The story of New Order reads like a myth. Four young blokes from a gloomy county of Northwest England form Joy Division, a gothic post-punk outfit led by deified frontman Ian Curtis. Four years later, on the eve of their first tour of America, Curtis kills himself. Devastated but resilient, the remaining members change their name, reinvent their sound, and rise from the ashes to record classics like "Blue Monday" and "Bizarre Love Triangle," songs that will alter the course of rock forever.
Now, on the heels of their 10th studio album, the dance-driven Music Complete, Bernard Sumner, New Order's famously private lead singer, has released Chapter and Verse, a memoir detailing his childhood, Curtis's tragic death, Sumner's lasting romance with the synthesizer, and the charged decadence of the 1970s and '80s Manchester music scene.
Why did you only now decide to put out your memoir?
I thought, If I don't, I'll never write it. It was a lot harder than I expected -- almost as hard as writing an album. In a way, it's like therapy. It's difficult to talk about stuff, especially my childhood.
You write about how your mother's struggle with cerebral palsy, your stepfather's death, and the gentrification of your hometown, Salford, influenced the dark sounds you created with Joy Division.
I'm quite a visual person, so I was inspired by the look of things. Salford is like a wart on the side of Manchester. It was a rough place to grow up in, with no trees, factories spewing out smoke, a dirty river running through it, smashed windows, and violence. From the Second World War, there had been empty plots where a bomb had dropped and destroyed the houses. We used to play on them. Salford was described in a newspaper as the biggest slum in Europe, which was really insulting. If you lived there, it wasn't -- it was a great community.
New Order's past few albums have been guitar-driven rock. But Music Complete is more of a dance record, like 1989's Technique.
By the late '90s I was going to clubs and partying like crazy. I'd eaten too much dance music. And dance music also became very compartmentalized in the '90s. I didn't like that because it meant rules, which meant fools taking away my ability to do what I wanted to do. There was also pressure because we'd made "Blue Monday," which was massive, and I felt every record after that had to reinvent the wheel, which is impossible. I just needed a break from it all. But now the time felt right to return to synthesizers and beats and electronic music.
"Blue Monday" is the best-selling 12-inch single of all time. Are you aware how much it was embraced by gay listeners? We recorded "Blue Monday" in Britannia Row, a studio that belonged to Pink Floyd, and after we finished in the studio we'd all go out to mostly gay clubs. What we liked about them was that the music was more exciting and forward-thinking. Straight clubs were stiff -- you couldn't get in wearing jeans, trainers, or a T-shirt. And then when you got in, it wasn't worth it because the music was shit.
New Order was one of the first acts to merge electronic dance music with rock. Now EDM dominates the charts. Did that influence Music Complete? Well, I wish it had dominated the charts in the 1980s and '90s, because we would have been in them. I didn't actively listen to anything before we made this album. I wanted to make music without preconceptions and just see what happened.
What's the most important thing you've learned in the four decades you've been making music? To never make a rule about it, because as soon as you make a rule, you fall dead. Another important thing is to forget yourself -- just get the conscious part of your brain out of the process. You'll lose yourself in it, and then you'll write good music.
And your biggest regret? Probably being too hedonistic, because I don't remember a lot of it. The interesting thing about New Order now, going around the world and playing gigs and not getting fucked up, is you can use 100% of your brain -- and you don't wake up with a hangover. It's much more pleasurable.