By Bob Gourley
By taking chances and pushing the existing technology to the
limits New Order proved to be pioneers of electronic music back in the early
80's before wide spread use of computers, sequencers and samplers in music. And
unlike many bands of that era New Order have been able to progress rather than
burn out. The group has always managed to stay in touch with the dance music
scene and incorporate elements of it into their own sound without "selling
out." With the collapse of their long time label, Factory, New Order have moved
on to London and released Republic, their first album in four years which also
marks the first time the band has worked with a producer.
Despite the label problems that the band was having at the
time Republic shows New Order still in top form. While the acid house influence
that dominated their last outing (Technique) is not as evident the band still
proves that they are masters at fusing electronics with more traditional guitar
and bass oriented music. It's been a long wait for new material but Republic is
well worth it.
"We actually started writing it about two years ago sort of
very quietly, little bits and then moved on a bit and picked up the pace," says
bassist Peter Hook on making the LP. "Of course, we've all been doing the solo
Those solo projects were Hook's band, Revenge, vocalist
Bernard Sumner's collaborations with Johnny Marr, Electronic, and, most
recently, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert's The Other Two. The latter saw
the first signs of Factory's downfall when they ran into problems getting their
Other Two and You album released. The members of New Order feel that taking the
time off and doing other things has helped keep the band fresh though they do
admit that it was a bit strange going back and working together. It was also
strange for the band to be working with producer Stephen Hague as, in the past,
New Order had produced themselves.
"The fact that we used a producer on this record; that was
the main difference," explains Morris. "When we started writing for this record
it was always done with the notion that we'd be using a producer. Basically one
of the things that happens when you've been together as long as we have is that
you know each other very very well and then when you're producing yourself it's
very hard to take criticism; everything's personal basically."
While their previous incarnation, Joy Division, had a pretty
standard guitar/bass/drum set-up New Order's incorporation of electronics has
blurred the picture in terms of who actually does what in the band. Using
electronics was something that the members had wanted to do since the
beginning, but it wasn't until shortly before singer Ian Curtis's suicide
prompted them to re-group as New Order that the technology really became
available to them. Gilbert recalls one of the group's first ventures into the
realm of non-traditional instruments and their effects on the band. "I remember
when Stephen was doing Close he said 'we've got a drum machine, they don't need
me!'" she says. "And he was like dead upset, but of course he's seen that you
shouldn't take that attitude; Stephen plays keyboards and everything."
Starting to use electronics and the more varied sound they
provide allowed New Order to go beyond the Joy Division sound that everyone
seemed to be copying at the time. "In England after Joy Division ceased it was
like every band on the John Peel show sounded just like bloody Joy Division!"
explains Morris. "It was like, oh god, the idea of being that it was great to
inspire people to get together and make music but not to clone it. They should
be trying to do something a bit different."
But as an attempt to stop people from copying them the
change was not effective as Morris says that, "It didn't work out because 'Blue
Monday' was copied bass-drum-riff."
From the start New Order were willing to risk taking the
electronics on stage with them instead of using backing tapes. When asked if
this was a cause of frustration at the time Gilbert lets out a sarcastic, "No,
why?" with Morris following suit laughing as he asks "How can you tell?"
"When computers first came out you wouldn't dream of taking
them anywhere! But we did," explains Gilbert. "So it was like a really big
hassle every night and we used to check all of the leads because it was just
like plugs and wires then and I used to go on and sound check all the gear
before we actually played the concert which is stupid. You just don't do that
now, but we had to. The gear kept breaking down so we got like second stand ins
and we ended up with four lots of stand ins on the stage because they were so
At one time New Order would go out on tour with all of their
material prepared for live performance giving them the chance to pick and
choose what songs to play each night. But starting with the last US tour the
group realized that they had to skim things down as it was getting to be a bit
too much. Given the fact that everything is running live, their soundman ends
up having 24 - 42 tracks to mix on each song. "If you think about it, it's like
him mixing an LP as it was going along because every song is different," says
Gilbert. "It's like juggling."
But while the band has been forced to streamline their set
list they still strive for spontaneity, something missing from many electronic
band's shows. "Most bands do 'a performance' which is essentially the same set
to a certain extent choreographed," says Morris. "It shouldn't get away from a
gig-type, spur of the moment type of feeling which is hit-or-miss,
Another difference in making the new album was the band's
getting away from the cryptic song titles which often have no relation to the
music. "Basically the New Order method of titling is just writing down words
that are completely abstract and don't relate to anything and then when you've
written the songs it's just like pin the tail on the donkey," says Morris.
This time around the band got away from this to some degree.
However, New Order are still not about to make things easy. "We said let's do
something different, let's name the songs!" Gillian says. "For instance,
'Regret' was always 'Regret.'"
Unfortunately for listeners the band was not as direct with
the naming of the rest of the album. While they did have about half of the
tracks titled before making the album they felt the need to switch most of them
around just to confuse matters.
The band's problems with Factory stem from the fact that New
Order did not have a normal business relationship with the label; they were
friends, or at least had personal involvement with who ran it. Morris explains
that while it was great not having a contract in some ways, in the end "the
unspoken obligations you have to each other are sort of like the ultimate
contract." So when the band was getting sick of all the meetings regarding The
Hacienda, which the label and band were part owners of, they couldn't just walk
out. And when Factory started to experience difficulties it turned to the band
"Every time they had a problem they used to come to us to
sort it out for them," explains Morris. "But we just don't say 'well look, if
we've got a problem with music, what do we do, come to you? Can you explain
MIDI to us? I don't know why this lead isn't working, could you fix it for us?'
The other way around would just be completely ridiculous."
On the other hand Morris feels that New Order may not be
around today if it weren't for Factory. Being with that label enabled the group
to exist outside of the mainstream music industry and it gave them a great deal
of freedom. Now that they are in London New Order are getting their first taste
of the confines of the mainstream music industry.
"That's one of the funny things about London. It's like
'well you can't do any solo stuff unless you ask us first. If you appear on any
records you've got to have a 'guest appearance,'" explains Morris. "With
Factory, it was do what you want, really."
Had they followed a more traditional path of signing
directly to a major and not having the freedom Factory allowed the group may
have burned out and become another casualty of the 80's. Still, at this stage
of the game, New Order see the incident as the dawning of a new era and a
relief in some ways. "The only good things about the demise of Factory is it's
like a great burden weight off the shoulders in the way that we were involved
with so much business rubbish. I never wanted to be a business man. I never
wanted to own a club," says Morris. "Now that's all over, it's sort of a fresh
start and you can sort of concentrate on music again."
Special thanks to the Reader's Digest Foundation for
covering the transportation costs that made this interview possible.