"Maybe You Do Want to Grow Up After All": An Interview with Bernard Sumner
When asked about how he feels about the term "icon", Bernard Sumner tells PopMatters that "I don't think I'm a legend. I think I've just got an interesting history." This, his time with Joy Division, New Order, and new band Bad Lieutenant are all a part of this epic interview ...
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.
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.