Max Dax interviews Bernard Sumner

Bernard Sumner’s simple guitar lines and plaintive vocals are essential elements in New Order’s dark, romantic synth-pop—a sound that helped define Manchester’s musical identity and set Factory Records on the path to immortality. But it was New York City’s electronic mash-up culture in the early eighties that convinced the band that performing live with synthesizers made sense. Machines freed them from the weight of their Joy Division past and allowed them to forge a vision of the future — one they’re still shaping today.

 

Max Dax: Mr. Sumner, I was surprised to learn that Stephen Morris, who is not only New Order’s long-term drummer but also your neighbor, owns a tank from World War II.

Bernard Sumner: Yeah, he has this little hobby.

MD: He told me that he would theoretically be able to destroy your house with it.

BS: That’s true—he told me the same. He sometimes even aims with the gun at my house.

MD: Did you know that you only need a truck driver’s license to legally drive a tank in England?

BS: No, I didn’t.

MD: And did you know that you only need a shotgun license to shoot with tank artillery?

BS: Oh my God! I guess he could go deer hunting then . . . only that he would destroy the forest, too.

MD: But to reassure you: He also mentioned that he’d need a ballistics expert to actually hit your house and not your neighbor’s . . .

BS: Good to know. As far as I understand, you have to aim at a certain point in the sky to destroy a house because bombshells have a specific ballistic trajectory. I wonder if he would ever dare to shoot at me. I probably should pay more attention what I say to him in the future.

MD: Buying the bombshells is actually the difficult part of the equation. It’s probably expensive—not to mention illegal.

BS: Stephen invited me once to go for a ride in a tank, and it was a really horrible experience. Once you’re in, the whole thing’s seal locked. These are nuclear and biological proof vehicles with air conditioning. I couldn’t imagine fighting a battle stuck in such a tank, it must be horrendous. I don’t know why he likes them so much. He owns four of these things and even rented a hangar to store them safely. And during his time off, he makes models of World War II aircrafts and tanks. Sometimes I find him painting his models very carefully.

MD: Now I understand why Gillian Gilbert says that New Order is a very laddish band.

BS: Well, that’s why it’s good to have Gillian in the band, really. I can be laddish too, but I also have my intellectual side. Probably we are the way we are because we all grew up in Salford which was the industrial heartland of Manchester. It’s basically a workingman’s city within a city. I grew up there in the sixties and seventies and it wasn’t particularly nice, but it was OK. Salford has become rougher since I left—around Christmas, some innocent guy got shot in the head on the street. Poor Indian guy. I gotta say though that most of the people who live there are really warm hearted. It’s people that used to be employed in the factories of Manchester—back when there still were factories. In fact, my grandfather worked as an engineer in Old Trafford. And when the factories were closed down, they didn’t get offered any jobs. The situation has improved a bit, but for a time it was a decaying industrial environment.

MD: What was your childhood like?

BS: I always say I grew up not seeing a tree until I was nine years old. At the end of our street there was a huge chemical factory where there were occasional leaks that were destroying the environment. I still remember the horrible smell. But it was our home, so it was OK, you know?

MD: Why are there so many bands from Manchester?

BS: I think there are mainly two reasons. First of all, it wasn’t a visually stimulating place. It actually wasn’t stimulating at all. You were forced to tune into your own imagination for stimulation. Music was an option. Also, the education system wasn’t good at all. If you weren’t privileged, you were just dumped into a pile. No one was interested in you. You were left to your own devices.

MD: You found yourself in the pile?

BS: I left grammar school when I was sixteen. The only thing I was interested in was art. I went to the career advisor who pointed me towards two possible careers in the art sector: Hairdressing or working in a photography studio and cut the white borders off the photographs. Obviously that was nonsense. So I was searching for something creative to do. I wrote to every single advertisement agency in the city and finally got two jobs—as a runner at one agency and an assistant for TV commercials at another. I changed back and forth week for week. But at least it was in the creative field. And then punk came along and with it came interesting music.

MD: Would you agree that punk, like blues and folk, was special because it allowed people to express themselves musically even if they weren’t expert musicians?

