Bernard Sumner

Peter Hook, who acrimoniously split with the rest of New Order via his MySpace page, has described the new band Bad Lieutenant as “New Order without the bass.” That précis is a bit unkind, but it’s accurate, since Bad Lieutenant features his old band’s singer-guitarist, Bernard Sumner, and drummer, Stephen Morris. But Sumner, who played alongside Hook for the better part of three decades, isn’t looking back—not to New Order, and not to Joy Division, where he, Hook and Morris played for four years before Ian Curtis’ suicide ended the band’s existence prematurely. Now, Sumner and Morris, along with latter-day New Order guitarist Phil Cunningham and newcomer Jake Hughes, have released their first album, Never Cry Another Tear. It showcases a layered, guitar-driven sound that flirts with straight-ahead pop. To quote the coda from “Sink Or Swim,” the first single, “Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.”

Although Bad Lieutenant planned to make its U.S. debut this month, last-minute visa problems forced the cancellation of the entire tour. (The group has promised to make another go of it in the spring.) But audiences in the UK will be able to see the band throughout December. On the eve of a show in Paris, Sumner got on the phone with The A.V. Club to talk about putting New Order behind him, the difficulties of recording electronic music in the studio, and why Bad Lieutenant isn’t a good date movie.

The A.V. Club: People are curious about the name of the new band. Is the Abel Ferrara movie well-known in the UK?

Bernard Sumner: No, it’s not well-known, really. Is it well-known in the U.S.?

AVC: It has a devoted cult following, although it wasn’t a mainstream success.

BS: That’s the similar thing in the UK. Choosing a name for a band is always a difficult thing, and I don’t think people should read too much into a name, because after all, it’s just a handle. It doesn’t mean anything. That’s very much the case for this name. I remember seeing the film a long time ago—I was working on some Electronic stuff at Johnny Marr’s house, and we were in the studio and just popped upstairs to take five minutes out of the studio, and Johnny’s friend was sat over there watching Bad Lieutenant. I said, “What’s this film that you’re watching? It looks a bit heavy.” And he was smoking pot, so he’s like [Exhales.] “Oi, it’s realllly heavy. Just sit down for a bit and watch it.”

So I watched some of it, and I must admit, I’ve got a bit of a dark sense of humor, and I found some of the scenes kind of funny, in a very black sort of way, like you would a Tarantino film. Harvey Keitel’s character in the film is such a mad character that I found it quite funny. Although some of the film isn’t for me at all, I must hasten to add that. It’s very, very serious. But the scene where he’s jacking himself off while two girls are in the car, I must admit, I did find that funny. I don’t know if that makes me a bad person. Let’s put it this way, it stuck in my mind.

AVC: The name might imply a different kind of music than what’s on the record.

BS: Yeah, I heard that. Someone else, some other journalist had said that, but I don’t know. What kind of music would you think with the name Bad Lieutenant?

AVC: Something with more nun rape?

BS: No, no, no, no, I’m not into the raping-nuns bit. I thought that was quite distracting. Yeah, the name didn’t come from that part. Let me make that clear. I don’t know, trying to find a name for a group, you just throw a few names into the air, and one of them, everyone goes, “Yeah, I like that one.” Some people like it, some people hate it. I think girls find it a bit disgusting, really. It’s definitely not a film to sit in with your girlfriend and watch, although a friend of mine, one of the drummers on the album, said, “Where does this name come from?” I said, “Oh, it’s this film Bad Lieutenant, you’ve never heard of it?” And he’d just started going with this girl, seeing this girl, so I said, “You want to go in this weekend and watch it with your new girlfriend?” So he did. He got it and watched it with this new chick he was going with. So he turned up on Monday in the studio and was like, “You bastard!” So I said, “Didn’t she like it?” “No, she really didn’t like it.”

AVC: Was that the end of that relationship?

BS: We’re still good friends, but their relationship, yes, that’s over.

AVC: That’s obviously not the kind of music that’s on the record. It’s not particularly not kind of dark or angry.

