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Electronic's Twisted Tales
Winding through then and now with Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner

Published by Checkout.com

 Thanks to John Srebalus for this great interview.

Much of today's music owes a large debt to the guys who form Electronic. If you don't know by now, the group consists of New Order's Bernard Sumner and The Smiths' Johnny Marr, and having the legendary weight of either one of them in your band would be like nabbing Paul McCartney or Mick Ronson back in the '70s. But both Sumner and Marr were tired of their respective band dynamics and in 1988 decided to form a superduo as Electronic, bringing two distinct faces of innovation to a unique collaborative table.

New Order never really surpassed cult status in the States (they were huge in the UK), but their artistic accomplishments, to say nothing of their value to pop music in general, remain one of the largest contributions to today's club music. Their 1983 dance pop classic "Blue Monday," in one form of remix or another, is probably churning a dancefloor somewhere on the globe as this story is written. It mustn't be forgotten that Sumner was also a founding member of New Order's precursor, Joy Division, without whom the sound of guitar rock would today be much different. More often thought of as the singer for New Order, Sumner shredded on six-string for Joy Division, hurling scratchy chords and haunting leads that would influence future fixtures from U2 to Nirvana.

And what can you say about Johnny Marr? Morrissey may have been the voice of The Smiths, but Marr was their musical backbone. Not only could he put notes together in the form of his trademark arpeggios, Marr edited and appended the book The Beatles wrote on chord variations, chord changes and studio technique. The vibrato otherworld of The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now" stands as one of the true signatures of '80s guitar pop. There was scarcely a more synergistic example of depth, feeling and texture than the one forged by Marr and Morrissey; but politics pulled the two apart, and Marr embraced the exploration promised by a new project with Bernard Sumner.

Electronic has just seen the stateside release of their third album, the stunning Twisted Tenderness, and where the duo itself marked a spirit of departure, this latest installment could be seen as a musical return of sorts. I was afforded the unique pleasure of speaking separately with both Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr. As they charted their arrival at this latest chapter, they told the story of their meeting and reflected on the weight of their pasts. They also revealed tricks of their trades and clues about their futures. How'd he get that sound? Can we expect reunions? Bernard and Johnny are, above all, gentlemen, and they certainly don't mind filling us in.

What did you guys do differently on Twisted Tenderness?
Johnny Marr: We changed the premise of Electronic in that we wrote the songs before we recorded the album, which is a first for us. We formed in '89-'90, and the premise was that we wanted to get away from what we felt at that time were the restrictions of a group. That was very liberating for us at that time, but by the time the third album came out we'd been together nine years, and you change. We used to use the studio kind of in the same way that Brian Eno pioneered, where the studio becomes an instrument -- which has now become pretty much standard for dance musicians. There was no distinction between the writing and the recording, whereas on Twisted Tenderness we took a totally different approach in that, for the first time in nine years me and Bernard actually had time away from each other -- a short time-- and we'd get together a couple of days a week and say, 'I've written these three songs. I've got these ideas.' And then we pulled in a body of musicians we'd been building over the years: Ged Lynch from Black Grape on drums, and Jimi Goodwin, who's now in a band called the Doves, on bass. We cut the tracks as a band, and it worked.

You guys put out records every three or four years. Have you been juggling music with other things in your lives?
Bernard Sumner: [Twisted Tenderness] actually came out in England last year. It only took about 9 months. The record before took ages -- two years -- and we were determined for that not to happen again. Johnny was doing some production work with a group called Marion, so I had to wait for him to finish that. Also, towards the end of the making of this record I did four concerts with New Order, and I had to rehearse for those concerts, so I was doing a bit of juggling there.

How did the shows with New Order come about?
BS: I just got a fax from New Order's manager, saying it would be nice to do some dates out of the blue, and was I interested in doing it? Electronic doesn't really play live. There were a few reasons I wanted to do it. One was that I missed the guys (and girl), and I also missed the music of New Order very much. Time's a great healer. A lot of the anguish that existed between the group had faded out by then. I fancied getting back on stage and doing some concerts. I felt a bit like falling off a horse. I had to get back up and prove I could do it again.

How was that for you?
BS: Absolutely stunning. It was brilliant. In the past, New Order could be variable. That's because we were all into getting off our faces. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. The idea of these concerts was that we were gonna go on straight and see if we could cut it. And we did, and every one of the concerts was really good.

Is it hard to keep the press focused in the here-and-now, given that Electronic comes by way of three highly influential bands, namely Joy Division, New Order and The Smiths?
BS: Yeah. People know those old songs from each of our groups, and they associate those songs with a certain time period and certain memories. When you present them with a new song, the song doesn't have those memories and associations. It's a strange thing, competing with your past. I think Bob Dylan said that we all live in the shadow of our own past, and I think that's very true when your career is that of a musician. And though it's been a long time, your shadow starts growing bigger and bigger. I can't complain. I've had a pretty successful career, and I've had a good time doing what I do.

