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A Quietus Interview

Haphazard Archivism: Stephen Morris Of New Order Interviewed
John Doran , September 9th, 2014 12:35

John Doran talks to Stephen Morris about New Order signing to Mute, pulsar PSR B1919+21 and Joy Division oven gloves

Last Friday afternoon at Festival No. 6 we were lucky enough to have Stephen Morris of Joy Division and New Order as a guest on our stage. He (and the ever dapper Luke Haines) was kind enough to swing by the screening tent where we were showing three of Luke Turner and Ethan Reid's Quietus At Leisure films and take part in a Q and A.

The mini-documentary about Stephen's passion for collecting "tanks" (or military vehicles to be precise) played to a packed out space but when it came to the Q and A afterwards, it was too tempting an opportunity to not mention the elephant in the room: the fact that a few days earlier New Order had announced a new album and a signing with Mute Records.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank him for answering all of my questions (many of them quite fanboy-ish) with typical good grace and a dry sense of humour. The talk was very illuminating, especially on the subject of the enduring appeal of Joy Division and is published in full below.  

Now that you've signed to Mute it seems like a really logical thing to happen but I wouldn't have imagined it beforehand. How did it come about?

Stephen Morris: Well, we wanted to make a record. And we wanted to put it out on a record label. And we rang up Daniel [Miller] and said, 'Will you put our record out?' And he said yes. [laughs] Well, not quite as simple as that. We'd been thinking about it for ages. Daniel's a really nice guy and we've known him for years. It's weird because people have been coming up to me and going, 'Congratulations.' Why? Have I had another child? 'No, you've signed a record deal with Mute.' I knew times were hard but record labels still exist don't they? It's not that strange.

I guess for people of my generation it's exciting news. My first New Order album was Power, Corruption And Lies and my real heartland albums will always be Brotherhood and Low Life and you signing to Mute means you're going to be doing more synth and dance orientated material.

SM: Yes. Although signing to Mute doesn't necessarily mean you have to do a dance and synth orientated album but that is what we're doing. The thing about Mute and our reason for going there was the fact that we'd been on Warner Bros. - we'd been a major label band - for a bit and it just felt right signing to an independent. Signing to Mute is a bit like signing to Factory albeit a slightly more financially successful Factory. We've known Daniel for ages… absolutely ages. When we were recording Republic he came down for tea and to watch us [in the studio] and even after that he still wanted to sign us. He's a really nice guy. He's got a lot of synthesizers. I've got a lot of synthesizers. And hopefully we'll put a few of them on the new record. And it will be out soon-ish.

Can you tell us more about it - what it's called etc?

SM: Can I tell you what it's called? No. Because I don't know yet. I thought of calling it X or ? [laughs] but no, I don't know what it's called yet. We've got eight songs and Bernard's actually written the lyrics and done some of the singing on it. So you'd think we'd be nearly ready. It would be nice for it to be out next Spring but I'm not saying anything concrete because people always quote you. They always stop me and say, 'When's your new record out?' And I say that it will be out for Christmas. Then at Christmas everyone's like [puts on sad voice] 'Your record's not out!' So I'm just not saying anything anymore. It would be nice to have something out this year but I don't know.

Have you been working with dyed-in-the-wool Joy Division and New Order fan, James Murphy?

SM: No. It's a shame but no. In my head I've worked with him but in reality, no. It was a strange one that one. Consequences Of Sound did an interview with me and said, 'Who would you like to work with?' And I said, 'James Murphy. I really like him and everything on DFA is great.' And then in another interview Bernard and Tom [Chapman] were being interviewed and were asked if we were working with James Murphy and Bernard said, tee hee, 'We've got some news for you...' And that got interpreted as we're working with James Murphy. Unfortunately we may have upset James Murphy but we haven't really. I mean, how can you upset James Murphy? I wanted some records off him as well. I wanted the new Juan Maclean album but never mind.

Does it perturb you that it's the first album in the band's history without Peter Hook on it?

SM: It's a bit weird but does it perturb me? No. It's a bit like starting again. Starting again with a new label. Starting again with synths. Starting again with Gillian. Starting again with a new bass player. It's kind of uncharted territory and not at the same time.

It seems to me like there's a lot of noise made about whether or not New Order is New Order if it doesn't contain Peter Hook and often that noise is being made by Peter Hook. However you and Gillian seem to keep more of a dignified silence over whether New Order is really New Order on the occasion the line-up doesn't contain Gillian. Do you think her importance to the group has been underplayed in the past?

