Godfathers of Pop: Bernard Sumner Interview
The New Order frontman Bernard Sumner talks electronic, dentists and lifetime achievement songwriting awards with Rudy Bolly…
Perhaps one of pop’s most reluctant stars, Bernard Sumner has been behind some of the greatest songs of the past 40 years. Following the demise of Joy Division he stepped up to front New Order, pushing the envelope of what was possible with a guitar band while simultaneously advancing electronic dance music.
Classic Pop caught up with Sumner at Nordoff Robbins music therapy fundraiser, the O2 Silver Clefs, where he received the Outstanding Achievement award. Nordoff Robbins run a music therapy centre in London and a number of outreach projects nationwide.
Congratulations on your Silver Clef.
Thanks. I don’t get a lot of awards, I give out a lot of awards. I suppose Lifetime Achievement means you are about to fall off the table. This is for songwriting so it’s nice to get one that means something because without the songs there would be nothing, there would be no Joy Division. But also the Nordoff Robbins charity is really good, we all know somebody who has problems of one sort or another. We all have a family member who has been through something and it’s nice to see somebody helping with music therapy. Music has been therapy to me over the years; when you’re feeling shit, put on a piece of music and it can lift you. That’s at a basic level but obviously what they’re doing is much more than that. Music is power and therapy.
You’re on tour again. In the early days, New Order didn’t enjoy playing live but now maintaining a pop career is all about gigging. How have you adapted?
You make the live work pleasurable – we play places that we want to play and the gigs now have been just phenomenal. The audiences are so special. I will always want to write songs but you have to find a way of doing gigs so it’s successful and pleasurable and not like a chore. Everyone is loving it now.
Special events like the Manchester International Festival gig in 2017 must keep it fresh.
Yeah, it’s quite a unique thing that we did. I don’t think anybody had used a synthesiser orchestra before, and then delving into our back catalogue like that; it was important that it was captured with the [Decades] documentary and live album.
Does touring mean there’s less time for songwriting?
I think we now have to find a way of doing the music like that. Maybe it’s down to writing one song and playing it live which is what we used to do in Joy Division. I have requested releasing some 12″s but apparently you can’t do that anymore, there’s some reason, because it’s a global market or something. It would be great to write an album but not record it so no one can buy it, that’s a very New Order thing to do. Just play it live.
So there isn’t any new material on the horizon?
The way I work, I record micro snippets of ideas on a recorder. I’ve got about 200 of them and I need to sit down, sort them out, and make them into songs. They are inspirational moments but I don’t sit at home strumming a guitar anymore, I used to. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing, I don’t know. Perhaps I should be worried.
Your old bandmate Johnny Marr recently said that he wants to get Electronic back together.
We’ve just done a gig with Johnny in Athens and I got up on stage and played [Electronic’s] Get The Message with him which was great fun, but New Order is taking up so much of my time. We had a meeting the other day where we were planning until October 2020 so I can’t even get time to go to the dentist. It’s really flared up New Order all around the world. I love it.
When Joy Division ended was it daunting taking centre stage?
I became an accidental singer but I enjoy it now. I consider it a blessing. In Joy Division, I was the guitarist and keyboard player and I had no desire to be the frontperson. The trick is not to care too much, but care just enough.
How did you cope with becoming the main songwriter, too?
I’m quite a private person, I like to watch and observe people rather than interact. Music is abstract, it’s a set of chords, rhythms, but once you get to the lyrics that’s a literal thing. I didn’t know how to do it but I had to or we’d fail. So I would sit there with a bottle of wine for hours and hours until something came out. It’s like a stream of consciousness, until two or three lines start to make sense.
Today there’s a lot of love for New Order but you’ve had your ups and downs…
For all the success you’ve earned, you have to deal with the adversity that inevitably follows. It’s the same for most bands. Initially things go swimmingly well, you’ve got the energy of youth on your side. You climb that mountain but there’s only one place to go once you hit Everest, and that’s down.
How do you view contemporary music and streaming?
Eno came up with the concept of ambient music, but now technology has made all music ambient, it’s background music. A lot of commercial music on radio is basically a cash register. There always was an element of that but there’s too much like that now.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I love Arcade Fire very much and Years & Years – I did a remix for them. I like esoteric stuff.
You’ve only played a handful of UK shows this year, will you come back and do Glastonbury in 2020 perhaps?
We would love to do it again, the last time we did it was 2016. It only bloody rains when we do it, though, not like this year. I’m a weather jinx. Don’t take me on holiday with you.
Is there a secret to your longevity?
I don’t like to analyse it. I think the best way to be good at what you do is just to forget yourself.