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A Pretty Good Chat with New Order About Songwriting

Bernard Sumner at Houston's Day For Night Festival: "The More Hidden the Lyric Is, the More Autobiographical."
Photos by Nick Wilson.

Thirty years of interviews has to be a tedious gig. The same questions, year after year, will lead to canned responses from even the most generous and inventive soul. There's only so much one can say about life or process or your old bass player. Combine that with a dead best friend from your first band who has been elevated to sainthood, it would be entirely understandable to retreat to rote answers and nostalgia.


That considered, talking to founding vocalist, guitarist, and keyboard player Bernard Sumner (along with new bassist Tom Chapman and Phil Cunningham) could have been a hell of a lot worse. The band and I talked past each other a lot—often not knowing when the others were kidding until it was far, far too late. But nobody died or cried or curled up under the table to sleep, and the décor in the sitting room in the Houston Four Seasons was amiable, and there were mints on the table. And New Order's new album, Music Complete, is excellent, so at least I didn't have to lie.

Music Complete, New Order's tenth album, has been hailed as a return to form, their best since 1989's Technique. The plaudits are well earned. Even with the entirely contentious absence of original bassist Peter Hook (he's suing them, they're *cough* disappointed in him), New Order has crafted an album of well-balanced, catchy, and throbbing dance-rock that wouldn't sit out of place back when they were inventing (or at least perfecting) the genre. New Order has never been showy in their innovation, more intent of combining what they loved—morose pop and club bangers—than expressing willfully avant sentiments. Even as one of the biggest bands in the world, they've been aggressively low-key. Maybe it's the safe-sex, Erasure boot-camp haircuts they've maintained for three decades.

New Order were in Houston for the Day For Night Festival, a two-day multimedia event that brought artists as diverse as Phillip Glass and Kendrick Lamar to the city. New Order performed directly after R&B singer Janelle Monae, a decidedly difficult act to follow. It was a very fine show, mixing new songs off Music Complete with pretty much every hit the crowd was clamoring for. For a band that can rely on sheer tight professionalism to get by, there was an obvious pleasure in the playing. Only their performance of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" felt odd; the full screen spelling out "Joy Division Forever" behind them gave the cover an air of karaoke, though I was the only one in the screaming audience who seemed to mind.


The day before, I'd sat down with three of the members to talk about the new album. I didn't ask about Peter Hook and I didn't ask about Joy Division because, frankly, the band is on the record pertaining to both topics and the legal proceedings in regard to Hook keep them from saying too much on the former. Despite these conversational limitations, and despite the occasional sense that they were quite sure that they were dealing with a legitimate moron (which, you know, fair), we all did the best we could. I'm grateful to them for taking the time to discuss their songwriting process, along with some choice quotes about the outside perceptions they have zero control over and their favorite era of Iggy Pop.

I've read interviews with New Order going back even to the 80s. You guys used to not talk about your personal lives. Have you found that now, when everybody's business is everybody's business and confession is mandatory for pop singers, there's more pressure to talk about your feelings and personal life?

Sumner: We don't really talk about our personal life, still. But I have written a book, Chapter and Verse, where I do talk about my personal life. I guess journalists never really ask about our personal life. I guess they never asked the questions that may have come off intrusive. [There] tends to be a dividing line between your professional life and personal life. Depends what mood you're in if you wanna cross it or not.


I think that might have been a misapprehension on my part because now bands tend to be really autobiographical in their lyrics.

Sumner: Well, I wouldn't say I was—you know, sometimes if they are autobiographical, they're a bit hidden. The more hidden the lyric is, the more autobiographical it is, in my case. I often write about an imagined scenario, imagined people—you'd have to break it down song by song. I guess a lot of my earlier lyrics were autobiographical, because I wasn't very happy; I was trying to crawl out of an emotional hole. A lot of them are yearning to get out of that hole. But I kind of hide it behind the lyric.

Which era do you mean?

