Bernard Sumner bounces from Joy Division to New Order to Bad Lieutenant
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of Illinois Entertainer
The odds of a band breaking big are astronomical enough, but what are the chances it will happen twice let alone three or perhaps even four times for the same artist under different incarnations? Just ask Bernard Sumner, better known as Joy Division guitarist, New Order front man, Electronic co-captain and Bad Lieutenant leader, though he’ll be the first to shake off any exact science and simply suggest it’s an insatiable creative drive that causes him to regroup every time an insurmountable opposition occurs.
“I’ve been cleaning out the past even though I’m still playing some songs from the past and I gave the ego a spring clean out,” he says of forming the brand new band Bad Lieutenant when phoning in from home in Manchester. “It’s just fun being with these guys creatively, and with two guitarists, there are a lot of ideas out there. In the early days of New Order, it was me doing the guitar, keyboards and vocals, but now the chemistry’s changed and there’s more input from more people. I’m not saying I wrote everything in New Order because I didn’t, but being in Bad Lieutenant’s reduced my work load and freed me up to work more on vocals.”
The players involved in the group’s debut project Never Cry Another Tear (Triple Echo Records) are a mixture of fresh and familiar faces, starting with newcomer and co-singer Jake Evans, alongside latter New Order guitarist Phil Cunningham and Joy Division/New Order drummer Stephen Morris (for live shows only). While the connections to those established collaborators are obvious, Evans’ story is just as curious as it is unconventional.
“He’s a friend of Phil’s and we met at a birthday party,” summarizes Sumner. “Jake forgot to buy a present, so he got up in the middle of a restaurant and sang Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’ to make up for it when the [main bar singer] went to the bathroom. I was pretty blown away, because besides being a great rendition, it took a lot of balls to do that and I made a mental note. Then when I went into writing for Bad Lieutenant, even though there was no band name at the time, I invited Jake to the sessions.”
In theory, that batch of electronically-tipped Brit pop tunes could’ve wound up on New Order’s next record, but as space and time passed following that act’s 2005 album Waiting for the Siren’ Call, it was clear to Sumner that a follow-up was out of the question. “The quick version is we were together for a very long time and Peter [Hook] didn’t want to work with us anymore and he left,” he reveals. “We weren’t getting on, and since you sometimes see group members more than your wife or girlfriend, it’s imperative to get on together. We had different points of view and senses of humor by that time and didn’t see eye to eye, so there’s no point carrying on.”
Nonetheless, Bad Lieutenant will keep the group’s spirit alive on a spring tour (rescheduled from last fall due to visa problems), performing some of New Order’s electronic smashes in honor of its 30th anniversary, along with plenty of current cuts. The set list is also expected to uncover some Joy Division treasures and possibly a nod to Sumner’s partnership with The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr in Electronic. “They’ll be a couple of surprises really and obviously we want to showcase the Bad Lieutenant album, Never Cry Another Tear, we’ve just written,” he echoes. “But we realize people want to hear the old songs and we’ll play some of them, though not all of them.”
In other words, don’t expect a mere nostalgia trip throughout the past three decades, but rather a highlight reel of the classic and current that showcases Sumner’s continuous evolution. Though he refuses to rest on previous laurels, the singer/songwriter is open to discussing yesterday as a means to trace his journey, which considering he began in Joy Division, served as quite a seminal kick start. Just ask any current band on the brooding alternative rock circuit of today (including but not limited to The Killers, Interpol, Editors and She Wants Revenge), and chances are the act lands at the top of their influence list.
“I’m flattered by it and I’m glad people remember,” assures Sumner. “I also remember back myself to when I was a 21-year-old musician in Joy Division and we had the records we were influenced by in the rehearsal room, like Iggy Pop, The Velvet Underground, and Kraftwerk. I don’t think any musician writes brilliant music from a vacuum and I’m glad people have chosen us. There’s a value to our music and it’s nice to be remembered.”
Not only has the group been championed by fellow artists, but the film community as well, resulting in the recent Control documentary (with fallen front man Ian Curtis as the main subject), alongside the band-centered Joy Division. “I’ve seen Control several times and it’s a very accurate picture of what happened,” he confirms. “I was obviously not there to see all the things that happened to Ian [privately], but the portrayal was very accurate and very moving, although I can’t pretend to say it was pleasant going into the cinema and watching all that again. It was a hard time for all of us and not something I want to relive over and over…I haven’t watched the documentary yet because it came out at the painful time of New Order’s split. I wanted to get away from all things New Order at the time and make a clean cut with an imaginary pair of scissors to start thinking about the future, though I’m sure I’ll see it some day.”
