Bernard Sumner: “There’s only one place to go once you hit Everest, and that’s down”
By Classic Pop | May 16, 2022
Perhaps one of pop’s most reluctant stars, Bernard Sumner of New Order has been behind some of the finest songs of the past 40-plus years. A couple of years back, Classic Pop caught up with the frontman at the O2 Silver Clefs, the Nordoff Robbins music therapy fundraising event where he received the Outstanding Achievement award.
Congratulations on winning your Silver Clef award!
Thanks. I don’t get a lot of awards… I give out a lot! I suppose ‘Lifetime Achievement’ means you are about to fall off the table. This is for songwriting, though, so it’s nice to get one that means something, because without the songs there would be nothing… there would be no Joy Division. 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, you can 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 spent some time on tour in Europe in late 2019. In the early days New Order didn’t enjoy playing live, but these days maintaining a pop career is all about gigging. How have you adapted to current economics?
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 synthesizer orchestra before. And 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 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… 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.
Is there any new material on the horizon?
The way I work, I gather 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. 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 just enough.
How did you cope with becoming the main songwriter as well?
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 thing, 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 also Years & Years – I did a remix for them. I like esoteric stuff.
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.