Twisted Tenderness is more guitar-oriented than the last two records. How did that come about?
BS: It's quite important to me that I've never been a purist electronic musician or guitarist. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that the records I like I just like the tunes. I don't give a damn whether it's on a guitar. I'm not into guitar heroes. I just like the songs. You need to change your methods and try different things. I know what all the chords are that I play on guitar, but on a keyboard I don't know what the hell I'm doing, and I think that's a great thing. I just do it by ear.

JM: One of the exciting things about Electronic for me in the early days was the whole realm of record-making that I hadn't yet explored -- electronics, sequencers, samplers -- and particularly at that time there was no one better than Bernard Sumner to learn from and to be involved with. You know, he's a pioneer of electronic music. We just went as far down the line, or I had gone as far down the line as I had wanted to go with that exploration of technology and unusual (for me) methods of making records. On Twisted Tenderness I just fell in love with the guitar again, and the songs were written, without exception, on guitar -- even the title track, which is the most electronic and dance-oriented track. That started off as a song of mine where I had said to Bernard, 'I've got this dumb pop song that I don't like any more. What do you think?' And I played it to him on guitar and sang it, and he said, 'Oh, I love it.' It was a guitar tune, and then right when we were cutting the stuff, I said, 'Let's do this tune as a dance track.' So it's actually the opposite of what people expect. I think people assume that Bernard's the one who wants to use drum machines, and I want to bust out an old Flying V or something. Actually, normally it's the reverse, where I say, 'Let's make it sound like Kraftwerk.'

Another misconception about Electronic is that my people get together with Bernard's people and say, 'Let's get these guys a limo together, and they can do some work.' Nothing could be further from the truth. Bernard and myself lived in each other's pockets for nine years. Up until Twisted Tenderness, Electronic was anything but a side project. Now things have changed somewhat in that Bernard is working with New Order, and I've got my own band together.

What's your band called?
JM: The Healers. I've just nearly finished the album, and we're doing all the business stuff now -- talking to labels. I've played about 15 shows in the last few months, and went out on tour with Oasis in Europe.

How do you two approach the guitar differently?
BS: Johnny's left hand (and we're both right-handed people) is a lot better than my left hand, but my right hand is kind of looser than his, so I've got a looser rhythmic feel, and Johnny's more dexterous in what he does. It gives him a greater fluency than me, but I believe that my guitar playing is more primitive. At heart we're both rhythm players and chordsmiths.

JM: Massively different. Bernard is a very overlooked guitar player. His influence is now starting to come out with bands like Nirvana. There are strong echoes of Joy Division in Nirvana, and then consequently, via Nirvana, a whole slew of American bands. He plays very instinctively. There are no echoes of the classic guitar players. There are no guitar-cultural references in Bernard's playing -- it just comes straight from the heart. Really, the closest guitar player I can compare him to is Neil Young. Or a high-octane Lou Reed. My approach to guitar was born out of the fact that I didn't want to just emulate the guitar players on pop records. I would listen to the whole thing and then try and play the whole record. So I would never hear a record and go, 'OK, what's the guitar player doing?' I would just hear the whole song and then just approach it almost like a one-man band, so that's where the arpeggios come and the little melodies in the middle of chords and all those things that I'm sort of known for. Bernard got into pop music because of punk rock and a quest to meet girls (laughs), and I come from a musical family. I've had a guitar for as long, literally, as I can remember. Bernard was saying I'm a much more natural guitar player. I'd like to think I am, but he has something that I just can't do.

Which song that you've played on most captures the essence of Johnny Marr the guitar player?
JM:
I'd say "Get the Message" by Electronic, which is one of my favorite things that I've ever been involved in. People would be surprised and expect me to say a Smiths song, and I understand why, but the guitar playing on The Smiths' records was so diverse, because I would just try everything. If I had to pin it down to one song, I'd say it was "Get the Message," because it has that 12-string acoustic on it, 12-string electric, and then it has a weird solo that's a slide and a wah-wah at the same time.

Johnny, what was your favorite New Order record?
JM:
I can answer that easily. It's called "In a Lonely Place," and it was the B-side of "Ceremony." I was 17 when it came out, and I still think it's a beautiful, beautiful piece of music. I also like "Elegia," which is an instrumental, and "Touched by the Hand of God." I adore "Fine Time." [As for Smiths songs, Bernard] liked "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side."