SM: Not by me. I can't afford to underplay the importance of my wife. Can anyone? Erm… we don't like shouting, going to the papers and slagging people off and blowing our own trumpets and stuff like that. We just want to have good fun doing it while we're doing it. Although Gillian can get quite loud and obnoxious when she's had a drink like most rock stars can and if you want to come and watch her DJing on Sunday you may get to witness this first hand… but hopefully not. I really wish I hadn't said that now, as I'm going to get into a lot of trouble.

When did you and Gillian first play on stage together? It was in Joy Division wasn't it?

SM: Ah, this is a story that Bernard always gets wrong. It's probably in his book but wrong. What happened was we played in Eric's in Liverpool late 78/early 79 and what happened was Rob Gretton, our manager was fooling about with a broken bottle and cut Ian's hands. Which isn't really that much of a hindrance for a singer except for one song, which was 'I Remember Nothing' on which he played guitar. It was a bit like, 'Have we got a doctor in the house?' So when we asked, 'Can anyone play guitar?' She said she could and played Ian's guitar on that one song. Bernard says it was him but he never used to play guitar on that song, he used to play synths.

Deborah Curtis said in Touching From A Distance: "Whether it was intentional or not, the wives and girlfriends had gradually been banished from all but the most local of gigs and a curious male bonding had taken place. The boys seemed to derive their fun from each other." Was the introduction of Gillian actually one of the most important differences - apart from the really obvious one - between Joy Division and New Order?

SM: As it turned out, yeah. It was just very awkward because we'd gone from being a bunch of lads who were a bit like [puts on daft voice] 'Don't bring yer bird, don't bring yer bird to the gig.' But then we had Gillian playing guitar and keyboards and then it was a bit like, 'Ooooh, we can't swear, we can't fart...' It was quite embarrassing for a bit. But it did have an effect which wasn't quite feminising it but it did make us different in a very subtle, subconscious sort of way. And it had an effect on some of us more than others. Who? I think Bernard really. It was weirder for [Bernard and Peter] than it was for me. But actually it was weird for me then as well. Normally when you knock off work you can go home and do something different but if you're in a band together it never ends. When you go home, you're still in the band. When you go on tour, you're still in the band. It never stops. And you talk about it all the time.

In his new book Ghosts Of My Life, Mark Fisher writes eloquently about the ongoing and seemingly unstoppable Joy Division revival. And to quote him: "If Joy Division matter now more than ever, it's because they capture the depressed spirit of our times. Listen to JD now and you have the inescapable impression that the group were catatonically channelling our present, their future. From the start their work was overshadowed by a deep foreboding, a sense of a future foreclosed, all certainties dissolved, only growing gloom ahead." The current Joy Division revival is a cultural phenomenon I think. Lots of bands see spikes in their popularity but the resurgence in interest in Joy Division over the last six or seven years is unreal and I can't remember the last day I didn't see an Unknown Pleasures T-shirt..

SM: I've got that book. I've tried reading that book… it's very depressing. I almost started believing it. I started projecting myself into the Four Yorkshiremen sketch. I think you've answered the question yourself, the music was great and the other key thing about it is it hasn't really been rammed down people's throats. Joy Division is something you discover. You find out about it yourself. Your elder brother plays it to you and you get into that way. It's weird what you said about the Unknown Pleasures T-shirt thing is we did that sleeve and said, 'You know what, that would make a great T-shirt, a great logo… but logos and T-shirts are shit!' We were dead against it. And now it must be the biggest selling style of T-shirt. I bet the Japanese one doesn't say, 'Unknown Pleasures' on it. It is ubiquitous and it's become a symbol for something other than what Joy Division actually were. The T-shirt represents a mythical Joy Division, which means something to people other than what we actually were. It only happened because we stopped. If we had have carried on it would have been different, it's only because there was an end people can project onto it. It's kind of like pushing an empty boat out into a stream and it carries on going even though there's no one aboard. It makes me think of an empty spaceship just drifting into uncharted space or something like that. But it's nothing to do with us. To us it's just the music and that's all there is.

I'm guessing a sense of humour comes in handy when you see things like the BFG Known Pleasures T-shirt or the Disney Mickey Mouse/Unknown Pleasures T-shirt? I mean, what is the connection between Mickey Mouse and Joy Division supposed to be?

