“Maybe You Do Want to Grow Up After All”: An Interview with Bernard Sumner

Bad Lieutenant
Never Cry Another Tear
Triple Echo
2009-11-10

For some reason, I began my interview with Bernard Sumner with a preconceived notion that he would be a “tough” interview subject.

After all, the elder statesman responsible for shaping the sound of modern indie rock, electronic, and synth-pop through his work in seminal bands Joy Division, New Order, and his current project Bad Lieutenant, has been asked all the same questions before. “What was it like being in Joy Division?” “Tell me about Factory Records and the Manchester Scene?” “What was Ian Curtis really like?” Through osmosis, growing up in the 80s, I heard New Order and particularly “Blue Monday”, everywhere (to this day, it’s the Number One selling 12-inch single of all time). My brother cranked the single from the self-imposed isolation of his room, ruminating over teenage heartbreak and desperation. I recall my 16 year old babysitter Jessica dancing to “Bizarre Love Triangle” in my basement, my seven year old brain connecting for the first time the beautiful synthesis between sex and music. When I was fourteen, I fell in love with “Temptation”, off the Trainspotting soundtrack, and it remains the most romantic song in the world to me. To this day, if I’m trying to win the affection of a lady, it always gets a spot on the mix CD, usually casually sandwiched somewhere at track eight or nine as I don’t want to come on too strong.

Once I get Bernard on the line from his home in England, I wince when he mentions that this is his day off, but he’s got interviews scheduled all day. After chatting for a bit about weather and fishing, I’ve laid down all defenses. Sumner is incredibly charming, modest, and self deprecating; his thick, Manchester-bred accent a bit tricky to decipher at times. Belying my better instincts, I ask all the questions he’s been asked a million times, and to my delight, Sumner expounds as if the subject is something he hasn’t considered for quite some time. After the demise of New Order in 2007, Sumner founded Bad Lieutenant with latter-day New Order guitarist Phil Cunningham and Joy Division founding drummer Stephen Morris. Along with bassist Tom Chapman and new acquisition Jake Evans, Bad Lieutenant is making their U.S. concert debut with four dates in April (after a Visa snafu, the band had to postpone a 2009 U.S. tour). Never Cry Another Tear, Bad Lieutenant’s debut album, is unassuming yet powerful, full of late-period New Order guitar bombast and sweeping vocals. It’s a fresh start for Sumner, and a chance to embrace his roots while looking ahead to the future.

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Does the Bad Lieutenant record feel like a fresh start for you? The New Order synth has been largely stripped away, yet on tour you still play Joy Division and New Order songs?

Yeah, in a way it’s the same but at the same time it feels new. We’ve got different band members with fresh input. Phil Cunningham played in New Order. Jake Evans is a completely new bag of tricks, and Tom Chapman is completely new. So it’s a bit of the old guard meeting the new guard. I guess the old guard is only really myself and Steve Morris. Jake was like 28 when he joined the band and brought with him a fresh perspective on music. He was certainly reverent of the Joy Division / New Order heritage, but not that reverent. He wasn’t a sycophantic, hardcore New Order / Joy Division fan and we really liked that. So, Bad Lieutenant is like, what’s the expression? A breath of fresh air. So yeah, it feels fresh.

There’s a different vibe on tour and on stage as well. We’re a five piece, so there’s a different layout on the stage and a different chemistry. You mentioned the synths also. In New Order, I played about 95% of the synths. It’s not much fun for the other guys in the band when I’m playing my synth parts. Steve would help out, but most of it I did. So, back then, it was just me sitting in front of a computer in the studio while everyone else was standing around twiddling their thumbs. It’s not a great deal of fun for the rest of the band if you write music in that way. Whereas in Bad Lieutenant we’re using guitars, bass guitars and real drums, which incorporates the band much more naturally, and it’s much more of a band activity.

I was keen on not getting into a situation where I was programming the synthesizers or sitting in front of a computer all day long, while the band just sat around bored. That’s not utilizing the band to their full abilities. Although, I have to say that at the time when we were making more synthesize-based music, perhaps if we hadn’t done that then we wouldn’t have had as many big hits. So something can be said for both things really. I think there’s a kind of middle ground that you can find where there’s a healthy mix of synth and guitar. But, like you said, the new record is guitar driven and Bad Lieutenant is primarily a rock band.

Is there a more organic approach to music in Bad Lieutenant, with everyone pitching in ideas? Is it more collaborative?

Yeah, but it was in Joy Division and New Order as well. When we were doing the guitar bits in those bands, it was more collaborative then when I was doing the synth stuff. But Lieutenant is very collaborative: someone will come in with an idea, and I’ll add a few chords, then someone will come up with a different beat, and we’ll come together on it.

You mentioned the bass and synth heavy stuff being the big hits. I don’t know if those were your favorites, but at this stage in your career, is commercial success something that weighs heavy on Bad Lieutenant?

