An interview with Bernard Sumner By Assaf Geffen
© 1999 by Assaf Geffen, Tarbut Maariv 4/30/99
An Interview with Sumner that appeared in Israeli magazine "Maariv" on April 30.
Translated by Ayala
In the new Pop world the last thing you need is a past. The existence of the contemporary pop culture is similar to the life cycle of an Israeli politician: the less you know about them, the more successful they get. Yesterday's hits then either fade away or vanish, only to return with a new professional name. For example, the names Norman Cook gave himself are of no interest to those who know him as Fatboy Slim. Rock stars who crossed the line, however, do have a past....usually a pretty dark one. Underworld is a classic example of a group whose moldiness as a trashy rock band only serves to amplify the majesty of their present incarnation. Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner's problem is therefore not their past, but their glorious past. Their former bands, The Smiths and New Order respectively, refuse to surrender to the worst slanders of the 80's and turn into a worse memory in the mirror of their time. It's been twelve years since Marr and The Smiths' last album; six years since Sumner took a day off from New Order, but the shadow over these former members' second career only grows larger. Ex-Smiths guitarist/co-writer & ex-New Order front man have been known as Electronic for eight years now, but it is still considered to be their own side-project...at least until they reunite their respective bands.
Sumner: "It's true at first we weren't sure whether this was gonna be a one-time project or more than that. Apparently, we made it to the third album. So it was probably more than just a temporary project for us. All in all, Electronic are the main thing we've been doing for quite a while now. It's true you can't compare Electronic to the way bands like New Order and The Smiths worked. We both got to a certain point where we were saturated with the intense lifestyle of a classic rock band , which might have been one of the reasons why these bands stopped working together and why we chose a new format. We knew our way of working in Electronic was going to be less stressful and hermetic than that in our former bands. So we don't tour a lot, each one of us has his own life. We only meet up to work every once in a while, which doesn't make it less significant. Electronic is what I've been doing for quite a while now." Marr, 36, was dismissed of his duty garlanded with Best Guitarist order of merit. Sumner, 43, ex-Joy Division and New Order member, brought a singing voice that had been far ahead of its time. Manchester celebrated with the new duo. It seemed that they had no choice but to defy expectations.
Sumner: "I got to know Johnny long before the rest of the world did , back in the early 80's when I was DJing at the Hacienda and he would hang around there. Later, each one of us made it with his own band, doing his own thing. Still we got to see each other every now and then, both in town and in gigs. We also played for private purposes on several occasions. In the late 80's I felt that the strict New Order frame was becoming too stressful for me. I wanted to do different stuff outside the band. I wrote songs and started working on them, but soon found out I was getting bored working on my own. After the Smiths split Johnny didn't really know what to do with himself . Since we both lived in the same part of Manchester at the time, we met somehow and things just snowballed. "
- Didn't you consider working with a less dominant famous partner this time? " If I wanted someone to do what I told them, I would do it all by myself, but, as I said, I didn't like that. I guess I wanted someone who could give me something. On the other hand, I wouldn't last more than an hour with most of the 'famous' musicians I've met over the years. Johnny was right for me because he had something to say, but wouldn't say anything when he didn't. I can't put my finger on who's wearing the trousers in our relationship... We knew people would look at us sort of from the outside, but we never found the 'super group connection' important whatsoever. "
- What about comparisons to previous tours? "There's this feeling Electronic lives in the shadow of our former bands. We've had the New Order/Smiths comparisons from the start and they never seem to stop, no matter what we do. That can be a little frustrating. There are all these hardcore nostalgic fans who want you to keep doing the same thing. But since we're very proud of the bands we were in we never thought of changing our names or anything." Electronic's reluctance to plastic surgery didn't make it easier for them. Even today their most memorable moment seems to be their 1991 debut, with the hits Get The Message and The Patience of a Saint. Not only does it sound like a New Order follow-up, it also features eternal 80's icons The Pet Shop Boys. The second album came out 3 years ago, sounding less familiar to fans. In the new album Twisted Tenderness the only remnants of formerly synthesized emotions lie in Sumner's cool voice, wrapped in traditional acoustic guitars this time, not to mention R & B. Sumner has one of the most exciting singing voices on earth, and I guess he would've done pretty well without a harmonica. Sumner: "It really is closer to rock music this time. We used to add guitars to machines. This time the guitar plays main role. "