BS: The music’s quite warm, I think.

AVC: People are going to be combing through the lyrics looking for some sort of reference to the apparent bad blood between Peter Hook and the rest of New Order, but there’s none of that. The lyrics are upbeat.

BS: I guess, in a way, this album was kind of therapeutic for me. Not intentionally, but I guess it became a therapeutic vehicle. And for it to do that, for it to be therapeutic, the lyrics have to be quite… Have nothing to do with that. I had to just cut out all that crap that happened with New Order, just take out a very strong, very big pair of scissors, and just cut all that crap out of my head, you know? And just get on with the future. Fortunately, I have plenty of practice doing that with New Order. We didn’t split up, but the period, I think it was from ’98 to 2000, we didn’t work together, so I was used to it there. I was used to it after the demise of Ian Curtis with Joy Division, having to move on again there, so it’s something I can deal with. I didn’t want to put it into the lyrics, no. But if I hadn’t had good people around me with which to make this album, I think I would have been more upset than I was about the demise of New Order.

AVC: You’ve talked about in the past the difficulty of working on songs that are based around synthesizer parts, in that it’s not really a group activity. Never Cry Another Tear is a very guitar-driven album. Is that part of being able to just enjoy the recording process?

BS: One of the reasons I started working with Johnny Marr on Electronic was that making electronic synthesizer records, it’s not a group thing. Because one guy has to sit there at the computer while the rest of the band sat behind him, just going, “Hang on a minute, just hang on a minute, I’ve just got to program this bit. I’ve got to program this bit.” It’s not like a lot of guys in a rehearsal room with guitars or a recording studio with a lot of guitars, because that is a much more social thing, a much more interactive thing. It’s one of the reasons, really, New Order stopped working the first time around, that earlier break I talked about, because I was the guy sat at the computer, really. And I was getting bad vibes. Some of the time, not all of the time, but for being the guy at the steering wheel, so to speak. So, yeah, it’s a different way of doing it. Don’t get me wrong, I can perfectly understand why a band would get pissed off when one guy’s sat at the computer programming everything. I can understand it, and that’s one of the reasons I went off in Electronic, so I could do it without upsetting people. But this album is definitely a guitar album, as I’m sure you can hear.

AVC: You’ve also been working with Jacques Lu Cont on a more electronic album. Are you venting your synthesizer impulses in that direction?

BS: Jacques Lu Cont is Stuart Price, who mixed the last Killers albums, mixed Madonna’s last but one album, and he did some work on the last New Order album. I got on with him really well. And actually, while I was making this Bad Lieutenant album, I was making a synth album with Stuart. It just got too much… Try and make two albums at the same time, man, just try it. Try and make one album these days. It’s fucking hard work. But trying to make two is just impossible. So the album with Stuart, hopefully, I’m going to still continue. We’ve written a few tracks together, and hopefully I’m going to continue and finish that album. But I have to let this album run its course first. Basically, the personnel on this album, the writing core, is me, Phil Cunningham—he’s the guitarist who joined New Order when Gillian stopped working with New Order—and a young guy called Jake Evans, who’s fantastic. He’s been playing guitar since he was 5 years old, he’s a really cool guy. Steve Morris, the drummer out of New Order, wasn’t available because he had a few health issues with his family that he had to attend to first, so we’ve used four different drummers on the album. It’s been really interesting working with a fresh crowd, all those people.

AVC: Right. And Steve is touring with you as well?

BS: Steve’s touring, yeah. We’ve got a live band, which is me, Phil, Jake, Steve Morris, and a guy called Tom Chapman who’s the new bass player. That’s the live band.

AVC: And you’re playing the whole range of your material: Joy Division, New Order, and Electronic?

