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Q&A: Bernard Sumner (Part 2)

By Lauren Barbato on December 22, 2009


Q&A: Bernard Sumner (Part 2)

Although Bernard Sumner—frontman of the legendary genre-twisting bands Joy Division and New Order—is often revered as one of the leading pioneers of both post-punk and electronic dance music, his latest project, Bad Lieutenant, is a sunny alternative rock outfit that seems to play it safe when it comes to the rules of rock. Never Cry Another Tear, the group's debut album that was released worldwide on Oct. 5, is an airy, guitar-driven record that is virtually synth-free—quite the surprise from the man who rippled dance halls during the 1980s with tracks like "Blue Monday" and "Age of Consent" that proved synthesizers and guitars were a match-made in music heaven. But Sumner, who's currently working on an electronic album with well-known record producer Stuart Price, assures his fans that he hasn't "abandoned dance music" just yet.

Speaking via telephone from Manchester, England, Sumner discussed his intricate, long-term relationship with dance music and why Bad Lieutenant is not a complete reinvention of his repertoire, but simply a way of “starting fresh.”


You mentioned that when a member of New Order, you were very influenced by the New York dance scene. Was there a certain style or sound that influenced Bad Lieutenant?


Bernard Sumner: [Pause] No. The thing about the dance music of New Order is that we were in a funny position. After Ian Curtis died, I didn’t want to sound like an Ian Curtis impersonator on the next record that I make, so I was kind of looking for a new direction, I guess. Although, I probably didn’t admit that to myself at the time. 


How did you go about looking?


What happened was there was a girl in New York, Ruth Polsky, and she was supposed to put the first Joy Division tour on. When Ian died, obviously the tour fell through. New Order went out to New York and started playing some gigs over there. And we did some recording; we recorded “Ceremony” in Orange, New Jersey, but we were staying in Manhattan. Ruth was kind of “Queen of the Clubs,” so after we finished recording, she would take us to all the clubs in New York and get us in [for] free and give us free drink tickets. We had a great time in New York. 


The kind of music playing in New York then was really different than what we were playing in England. In England, it was just out and out commercial disco, but in New York, they were mixing up stuff like The Clash with more dance-oriented music. That kind of got me thinking that maybe if one day we got the right track together, it could be played in a club like this.


What do you think of today’s dance scene?


The problem with dance music these days, really, is—well, there’s two problems. One is that there’s so many genres: You don’t know which genre you should be in, and if you’re not in a genre, you don’t feel like you’re a part of it. The other thing is: You feel if you write a dance track, each dance track has to be a giant leap forward into the future. You’ve got to reinvent yourself. You also feel that you’ve got to reinvent music, or I feel like you’ve got to reinvent music and come up with something totally fresh. It’s hard enough to write a song, anyway—it’s a really challenging thing to write a good song. But to feel that you’ve got to reinvent the sound of dance music at the same time is virtually impossible. I must admit that I’m a bit scared of it at the moment.


And you only feel that way with dance music—that you must reinvent yourself. You don’t feel that way when making other styles of music?


Yeah. If you write a guitar track, you can write a good song. You can get away with writing a good song. With dance music, you’ve got the problem of genre—whether you fit into that genre and if there’s any way that you can give a fresh [sound].


It’s kind of fascinating that you only think that way when it comes to electronic music.


I guess, looking at the background I come from, when we started making tracks like “Temptation,” “Everything’s Gone Green,” “Blue Monday,” the electronic music was completely fresh and completely new ... When I started making electronic dance music, it wasn’t like it hasn’t been done before, but you could count on one hand the number of artists that were making that kind of music. So I guess that left me with a feel that if I make an electronic record, it has to be some sort of pioneering work like it was then. [Pause] You’re really getting into my head with these questions. 


You know, I can see that, especially now where most of the mainstream is electronic-driven. It feels very generic. I think there’s very few people in the electronic scene who standout. 


I think, as well, I need a break from it. I needed to make an entire record to give me a break from it and re-whet my appetite. You know, looking at New Order and the dance tracks we’ve made, my favorite one is “Temptation” and we’re still playing that live. That one’s a real mixture of guitars and dance rhythms and synthesizers. I got the feeling as well that when you make an electro-pop record and doing the synth tracks, it’s very easy for it become very pop-y very quickly. I don’t really want to make tracks like that. I want to make tracks a little harder than that. 


Check back tomorrow for more from Bernard Sumner.

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