In this in-depth interview taken from the new Summer issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, MC and iconoclast Tricky speaks to EB Editor-in-Chief Max Dax about the music industry, Prince and why Barack Obama is worse than George W. Bush.
Tricky’s never been one to mince words. Since releasing his genre-defining trip-hop masterpiece Maxinquaye in 1995, the Bristol-born bad boy is notorious for blowing the smoke from his ever-present spliff in the direction of celebrities deemed worthy of being knocked down a notch. And now, he’s made an entire album about it: False Idols takes swipes at everything from the vacantness of celebrity culture to the perceived neoconservative, wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing politics of Barack Obama. Some might call him a hater; others will salute his truth with a hallelujah. Either way, a conversation with Tricky is never less than entertaining, as Max Dax found out recently in Berlin. Main photo by Luci Lux, taken in Berlin.
Tricky, when we last spoke you mentioned you were convinced we’d meet again to celebrate when your album went number one in Germany. That’s a bold statement, not something you usually hear from artists, but rather from promoters.
Well, I have a new label and my deal is actually with Horst Weidenmüller from !K7, which is a special thing—something you might call a love affair rather than just business. In contrast, I spoke to Laurence Bell from my other label Domino after a show not too long ago, and I realized they’re really all about radio. Look, everybody wants radio play, and that’s cool. I mentioned something to him about Franz Ferdinand. I said I liked some of their stuff, because they write some good songs sometimes. I asked him how one of their albums was going and he was like, “It’s all finished, we just have to work out the singles.” And I was trying to figure out what he meant. Was the album finished or not? How would he know when an artist is ready? He owns a label. He doesn’t sit in the studio and know how to make music . . . It’s like, with this new album people keep telling me, “You’re back! You’re back!” But I haven’t been away. I’ve simply chosen not to do certain things because I haven’t been in a love affair. So, I guess you could say I’m back because I’m happy. You can’t make your best music when you’re not.
There’s another kind of artistic love affair I hear on your new album, False Idols, with the voice of Chet Baker. I also remember you once did a remix of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”. You also performed it live . . .
I grew up with her voice. My grandma used to play Billie Holiday’s music day and night.
The new album also has some excellent sampling of Baker’s voice from his classic “My Funny Valentine”. By talking about jazz legends and using their voices, you’re probably confronting younger audiences with them for the first time. Are you looking to educate your listeners? Why do you love these older voices so much?
Because when I was going out with Björk, that’s what we listened to. It reminds me of her. And Chet Baker was such a real artist; he had so much pain. We’re missing that in music now. The last true voice I could relate to was Kurt Cobain. Now it’s all just such a celebrity culture, and it’s weakening music. By sampling Chet Baker it’s me offering him to people because you’re not going to get him in real life. And I think I respect older music more than I do new music.
Have you ever listened to “Little” Jimmy Scott?
You should. A few years ago he also did a great version of “Strange Fruit”. His voice is like this transcendental sonic gate to the past, but still extremely relevant.
I’ll check it out. When I did my remix of “Strange Fruit”, it was odd working with her voice, too. Very spooky. Definitely not earthly.
That means you were able to work with the voice on a single track?
Yeah. I listened to it over and over and over again in a little apartment in New Orleans. It was a very eerie vibe listening to the original without the instrumental backing. The same goes for Chet Baker.
Do you consider artists like Chet Baker and Billie Holiday to be your teachers?
Actually, I think about them as peers. There aren’t that many people I respect in the music industry. Most of them are dead. It’s almost like me giving respect and, as you mentioned, introducing them to a younger generation.
Would you say your music is a kind of channeling medium?
Well, yeah. Like with “Black Steel”, my Public Enemy cover. I did it because I wanted to take it to a different audience. Some people are so good that their message should be taken to a bigger environment. I knew Public Enemy was, first of all, an urban thing, and I wanted to show it to kids who aren’t from there.
You could think of Public Enemy’s name as a nod to the old James Cagney film. Your album Angels with Dirty Faces is also a Cagney reference. Do you ever think you would have liked to have lived back in the twenties or thirties or at some other time in the past?