BS: Yes. But we considered folk and blues to be music from the past. Up until punk, you had to be a god-gifted virtuoso to play music. The seventies had progressive rock with thousand-note-keyboard solos and people like Emerson, Lake and Palmer topping the charts. Everybody was impressed—these guys could really play. But for people like me, there was no way into that. And then the Sex Pistols came with a younger sound, and that sound appealed to us when we were about twenty years old. Punk was proof that you could do it with not much virtuosity. Attitude was all it took. To make music—to be creative—seemed possible all of the sudden. Literally from one day to another it became all about the energy and no longer about how well you played your instrument.

MD: How did you start listening and becoming interested in music?

BS: Honestly, my family didn’t own a record player back then, so I just listened to the radio all the time even though I soon realized that most of the music that was being played was rubbish. After a while, my mother bought me a record player for Christmas. My first single was ‘Ride a White Swan’ by T. Rex. I liked the guitar riff, but the song only lasted for four minutes. I always had to get up and put the needle back onto the record to hear it again. That’s when I realized: I needed to buy more albums. After watching Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I went out and bought two soundtracks by Ennio Morricone: A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. That was a fantastic experience. I must have listened to these two albums a zillion times. The radio and Morricone were my initiation when it came to listening to music. Then I started to go to this youth club in North Salford with two rooms: they had a disco in the basement where Tamla Motown and Stax records were being played, while upstairs was for rock music like the Stones and Free and that kind of stuff.

MD: Did you consider yourself part of a specific youth culture?

BS: I was a suedehead; I had really short hair and I rode a scooter. But I wasn’t a skinhead or a mod. The era was post-mod, and I dressed accordingly. So, I guess I should have spent more time in the cellar where they played northern soul and black music. But instead I felt more drawn to rock—upstairs, where the people with the long hair went. I liked the sound of the distorted guitars. My musical education came from upstairs.

MD: Let’s jump to the early days of your career when you made music with Joy Division. How did your musical socialization fit into that picture?

BS: With Joy Division we literally were DIY. My mother—again—had bought me an electric guitar for my sixteenth birthday. Initially, I didn’t know what to do with it. I left it to gather dust in the corner of the room. But then Peter Hook and I decided to form a band together. We had a keyboard, a bass and this dusty guitar. We used to sit around in my grandmother’s house together learning with a book how to play. Then we advertised for a singer, and we got Ian Curtis. But we had to go through five drummers until we had Stephen Morris.

MD: He came later?

BS: He came last. The others were just assholes. We simply didn’t have the same headspace. But with Stephen it clicked. The first few songs we wrote together were terrible, though—simply because none of us had ever written a song before. We were automatically copying other punk bands we liked, but it just wasn’t us. We realized pretty quickly that these songs were wrong, so we started again. We called the result Unknown Pleasures. I have to stress the fact that these songs were written out of pure naivety. But then again, that is the best point you can write music from. You’re not questioning what you’re doing. You’re unspoiled.

MD: The band’s name was far from naive, though—borrowed from Yehiel De-Nur’s 1955 novel The House of Dolls. “Joy Division” was a common reference to prostitutes in concentration camps.

BS: I can only speak from my point of view. Yes, there was a fascination for everything related to the war, because it was all around me where I lived in Salford. My aunt’s house was destroyed by a German bomb and my grandfather was an engineer during the war. He made compasses for the Royal Air Force. Once, in his house, we boys found bags full of war flags, tin helmets, gas masks and old crystal radio sets.

MD: What did you do with your findings—play war with your friends?

BS: Of course! We had this game with the helmet. When you wore the tin helmet, the others were allowed to hit you with a club on the head. It was like testing the helmet out, and it didn’t hurt. Yes, the war was definitely all around us. And I remember going to primary school and listening to the air-raid sirens and running to the shelters behind the church. Of course, they were just testing them, but for us boys it was just as fascinating.

MD: Aside from the war, German music was also a big influence for you. Do you still remember the day when you first heard Kraftwerk?

BS: I remember that I didn’t like Kraftwerk the first time I heard them. Next to my grandfather a strange lad was living, his name was Philip. He was really nice, but his parents kept him locked up. Bad things were happening behind closed doors. I remember I would ring the bell, and his mother wouldn’t open the door—she’d tell me that Philip had headache or something and couldn’t meet me. On one of the rare occasions we actually met, Philip played Autobahn for me. And I remember that I was missing the guitars in the song. I simply didn’t get it. A couple of years later, I fell in love with Trans-Europe Express, though. I thought that album was harmonically extremely rich. I especially liked the sound of the Mellotron. I was very aware of the importance of sound in general, so when I’d listen to a rock record, it wasn’t just about the melodies or the arrangement—but also about the guitar sound. And Trans-Europe Express just sounded great—like a dark electronic soup. I didn’t miss the guitars for a single moment.

