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A Quietus Interview

Peter Hook Interview: Freebass, New Order and Joy Division Cruet Sets
Ben Hewitt , August 11th, 2009 07:39

Ben Hewitt talks to the Northern bass monkey about his involvement in getting some of the North's most historic music sites blue plaques

These are strange times for Peter Hook. On one hand, the iconic bass player who made his name with post-punk cult favourites Joy Division and electro-pop legends New Order is focused on a new chapter in his career. The Freebass project he started five years ago with fellow Northern rhythm chuggers Mani and Andy Rourke - from The Stone Roses and The Smiths respectively - is finally about to take off, with their debut album done and dusted and ready to be released. Hook has also been heavily involved with the scheme to get some of Rochdale’s most notable monuments of musical heritage - the Heywood Studios financed by John Peel and the site which hosted both Cargo and Suite 16 recording studios where bands from Gang of Four to Joy Division to The Happy Mondays laid down tracks - rewarded with blue plaques.

But the fallout from the demise of New Order still rumbles on. The protracted, messy and bitter split has resulted in Hook’s estrangement from his former band mates of 30 years. And now, Freebass are set to go head-to-head with the new band started by former New Order members Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Phil Cunningham with Blur bassist Alex James as both groups prepare to release their debut records at the first time.

The Quietus caught up with Hooky just as he finished putting the finishing touches to the completed Freebass album to discuss the importance of harnessing the past, what we can expect from Freebass, the future of New Order and the legacy of Joy Division…

So, what exactly is going on at Rockdale?

Peter Hook: Well, Cargo recording studios was one of the first cheap punk studios in the Northwest. They did some fantastic records in the late 70s - you name it, nearly every band went through Cargo. John Briley, who started the studio and produced some wonderful records, unfortunately lost his hearing - he’d done one guitar band too many - so me and my friend Chris Hewitt bought it and turned it into Suite 16. We went on to do bands like the Roses, the Mondays, James, so between the two studios, we were responsible for a hell of a lot of influential music. It was immortalised in 24 Hour Party People when Stephen was told to take apart his drum kit and reassemble it on the roof, which is actually a true story.

Chris Hewitt felt that Rochdale town council had ignored the area’s rock & roll heritage, because he had a studio in the area - Hayward studios - built in the late 70’s which was financed by John Peel, he was a student in the area and very fond of it. So, Chris thought that Rochdale council should recognise the heritage, so he’s got blue plaques for the Hayward studios and Cargo/ Suite 16.

Why do you think it’s important to remember places like Cargo and Hayward?

PH: Well, it’s strange. Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson, God rest their souls, always taught me as a musician to look forward, so you had this attitude of forget the past, it’s all about the future. But because - excuse me for blowing my own trumpet - we’ve proven to be influential to so many bands in the present, you feel that maybe you should be celebrating the past as well as looking forward. So Chris asked me to get involved, and we’re throwing a party with the proceeds going to Backdoor Project, which helps young people get off the streets and interested in music as a possible career. It’s a nice way of celebrating something that we did together for quite a long time. And because we live in a computer era, we don’t really have these hubs anymore. People work in their rooms and put it up on Myspace; it’s quite an antisocial way of working. As a musician, it’s sad that there aren’t those hubs anymore.

For the area of Rochdale, too, it’s important to recognise that history.

PH: Definitely. It harks back to when Anton Corbijn filmed Control and wanted to do it in Macclesfield. Now, that town doesn’t have much to crow about - as far as I can see, the only feather in its cap is Ian Curtis, and it never does anything to celebrate that. They’ll spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on Christ knows what, flowerbeds and all that crap, but they never seem to pick up on their heroes. Anton couldn’t get any help from them. So, Chris wasn’t going to let Rochdale let this one go. I mean, Gang of Four, Joy Division, New Order, The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays have all recorded there…

So some really seminal albums, then?

PH: Well, demos. You see, the Mondays would come to me and say ‘Hooky, we’ve got no money, can we demo in Suite Sixteen?’. And I’d say that as long as they paid the engineers they could have the studio for nothing. They’d say “Don’t worry Hooky, as soon as we get a deal we’ll do the album at Suite Sixteen”. Do you know what? Not one of them did. As soon as they got the money they all pissed off to the real world. It happened to nearly every bloody band I gave time to. But, Rob and Tony always tried to instil in us the idea that if you’ve been lucky enough to get something out of the place, you should put something back.

How are things with Freebass?

PH: Freebass has been…a very strange process [Laughs]. It’s dragged on for so long. When I started it I was in New Order, and then we split up, but it still took a lot of work because Mani and Andy Rourke had been working on other things. We weren’t able to spend that much time together on it. But then I saw that Bernard released something and I thought, “Oh shit, I’m going to get this out if it kills me”.

So even now you have that competitive streak to do better than him?