When all the blues and jazz guys went to Paris—that was a special thing. It was pure music, without an industry.
You could have been Miles Davis’ rival for Juliette Gréco in the late forties and fifties. When I met her she said that she once invited him to meet her in Manhattan at the Waldorf Astoria where she stayed and he told her he didn’t want to come. But she couldn’t figure out why, so she finally persuaded him. She told me she had been shocked when she realized how badly he was mistreated by all the white staff. It was embarrassing.
Fucking hell, it’s strange. You don’t usually associate that kind of racism with Miles Davis. You think the guy’s untouchable, a legend, so they should treat him like a legend. Those were different times.
I’ve done a few interviews with Miles Davis sideman and Weather Report keyboarder Joe Zawinul, and he recalled often being offered to sleep in “white” hotels, while the black band members of the groups he was in had to sleep elsewhere. Suffice to say he refused and preferred to stay with the musicians.
We always tend to forget that segregation wasn’t even that long ago. It’s truly difficult to understand all that in light of the insane amount of great music that was played and released back in the day.
People sometimes seem to forget that music used to be about so much more than just business. Bob Dylan recently said that he gets nervous listening to new music.
Did he really use the word nervous? Now, that’s interesting.
I think what he meant is that there was a certain honesty in the sadness of people’s voices in the past. And now, amidst the neoliberal “creative” environment of today’s music industry, people only consider whether or not they can sell something.
I got you. Take “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead and try bringing something like that to Radio 1 in England these days and they’ll laugh you right out the door. Nowadays, you’ve got all these artists who’ve become ATM cards for big businessmen, so the music industry is kind of fucked, you know? As it’s got worse, I’ve gotten worse. I’ve become more militant. I’m not so easy going anymore. I’ve become kind of obsessive. For instance, I had this thing happen to me: 3D from Massive Attack came over to my house last year . . .
Robert Del Naja—how’s he doing?
He’s doing good, or he seems like he’s doing good. Anyhow we agreed to do some songs and within an hour we were arguing, and not over music. It’s because he walked into my house with this Massive Attack bullshit. And I had to say to him: “The younger generation don’t give a fuck about me. They don’t give a fuck about you or Massive Attack. I’ve got a daughter who’s eighteen and she don’t care about my music. She doesn’t know who you are, by name or otherwise. So get over yourself.”
My guess would be that he’s not so used to be being spoken to like that—or maybe I’m wrong? I’d be very curious to know how he took it.
Look, back in the day when me and him used to write together—tracks like “Karmacoma” or “Blue Lines”—I didn’t notice certain things. 3D’s a good man and he’s got a good heart. He’s not a malicious person, but he loves his Massive Attack thing too much. I’d like to think that if this all ended for me tomorrow, I’ve still got friends. I’ve got family who don’t give a fuck if I was famous or not. I’m going to be the same person. I don’t need this to say who I am. I like to see myself like DJ Milo—he walked away from a huge record deal, went to New York, got a job and started doing music in his bedroom. Milo without the music is still Milo. He was just in Bristol with some of my family. But 3D’s different. He needs Massive Attack. Without Massive Attack, he’s nobody. And he knows that. I’m not being disrespectful; it’s just the truth.
Maybe he should go to therapy.
I think he should love himself more and forget the Massive Attack thing. I think maybe he should have kids. When you have a child you forget about yourself. You begin to see the world with their eyes. After recording with him for a few days he’s texting me, I’m getting messages from him. He wants a buddy. He doesn’t want just someone to work with. He wants a buddy to go out together and DJ and drink together—you know, he’s 3D and I’m Tricky, and we party together. But I realized that I didn’t want to hang out with him. Should I tell him that? What should I do? Should I just not answer him? So I asked my cousin for advice and she was telling me: “Just keep it business.”
That’s a tough way of seeing it.
