxes, so people fall back into that and avoid pushing any boundaries. Music used to be a more personal thing, and it defined who you were. Now it’s like wallpaper.

NAKISKA: We prefer to be nomads rather than align ourselves with a specific genre or subculture.

MORRIS: You used to defend your musical values to the hilt, but now if something isn’t working, you just hop to another band. My youngest daughter went from Justin Bieber to the Jonas Brothers to Joy Division in the space of a few months!

NAKISKA: Switching gears, “Blue Monday” is still the biggest selling 12″ single of all time, yet it never got much radio play. Was this something you intended?

MORRIS: “Blue Monday” was a record we designed to be played in the club. It was too long to be played on the radio, but we didn’t care. At the time we were going to clubs in New York and London and we liked that big, pumping bass drum sound… So that’s what it was more than anything, we just wanted to create an atmosphere.

NAKISKA: New York was the epicenter of growth in new electronic music throughout the ’80s and very much in the late ’90s—what was your experience of it?

MORRIS: It was just really open and creative—one of those places where you have a lot of different ideas mixed together to make something new. So many clubs in England were only playing disco, whereas New York clubs like Hurrah played a mix of punk music, disco, and what would eventually become hip-hop. We worked with Arthur Baker and it was through the stuff he did with [Afrika] Bambaataa and they way he would change up Kraftwerk’s music that was really pushing genres in new directions. New York didn’t feel a million miles from Manchester, but musically it was very different.

NAKISKA: What was your live setup like back then in comparison to now? I heard you had three setups running live in case something went wrong.

MORRIS: Well, not “in case,” but when something went wrong! Some of our gear was homemade, you weren’t meant to take it out of the studio and it broke down all the time. It made gigs pretty interesting. Our sets kind of wrote themselves!

NAKISKA: New Order live has always been a massive power; what can New York expect?

MORRIS: We’re at the end of [the tour] now so are messing about with the set more. It would be nice to do something we don’t do very often, like “Round & Round.”

NAKISKA: And after the show?

MORRIS: Well we hope to release a few leftover tracks from the last album [Waiting For The Siren’s Call] before Christmas. After that, we’ll think about having a go at writing. It will be good to push on.

NEW ORDER PLAYS ROSELAND BALLROOM TONIGHT, OCTOBER 18 AND FRIDAY, OCTOBER 19. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.