BS: Well, I didn’t want to play just this album, this Bad Lieutenant album, because it’s our first album. We wrote an album, we didn’t write a live set, you know. I thought it was important to put stuff in the live set that people knew and cherish. I’m very proud of New Order and Joy Division, that heritage of songs. What I play, really, is songs from my career. I’m not a careerist person, so I’m hesitant to call it a career, but say, songs from my past. So a couple of Joy Division songs, a couple of New Order, mainly Bad Lieutenant, because we want to showcase the album. The bulk is Bad Lieutenant. There’s a couple of other surprises in there as well that I don’t want to really talk about in advance. But yeah, songs I’ve been involved with from my past, really.

AVC: In the past several years, with the Retro box set, the reissues, the Control movie, and the Grant Gee documentary about Joy Division, you’ve had a lot of impetus to look backward, which seemed like something you were less keen to do for a while. Has your relationship to that early music changed?

BS: Well, I’m a bit schizophrenic about that, really, because I’m not the sort of person that likes looking back. But on the other hand, I’m very proud of my past—not just my past, the band’s past, the stuff we’ve done. I’m really proud of it. So I cherish it, but I don’t like looking back. It was important to me, and for all of us, I think, to have a decent résumé of our—there’s that horrible word again—careers. So the reissues, it was important to get that right, I think, get the résumé right. I don’t know, I always live in the moment I remember that even in the days of Joy Division, we didn’t think about the future. We probably thought about a week ahead. And I still think the same way, you know? Is it strange? But I never play any of the old stuff. I would never sit and play a Joy Division track. I haven’t played a Joy Division track probably, got a CD and played a Joy Division track, unless I’ve been forced to by the record company or whatever, probably for 20 years. I don’t mean actually play it live, I mean play it from a CD or something. Obviously I’ve played some Joy Division tracks live.

AVC: Did you end up listening to the records during the remastering process?

BS: No, that fell to Steve, really. I couldn’t face doing it. I just hate the thought of looking backward. It’s not in my nature. So to actually sit there—I did get sent some stuff, because there was a [discussion about] how to master it, which was, “Do we master all that stuff in the style it was done in, like the end of the ’70s and the beginning of the ’80s? Do we master it the way it was mastered then, or do we master the modern way of doing it, which is to crank everything really, really loud?”

AVC: And compress it.

BS: And compress the hell out of it, and the decision was “No, we don’t do that. We just remaster it the way it would’ve been done.” I think what happens in record companies is, every time it’s reissued, you end up with a copy of a copy of a copy, and the sound gradually degenerates, so we just went back to square one, really, in the mastering process.

AVC: You’re writing on Cubas—is that the program?

BS: Yes, we use Cubase. All those sequence packages all do the same thing. It’s a bit like talking in different languages; it’s what language you’re familiar with. I’m familiar with the language of Cubase. I know most people, probably professional musicians, use Logic and ProTools, but most people I worked with on this album just happened to use Cubase. I’m sure I could do exactly the same thing with Logic, but it would take me longer to do it. It’s just the language you speak.

AVC: Even Booker T. Jones is writing songs in Ableton Live. It’s interesting to see musicians who started out using other methods adapt to what’s available now.

BS: Yeah, well, I mean, we’ve always used technology. The very first Apple computer that came out, we were using that to make music with. And even before that computer came out, we were using high-tech equipment. “Blue Monday,” for example, that was pre-computer music, and that was written on a sequencer that I built from an electronic component kit. [Laughs.] I spent days and days and days, maybe weeks even, soldering components into a box to get something to do what was going on in my head, and one of the synthesizers was built by me as well. So we’ve always been involved in technology. Writing music on a computer for me now is a godsend.

I will say that it’s changed the sound of music, though. The important difference here is that years ago, to make a record, you’d have to go into a commercial studio. And that commercial studio would be really expensive, so you knew that if you’re a young band starting out, God, we could only spend like—we could spend a day, right? How many tracks could we record in that day? We could record four tracks in the day, finish them and mix them in a day, or else we couldn’t afford to do it.