I told you before: as things have continued, I’ve gotten more militant. I ain’t got time for certain people no more. If you were a famous artist and you walk in here like a pop star with your pop star attitude, in the past I might have politely said, “Hey, how are you doing?” But now my mouth just won’t open. My hand won’t even extend to you. Because the lack of honesty you know has just . . . well, here’s another story: I was in New York one time in a club with a friend who doesn’t make any music. My friend’s not interested in any of that stuff, he had a job at the airport. The only thing he was interested in was women. He loves chasing women. Anyhow, we were smoking a spliff and this promoter guy I know comes over and is like, “Lenny wants to meet you.” And all I can think is, “Who’s Lenny?” I said to the guy I know, “I don’t know no Lenny!” And the promoter’s like, “Lenny Kravitz.” He’s sitting over there and wants me to get up and go over there, even though he wants to meet me.
It sounds like he isn’t used to casually running into people.
Well, he ended up coming over and said, “Oh, I love your music.” And then there was an uncomfortable silence, because I think I was supposed to say it back to him. But it’s not true, so at some point he’s like, “I’ve got a studio in Miami, you should come down and record.” We’re in New York and at the time I lived in New Jersey. I had a studio twenty minutes away, so I was like, “Why would I come to Miami?” He was like, “So we can record together.” And I was like, “Why?” And he couldn’t answer. That annoys me. Just because you’re so famous and have so much success you think I want a part of that. Artists need to be brought down to earth a little bit.
So what’s the difference between working with Lenny Kravitz and someone like Grace Jones, who you did collaborate with? I mean, she’s famous too.
I love Grace. She’s mad. And she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She’s just a crazy woman with talent. And she’s extremely funny, got an amazing sense of humor. Kravitz has got no sense of humor about himself at all.
I met her at the Marco Polo restaurant in London once and I only had a fifteen-minute slot scheduled. I was on my way there, already annoyed, but next thing I knew, we’d had two bottles of Chardonnay and talked for almost two hours. It was great. And we were talking a lot about you!
She’s great. You know that Grace Jones doesn’t need the music thing to be her make-up. I respect artists who can do all this and then put it down. People shouldn’t take it for granted. And if I like you, you shouldn’t take it for granted when you meet me. I’ve seen Prince on the dance floor in a club in L.A. and had a drink in my hand walking back to my table and security told me to walk around the dance floor. When I asked why, they just replied, “Prince is dancing.”
You think he’s living in the past?
It’s so old-fashioned. That stuff is over anyway. I used to listen to Prince. I had a lot of his stuff. But now he’s just a has-been.
Then again, I caught a Kode9 DJ set in Turin, and he started it all out with “Sign O’ the Times” and put this great bass line underneath. He didn’t extend the three minutes, but it sounded like an entirely new journey. You say Prince is a has-been, but he really was a proper somebody when he still was releasing hits, wasn’t he?
He was an incredible talent! But his mind is that of a has-been’s. Undoubtedly he’s one of the most talented artists of that generation, but he still thinks that if he walks into a room, he’ll get the coat taken off his shoulders. Those days are over. The Prince “persona” is from a long time ago. You can’t survive like that, especially with someone like me. Because if Prince walks into the room right now, unless he came to talk to me, I wouldn’t go talk to him. Because I don’t give a fuck about him and I don’t respect the man.
Have you seen any of his recent shows?
No, after that thing in L.A. I haven’t wanted to. Someone actually had tickets for me for a show in Paris when I was there. But I was like, “Nah.” I just sat at a café and smoked weed, chilled out. Once someone acts like that, it’s over for me.
I know you’ve spent quite a bit of time in Paris. Who have you been meeting in Paris that you wanted to work with?
There’s a guy called Seyfu, who’s a very, very good rapper. He’s very real, very anti-popstar. I lived around Chapelle, which is kind of ghetto. I’ve got another friend, who’s an amateur boxer and he introduced me to a bunch of people. But I often meet people just by walking around. See, I’m very accessible. I’ve got no entourage. I walk by myself. You might see me in a supermarket or at a health food store. I’m working with a camera guy at the moment that I bumped into randomly once. He said if I ever needed anything, I should call. So I called and ended up doing two videos recently with him.
So the album title False Idols is a reference to people like Lenny Kravitz and Prince?