PH: Oh God, yeah. I mean, Barney always used to say [adopts faux pretentious accent] “You’re so competitive, you”. Maybe he was right, but that’s what keeps you going. But, you know, it had taken five years of my bloody life and I wanted to finish it. And now I’m sitting here listening to the finished version and I’m very happy.

What do you think people will make of it?

PH: I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people which is what I’m happiest about. It sounds like a combination of Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays, The Smiths. Like a big Manchester melting pot. But it doesn’t sound overtly like any of those things. You’ll just hear little things that come from the three of us and our experiences. It’s a really interesting mix.

What happened with the guest vocalists planned for the album?

PH: Well, that all came about because finding someone to sing in the band was like X Factor. You know the beginning, when they’re all rubbish? It was like that. Indie X-Factor. I went through 200 people and was just wiped out, so Mani said let’s fuck them off and get some of our friends to do it - and let’s face it, we’ve got some pretty influential friends. But a lot of people who said they could do it weren’t able to, which I completely understand, so we were really lucky to get Gary Briggs to come in and sing the rest of the songs. But we have got a fantastic guest vocal from Tim Burgess, one from Pete Wylie, as well as Howard Marx - the world’s biggest drug smuggler - who’s done a state of the world rap on one song which I’m very happy with.

Do you have any idea of when it may be released?

We’re mot sure yet. I need to sit down with the other guys and talk about it. You see, the whole culture’s changed. We don’t have a record label, so we’ll probably release it online and make it available on iTunes. I’m thinking that Lily Allen, La Roux and Little Boots all got discovered on MySpace, so maybe I’ll put my stuff on there and hope someone discovers me! But I’ll probably be sat in the old folks home still asking ‘Has anyone discovered me yet?’.

What’s the current situation with New Order?

PH: There is no current situation. We split up two years ago. For a while, Bernard seemed to be a bit confused about that but now, from what I gather, he’s accepted it.

Why did the split happen?

PH: Well…I mean, that’s a personal thing. I’m sure you’ve been in a job before that you didn’t like and you wanted to get out of. Ultimately, groups are all about compromise, and what generally happens is that one person feels they’re compromising too much and doesn’t feel satisfied anymore, so they walk away.

In my mind, Bernard split us up in 92 when he went off with Johnny Marr, and I split us up this time. All we have to wait for is when we get back together is hopefully for Stephen to split us up and we’ll all be even.

Is there any chance of a reunion in the future?

PH: No, not at the moment. I think there would have to be a terrible lot of blood letting. It’s been very…it’s been the messiest divorce I’ve ever had, let’s put it that way.

It must be hard, though, when you’ve got such a body of work to look back on.

PH: Yes, definitely. That’s the sort of thing, when you realise that you’re squabbling like children in a playground, that’s quite humbling - to realise you’ve been an inspiration for so many people. A lot of people will say ‘Why are you arguing like kids?’ It’s like Leonardo Da Vinci arguing with Monet over who’s got the biggest slice of cake.

Does it make it easier, knowing you always have that work to look back on?

PH: No, it’s not easy in any way. It’s quite sad, especially now, because Bernard - quite rightly - has said a few things in the press now that Bad Lieutenant are about to release their record, and it becomes a bit like a game of tennis. Bernard hits one over to me so I hit a return back over the net. It’s quite sad, really. I feel very sad about it. As you said, we’ve got a hell of a body of work, and you should be able to go “Fucking hell, listen, 30 years of work - how many bands achieve that?”

Forgetting about a reunion, would you like to get to a stage where you could sit down and talk again?

I don’t know. I mean, Bernard is the oldest person I know - I’ve known him since I was 11 and we were at school together. I don’t know anybody that much. And it’s a very strange position to be in, especially with the fact that we’ve both got records coming out together at the same time. It’s very weird. But it’s exciting. It’s a bit like a fat version of Blur and Oasis.

Speaking of Blur, have you heard much of Bad Lieutenant, the band the rest of New Order have in which Alex James plays bass?

PH: Yeah, I heard the single the other day. It’s good. It’s like New Order but without the bass. I don’t think Alex is a member of the group, he’s just playing on a couple of songs. The irony with Alex is that me and him came up with the idea of doing Freebass at the Q Awards, shortly before he set his hair on fire. But because he lived in the South and I lived up here it never happened. Then Mani, who’d read about it in the press, said “Why don’t we do it? Let’s fuck off that cockney bastard and do a Northern version”. It’s one of those little things when you realise how small the world is.

So there’s no animosity towards Alex there?

PH: Not at all, I’m a great fan of Alex’s and he’s a great fan of mine. I was delighted when I read his book and there’s a picture of me in it. He learnt to play the bass along to Blue Monday.

‘Atmosphere’ was recorded at Heywood studios. What do you remember about those sessions?

