Friday, July 8, 2011

Dreams Never End? : Personal Summary of Bernard Sumner in Conversation with Dave Haslam for True Faith at MIF

Bernard Sumner and Dave Haslam on stage for True Faith interview at Manchester International Festival, 4 July 2011. Photograph by Bagpuss Jon. It's blurry because it was dark and we were sitting at the back.

Aged thirteen, slightly acned and already hackneyed by two years of being on daily trial at comprehensive school for the offence of being misunderstood - then something came and changed everything - as if I’d been touched by the hand of god. I found a force in which to have true faith and it was called New Order. Actually, it was called Electronic and it was the singer of both these indie groups who caught my eye; a guy called Bernard Sumner (not Gerald – although that’s the same era). I already liked the catchy, jangly Electronic tune, ‘Get the Message,’ which I’d heard on the radio, possibly on that Virgin Rock station. Then, one strangely luminous May Thursday evening, I watched Marr and Sumner perform it on Top of the Pops. And I fell for Sumner's silky blond hair and intense blue-green-grey eyes, almost hidden amongst his coy performance. Coyness is nice. But that is a different matter. My older brother, by nearly a decade, turned to me and said ‘You think this is good, you should go and play my New Order and Joy Division records.’ And I did, after I had listened to him tell me about how the original line up was Punk with a German twist - all the way from Salford - and how the singer had horrifically hung himself in 1980 and how this guy Bernard had heroically stepped in as singer to keep the band alive, despite his lack of vocal competence. Just like that. As soon as I listened, I found that these tragic and humble beginnings were perceivable and intangibly present in the evocative vocals of both Curtis and Sumner and from the echoey depths of the guitar riffs which uniquely seemed to swap roles between Bass and Lead. I became embroiled in a bizarre love triangle with Joy Division and New Order, with Bernard colouring its surface area. I wished I was a few years older so I could go to the Hacienda and maybe hang out with him - but by the time I got there, I had moved onto boys who cared that I existed. Although, I never stopped relating to the innovative and manifold sounds of New Order.

Screenshot of Electronic performing on TOTPs that fateful day in May 1991

Twenty years later, it’s the somewhat blue Monday* of 4th July 2011, and I finally get to hear the previously media shy Bernard Sumner speak up close in interview with Dave Haslam, within the cosy space of Manchester International Festival’s Pavilion theatre. Surprisingly or not, he seemed to be dressed in the same kind of denim shirt, black jeans and white pumps which he wore in Electronic photo shoots in 1991 for those music publications I had rushed gauchely to the news agent to salvage - such as Melody Maker, NME, Select and Rage (anyone remember the latter?) Yet, of all the questions asked during the 90 minute interview, the most salient was, perhaps, by a member of the audience who queried, ‘How do you stay so relevant?’ It was New Order’s aptitude for riding on the zeitgeist of the electronic music scene which, arguably, made them so inventive as an Indie band. In the early eighties they pilgrimaged to New York to see what they could discover or sample from the electro and Hip Hop underground clubs which enabled them to work with producer / remixers Arthur Baker and Morris D Temple. You can hear electro dance and sometimes even Hip Hop influences in tunes such as Confusion, Thieves Like Us and The Village. Whilst many (but by no means all) 1980s bands on alternative record labels focused on rehashed sixties style guitar songs or post punk influences, New Order kept with the times, merging dance beats and synthesisers with a little old school mellow rock (note: a version of Age of Consent was used in Wayne’s World 2). Bernard continued to observe the new waves on the dance scene with the Electronic album and the late 90s New Order reunited album, Waiting For The Siren’s Call. Throughout the course of Haslam’s gentle interrogation - with particular focus on Bernard and Hooky’s recent fallout - the theme for Bernard seemed to be looking forwards. As he stated several times something to the effect of: “I’m really proud of our achievements [with New Order] but I want to look to the future...because what’s the point in always thinking about the past?”

Screenshot of Bad Lieutenant video

Bernard says he is having more fun than ever working with the guys in his current ensemble, Bad Lieutenant – one of whom is original New Order drummer, Stephen Morris – who Bernard said he’s always compared to "John Cleese on acid.” He also implied that he is no longer as reluctant to interact with the media, particularly since he became what he described jokingly as “a house wife’s favourite” after his recent appearance on The Wright Stuff. At one point near the beginning of the interview he labelled himself as a formerly “shy” person who would always stand on the outskirts of a party observing others, although he added that he later changed. This change was evident when he told his little known anecdote about turning up to the World in Motion world cup video filming session (incidentally at Liverpool football grounds, not Wembley) dressed, for no apparent reason, as Elvis (!) Whilst Haslam was particularly interested in how Ian Curtis had coped with his depression and epilepsy in Joy Division when singing under the spotlight, Bernard said that he himself had found it very difficult, particularly when the audience unexpectedly multiplied to stadium size. Bernard still stands by the Factory records, Wilson fuelled ethos that New Order made music because they enjoyed it, not because they wanted to be popular or to make money. Interestingly, Bernard reminisced to a bus journey he took as a teenager where he noticed that all the people in suits and work clothes who sat on the bus looked thoroughly miserable. He decided he never wanted to work and he told how whenever the generic media band duties, such as attending interviews (or posing for album covers) began to feel like work, they would back off. It is perhaps for this reason that New Order album covers are always without photos of band members. They were not being elusive because they wanted to be elusive, they were being elusive because they didn’t aspire to being involved. After all, why should they play the media game as a band who didn’t care if they were popular or not and who were Indie in financial - not stylistic - terms because of the rebellish economics of the Factory record label? Bernard made reference to the mainstream 80s bands such as Duran Duran as the other. It’s ironic that in the 90s New Order sold out at stadiums and that they had the best selling twelve inch single ever (need I mention its name?)