But now, everyone’s got a computer at home, and they can afford to spend as much time as they want to get the track as perfect as possible, so it’s brought the level of production up very, very high. So the bar has been raised, so to speak. The other thing about making records these days is how it used to be, when you were making records on vinyl—for an album, you would only have to write, say, eight songs. If you tried to squeeze any more than four tracks on each side of the vinyl, the quality would just deteriorate so much that it would sound awful. Now, you’re expected to write 16, 17, maybe 18 tracks for an album, because of all the reasons we just talked about. It takes a lot more time to make albums these days.

AVC: One of the songs that stands out on the new album, particularly lyrically, is “Summer Days On Holiday.” You use the device of jumping forward a decade with each verse, from 1983 up to 2003, reflecting on the passage of time and the changes in your life. What inspired that song?

BS: Yeah, the way I write lyrics, I normally write at night. I probably start about 6 o’clock, 7 o’clock, and work through it till about 2:30 in the morning. We’ll have the music track, that’ll be written, so I’ll be playing that back on my computer in the little writing room that I have. And then I’ll have another screen with a word processor on. So I just try and listen to the music track to see what that’s saying to me, and what the atmosphere is in the song, I pick up on the atmosphere that the music’s generating. For the first hour or so, I’ll work on melodies, and then after I’ve got a melody, I’ll work on words. Maybe sometimes even a whole evening, I’ll work on melodies, and the following evening, I’ll work on words.

The rest, I don’t know how it’s done. I just sit there scratching my head, and then when I really start panicking, I crack open a bottle of wine, and I just sit there for a long time with nothing happening, and then all of a sudden, I get an idea for perhaps one line. And then I’ll type that line out, and I’ll say, “What does it mean, where is it taking me?” And then maybe the next line will pop into my head, and then once you’ve got about two or three lines, you’ve then got a bit of a context for the song. And then I’ll start thinking, “What’s the content of this song?” What’s the first line in “Summer Days On Holiday”? “Summer days on holiday, drunken youths upon the street, falling out of whiskey bars, making love and crashing cars.” And that eventually led to the 1983 lyrics.

I thought, “Well, that sums up the decade. I’ve got three verses to write in this song, why not three decades? What would three decades mean to me?” And then that decade moved on to the ’90s, and then it’s the year 2000. I just thought it was an unusual thing, to incorporate a different decade in each verse. I kind of got the idea—one of my friends is a guy called Karl Bartos, he was one of the original members of Kraftwerk, and I was talking to him about “Autobahn,” and he said, “Well, the clever thing about ‘Autobahn’ is that through the song, the key progresses up.” I don’t know, every 20 seconds in the song, the key progresses up, gradually, through the end of the song. And it progresses four times, like the stick shift in a car. So he said the song, the clever thing about it for him was that every time the car changed gear in the song, he changed it. I thought it was a really neat idea, and it gets into your mind. Maybe I wouldn’t have done. I don’t know. Every song is different, and every song, you’re in a different frame of mind to backing tracks and atmosphere, so there’s no rules that you can use with music. As soon as you make a rule, you break it the next week, the following week.

AVC: You mentioned you don’t like to think too far ahead, but the way the music business works now, you get locked into a six-month cycle of promotion, touring, and so on. How long does that go on for Bad Lieutenant, and do you know what you might do after that?

BS: Oh, God. Well, it’s more difficult for Bad Lieutenant, because the way I look at it, we’re a new band starting from scratch, so we have to establish that band. If it was a business, if it was a company… I believe that every business and company takes two years to establish. We’re not just establishing the album, we’re establishing the band also. So it’s a long process, really.

AVC: A lot of people are going to know that it’s you, and the touring band is three-quarters of New Order, but do you feel like you’re still starting from scratch as far as bringing in an audience?

BS: Well, I think a lot of people know, but a lot of people don’t know as well. And I think it’s going to take a while to… Obviously, the Internet helps these days to get the message across quicker. But still, a lot of people aren’t clued up, who don’t receive all the wisdom from the Internet. And the difficult thing we’ve got is getting the message across to those people. So we’ve got our work cut out, that’s for sure.

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