Sumner: Eighties, yeah.

So all the way up to Technique.

Sumner: Yeah. But not all of [the songs]. "Temptation" is a good example. I think we're all searching for something. Sometimes you really need to find out what it is. You give up looking for it when you're older. [Laughs]

"The more hidden the lyric is, the more autobiographical it is, in my case."—Bernard Sumner

Would you say the search for release or escape is a common theme for dance music and rock & roll?

Sumner: Well, I can't comment on all genres of music, but you're searching for meaning—a sense of purpose—aren't you? This tour the last month, you start to feel like a human suitcase. There's got to be more to life than being a human suitcase.

So when you're actually doing the writing process…


Sumner: Are you talking about music or lyrics?

Lyrics, I suppose. I tend to focus more on lyrics because…

Sumner: Most journalists do because it's their medium—words.

Yes, because we don't know how to play anything. And we're lazy.

Sumner: Well, what I mean is different people come at songs in different ways. When I listen to music, I don't automatically hone in on the words. They are the last dish on the menu for me. What I listen to is the general vibe—the melody is really important.

The way we write is the music first, and get music that's evocative. I'll take the music and listen to it alone and see what it evokes and write about what it evokes, and that's the way I write lyrics. Occasionally, I've written music and lyrics at the same time, like on a track called "Run Wild." On "Unlearn this Hatred" from Music Complete, I wrote the vocal first—but that was really unique. You can listen to a lot of instrumental music, and that can carry a lot of emotional weight and emotional power—like a lot of classical music, for example. And it can really move you, almost to tears. One of the most magical things about music is that without words, it can move you that much.

You can spoil a song with the wrong vocal very easily. You could take a track that's got a lot of energy, really beat-y and rhythmic, and put a really croon-y vocal on it—a legato vocal that draws out the notes—and ruin it. So you're very conscious at that next stage, which is usually the last stage, which is the vocal; you're very conscious that you've got the future of this song in your hands. You can either make it better or you can make it worse.


One of the things I do is punch the vocal in and out and see if it sounds better with the vocal or worse. If it sounds worse, I scrap the vocal and start to again. So it's got to help the song; otherwise there's no point, and that I think goes for any overdub or any instrument you put on.

Right, do you find that to be more the case with the more dance-oriented New Order tracks?

Sumner: God, that's a tough question. I think songs do benefit from having a bit of air in them. If you imagine them to be molecules, in between the molecules there's got to be space. If they're all crammed together, it doesn't sound good. It's got to have a bit of air—although you can have a song that's stripped back sound boring. A lot of remixes I've heard, it just sounds like a drum machine and vocal, and to me, that's just boring.

In the same vein, there's nothing on this album that's shorter than four minutes. Is that for immersive purposes or for the repetition necessary for dance music?

Sumner: I think it's that thing about layering stuff up too much. You can do that with rock music quite a bit more than you can with dance music. Dance music—like a "Blue Monday"—wouldn't sound great if it had layer upon layer upon layer on it. The tracks are longer because we try to include the best ideas without putting them on top of each other like a deck of cards. We've laid them out sequentially.

While we're talking about individual songs, I was curious about "People on the Highline." I know you take the titles from books.


Sumner: Ssssometimes. Less so as these days.

I thought maybe the title was from a Wisława Szymborska poem, but it's not. What's it from?

Sumner: I took a walk along the highline.

It's nice isn't it?

Sumner: [Laughs] It is; it's really great. To me, it's good people-watching and looking at the buildings and the nice gardens. It can get quite boring on tour when you're stuck in a hotel and you don't know what to do with yourself. I guess it just stuck in my head, and I thought the track sounded quite New York in its flavor—so I made the connection that way.

Do you see yourselves as working within a particular tradition; be it the initial boundary-pushing of 80s era New Order or the longer tradition of dance music itself? Or do you not think about it?