Bernard, going back as far as Joy Division, the packaging of your records has always reflected a rejection of advertising and commerce. Would you like to comment?
BS:
Certainly in the days of Joy Division and early New Order we were completely uninterested in commercialism. We wouldn't even sell t-shirts at our concerts. In fact, there used to be a guy called Scotch Tommy, and he used to sell t-shirts outside our concerts, but Rob, our manager, wouldn't let him come into the concerts. And one day he came in and said, 'Look, I can't stand it any longer. I've made so much money from your concerts. I want to give you a check for 5,000 pounds' (or whatever it was). And Rob told him to go f*ck himself. He wouldn't take the check off him, which was kind of crazy, kind of nave, but I think a lot of that anti-commercialism came from Rob. His attitude was, if the music's good enough it will sell. Let the music speak for itself. We were very nave to believe that that attitude could exist. We never put our pictures on the sleeves, because we just thought it was a bit boring. We didn't think it was important what we looked like. When we sold someone a record we wanted to sell them two pieces of artwork: the record and the sleeve, which was also a piece of creativity within itself, rather than it just being like a label on a piece of clothing or some kind of promotion. We didn't care about money. We didn't care about being successful. We weren't bothered. We were just young men off the street, and we were happy to be able to express ourselves. We didn't care if it was successful, and I think, in a way, that's what made it successful. We were really interested in the album covers. Obviously we had a great designer in Peter Saville. We're very proud of the covers that we did, and the Electronic records, for which I have personally taken control over the covers.

What's the story behind how you two finally wound up working together? I'm sure you knew each other from around Manchester.
JM:
We actually first met at a recording session in 1982 (maybe '83). It was the first session as such that I'd ever done. Bernard was producing a record by a band on Factory Records called Quando Quango, [and] they needed a guitar player. Then we would bump into each other during the '80s. New Order and The Smiths played some gigs together, and our crew were their crew. And Manchester -- you get to know everybody there, and that's still the case. Then I was in San Francisco in '88, and New Order was playing. I went down to say hello, and he just said to me, 'I fancy doing an album outside of New Order. Do you want to be involved?' So, I said, 'Sure.' And he came out to see me, and the very first day we wrote a song that ended up on the first album called "Reality." We just hit it off. It's one of those great friendships -- one of those unusual things, because we're so different, and we found each other quite fascinating. I love him. He's a great friend.

Bernard's working with New Order again. Any chance of a Smiths reunion?
JM:
No. Not on your life. No thanks.

I've read a lot about the meticulous studio techniques you used on The Smiths' records. What were some of those?
JM:
I learned a lot of stuff off the one producer we worked with, John Porter. He knew great guitar tricks from the '50s and '60s, like Nashville tuning -- really interesting for arpeggios, because it sounds like you're playing backwards. I'd flip tapes around and do all that backwards reverb. That's most evident on "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore." On a track on the last album there's a really huge vibrato sound [where] I put all bottom-E strings on [a Telecaster] and just tuned it to the chord, and then got this huge knife and threw it at the guitar and tried to get it in time.

You're a pretty large figure in music. Can you tell when someone has a genuine reverence for your work, and when they're just blowing smoke up your ass?
JM:
I'm really lucky in that people say the nicest things. Had someone told me at 14 that guitar players, famous and non-famous, would be coming up to me saying, 'You're the reason why I play guitar,' I'd be punching the air, man. There's no higher accolade. Particularly when these musicia
ns go on to be influential themselves: people like Bernard Butler from Suede, and Noel Gallagher and quite a few American musicians also. No money, no gold records can touch it. I have so much respect for the guitar players who've influenced me, which is a very diverse bunch of people: George Harrison, Rory Gallagher, Nile Rodgers, Bert Jansch, a folk guitar player -- I've recently played on his album.

What are you listening to these days?
JM: A lot of John Mayall -- late '60s stuff. A lot of John Lee Hooker; Alexander "Skip" Spence, who was in Moby Grape; Beth Orton; The Beta Band; Badly Drawn Boy; the Doves; a lot of Curtis Mayfield; Aphex Twin. I think Aphex Twin's probably the most important musician to emerge in the last 20 years.

What do you think is England's biggest problem today?
BS: I think that we don't like heroes. We don't reward our heroes and we don't love ourselves enough. A lot of English people -- not me, of course (laughs) -- can be a bit small-minded and have an attitude. People are scared of going, "Hey, actually this is great. Things are great." If you take our government at the moment -- the labor government and Tony Blair -- I actually think it's a great government, but because for the past 40 years we've not had a government that's been good, people are afraid to say it and afraid to be positive. People could be more positive in this country. And our weather at the moment is diabolical (laughs). People can have a bit of attitude, which I actually think is a thing we should leave to the French.

 


 

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