Yeah, all that stupid shit. And new artists too, like, say, Rihanna. Look at the power that girl has got. And she’s doing nothing with it! It seems she has more problems keeping her clothes on than . . . It’s like all she sells is sex, right? No disrespect to her at all, but when you have that much power going on, help somebody. Do something. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in her own country. Comment on it! Say something about it! Say Obama is a big fucking liar.
I think she’s originally from Barbados.
Well, fine. But she lives in the U.S. If you’re just going to be famous and it’s a mantle for your ego, then it’s a waste of time.
What’s your daughter listening to?
Well, she’s finally starting to listen to my music now. She told me the other day that she really liked Blowback. She thought it was very “advanced”. Now she’s going through them all and analyzing them. She only knew Maxinquaye before, but now she’s getting in Nearly God and . . .
What about Angels with Dirty Faces?
She’s not gotten to that one yet.
That album’s spirit reminds me so much of Miles Davis’ Cellar Door Sessions and The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. Also your live shows from around Angels with Dirty Faces were amazing. Do you have any plans to release live material?
I didn’t record any of them. If anybody did, that would be nice to release, but I don’t look back. I move on. I don’t really live in the past. I’ve got another album, Hixx, that’s about to be mixed and False Idols isn’t even out yet. I don’t think I’ll be able to bring Hixx out this year, but most likely in January 2014. And then I’m going to do a rap album with DJ Milo. I’ll do some of the production, but then have him do some of it too. I just keep things moving.
You mentioned Obama’s deceitfulness before. You were living in Los Angeles for a while. Was this when you started seeing him critically?
When he was first elected I was going out with a black girl, and she kept saying how great it is to have the first black president. In America, still to this day, it’s difficult for blacks and Hispanics. Obama was a false hope, another false idol. But because I’m English, my experience as a black person has been different. I saw through him from the beginning. But when you’re desperate, you grasp for desperate measures.
He’s a brilliant rhetorician.
I have to admit that I had tears in my eyes when he gave his inauguration speech . . .
But if you look at all the people behind him, you realize he’s Bush with a black face, right? When Bobby Kennedy was killed, that was the end of democracy. Before that, when J.F.K. was killed, that was the rise of the Bush’s and all the ex-slave owners and those in the opium trade. Obama is just coming from that.
He’s related to Dick Cheney—that’s his eighth cousin! If you go back far enough you’ll see it. He’s worse than Bush, because Bush is easy to see for what he is. Obama is dangerous because he seems so good. He’s got a black wife and black children but he doesn’t give a fuck about anybody or any thing.
He regularly invites musicians to play at the White House. What would you do if he invited you?
The only reason I would go would be for the moment when he goes to shake my hand, which is when I would say: “I can’t shake your hand—there’s too much blood on it.” I would like to sit down with him and tell him, “You’re a dog. I have no respect for you. If there is a hell, you’re going there.” ~
“Now I’m digging through my student paperbacks,” sings Neil Tennant. “Flicking through Karl Marx again. Searching for the soul of England, drinking tea like Tony Benn.” This is “Love is a Bourgeois Construct”, from the Pet Shop Boys’ twelfth album, Electric. The song is, as always, extremely tongue-in-cheek—the narrator decides that love is a bourgeois construct after being dumped, and then reaches for the Marx; but then for a long time, the Pet Shop Boys have been making records that are alternately about politics and intimacy, or rather the politics of intimacy, writing relationships together with economics. Electric has few surprises—like a lot of late Pet Shop Boys, it sounds like Tennant singing liberal truisms over discarded Michael Mayer tracks. But this little couplet is a reminder that there is something in the Pet Shop Boys’ songs that seldom gets noticed—a red, or at least reddish thread that connects them from the parodic Thatcherism of their early years to the satires on Blairism in 2006’s Fundamental, their last really essential record.