Sumner: We don't even think about it. I just look at the task at hand and try to do the task the best we can possibly do it. Obviously, when you're writing an album, you really do have to put everything you got into that album, because you wind up playing all the songs for years to come. So if it's shit… then you end up having to put up with shit for a few years. [Room explodes with laughter].

Is there any song that people really love and want you guys to play where you are guys are like, "FUCK, we're so sick of this song?"

Sumner: Ehhh… Well, we don't know what people want us to play. Everyone's got a different favorite. I think it depends on the person's temperament what their favorite New Order song is. Sometimes there's no such thing as one is better than the other. They're just different.


How do you isolate yourself from the constant demands of a worldwide fanbase? Constantly shifting press?

Sumner: What's the question?

Do you just not read press or fan message boards?

Sumner: We don't have any social media.

But some of you do.

Tom Chapman: I do, yeah.

"I think songs do benefit from having a bit of air in them. If you imagine them to be molecules, in between the molecules there's got to be space."—Bernard Sumner

Well, you've talked in the past about the necessity of having thick skin as a singer.

Sumner: Yeah, the door is open when you're making a record—that's when you open the door. When you're playing a concert—that's when you open the door. But when you're not doing those things… Again it depends on your temperament. I'm quite a private person. I'm an only child. Sometimes I like being around people; sometimes I quite like being on my own. And when I mean on my own, I mean on my own. I can think and dream when I'm on my own, and you can't when there are loads of people around.

Tom here really likes going to the pub when we're home. He likes to socialize over a pint.

Chapman: I'm not an alcoholic, by the way.


Chapman: I like going out!

Sumner: That's my bag, really. Why go through all the trouble and all that way when you can just have a drink at home? I guess what I'm saying is that… I'm miserable. [Laughs]

Yeah, that's what I'm taking from this..

Sumner: I mean, clubs were more of my thing, not pubs.


Because you can't hear anybody talk?

Sumner: No, no—I used to go to clubs because there were more girls there. You go to a pub, and it's all men. Also, there's music involved and dancing—we used to socialize a lot then. Of course, it was chemically enhanced socialization. Well, socializing.

I used to like clubs, but you know, the club thing kind of got out of hand. You'd go out on 7 o'clock one night and you wouldn't get home till 12 o'clock the next day. Then you do that twice in a weekend. Eventually, it ground me into the dust. The clubs won and I lost. But to just go to the pub—I just equate that with feeling bad the next day. To go to the club for twelve or fourteen hours—that's a proper night out!

When's the last time you've lived in that way?

Sumner: Last time I was at a club, I almost broke my leg—it was in Berlin a few years ago. The way I remember it is, they were playing house music, and I was dancing on the dance floor. Then they put "Blue Monday" on. Loads of people got up on the dance floor, loads, and I thought, "I can't fucking be seen dancing to my own records," so I had to get off. Right in the middle of the dance floor was a coffee table, and this white plastic thing that was really low, about so high…

Chapman: Shin-level. I remember seeing him, like, "Eyyyy!"

Sumner: I went flying up over it. I almost broke my leg. I ended up with a big duck egg on my shin. And we had a concert the next day. It got a bit dangerous.

Last few questions in our remaining time: Has streaming fucked you guys?

Sumner: Business isn't as good as it used to be, to be brutally honest, but that's the way of the world now, isn't? You just have to accept it. But that's really more a question for the record label.

With a song like "Stray Dog" that Iggy Pop recites on Music Complete—was the lyrics/poem composed with Iggy in mind?

Sumner: I think I wrote it, then immediately after thought, "Iggy would be good for this," because I wrote the poem down, and I had the track in mind for to work against, so I wrote it, and I think that night or the next night I put the guide vocal down in the mode of Iggy Pop. Like an Iggy Pop impersonation, and then I sent it off to Iggy.

What era of Iggy Pop is your favorite? Are you a Stooges guy? A Bowie-era?

Sumner: Bowie, yeah, Bowie.