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Q&A: Bernard Sumner (Part 1)

By Lauren Barbato on December 21, 2009


Q&A: Bernard Sumner (Part 1)

It’s been more than 30 years since the British 20-somethings donning collared shirts, skinny ties, and blunt-edged haircuts first delivered their melodic anthems to the gloomy and despondent misfits of Manchester, England. But Joy Division—the group responsible for pioneering post-punk movement with its hard-hitting rhythms, hypnotic hooks, and unstoppable energy—has been shrouded in mystery since that unfortunate morning in May 1980 when vocalist and icon-in-the-making Ian Curtis hanged himself in his kitchen the day before Joy Division was scheduled to launch its North American tour. 

In the advent of Curtis’ death, the remaining members formed New Order and picked up from where Joy Division left off—placing Curtis’ bleak outlook against a background that fused those hard-hitting rhythms with buoyant dancehall beats. The group’s distinct sound undeniably laid the foundation for contemporary synth-rock outfits. But even New Order couldn’t escape a less-than-pleasant end, as the members found themselves entangled in a messy breakup where rumors and egos flared. 

It’s the stuff memoirs and VHI specials are made of. But Bernard Sumner, the frontman of both bands, is perhaps the most unassuming member of rock and roll legacy. And, with a Stuart Price-produced synthesizer-based LP in the works and the Oct. 5 release of Bad Lieutenant’s debut album, Never Cry Another Tear, Sumner is perhaps one of the most hard-working legends around. 

Bad Lieutenant—Sumner’s newest project that also includes New Order alum Phil Cunningham and relative newcomer Jakes Evans at its core, with New Order drummer Stephen Morris and Blur bassist Alex James guesting on tracks—might come as a surprise to long-time Joy Division/New Order fans. A straightforward guitar album, Never Cry Another Tear is lighter, more refined, and yes, even somewhat uplifting. 

Bad Lieutenant has been making the rounds through Europe, recently performing in Germany and are ending the year with a U.K. tour. Problems securing Visas, however, lead to the cancelation of Bad Lieutenant’s North American debut, which was scheduled for four dates last November in New York and Chicago as the opener for the Pixies. The group has rescheduled for April 2010—and also extended its visit to 10 shows—and Sumner reveals that the band’s hoping to score a slot at the 2010 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. It’s not quite a New Order reunion, but as Sumner says, “Everything in life can’t be exactly how you want it, can it?”

Calling from a recording studio outside of Manchester, England, in between conducting a mind-numbing amount of interviews and preparing for a presumably mind-numbing “date with a bottle of wine,” Sumner discussed with FILTER the origins of Bad Lieutenant and the collaborative process behind Never Cry Another Tear. 

What prompted you to form Bad Lieutenant, and how did you go about recruiting the band’s members?

Bernard Sumner: Really, the band kind of came out of the demise of New Order. I saw there was a dark cloud on the horizon—things weren’t going well. After a New Years party in 2007, I was jamming with Alex James [of Blur] at 4 a.m. We were drunk and playing “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” by The Beatles and I told him, “We should do something together.” We did three sessions at Alex's house. By this time I'd pulled in Phil Cunningham and I'd met a friend of a friend, Jake Evans [of Rambo and Leroy]. Jake, he’s 29 and has been playing guitar since he was five. He’s very fresh, new blood. I used Phil because I know I can rely on him.

But the problem was that Alex lives 200 miles away from me. The logistics and these recording sessions just wasn't working out. Because of that, we decided to reduce the core of the band to me, Phil, and Jake.

You were the main lyricist for New Order. Did you write most of the lyrics for Never Cry Another Tear?

It was a collaboration between Jake and me. I would say I wrote 85% or 90% of the lyrics, but it was a collaborative process, which made it more fun. Writing songs is the hardest part, so having someone there is more fun. And, this might sound kind of lazy of me, but it reduced the workload.

And who took on the lead vocals: you or Jake?

I do most of the vocals. But “These Changes” Jake sings. And “Summer Days on Holiday.” Sometimes it’s all me, sometimes it’s all him. He’s got a deeper voice, which is funny because he’s not very tall. You’d think he would have a high voice but he’s actually got quite a deep, sonorous voice and my voice is higher.

There was obviously holdover material from Joy Division to New Order, given the circumstances at the time. I know Bad Lieutenant started under different circumstances, but did you use any material originally made with New Order for Never Cry Another Tear?

No, it was all completely fresh. But there is some New Order material that hasn’t been released yet, and I don’t know what’s going to happen with it. When we did the last album, Waiting for the Sirens’ Call, we wrote more material than we needed—we just got on a roll and wrote a lot of material. There’s about seven songs that we were hoping to finish and make into another album, but it never happened for one reason or another. But none of that stuff appeared on this album, though.

You don’t know if those seven songs will ever be released?

I don’t think they’ll ever be released. It’s a funny number—seven—to put on an album. I don’t think the record company knows what to do with them.  

Maybe they’ll come out on a collector’s edition.

Yeah, I think they will be released, but I don’t know when. Maybe once the flames have died down a little.

Sound-wise, New Order was a pretty vast departure from the sound of Joy Division; Bad Lieutenant seems to fall somewhere in the middle of the two bands. Is that a conscious decision when you first start a band: to figure out how you want this particular group to sound? Or does it evolve?

It’s something that evolves naturally. We’ve never been premeditative about any album; we’ve never sat down and planned it and said, “Let’s do this.” It always comes out very naturally. Even the quite large hitch between the sound of Joy Division and the dance sound of New Order, you wouldn’t think that it could possibly be made by the same people. But there was no plan to do that, really. Certainly “Monday,” that came about because I started going out to a lot of clubs and listening to club music, and also I was very, very interested in technology ... I wanted there to be some technology on this album, too, even though it is a guitar album.

I just didn’t want it to sound like a band in a rehearsal room because I don’t think the music would have enough depth to listen to it over and over again. Personally, I like music that you can still play in eight years time—you don’t get bored with it.

I thought it was ironic that New Order opened the door for all these contemporary synth-rock and pop outfits, but Never Cry Another Tear is virtually synth-free.

The simple reason for that is Jake and Phil don’t use synthesizers. They stressed the fact that they’re guitarists, so it would have been stupid for me to give them synthesizers. There are a couple of synthesizers lend out to use, but I wouldn’t have been using them to their full strengths. But I haven’t abandoned electronic music. I’m pretty sure the next album will be electronic music, but for me to do that, it makes sense for me to work with musicians that are interested in that kind of music. And it just so happened on this album that the people that surrounded me were guitarists. 

So you are greatly influenced by your band members, then?

It’s about the band, you know. They don’t work for me; we work for each other. I take totally into account what their wishes and views are because it’s a cliche, but we’re a team. Otherwise, I might as well do a solo album. 

Tune in tomorrow for more from Bernard Sumner. 

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