The Pet Shop Boys were hardly the first to combine condensed critiques of capitalism with bitter love songs to the point where the two were interchangeable—you can find that in a starker form all over the Gang of Four’s first two albums, or on songs like “Date Stamp” on ABC’s Lexicon of Love—but Tennant honed it to a fine art on the group’s first two albums. The era when they were authentic teen pop stars was also the time that they were the most sharply, slyly politicized. The obvious example of this is “Opportunities”, a song which quickly became a Thatcherite anthem, where “looking for a partner” is both come-on and business deal; the least romantic invitation imaginable, where apparently, “I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks,” is a compliment rather than an insult. It’s there too in the study of place in “Suburbia”, somewhere so tedious that petty vandalism, “and in the distance, a police car, to break the suburban spell,” is the only way to make it bearable.
1987’s Actually was nothing less than a concept album about Thatcherite London. Throughout, it’s impossible to tell relationships from politics. In “Rent”, notoriously, the narrator’s declarations of fealty are indistinguishable from the financial arrangement that made them possible, blended elegantly together: “words mean so little, and money less… we never-ever argue, never calculate the currency we’ve spent.” Yet it’s sung in a warm, pleading tone, never degenerating into the cynical and diagrammatic, a record both sympathetic and deeply unnerving. “Shopping” drops the ambiguity altogether and goes for a depiction of utterly ruthless City boys and privatization: “we’re buying and selling your history…it’s easy when you’ve got all the information, inside help, no investigation.” “King’s Cross” darkened this even further, an image of the station where the north meets the capital as an apocalyptic city of the dead. Surely one reason why the Pet Shop Boys never went back to this exact territory—a London of endemic poverty and conspicuous consumption, bankers stepping over the homeless—is that so little has changed since. Actually describes London in 2013 as much as it does 1987.
After this, the anger drains out of Tennant’s lyrics somewhat, and when they do touch on politics and history it’s in a post-’89, end of history fashion, as if the optimism of that year, and the deposing of Thatcher in 1990 defanged him. There’s a peculiar sideline in laments for the Russian revolution—in “My October Symphony”, on Behaviour, he imagines Shostakovich “changing the dedication” of the titular symphony “from revolution to revelation”; while in “The End of the World” on the same record, there’s not much left but a disinterested, hedonistic wait for the apocalypse: “if it all came to pass now, you’d feel we’d all deserved it somehow.”
It comes back, however, in Fundamental. On the one hand, there’s more liberal wisdom on the folly of radical change—on the yearning techno of “Twentieth Century” he tells us he’s learnt the lesson that “sometimes the solution is worse than the problem,” but elsewhere the anger comes back—“I’m With Stupid” brings back the personal-is-political metaphors for a vignette on the relationship between Tony Blair and George W. Bush, rendered as a disco farce by Trevor Horn’s knowingly overwrought production. The eye for using quasi-romantic language as political parody is rendered in the broad brushes of a placard: “before we ever met/I thought like everybody did/you were just a moron/a billion dollar kid…I have to ask myself/as any lover might/have you not made a fool of me?” “Integral” borrows the language of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We for a potted critique of Blair’s ID card scheme (which led to Tennant publicly disavowing his previous support of the Labour Party); and elsewhere, there’s various mordant commentaries on Simon Cowell-issue showbiz. The subsequent Yes, though it lacked the same intensity of focus, had similar moments: on “Building A Wall”, the singer complains that there’s “nowhere left to defect to.” But on Electric, the most damning words are actually someone else’s—with the eye to an incongruous cover that saw them mesh U2 and Frankie Valli, they cover Bruce Springsteen’s ferocious anti-Iraq war polemic “The Last to Die”.
At one point in the mid-80s, it might have seemed that nothing was more unlike than the tubthumping, sincere vainglory of Springsteen and synthetic ironists like the Pet Shop Boys. But at this distance, both seem to have been doing the same thing—registering the destruction of the society they knew, and trying to smuggle that into the charts. In electronic music, increasingly as mute and technocratic as a fiscal policy meeting, noticing what might be happening in the world outside is now limited to a duo well into their fifties. It’s as if the shock of the 1980s was so sudden and overwhelming that it had to provoke a response—but the lives lived as transactions that run through Actually are now considered so normal they’re hardly seen as being worthy of comment.~
You can read the Pet Shop Boys with their producer Stuart Price discuss Electric track by track here.
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