An interview with Bernard Sumner By Jeff Jolley
© 1997 Rational Alternative Digital
How did electronic come to be?
Electronic started out when I met Johnny when I was producing a record in Manchester. Johnny did a guitar session on that. And then I met him again in San Francisco. We decided it was a good thing to work together, because I wasn't particularly enjoying working on my own at the time. So we got together and did the first album. The idea of electronic was....well, I was a bit fed up with the politics you get in a group-where everyone has his own place of work within the group-and I wanted to do something where you could vary the chemistry of a group. So basically, Electronic is me and Johnny, and we vary the chemistry by bringing guest artists in. On our last album (Raise the Pressure) the main guest artist is Karl Bartos of Kraftwerk. On the first album (Electronic) it was the Pet Shop Boys. By doing this, hopefully we can vary the chemistry and get good results. And we do really like working together-just the two of us.
Where was Raise the Pressure recorded and how long did it take?
We recorded it in Johnny's old house-it has a recording studio in the basement. It took two years off and on, so we spent two years underground working on this record, really. Yeah, we didn't see daylight for two years. We both have great studios in town at the moment.
That's a lot of effort.
It is a lot of effort. When we first started working together we made a lot of rules for ourselves. We didn't want to repeat ourselves. So we'd write a track and we'd go, "No, we can't do that. We've done something like that before." So we'd dump that track and we'd write something else and go, "No, we've used that synthesizer sound-can't use that." So that went on for about 6 months and we decided that was kind of silly. So we dumped all these rules and regulations and just got on with writing the album. The real beef of writing the album-the real core of it-took about a year and a half. At the start of the album I had about a 10-year backlog of business to take care of with New Order. We had a lot of business problems because Factory Records had gone down and left us in not a good position. And all that needed to be sorted out before I could concentrate on being creative. So that's why it took so long. Also, we do everything ourselves. We don't work with a producer, we program all the sounds ourselves, we do all the mixes, and that takes a lot of time. A lot of bands that use a producer will give the producer the basic idea and leave him to get on with it, and then go away and write the lyrics. We weren't in that position. Although the good think about not using a producer is that we're both completely happy with the way the album has turned out-the mixes, the sounds, every little detail. And the public, when they buy an Electronic album they're getting an electronic album. They're not getting some other guy's effort who's not really part of the band.
It does sound great. I can see where you turned off the rules and improved the quality. It sounds very 80's and is terrific music. It seems like electronic music has fallen out of popularity-everyone wants to be guitars and grunge and punk. How do you feel about the music industrychanging away from your roots.
Yeah, well I don't think I've every just made electronic music. I've made guitar music as well. All I can say about that is please allow us to be different from the current vogue. I mean, grunge-apart from Nirvana, which I thought was a very good group-doesn't turn me on that much. There is a very thin line between grunge and metal music. A lot of it sounds like Black Sabbath to me. Just because you put an earring through your nose doesn't mean your music doesn't sound any different from Black Sabbath. Music is about doing what you want to do, and I want to write tunes, really. I'm sure me an Johnny could write a grunge track in perhaps 2 hours, including lyrics, but it doesn't turn me on.
Well, you're clearly 2 of the most talented musicians around. Keyboards, guitars, writing the lyrics, singing the lyrics.
Can I just say as well that grunge is dead in England as an entity. One thing you can say about me and Johnny is that we're long-term musicians. For us to write along with a movement would be a stupid thing to do, because when the movement was over, we'd be over with it. I think we've always done our own thing-Johnny and the Smiths and me and New Order-we've never been part of any sort of musical movement. Even in the days of Joy Division-Joy Division made a point of being not like anyone else around at the time. And it's always paid offfor us, eventually.
When you look back at the history of the last 15-20 years, those 3bands are generally the biggest, most influential bands to the artists of today. A lot of music sounds so much like the rest-what music do you listen to when you're relaxing, or find interesting.
I listen to a lot of dance music at home. I listen to a radio station in Manchester called Kiss 102 that plays house music. I also listen to classical music. I like classical music because is the opposite of what we do. When I've been working on a track all day at the studio for 8 hours, I don't want to listen to music that has a beat in it, so I listen to classical music, or I watch TV, or I read a book or something. Being a musician and working so long on music makes it very difficult to listen to music. You're working 5-6 days a week, 10 hours a day on music. When I listen, it tends to be in my car on the way to work or in a club, which tends to be dance music.
Will you go back to work with New Order?
With New Order, we haven't split up, but we have no intention to work together in the foreseeable future. What we're going to do next is perhaps some live concerts. Then we'll start another Electronic album, so there shouldn't be such a long gap between albums.
Who will Electronic work with next?
I think we'd like to work this time with someone who's unknown. Like some young wiz-kid who can work on the drum loops, synthesizer, sampler side of things. I'd like a drummer who can both drum and program. Me and Johnny are very open minded about doing rock stuff and dance stuff-we listen to both kinds of music. Therefore, we see nothing wrong with doing both kinds of music, it's very logical. Now, finding other people to work with is very difficult because drummers tend to be either live drummers or guys who program. It's hard to find people who do both. And that goes with bass playing as well. I've got a bass player who plays a bass guitar and only plays a bass guitar. It's very hard to find people who are very open minded.
When you look back on your career, what's your high point?
Oh God, that's a difficult question. I was in London at a party. I saw Kate Moss there, and she was to Until the End of Time. That was pretty cool, seeing someone like that getting into it.
Meeting Ian Curtis. I remember the first time I went around to his house. He played my China Girl by Iggy Pop. He said, "Check this out! It's fuckin' great!" That was a great memory.
Meeting Karl Bartos from Kraftwerk. I went around to his recording studio and he didn't know I was there, and he was playing some Kraftwerk tracks on piano. I've always been a big Kraftwerk fan, and that was great to hear him played it acoustically.
So small personal moments like that, really, rather than big gigs and stuff.
© 1997 Rational Alternative Digital