SM: No, I must admit, that one got me. It baffled me… to the point of anger. It got me quite confused. Quite annoyed really… why does Mickey Mouse want a Joy Division T-shirt? He never came to any of our gigs. Or maybe he did… I don't know. It's become adopted by some people who don't know what it is other than, 'This is cool.' There's a whole story behind that symbol and I think someone's actually writing a book on how it came to be in the first place. It's a pulsar. PSR B1919+21. Peter Saville said there should be a book written about it and somebody is. An astrophysicist. So that should be an easy read.

Do you own a pair of Joy Division oven gloves?

SM: They burn. They're not oven proof! No, I don't but that was a really good idea. I like other people doing shit like that but I just don't think we should.

Do you know like most bands have an archivist, is that you for Joy Division?

SM: Er… in a haphazard fashion, sort of. An archivist, as I've found out, is someone who comes round your house, like off some reality TV show, to sort your shit out and tell you how much it's worth. And they write down everything you've got. I've just got a load of drawers out of old kitchen units which have long since disintegrated but they have mice living in them. I had Ian's scarf but the mice have eaten it. There's only a few bits left. An archivist would go up the wall at that. Or would that make it worth more? I don't know. So the archivist would know what everything was worth and I've just got a load of clutter.

Do you still have the advert that the other three placed after sacking Steve Brotherdale and can you remember what it said?

SM: It was very simple. It just said, 'Drummer wanted for local punk band, Warsaw, phone Ian.' I was going to buy a pasty for my tea and I walked down the hill and there it was in the newsagents' window. I'd seen the name because they'd tried to get me in before. It's in my book actually. I shouldn't tell you this because it'll spoil the surprise. It's not in my book! I haven't got a book. I'm just writing a sit-com. The only reason I phoned Ian up was because it was a Macclesfield number. I thought that I wouldn't have to go far just to be told to fuck off. I didn't want to go all the way to Manchester just to hear, 'Don't call us.'

Would it be fair to say that round about the time that you joined the band, was when they got their shit together essentially - stopped dressing like gay Nazis and started behaving like a proper band.

SM: I'm glad you asked that - I noticed that as well. I don't know… I could say that I went up to them and said, 'Cut the Nazi crap out. Shave that 'tache off. That hat's got to go. Ian, you need to be more existential. I'll just sit at the back with my floppy hair and a stripy T-shirt that I borrowed from The Beach Boys. I'll get Rob Gretton, the DJ from Rafters who tells me to fuck off every time I play Patti Smith, to be our manager and our fate will be sealed.' I could say that but I won't because it's not true. It never happened. It should have done though.

I believe Martin Hannett had only just been given a prototype of the digital delay unit from AMS Neve when recording had just begun on Unknown Pleasures but the way he used it to record your drums was phenomenally far-sighted wasn't it?

SM: Yeah. Yeah it was. Basically we were doing sampling before the advent of samplers. It was a prototype made at AMS in Burnley and he would just turn up with this little box and cackle about what it did. You basically made a noise, flick a switch and it would make the same noise again. You were aware of Fairlights and things like that but this was amazing because it was this tiny little box and he used it in a very innovative way in a way that other people would do later on. Yeah, he was a genius. A mad genius with the floppy hair that you have to have to be a mad genius.

Barney and Peter Hook have been pretty unequivocal over the years about their dislike of the production on this album over the years, however, for me, and presumably a lot of people in the audience, it's one of the best sounding albums ever recorded. You seem to have kept more of a discreet silence over this. I was wondering how you feel about it now?

SM: I liked it. I thought it was great. I've always had this thing about recording - when you make a record, it wants to sound like one thing and when you go and see a band the band sound like something else. When you went to see a Joy Division gig you were pinned against the wall by the noise. There was a lot of passion and energy in it. It was very physical. But when you were sitting listening to a record in your bedroom it would be in your head and I kind of like records that sound like they are in another place or suggest moods. Martin was very into creating moods with sonics and that was what he was trying to do with Unknown Pleasures with the lift door and things like that. Those were the kinds of atmospheres he was into making. And his other role as a producer, as he claimed, was to produce a web of tension within the studio. And he did that quite well by talking crap most of the time. But that was the idea: the record should sound like a record that was coming from another world as if it had been recorded on the moon. And I liked it because it sounded weird. I didn't think that now people would feel about it in the same way that we felt about 'Sister Ray' then. I didn't think it would be like that. I just thought it was weird and clever. I didn't think it would go down in history.  

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