MD: Legend has it that you wrote ‘Blue Monday’ with the intention of composing a song played entirely by machines. That’s a very Kraftwerkian approach.

BS: There’s an element of Kraftwerk in it, for sure. But by the time I wrote “Blue Monday”, I had already done some gigs with Cabaret Voltaire as well. The early Human League and OMD’s first steps must not be forgotten either. I remember some very non-commercial early gigs in Manchester. Once I had understood that you could make music without guitars, I felt like there were no longer any borders. But also, on a completely different level, I was totally into electronics. I loved technology and tinkering with things. I had properly learned how to solder memory chips on top of each other. There were no computers back then—you simply couldn’t buy one. You could buy a sequencer, but it would cost you the equivalent of a semi-detached house. Suffice to say, we didn’t have any money. So I used to get this magazine called Electronics Today and one day, they had a synthesizer on the cover. At the time I suffered from insomnia, so when I couldn’t sleep, I worked on building my synthesizer.

MD: What components were you using?

BS: Oh, it was just loads of resistors and capacitors and miscellaneous other components. I ended up with a monophonic synthesizer called the Transcendent 2000.

MD: What a beautiful name for a synthesizer, almost poetic.

BS: If not esoteric . . . It was actually designed by EMS Synthesizers. And with another issue of Electronics Today they had instructions for building a sequencer. The only thing you needed were somembasic electronic skills.

MD: Did you use that equipment in the studio?

BS: For sure—we used it on a lot of New Order, the most well-known being “Blue Monday”. That’s why it’s so tight. But also tracks like “586” were strongly influenced by the gear we used. They sounded like the machines we used. Don’t forget: this is before you could easily synchronize different machines, which is so easy to do today. Back then it was a real drag. But I had a friend who was a scientist and whenever I had a problem synchronizing my homemade equipment, I’d call him. He basically designed me a little circuit—and it worked!

MD: So the trademark New Order sound was partially the result of using your own extra-cheap homebuilt equipment?

BS: Yeah. I was and still am very technically minded.

MD: But aside from the inclusion of technology, “Blue Monday” was also an audible act of liberating the band from its Joy Division heritage.

BS: Absolutely. The difficult period obviously was the time after Ian had died and when we made the album Movement. Everyone was unhappy—not with each other, but because of what happened. We were in a state of post-traumatic shock. When we wrote Movement, we locked ourselves away. As a result, we ended up with a reputation in the press as reclusive.

 

 

MD: It must have been difficult finding a new sound and avoiding being seen as just derivative of Joy Division. How did that work and what were you feeling during the recording sessions for Movement?

BS: We spent six months in the studio experimenting in an attempt to find our new sound. I tried to sing the songs we’d worked on but it all felt like Joy Division without Ian. Me trying to be Ian, you know? We then spent some time on the East Coast of America. We decided to do a tour there—to play a few obscure dates in small clubs. On these dates, each of us was trying out singing in front of an audience. We were basically testing out which one of us should do it, as it wasn’t an option for us to just cast a new singer with us being his backing band. In New York, we started to go out and to hang out in clubs. We were drinking a lot on free drink tickets and got into dancing in a very natural way. We didn’t only have a wonderful time, we also found an integral element for our future sound by being exposed to New York club music.

MD: Did you meet Andy Warhol in New York?

BS: No. Unfortunately, we were too late for Studio 54. We went to the Danceteria instead. We realized how stiff the clubs were back home in England, playing only disco music. In New York we’d listen to the Sugarhill Gang and Afrika Bambaataa. They had an incredibly eclectic style back then. After Chic you’d hear a track from The Clash, and this was totally unimaginable in the UK at the time. That’s when we realized we wanted to hear our records being played in these New York clubs, so we started to reorganize and redefine our set-up. We finally knew what we were looking to do artistically. From that point, electronic music was a logical progression. Did I mention that we smoked a lot of pot in Manhattan?

MD: Not yet.

BS: I’m not a hippie or a pot smoker. I don’t do it now, anyways. But I went through this brief period being high on weed and listening to electronic club music and hip-hop. Prior to this trip my favorite records were Velvet Underground’s studio albums and Lou Reed’s Berlin. But after Ian died, I just didn’t feel like listening to them anymore.

MD: But what’s smoking weed have to do with the equation?