PH: I can remember a lot about ‘Atmosphere’, actually, because it was written in two halves. Steve and I had the rhythm and an idea for a song, and Bernard and Ian had the vocals and chords, and an idea for a song. They were waiting for us to come up with some bass and drums for their idea, and we were waiting for some chords and vocals from them, and it just came together. It was the biggest stroke of luck. It’s one of the most played track at funerals, apparently.

Yeah, there’s that quote from Tony Wilson: ‘Angels’ is for weddings and ‘Atmosphere’ is for funerals…

PH: Yeah. And whenever I go to a funeral…I went to Tony’s funeral and they played ‘Atmosphere’, and I thought, “God, I wish I’d written Angels instead”.

How do you look back at those days in the band?

PH: We had a great time. We didn’t worry about money or position. We were really four people - five with Rob Gretton - against the world, pointing in the same direction. That was the wonderful thing about Joy Division. From its inception to its demise, we never earned a single penny. We started it broke and finished it broke. There were no arguments about publishing, no arguments about money. It was very straightforward. It was just four kids loving playing, loving music, against the world. I’ve never had such an easy relationship as the one in Joy Division. It was when we started New Order that it got very complicated.

When thinking about Ian, do you ever look back and wonder what could have been?

PH: No, no. The thing that upsets me most is that, you know, Ian left his wife without a husband and a daughter without a father. That’s what upsets me most. That’s the most important thing. You realise that as you get older, you put it in context and realise how important family is. Just because you played in some band together doesn’t mean anything compared to that.

I mean, every time Joy Division played a gig together it was wonderful. There was this fire in your heart and your soul. And the audience would just be completely open-mouthed. They’d just be stood there staring at us. We’d blow all the other groups off stage. We blew away The Buzzcocks, The Stranglers. That’s the greatest thing in the world, to have the power in your grip when it’s not been sullied by money or petty arguments about who wrote what. Just that wonderful straightforward power. And maybe it was that power that Ian couldn’t handle. I mean, it was like a fucking tidal wave.

What about Joy Division’s albums? You’ve said before that you weren’t happy with how Unknown Pleasures sounded.

PH: I don’t feel like that as much now. That was the arrogance of youth. Martin had heard us play live, and had a strong feeling how we should sound on record. That’s a producer’s job. And we were young and went along with it. When he tried to do that to New Order, we were having none of it and we took over. But with Joy Division we went along with it, and in retrospect, thank God we did, because Martin made those records last 30 years. People still come up to me now - kids who are 19, 18, 17, 16 - and shake my hand and tell me how great the band were, and I’m like “Fuck, you weren’t even born”. My daughter went to University a few years ago, and when they all came in to the communal area and were unpacking, another girl started getting posters out, and one of them was of Unknown Pleasures. And my daughter said, “That’s my Dad’s band. He plays bass in Joy Divison”. And the other girl just burst out crying.

That must have been a major head-fuck for that girl, though.

PH: Not as much as it was for my daughter. She doesn’t even like Joy Division!

What Joy Division songs are you most proud of when you look back?

PH: Funnily enough, all of them. I don’t think Joy Division ever did a duff song. When I look back at New Order, I don’t have that luxury. We had some really odd tunes. I don’t know why, maybe because Ian wasn’t there. But I can play any Joy Division bass line from memory and very little for New Order. God knows why.

What do you think about the branding of the band, when you see things like Joy Division trainers?

PH: Well, the trainers are unofficial. I spent a very happy Sunday the other day going through eBay and there were over 700 listed Joy Division items. Do you know how many of those items were official? Less than 6. We’ve only done, to my knowledge, five t-shirts.

There’s the famous Half Man Half Biscuit song ‘Joy Division Oven Gloves’. What’s the strangest bit of Joy Division memorabilia you’ve seen?

PH: The weirdest one was a pocket mirror - a little round mirror with the picture of the back of our heads outside a tube station on the back of it. I emailed the seller and said, when you look in that mirror, do you see a bootlegger? And she emailed back and said sorry, and took it down. You can take it as a compliment, or if you’re skint, you can say that you’re stealing bread from my babies mouth. Sometimes I think we’d be better off doing our own salt and pepper shakers.

Finally, you’re a Manchester United fan. What do you think your chances for the upcoming season?

PH: Well, it’s funny you should say that, because I just discovered that I’m neighbours with Edwin van der Sar, who’s United’s goalkeeper. The other day the alarm went off at my house when I was in the studio, and I got a phone call, so I rushed home. When I got there I saw this man walking around outside and I thought “Bloody hell, he’s tall”. It was van der Sar! He said [adopts Dutch accent] “Don’t worry, I’ve had a look around, there’s no-one here”. And I thought “It’s a good job that United’s goalkeeper is living here, because no-one's going to get past him are they?”