New Order's Stephen Morris talks Music Complete
A couple of years ago it seemed like New Order were no more. Yet here they are in 2015, with a re-calibrated line-up and an entirely new album – Music Complete – about to be released. The Skinny discusses presences, absences and techniques with the band
“Bloody hell, I wasn’t expecting to be reminded of that!” To be fair, New Order’s Stephen Morris has a number of reasons to be exasperated. The band are on the cusp of releasing Music Complete, their first album of entirely new work in ten years, yet the presence of absence haunts everything New Order does. First it was the inextricable spectre of Ian Curtis, then it was the sudden death of manager Rob Gretton in 1999 and now it is the palpable figure of bassist Peter Hook, who left the band under some incredibly acrimonious circumstances in 2007.
But none of these are the reasons behind Morris’s sudden incredulity when The Skinny speaks to him at his Macclesfield home. In fact, the affable drummer is talking about Baywatch and the rather unlikely video the band shot with Hasselhoff and co. for the Regret single, on a Los Angeles beach, over 20 years ago. “That was a very, very strange time to be in New Order,” he remembers. “There was so much going on in and around the band at the time – the closing of the Haçienda, the closing of Factory Records, trying to get money to make Republic… and being on bloody Baywatch!”
As we reminisce over the Salford pioneers' entire career, Morris is at pains to make it clear that Music Complete isn’t a celebratory lap of honour, or the work of a band simply coasting. “Every record we make has been a case of us making the best out of it,” he says. “And with this record, we probably had to work that bit harder because we were working with Tom [Chapman, the current bassist] and also Gillian [Gilbert] decided to return to the band. And you know, it has worked out really well.”
"Bernard he writes his lyrics in the same way he has always done – staying up all night in a darkened room with a bottle of wine. They'll always appear the following morning!" – Stephen Morris
It may or may not be a coincidence that Morris has to interrupt our conversation to sort out a brief family issue when conversation turns to Hooky’s absence. The apparently terminal breakdown in their relationship has been well-documented elsewhere and often appeared to teeter on the edge of becoming a tabloid soap opera, full of vitriol, quickly-hashed-out autobiographies and a seemingly endless stream of he-said, he-said bickering. Nevertheless, Music Complete is the first New Order album minus Hooky’s unmistakable bass lines and the first single from the album, the relatively conventional sounding Restless, sounded like a band trying to recreate their best moments and not really succeeding in creating anything other than an efficient lesson in New Order-by-numbers. But this is a misnomer.
Elsewhere, Music Complete is an album almost entirely ruled by synthesisers. And despite Restless, it’s not an ersatz, nostalgia-fuelled perambulation through vintage synth-pop; the album actually sounds incredibly vibrant, sensuous and defiantly dancefloor-oriented. Even Bernard Sumner sounds like he’s enjoying himself on some of the tracks – listen to the Barry White-style vocal rumblings (reminiscent of Fine Time from 1989 classic Technique) on Tutti Frutti and the almost sleazy electro-funk of People on the High Line and Plastic. For the most part, it’s an album of sparkling, hi-fi, urgent electronic pop. Of course, this is aided and abetted by the presence of Chemical Brother Tom Rowlands, who produced a number of tracks, and Stuart Price, who added his shimmering sheen to Superheated.
And these aren’t the only high profile collaborations. Brandon Flowers lends his vocals to Superheated and Elly Jackson of La Roux is present on backing vocals on a number of tracks. Most interestingly, is the appearance of a certain Stooge – a poem, written by Sumner, is recited by Iggy Pop on the brooding Stray Dogs. “Well, I’d love to say that Iggy Pop hammered down our door,” laughs Morris, “demanding to be on the next New Order album but in reality, Bernard was busy at a festival, being all the things that a singer in a band does, and he encountered Iggy Pop at some point and things developed from there.”
Considering New Order is now a five-piece with members swapping instruments at will, one wonders whether there was any competition for space on Music Complete. “Phil [Cunningham] actually hates playing keyboards,” reveals Morris, “so it was great to have Gillian back in the studio! But the band is definitely more versatile now, which provides us with a lot more freedom."
While the band’s lyrics have always been so cryptic as to entirely disappear down linguistic cul-de-sacs, the likes of Plastic and People on the High Line on the new album are begging to be interpreted, with their swipes at unnamed persons and their propensity for, shall we say, ‘unreasonable’ behaviour. “I honestly don’t think any of the lyrics on the album were written about any one person in particular,” counters Morris. “I mean, they could have been, but I don’t think so. But that’s all Bernard; we just wait for him while he writes his lyrics in the same way he has always done – staying up all night in a darkened room with a bottle of wine. The lyrics always appear the following morning!”
Music Complete is a very accessible album. While Morris dismisses the notion that the title suggests a New Order swansong (“it actually came from Bernard initially wanting to call it ‘Musique concrète'”, he says), most of the songs on the album are stylistically similar, all emerging from the same raging discotheque. In terms of the band’s discography, Music Complete’s closest twin is undeniably Technique. “Everybody is saying that to us!” he exclaims. “And I can kinda see where they were coming from but it was completely unintentional. We certainly weren’t in the frame of mind to record an Ibiza-style album but now that people are mentioning it so much maybe we should head back to the Balearics to record something new. It would be an interesting experiment! And we could make a comedown album afterwards…”
In fact, the album was recorded entirely over the winters of 2013 and 2014 (“Probably because the kids were at school,” opines Morris) yet is unequivocally upbeat and positive throughout. “We definitely took a different approach to the composition of the songs on Music Complete,” he admits. “I started messing around with synthesisers early on and creating various beats and all sorts of electronic sounds. Whereas before we used to begin with the guitar riffs and take things from there.”
Morris admits that the hybrid of flesh and electronics patented by the likes of Factory Floor and DFA were an influence on the album, and also highlights Heidelberg krautrock veterans Guru Guru. “I was definitely listening to a lot of them during the album. And Young Fathers – my daughter’s band [Hot Vestry] recently played with them. But perhaps their influence isn’t so obvious on Music Complete…”
This irreverence is typical of New Order; there are very few bands who have attained such an astounding mythological status – they have already been portrayed in film on two separate occasions – yet simultaneously appear to eschew performing similar acts of anointment on themselves. And it’s rather fitting that Music Complete is out on Mute, that totemic symbol of synth-pop futurism. Perhaps the title of the album really is fitting – New Order have changed and adapted yet still managed to come full circle to create one of the best dance albums of the band’s career.