[Laughs.] No, we just want to survive really. We just want to survive, but it would be disingenuous if I said I didn’t want any commercial success. If success came our way, that’d be great, but it’s not the only thing that I live for. I’m sure you’ve heard this a thousand times, but with commercial [success] comes pressure. You get all these time demands and your life changes, not necessarily for the better. You’ve got to bend over for a lot of people, which I really don’t like doing. But it would be nice to make enough money to enjoy this lifestyle for a bit, [and] by that I mean being able to keep playing. I’d be really happy if it just self-financed itself really. The first single we picked, “Sink Or Swim”, was pretty melodic and pretty radio friendly. But it’s really difficult, when you finish an album, to pick a single or to even read reviews. You’re so close to the music, you’ve been living, eating and breathing the album for the past year or so, so it’s very difficult to know which single to give to radio. But with this album, “Sink Or Swim” was a very melodic, tuneful song, so that seemed to be the obvious choice.

Describe to me the genesis of Bad Lieutenant? Did you approach Cunningham and Morris with the idea?

It all began when being in New Order was starting to be a rough ride, and it was starting to fall apart. Peter Hook [former New Order bassist] had already formed another band, so I could see the writings on the wall. Pete and I weren’t getting along, he wasn’t getting along with the management or myself for that matter. I was very good friends with Alex James, the bass player in Blur, and he’d just gone through a similar thing in Blur and they’d just split up. I was at his house on New Years’ Eve for a party and said to him, “We’re both in the same boat here. Why don’t we write some material?” I’d been friends with him for years, we used to be old drinking buddies down in London, but I’d never written music with Alex. We’d been on holiday before, but I had never written with him. Obviously, I knew what his stuff was like with Blur, so it was a bit of an experiment.

I knew from working with New Order that I enjoyed working with Phil Cunningham. New Order was about to implode, so I didn’t want to leave him on the sidelines. He’s a great guitarist, so I invited Phil along. Jake Evans was a friend of Phil’s, and I came across him at a birthday party. This is very Jake, he had come to our friend’s party and didn’t bring a present. He claimed it was because he was broke, but Jake’s just a very forgetful, absent-minded kind of guy. The party was at a restaurant, so Jake’s solution was to say, “I’ll tell you what. When that guy on stage is done playing, I’ll grab his acoustic guitar and start playing and that’ll be my present.” I didn’t even know Jake was a musician at the time, and Jake stood up in front of all these people in the restaurant and sang Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”. I was pretty impressed with what I heard, and I thought he had a lot of balls to get up there and do it. I made a mental note of Jake, and when we had our first Bad Lieutenant sessions I invited him ’round. Steve was unavailable because he was having some health issues with his family which thankfully have been resolved, but at the time he had a lot on his plate. Actually, the guy whose birthday it was became our first drummer. [Laughs.] So, long story short, Bad Lieutenant all came about through birthday and New Years’ Eve parties. So, it’s really a group of friends working together.

I think that vibe comes through on the record. It has a real natural feel, and it seems like you guys are having fun.

That’s very true. We had a lot of fun making the record, and it was a really good laugh. The last New Order record, at certain times, was very difficult to make. So, this Bad Lieutenant record was quite refreshing, because everyone was pushing in the same direction. There was a period of getting to know what made each other tick, like in any new relationship. It was certainly there with me and Jake and me and Alex. We had to learn each other’s playing styles and what sort of music turned them on. From a producer’s point of view, it was finding out the strengths and weaknesses really. If there was a particular weakness, we’d focus in and eliminate it. It was a learning period. The record took a long time to make and that was one of the reasons. The other was that we were having a really good time in the studio.

Were you happy with the Joy Division biopic ‘Control’?

Going back a bit, I really got into Joy Division through the movie Control. I’m 28 and from a different generation. First of all, I’m curious if you were happy with the film.

I was, yeah. It was pretty accurate as to how I remember it. Sam Riley’s performance as Ian, in particular, was really good. Obviously if I was directing, I would have done a few things differently. Stuff like, “Well, that’s not right, or Ian wouldn’t have said that.” But it’s a film, not a documentary. But overall, I was really happy with it. It was a difficult period in my life, and a difficult time for all the band members. It wasn’t a particularly happy period, but one that I have to talk about because people are interested in it. It was a very tragic period, and I think that for everyone involved, we’re all happier people now, at least I know I am. I’m a happier, more content person now. Part of that is just the benefit of being older, and being more capable to deal with what life throws at you.

I think when you’re in your 20s, going from adolescence to about 24, I think your life is a series of emotional storms that you have to weather. Life is more emotional at that time, and you’re less equipped to deal with what life throws at you. I always think that if you can get past 24, than life really starts at that point. I really think that’s true. Going from being a teenager to joining the adult world, is a bit of a cold shower and a shock to the system. You go from having fun 24 hours a day to joining the adult world, and you realize that things are getting serious. Part of the reason I joined Joy Division was so that I really wouldn’t have to grow up.

Suspended adolescence?

Yeah. I reached the breaking point when my hangovers started lasting three days instead of one miserable day. Once you start getting the three day hangovers, it’s like getting hit with a big stick and maybe you do want to grow up after all.

In regards to the Manchester scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s, could you feel the electricity in the air? That something was happening and it was special?