BS: Well, a friend of a friend—the one who introduced me to pot—also introduced me to Giorgio Moroder and the Kiss FM Mastermixes of that period. The effect of the drug and the precision of the synthesizers went very well together. We wanted to be equally precise with our music. And we realized that the easiest way to achieve this precision was to use electronics.

MD: So sound-wise, New Order was basically born in New York?

BS: Yes. New York was the place where our vision took shape. But on the other hand we still wanted to be a live band, so we had to redefine the role of the bass, the guitar and my singing as well. We had to think of a way we could use our synthesizers on stage, too. These were fragile instruments—homebuilt and prone to damage. If one of them broke, we simply would have lost it forever. But nonetheless, we kept on keeping on with it.

MD: Who came up with the brilliant name “New Order”?

BS: That’s a funny story. So many people thought we were Nazis because of the name Joy Division. At a certain point, we were sick of hearing the same questions over and over again. So we were really eager to look for a new name that was completely neutral and didn’t have any Nazi connotations whatsoever. We all came up with loads of names but they were all rubbish. Then one day our then manager Rob Gretton came to the rehearsals and waved a copy of The Guardian above his head. He started to read to us an article about the rise and fall of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and how the defeat of Prince Sihanouk gave way to a “new order”. He read the “new order” phrase again and said: “Here we have it.” What we liked most about it was that it sounded so neutral.

MD: But of course it wasn’t—Hitler used the term to describe how he envisioned the new Reich.

BS: Here we go. Same shit. None of us knew the connotation. When we announced the name, every journalist referred to Hitler’s new order when writing about the band. But by then it was too late to change it again. Of course, nobody believed us because of the Joy Division background.

MD: The album cover for Movement was a typographical adaption of a poster by the fascist futurist Fortunato Depero.

BS:  Yes, but Peter Saville did the cover. I remember that we liked it a lot and that we changed the color from light brown to light blue. Ask him about why he did the cover in that way. I recently read a book in which he said: “The band never asked me about the sleeves. So I don’t think they understand them.” As a band, when we like something, we just like it and don’t question it—be it music, design, or a name. It just has to have this impact. It was the same with Joy Division. It had a negative connotation but it sounded great. I guess you can call it a punk attitude that somehow fedback against us. We thought it was a punk thing to do. And honestly, it’s a great name. It’s a classic name for a band.

MD: New Order covers are as mysterious as they are stylish.

BS: That has something to do with my interest in visual art. We keep it in good memory that Tony Wilson came up with Peter Saville one day. We immediately liked his radically conceptual approach. Many people have accused us of somehow hiding behind our covers. That’s not true. We just thought it was boring to have our photographs on the sleeves—especially because we all bought lots of vinyl and we also judged the music by the sleeve. We didn’t like it when we saw the photograph of an artist with just his name on the front cover. We found it unimaginative and boring. It represented the old. For us, the sleeve was one of two pieces of art that you’d get when you buy a record. This, has changed of course. You don’t get a record cover with your computer download. And naturally, not every album with great cover art turned out to be a great record.

MD: In the early eighties, people had limited access to electronic instruments and computers. And when they did, they often had to overcome myriad technical obstacles. Generally speaking, there wasn’t  a lot of electronic music around. In hindsight, it seems like the perfect environment for pioneering work.

BS: More often than not, the best ideas are born out of limitations and accidents. We had to use a lot of imagination to get somewhere; we needed a lot of creativity to squeeze every last drop out of what our instruments could offer us. Although the instruments were fun to abuse.

MD: You had “wrong” or unorthodox ways of using the instruments?

BS: Absolutely. We definitely had success with unintended usage. Today’s musicians don’t have to do that. It’s the opposite really: the difficulty is to choose from this vast library of possibilities. That’s a whole different approach to making music, isn’t it?

MD: Do you ever think of that as a burden?

BS: Yes, for the reasons I’ve just mentioned. We were lucky that there wasn’t much electronic music around us in the early days. It didn’t take that much to be ahead of the game.

MD: It was easy to be different?

BS: Yes. And that’s why we were always very careful not to learn our instrument too well. With virtuosity comes the erosion of the naivety. But you need this naivety to keep the music fresh.

MD: It’s easy to become famous but it’s difficult to stay that way.

BS: I’d say it was easy to be a pioneer thirty years ago. Now it’s become very difficult.

All Photos by Andreas Stappert