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Interview: New Order

After the tragedy of singer Ian Curtis’s suicide, Joy Division disbanded and the remaining members – guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris – became New Order. Stephen Dalton spoke to the band ahead of their appearances in Bristol and Bath last year, talking about their 40-year career and how they’re still producing anthems today.

Second only to Coronation Street, New Order have been Manchester’s longest-running soap opera for almost 40 years. Ever since they regrouped under a new name in 1980 following the tragic suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, these post-punk living legends have enjoyed a roller-coaster career peppered with break-ups, breakdowns, hair-raising health scares, bitter fall-outs, unexpected revivals and month-long hangovers.

But after a turbulent decade of angry splits and legal spats, there is a little more joy and a little less division in the New Order ranks these days. The band’s 2015 comeback album, Music Complete, earned rave reviews and peaked at Number 2 in the British charts. Nowadays these unlikely national treasures enjoy the elevated lifestyle of a pop supergroup, headlining major festivals around the globe and filling huge outdoor arenas like Bristol’s Harbourside Amphitheatre.

Anybody seeing New Order’s shows are in for a rare treat. In recent years, their live shows have blossomed into magnificent high-tech spectacles, ablaze with cinematic visuals and stacked with classic electro-pop anthems like Temptation, Blue Monday and True Faith. Where once they were sullen and erratic, now they are sumptuous and euphoric. “The thing about now is we are in a good place,” explains singer and frontman Bernard Sumner, “so you don’t really hark back to the bad old days.”

Amazingly, the Harbourside gig was New Order’s first Bristol show in over 30 years. But New Order are no strangers to the wider Avon and Somerset region, having played Glastonbury on multiple occasions. Morris is a long-time connoisseur of cult Bristol-area bands, citing early 1970s progressive folk-rockers Stackridge as a personal favourite alongside more recent icons like Massive Attack, Portishead and Goldfrapp.

“The south west always seems to me to be a very creative and inspirational place to live and work,” Morris says. “I know a lot of musicians who have moved there. There seems to be a lot of great places to create and play music. Maybe it’s the air to cider ratio that’s partially responsible for this.”

New Order have also recorded several albums at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio in Box, outside Bath. Their first visit was in 1988, to complete the notoriously hedonistic sessions for their ecstasy-fuelled rave-pop classic, Technique. “Real World is an absolutely fantastic studio,” Morris nods, “one of the best we’ve ever been in. It has state of the art gear, a great atmosphere and the location is beautiful. It has the only control room in the world that affords good views of sedately swimming ducks. It is also quite a good place to have an all-night end-of-album party/rave, but that’s another story… one that is still talked of in hushed tones by the residents of Box village.”

Of course, seeing New Order live now is a very different prospect to catching them during their volatile 1980s heyday as figureheads of the legendary Manchester record label Factory, when their prodigious drugs and booze intake fuelled some infamously messy performances. Indeed, when the band made their Glastonbury festival debut, in June 1981, Sumner got so drunk he keeled over onstage.

Seeing New Order live now is a very different prospect to catching them during their volatile 1980s heyday as figureheads of the legendary Manchester record label Factory

“Oh god, that was hilarious,” recalls Gillian Gilbert, New Order’s chief keyboard player and wife of Morris. “He always said, ‘I didn’t want to be the singer!’ He used to say that a lot. So he used to get completely drunk, out of nerves really.”

“It was amazing that we survived,” Sumner admits, “because I was a pretty crap singer at the time. It was total chaos live. I was more interested in getting drunk than doing gigs. And we didn’t have any money.”

These days, Sumner claims he limits himself to two glasses of wine per night. “Well, I stop counting after two glasses, anyway,” he grins. “I’ve learnt to pace myself because as you get older the hangovers get worse and worse. I can’t do party central any more. We’ve earned our hedonist medals. We’ve done our tour of duty, and now it’s time to do something else.”

On the eve of the Bristol show, Morris also made a solo appearance at Christ Church in Bath to promote his memoir, Record Play Pause. This funny, poignant, bittersweet trip down memory lane covers his childhood in Macclesfield, struggles with depression, and breakthrough success with Joy Division. Writing the book was “more fun than playing the drums,” Morris insists. “I found it was a generally positive thing to do. So much so that I ended up writing two books – it is a long story after all. The second part is coming out next year.”

New Order have always been forward-looking pop modernists at heart, rarely dwelling on their much-mythologised past with what Morris fondly calls the “chaotic dysfunctional family” of Factory Records. But the band have been in nostalgia mode for most of this year, releasing a deluxe box set of their 1981 album Movement as well as a 40th anniversary reissue of their revered Joy Division debut, Unknown Pleasures.

“One of the many unexpected problems of ageing is the amount of time the past takes up,” Morris sighs. “When I was young, I was obsessed with getting to the future and couldn’t wait to leave the past behind. I never imagined I would be part of something that would have a legacy that needed looking after. Not that I’m complaining, the response to the Unknown Pleasures 40th anniversary has been incredible.”

The mood music inside New Order seems a lot more harmonious nowadays than it was a decade ago, when their former bass guitarist Peter Hook quit acrimoniously, threatening legal action if the band continued without him. When a rebooted New Order began playing again in 2011, adding Phil Cunningham on bass and Tom Chapman on guitar, a courtroom clash looked inevitable.

“After drugs and religion, litigation is next in the list of rock and roll pursuits,” Morris laughs. “It’s very expensive and nobody wins. It can drag on for years and ultimately the only people who benefit are members of the legal profession.”

The current New Order line-up finally settled their legal differences with Hook in 2017, but mutual bad blood lingers and these former childhood friends are now estranged. Sumner will not even mention Hook’s name in interviews, and rules out any potential reconciliation point blank. “No,” he frowns. “Categorically. He’s said so many bad things about not just me but the rest of the band. It’s passed the point of no return.”

But Morris believes some kind of future New Order reunion featuring Hook is not beyond the scope of Manchester’s second longest-running soap opera. “The rules of rock and roll dictate that the most unlikely reunions will take place at some point,” he laughs. “The road to hell is paved by unlikely comebacks. And litigation.”