No, not really. It was a strange thing because we never really thought about what we were doing. We really only thought about making music and possibly making some money. The more we thought about what we did, the harder it was to write and create. Things didn’t go as well if we thought, “We’re going to write a song that sounds like this.” We couldn’t do that, so we just wrote very instinctually. We just sat around in a rehearsal room and waited for ideas to drop out of the ether. We’d sit around and talk about what was on T.V. the night before, or girls or clubs or whatever until we got bored and then we’d pick up or instruments and something would just happen.

Certainly when we first started in the Manchester scene, we were outsiders. We came from different parts of Manchester. Me and Pete Hook came from the industrial, working class part of town and Steve Morris and Ian Curtis lived in a small town south of Manchester. The scene was based more just to the South of Manchester, which is not really where any of us came from, so the only contact with that scene was going to see gigs. We’d see The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Buzzcocks. You’d see a lot of the same people at these gigs but we weren’t a part of the scene really, just because of where we came from. Later on, when we opened The Hacienda and Factory Records opened a club called The Factory in the North Side, that’s when the scene really came together.

As far as influences, were you a Beatles or a Rolling Stones guy? I’d peg you as a Stones man.

Yeah, I was definitely more of a Stones guy, although I do like the Beatles. When those bands were first happening in the ’60s, I was pretty young and we didn’t have a record player in the house. I’d only hear what I’d hear on the radio. I liked both groups, but I liked the harder, more guitar-based sound of the Stones. As I got older, I’d go to youth clubs. Do you have youth clubs in the States?

Well, I guess the short answer would be no. I don’t think a lot of teens hang out at the YMCA.

It’s different in England. When I was 14 or 15, I used to go to youth clubs that were sort of two different rooms where you could go and listen to music. Downstairs was the disco room, where they used to play Motown and Stax and ska-type stuff. Upstairs, they used to play Stones and Led Zeppelin and the happening rock music of the day. I listened to both, and would hop between upstairs and downstairs. It was funny really, because in the upstairs, everyone had long hair, and downstairs everyone had short hair. Whichever room I was in, I was always a bit out of place with my clothes and my haircut which is I guess a metaphor for my career. At the time, I had a bit of an overgrown skinhead haircut.

How does the term “icon” sit with you?

I don’t know. It’s hard to see yourself as other people see you. The guys in the band certainly don’t see me as a legend, nor should they. I guess there’s an interesting story to my past and the past of the bands that I’ve been in, and the story of Factory Records and all that. We did things in an interesting and different way. A lot of things happened to us and we made good music and did it in a different way. But I don’t think I’m a legend. I think I’ve just got an interesting history.

Has the idea of heading out to country and just disappearing for awhile ever pop up in your mind?

[Laughs.] That’s exactly what I’m going to do this coming November. I’ve got a sailboat, and in my spare time that’s what I do. In November I’m going to take the boat on the Atlantic Ocean for a bit.

New Order

Speaking of your history, you’ve seen so many different shifts in the music business. How do you feel about the current state of the industry and the death of print media for that matter?

Everyone’s buying digitally. If you’re traveling a lot, it’s nice to have all your music on a nice, tiny iPod. But, at the same time, it doesn’t feel real. You can’t pick up a downloaded album, touch it and look at the sleeve and all that. It’s convenient for sure, but sometimes, things can be too convenient and it stops being special. If you can get something by hitting a button on a computer, is it as special? I don’t think it is. When I was a kid in school, we’d go out and buy a vinyl album, and it would take you all week to save up for it. You’d go out and buy it, take it home, and it was something that was really valuable. You’d stare at the sleeve and have a separate piece of art along with the music. You’d take it home, play it, and treasure that moment. You’d really crawl inside that album. It either blew you away or you’d be pissed off that you wasted your money on rubbish. So I think that magic is lost a lot these days.

Digital media has cheapened the value of the commodity. It’s reduced the value by trading that magic for convenience, and I have very mixed feelings about it. I’ve been staring at a computer screen all morning, and you get a kind of paralysis staring at the screen. Someone said, “Television is the valium of the masses” but now all we do is stare at screens. When you look at a computer screen, even if you’re doing work on it, you feel partially stupefied. Pandora’s Box has been opened, and it’s the way forward. You have to accept the change, because there’s no going back. It’s like Stereo and Mono.

If the future of the industry is in flux, what outcome would personally make you happy?

Well, I worry about if musicians can still make a living, with file sharing and all that. Someone said that paying for music on the internet is similar to putting a turnstile in the middle of the ocean. If someone’s staring at two buttons and one says “Pay” and the other says “Free” and you’re going to get the same product in the end, everyone’s going to choose “Free” because that’s the way human beings are wired. So, there’s not enough money for record companies to help out young, struggling bands. But, you’ve got to look at it from the industry’s point of view as well. If it’s going to cost all this money to make a record: studio time, the band’s time, engineer’s time, pressing and no one’s going to pay for it, that’s a situation that cannot go on. It doesn’t affect massive artists like Beyoncé as much, but smaller and younger bands, they haven’t got a chance. I don’t know what the solution is though. I guess the solution is for more people to go out and see bands live. It’s a shame though, really. It’s a shame.

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