- Why is that? "We felt that we've gone too far with machines. You can do great things with computers , and I've tried to test and use them all over the years. In our previous albums, both with New Order and Electronic, it would take us a long time to write the songs, then playing with them in the studio. This time we wrote the songs in a different way, more concentrated and on guitar, and it just seemed right to record them in a different way. So it took us half the time to record, with strong guitar and a more live sound. "
- Should I jump to conclusions about the former spreahead of human emotions expressed by technology, or better stop here? "We didn't turn our backs to technology or denied it. It's just our choice in that specific case. Besides, Johnny is such an excellent guitar player, it would be a shame to deny our listeners the feeling. The Smiths wouldn't work with machines. Their whole sound was based on Johnny's guitar. So when at the end the Smiths fell apart, Johnny got tired of it and was glad to discover machines. That's one of the reasons he went on to work with the likes of The Pet Shop Boys and myself. In Electronic's previous albums, he was the first to take the guitars aside and give way to a more electronic futuristic sound. However, we both wanted to get back to that now." Sumner and Marr certainly don't need Electronic to keep feeling wanted. All Marr needs in order to establish his myth as the leading musician of the Smiths is Morrissey's solo albums. But then again, it's quite clear that Marr's post-Smiths work amounts to even less. Similarly, none of former New Order members succeeded in developing a truly independent pop personality. At their best, they managed to sound like their own b-side, i.e. Monaco. Sumner, too, could have stayed at home over the past few years, watching others do all of the work for him. New Order's impact as space-age pioneers, establishes with every all-conquering dance year, which, as mentioned before, doesn't make it easier for Sumner with his second career. Last year, however, he decided to watch the New Order camp "bear fruit", again. Last summer, the band played at the Phoenix festival for the first time in five years. On New Year's Day they played another show, leading the best of British dance acts. In a few months, they're due back in the studio. Sumner believes this would benefit both of his worlds. "I'm supposed to work almost simultaneously, but separately, with New Order and Electronic. I believe it will put an end to those New Order comparisons, or the way Electronic is considered to be a temporary substitute. It will now be clear that there's New Order AND Electronic, each going in a different direction. Since Electronic is not really a band , the songs feel more personal. Through the process of writing and working on the songs, I don't have to take other opinions into consideration or stick to some 'legacy' that an old band is somehow committed to. "
- What was it like playing live again with New Order? "I really enjoyed last year's shows. In fact, it almost came as a surprise to me that I enjoyed it as much as I did. It was really scary before the show - how would things really happen and how would we get along with one another and the old songs, but we felt surprisingly good onstage. New Order as a whole, and me in particular, have always had a problem with live shows. I wouldn't usually go on stage unless I was 'on' something. Otherwise, I couldn't have gone through it. This time I went on stage 'clean', and the show ended before I noticed. It was much better than the way we felt about playing live in the past. Being apart for years cleared the air in the band and made us feel fresh again. Since we never thought we'd work together again, we left all of the old commitments behind, so it all felt much more natural. "
- Weren't you afraid it would turn into some nostalgic event? "Sure, it was nostalgic. More so for us than for the audience. We played songs we psychologically couldn't even think of playing during the earlier years. We weren't able to listen to most of our hits before, but enjoyed them again now. We even did Joy Division songs, which are materials we couldn't touch since Ian's death. I guess time alone opened up things we couldn't face before, and our relationship became better than it had been in many years, which doesn't mean we're now gonna do the same things we did then and that we won't change. "
- How does the fact that electronic musicians are eager to embrace you as spiritual parents affect you? "It just makes you wanna do an acoustic record...Seriously, it's very flattering and all, but we might as well make the same music again. It can be really confusing. On one hand, you're considered to be that pioneer, but then you're expected to do something new and keep yourself updated with everything that's going on. The truth is I have no idea what it would sound like."
-Are you still going out to clubs? Still a part of the game? "Not really. I turned to having a low-key profile. Going out to clubs is associated with a certain lifestyle of drug-using and your whole day revolving around it, which I quit three or four years ago. I'd been a regular in that world for over ten years, with every possible drug and the habits it involved. I was really intense about it, until I woke up one day and realized that it didn't make me feel good anymore. I stopped that day. But I can't say I'll never do it again or that it's no good. The options are still open all the time, it's just that I can't go to clubs without all the stuff it involves, so I'm currently 'off-duty'..."