An interview with Electronic By Lisa Verrico
© 1999 London Times
From The London Times, Friday April 2, 1999. Lisa Verrico meets the happily reformed bad boys of Electronic
Life's great when you're straight
Bernard Sumner's musical career may be into its twenty-first year, but the Mancunian singer has never been busier. Last summer saw him return to the stage with New Order, which is soon due to begin recording new material.
Earlier this year, he played with Primal Scream and contributed vocals to a forthcoming single by the Chemical Brothers. Meanwhile, with former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, Sumner has been making his third album as Electronic.
"There was a period last year when I thought as though I had taken on too much," he says. "Johnny and I were working in the studio in Manchester all week, then every Friday night I was taking the train to London to rehearse with New Order. It was like having two demanding jobs at the same time."
To add to his troubles, Sumner found himself suffering from stage fright. "I have never been comfortable in front of a big audience," he admits. "When New Order were playing stadiums in the 1980s, I coped by hiding behind drink and drugs, but I was constantly ill and incredibly unhappy. Afterwards, I couldn't face touring again because I thought I would end up in the same state." When New Order reformed for last year's Reading Festival, Sumner resolved to play it straight. "I felt I needed to confront my fear," he says. "When I walked on stage at Reading, totally straight, the sight of the audience terrified me. For the first time in 17 years I could see all these faces staring back at me. But once I got over the shock, I loved it." Sumner's new-found confidence spilt over into his work with Marr.
Rather than taking two years to complete an album, as in the past, the pair wrote and recorded the bulk of the new songs in just three months. The result is a fresh record, Twisted Tenderness, packed with the same, instant pop melodies that saw the group's eponymous debut, released eight years ago, sell more than a million copies. "We both felt really inspired during the recording," recalls Marr. "I was getting up at six in the morning because I was so keen to get into the studio. When I played guitar, it was like I was 16 again. I trusted my instincts. If it rocked, it was OK. we definitely overcooked the last album (Raise the Pressure), labouring over each song for months. Bernard and I are in an odd position in that we have unlimited time. That was our downfall."
To prevent themselves making the same mistake with Twisted Tenderness, the pair employed a producer for the first time. The job fell to veteran New York hip-hop producer Arthur Bake, who had worked with Sumner's band in the early 1980s on singles such as Confusion. "We wanted Arthur because he is great with beats and rhythm," says Sumner. "It didn't quite work out as planned though. We ended up producing a lot of it ourselves and Johnny did most of the mixing. With hindsight, Arthur was good to have around because he told us when enough was enough." Baker also brought in former Cameo keyboardist Merv De Pyer, who was largely responsible for replacing Electronic's formerly clean-cut synths with a dirtier, more distorted sound. Add the fact that Marr was persuaded to play more guitar, more loudly, and it is little surprise that new songs such as the album opener Make it Happen have a touch of the Chemical Brothers about them.
However, the album is aimed mainly at the discerning dance fans who may have grown out of clubbing but still like their music beat-based. Much like Electronic, in fact - both Sumner and Marr are reformed party animals. "I no longer buy that myth that you have to be out every night behaving badly to make good music," says Sumner. "I got sick of waking up every morning feeling crap. I chilled out for a week, it felt great and I wanted more of that." Sumner's healthier, happier lifestyle has had its disadvantages, however. "In the past, all of my lyrics were about my problems," he says. "Now, I don't have any problems worth writing about. I had to make up a couple of fictitious characters in the end." The album's final track, Flicker, was inspired by a comment by Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, while Kraftwerk's Karl Bartos suggested Sumner try his trick of reworking negative comments about the band into lyrics.
The first single, Vivid, is about nothing at all. "That's probably why it's the single," says Sumner. "The first single I ever bought was Ride a White Swan by T. Rex. To this day, I don't have a clue what that's about, but it's still a great song."
© 1999 London Times, Lisa Verrico