Now that Sumner’s centered around Bad Lieutenant, he’s far enough removed from New Order’s difficulties to cherish the group’s many milestones, which included 1983’s “Blue Monday” becoming one of the most massive dance to pop crossovers in history (and the best selling 12 inch single of all time), followed by 1986’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” establishing the English act as full-blown American superstars.
“The audiences we played to in the States were enthusiastic and fantastic and it was just amazing playing to 25,0000 people a night who know your songs,” Sumner reminisces. “If only I could’ve gone straight to bed and been a good boy instead of staying out partying!”
The success continued through the early 1990s, which saw the group penning the World Cup anthem “World In Motion” and continuing to blaze up both the dance and alternative rock charts thanks to “Regret” and “Ruined In a Day.” “Though our music started as a rock band in Joy Division and was fairly unique [the surviving members who formed New Order] were more interested in electronic music because of our exposure to clubs throughout Europe and America. The ‘80s were more electronic and some would say more commercial, but then the guitars came back in with grunge [in the ‘90s] and that movement made [New Order] sound more like the music we made in Joy Division.”
“But it’s always been a funny process making music with New Order in the studio because of so many egotistical problems when one says ‘black’ and the other says ‘white’ to the point that producers served more as politicians that took the shit. I’m sure it happens to a lot of bands, but it grinds you down. We still managed to write pretty good songs, but it was like a battlefield.”
Even so, that tornado of tantrums found resolution in some side stepping with the super group Electronic, which pitted Sumner alongside songwriting partner Marr, who was also known to have his fair share of drama in The Smiths. “We were in a similar position [professionally] and we both lived in Manchester and still do,” Sumner explains of the lifelong friend who he still hangs out with, despite the group’s formal dissolution. “He’d grown a bit weary with one or two members and wanted to take a permanent break, so we found each and just talked about working together. He was very, very keen to do music with synths, which was a new and fresh thing to him, but I told him if he didn’t play guitar that I’d get all the blame! With each album we made, I kept pushing him towards guitars to the point where he played a lot on the third record. But I remember him being really inquisitive about what he could do with electronics because he didn’t have the opportunity to use them in The Smiths.”
There’s little, if any, artistic regret for Sumner when reflecting on his Electronic years, but he does wish the group would’ve toured instead of just ceasing at the studio level. “Johnny’s the type of guy who’s into one sort of music for a year and then he’ll completely drop it,” he divulges. “He’s also adamant when he doesn’t want to play live and then they’ll come a season when he does want to play live. Johnny’s tastes are fluid, and at that period, he didn’t want to play live. I felt we should play live to let people know about it, but the truth be known was I didn’t really want to play live because I was burnt out and a bit weary of getting burnt out again. So really to be fair to Johnny, he didn’t want to and I didn’t push it. We’re both writers, so we love being in the studio because that’s the creative part of what we do. There are actually three parts to the equation: creative artists who write songs, performers who play concerts and salesmen who sell our wears. You’ve got to do all three aspects to vibe in the business these days. But there’s such a creative aspect to being the studio because you start with nothing, and by the end of the week, you have a song that either sounds great or is total rubbish.”
By the early 2000s, Electronic ran its course and promoters started putting offers on the table for New Order to tour. After a few festival appearances, the group clicked once again, in turn, spawning two more CDs before permanently severing ties. “Everything has its life span doesn’t it?’” purposes Sumner. “Having been together 30 years is quite a long life span and is long enough, so it’s time to start something new.”
With nothing left to prove, Bad Lieutenant’s purpose is exclusively for enjoyment and its leader’s mantra of not looking too far into the future remains the same as when he started. “We’re just locked in the present and tried with 100 percent of our abilities to make an album people would be interested in,” Sumner promises. “When I was a teenager, I was horrified of modern society’s rat race, which is why I became a musician.”
Out of all the dates on the upcoming itinerary, Chicago is amongst Sumnar’s favorite, especially because it reminds him of Manchester, which he describes “as a working town where people don’t take any bullshit from people.” And just for the record, last fall’s cancellation wasn’t some strange excuse or cover-up for any non-existent controversy in Bad Lieutenant’s camp, but truly a logistical problem for which the singer profusely apologizes.
“We’re really sorry we cocked up with the visas and we hope that didn’t inconvenience too many people,” Sumner confides. “We were on the train station in Manchester on our way up to London to pick up our visas and found out they’d gone wrong and we were really upset we couldn’t make it. But we’re looking forward to coming back and playing for you guys, because as I said the other night a concert in Sheffield, the audience is just as important as a group. They’re actually equal because you can’t be a great group without a great audience!”
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