Considering again those New Order albums of the 80s with their minimalist, alternatively graphic designed sleeves (by the then lesser known Peter Saville), their other unique record production feature was their lack of cohesiveness or substance (ahem) in terms of album and song titles, lyrics and themes. Haslam asked Bernard about this and he reinforced how there wasn’t the commercial pressure to have a single hit per album; most of the singles appeared on the early compilation, Substance (Haslam’s favourite ‘album’) and some of the albums didn’t have any hit singles on them at all. Bernard also shamelessly and admirably confessed that he was never interested in lyrics or in giving tunes a name. Again, he spoke of how he never had the desire to get a particular, transparent message across to the general public as he is not the kind of person “who wears his heart on his sleeve.” Instead, he liked the fact that music speaks a more oblique language of its own which doesn’t need lexis to “convey its emotions.” He had entered the bubble of music as a keyboard / lead/rhythms guitar player after all. And when Haslam probed about his vocal skills Bernard laughed and said that some of the earlier stuff was particularly badly sung; this was mainly because he wasn’t attuned to transposing the melodic lines in his head to the octave levels of singability. It was also because Hooky liked to ping his signature bass, baritone or even tenor style.

Bernard wasn’t afraid to answer Haslam’s questions about the breakdown in communication between Hooky and himself but he phrased it as minimalistically as he could, despite playful jeers from the audience. Hook has toured internationally playing reworks of Joy Division’s entire album, Unknown Pleasures, with plans to do the album, Closer, as well as releasing some of these covers on EP; all without consulting the rest of the New Order members. So it goes. Bernard seems to have, one way or the other, moved on. A minor fact which was of interest just because it was something I hadn’t heard before was that it was Hook who gave Bernard the nickname ‘Barney.’ And Bernard never liked it, even though it caught on. And Hook knew that Bernard never liked it. When asked the mischievous question, “Who is most likely to reform, a) The Smiths, b) The Stone Roses or c) New Order ?,” Bernard smiled, calmly and replied, “b).”

As an audience member who has read a lot of what there has been to read about Joy Division and New Order, who’s watched the films 24 Hour Party People and Transmission (both mentioned with thoughtfulness by Bernard here), who has seen them live, got the t-shirt and worn it out, there was little new in Haslam’s MIF interview with Bernard Sumner. This is at least true in terms of the technicalities and offbeat tales of being a band who were managed and produced by unpredictable mavericks or otherwise scallywags such as Tony Wilson, Martin Hannett and Rob Gretton (now all sadly and untimely deceased). There was also nothing really revelatory to transpire from Haslam’s querying regarding the surrounding circumstances of Curtis’s death – something which has already been probed to death itself. What was fresh about this interview with Bernard was his willingness to chat freely and funnily about some of the more personal aspects of his working life** - past, present and future - and his ability to appear fresh in himself, despite his participation in late 80s ventures into the acid house scene in Ibiza. The New Order sound which always prevails for me is that certain wistful, harmonic yet unpredictable dreaminess. It’s possible that Bernard has moved on from some of the wistfulness but managed to keep the harmony and the dreams.

Album cover, Substance

*I promise I will try and stop throwing in the titles of New Order songs from here on. But is is rather fun.
** e.g. Bernard said that one of his favourite New Order songs is Love Vigilantes and that Temptation is his favourite to play live.


Eclectic Heth said...

Becky, I love listening to you wax lyrical, you have a great gift for expressing yourself through prose, and I hope it is noticed by someone in the publishing world. Keep on doing it lady!

Culturators said...

Thanks Heth! That's encouraging to know! Just looked at you blog. Loving your eclectic vintage stylee x

Gary McMahon said...

EXCLUSIVE: I live a 12 minute walk from the graveyard where Barney & Ian Curtis took a short cut and Barney told him, by way of a rebuke for attempting suicide, "That could have been you." pointing to one of the gravestones. What Joy Division were doing rehearsing in Monton, which is what they had just been doing, I don't know.