It’s been a blue Monday for New Order‘s Bernard Sumner. The 56-year-old frontman should be celebrating his iconic alt-rock dance band’s triumphant return to the States for their first run of U.S. shows in seven years. Instead, the Manchester-born musician is holed up in an L.A. hotel room, grumpily popping painkillers and icing his busted knee — an unfortunate casualty of the previous night’s gig.
Sumner’s ligaments may not be as resilient as they were when New Order rose from the ashes of pioneering post-punk group Joy Division back in 1980, but — gimpy leg aside — the soft-spoken singer/guitarist is having more fun than he’s had in ages. A few years ago, New Order seemed on the brink of extinction due to the private distractions of its members and some very public feuding with founding bassist Peter Hook (whose contentious departure in 2007 threatened to end the entire party). But the band — rounded out by original drummer Stephen Morris, keyboardist Gillian Gilbert (who returned after a 10-year hiatus), guitarist Phil Cunningham and new bassist Tom Chapman — has rebounded from those disconcerting days with a refreshed outlook and a renewed enthusiasm for their future.
This year saw New Order perform a series of sold-out concerts across the globe, including a landmark gig at the Summer Olympics’ closing concert in London’s Hyde Park. And success on the road may lead the band back to the studio to record an album of new material. Billboard caught up with Sumner, who revealed just how New Order’s world was able to stay in motion.
Billboard: First off, sorry to hear about your knee. Got a little too rambunctious on stage last night?
Bernard Sumner: Yeah. We’ve been on tour for a year and it’s just getting to me a little bit. I’m starting to wear out — like a car that needs servicing on occasion. But it’s all been brilliant so far … apart from this.
Well, I’m sure the crowds will keep dancing, even if you can’t for a while. But I’m glad to hear the rest of the shows have gone well.
Yeah, they’ve been really good. We’ve been taking it step by step, really. We started right about November (2011), where we played three dates in Europe, and they went really well. And then we went to South America and played three dates there. Then we went on tour to Australia and New Zealand. Then we came back and did Ultra Music Festivals in Miami and … Brazil. Then we came home and did a tour of the UK. Then we went to Asia. We came back and played a couple of dates in the UK, and then out to the States. It’s been really enjoyable. I’m quite surprised.
What’s been surprising about it?
(Touring) was a bit of a battle in the old days because we just got completely off our faces. We partied too much and it made our job very difficult. We’ve grown up now. We still like to drink, but we don’t go completely stupid like we used to and stay up for days on end. But … I was a young guy, and that’s what you want to do at that age. I don’t regret a minute of it.
I actually saw you in 1989 on the Technique tour. It seems like you have more energy and enthusiasm on stage now than you did back then.
We had a lot of energy in the 80’s. It just wasn’t our own, if you know what I mean. It was the kind of energy that you can buy.
What made you decide to slow things down?
I think I’ve changed as a person. In the old days — perhaps I cared about it too much, really. It makes you very self-aware and self-analytical. I’ve learned not to care as much, and that has been a liberating process. I’m not so worried about fucking things up. I think it goes back to not partying 24 hours a day. When you do have to do some work, you enjoy it because you’re happy. We’ve finally got our priorities right.
There’s been a lot of excitement about your recent run of shows, partly because for a while, no one was sure if New Order would ever rise again. Why was it important to keep the band alive?
Well, New Order has kind of healed itself in a strange way. Peter Hook was not happy within the band’s framework — and he was particularly unhappy with me for some reason. He just seemed quite negative about everyone, including the management. When we came back from South America, he went on a radio station and announced that New Order had split up, without discussing it with the band… which was a bit of a surprise to us really. You’d think after 30 years, he would have been able to discuss it with us. And also, he had no right to say that the band had split up. So, we issued a statement a few days later saying “no, we haven’t split up.”
But even then, it took several years for New Order to actually do anything. Why wait so long to get back in the saddle?
The whole thing left a bit of a bad taste in our mouths and soured the air. Stephen … needed a complete break. I went off and made an album with my band Bad Lieutenant, which took about a year to make and then another year to promote and play. Then, when that had come to its natural conclusion, I had to decide what to do next. So we decided …let’s carry on with New Order. We had to go and sit down with a lot of lawyers and make sure that we could do it legally without being challenged. We were told that we could, and that was it.
Peter is gone, but Gillian has returned after 10 years. How has his departure and her homecoming changed the dynamic of the band?
Well, it’s nice to have everyone pushing in the same direction. Peter would always want to do the opposite of what everyone else wanted to do, and that became very tedious. Peter always wanted do more and more gigs, but we’ve got families and children. I want to see my kids grow up. It’s easier to find a balance where everyone’s happy doing just enough gigs. Things just seem easier and more fun. Not as many mind games going on.
A lot of fans raised their eyebrows when Peter and his band The Light went on tour performing Joy Division albums in 2010. In January, they’ll be performing New Order’s first two albums in England. How does it feel?
I think it sucks, to be honest. We found out that he was touring (Joy Division’s) “Unknown Pleasures” through the press. He didn’t tell us, which we thought was pretty low. It just seems like a real commercial thing to do. He seems to be doing it for the money. To me, Joy Division and New Order were never about that. I thought it was disrespectful to the rest of us. But I must admit that once he started doing it, we did think, “what are we doing holding back with New Order?” So, in a way — if you’ll excuse the pun — he showed us the light.
Would you have carried on with New Order if the ‘Unknown Pleasures’ shows hadn’t happened?
Twenty million dollar question, that is. I don’t know. But we did think, why should we hold back if he’s doing that? He opened the gateways of hell.
Now that the gates are open, is there anything left for you to accomplish with New Order that you hope to do in the future?
I’d just like to make another album. I’m getting a creative itch that I need to scratch. Playing live is great, but it’s not a creative thing, really. It’s a reproductive thing. I’d quite like to make an electronic record, because we’ve not made one for quite a while really. (2005’s) “Waiting For The Siren’s Call” and (2001’s) “Get Ready” were primarily guitar records. The reason for that was I wanted a bit of a holiday from synthesizers. I’d gotten so close to them I couldn’t see what they were. But i’m hungry for it again.
‘The Lost Sirens,’ a collection of outtakes from your last album, is coming out in December. Have you started writing any new music yet?
Our heads are really on live (shows) at the moment. The general feeling is that we will do another album, though we haven’t set anything in concrete yet. I think we need a proper meeting with the band, and (the road) isn’t the place to do it. I think … January/February of next year we’ll start writing. If the others agree to it. I think they will.