Bernard Sumner – What Rock’N’Roll Has Taught Me

The ex-New Order frontman talks death, ego clashes and the darkness of Joy Division.

Two is almost always better than one.

I’ve worked with quite a few different vocalists over the years – like Neil Tennant in Electronic and Ana Matronic from the Scissor Sisters on the last New Order album. Just on a practical level, having another vocalist means that I didn’t have to do as much. And everyone in
the world likes not having to do so much.

I remember seeing how The Libertines had two singers in the band – I thought it was a great idea. So I thought having Jake [Evans, co-vocalist in Sumner’s new band Bad Lieutenant] would add an interesting slant on the band model. I was pretty impressed by Jake when I first saw him sing.

We met when I went out to a birthday dinner at a restaurant and I didn’t even know he was a musician. There was a guy playing guitar in the restaurant who wasn’t very good and so, after he went home, Jake eventually got up and did ‘Heart Of Gold’ by Neil Young, which I thought took a lot of balls.

You really are shaped by your surroundings – especially if you come from Manchester.

When I was young, if you were a creative teenager, it wasn’t something that was encouraged because it was seen as a bit of waste of time. It couldn’t get you a job. For creative people in Manchester, that outlet wasn’t there, so if you couldn’t get a job painting or drawing, what could you do? I thought I’d try music.

I get asked a lot by people why so many bands come from Manchester and I think the weather plays a part too. It isn’t as a bad any more but it used to be shit. You’d be like, ‘There’s six months of winter coming up – what should I do? Oh, I’ll go to the pub. Then I’ll go to a club’.

After a month of that, you get bored and have to think of something else to do. In those days, there wasn’t a lot of external stimulus. It forced your imagination to go to other places.

You don’t need some kind of ‘message’ to be able to write songs.

Writing lyrics is pretty abstract – that’s the beauty of music for me. I never really wanted to be a singer so when I started to do it after Ian Curtis died, I didn’t know where to start. All of Joy Division’s best songs had just been pulled out of thin air, so I tried not to analyse
the process.

I felt that the more you analysed something you did, the less likely you were to come up with something good. That’s what I try to do with writing the lyrics. We always do the music first and I’ll try to get a feeling from it, try to dig out an atmosphere. Sometimes I’ll wait and wait, scratch my head for a while and nothing will happen. Then maybe I’ll have a glass of wine or something and, all of a sudden, I’ll just get a load of ideas and write them down.

It’s not very premeditated. It’s really very subconscious – to the point that when the lyrics are finished, I’ll look at it and think, ‘What the hell’s this bloke singing about?’ It’s about capturing the essence of the music.

Wherever possible, force yourself out of your comfort zone.

When we were recording parts of the Bad Lieutenant album, we used Jake’s studio, which is in a warehouse facility in Macclesfield but unfortunately, it’s got a karate school above him and a printing firm
or something below him. Not only that, next door was a heavy metal drummer and next door to that there was a Thin Lizzy tribute band.

There were no chairs, everything was painted white and it only had one light bulb above the mixing desk. It was horrible and noisy but it makes you work quick because you wanted to get the hell out of there! It stops you being indulgent. The last New Order probably cost a quarter of a million pounds to record. This one only cost about 30 grand. Sometimes, needs must…

There’s a lot more darkness in Joy Division than some people seem to realise.

We had a great time together in Joy Division but I think, personally, each member – possibly with the exception of Steve [Morris, drums] – had some kind of difficulty growing up and that reflected in the music somehow. Mine was that I had a lot of physical illness in my family.
A lot of my family members were basically dying at the time I was in Joy Division. I grew up with my grandparents and that industrial area
of Salford that I lived in was just swept away very quickly by the council, so I lost lots of my friends and neighbours.

So both my family and my community fell to bits. At the time I didn’t realise it, but all that had a big effect on me. The only thing that was left was the primary school, but I went back just a few weeks ago and even that had gone. It’s a very strange thing to go back to the place you spent all your childhood and not find any sign of it. It’s like someone removed your roots.

When a band goes bad, try to make sure it doesn’t descend into a pissing contest.

I’m pretty angry about [New Order’s split] but I don’t want to go slagging anyone off because that won’t achieve anything. It’s down to ego – but I can’t tell you whose ego it was because you’d never know whether to believe me or to believe someone else. I’m not going to sit here and apportion blame because you shouldn’t air your dirty washing in public.