Eight years and five albums into their career, New Order are enjoying new-found commercial success, Stephen Morris talks about old songs, changing technology and the Brit awards.
THERE IS A brief half an hour left until our scheduled 11.45 rendezvous with New Order drummer Stephen Morris. Our destination is Macclesfield and panic is just beginning to set in - we are approximately 80 miles south of the target. A mishap driving through Derby (the first time) was all it took. The right road but in the wrong direction. It could have happened to anyone.
Despite our arrival an hour later than scheduled, Morris is in high spirits. We follow him to the house he shares with keyboard player Gillian Gilbert. Once inside we are given a preview of a test pressing of Technique, the fifth studio album to be released by New Order. It was recorded last summer in Ibiza, much of it actually in the open air, before being mixed at Peter Gabriel's Real World studios in Bath in the autumn. It is the band's most obviously commercial work to date, sounding more optimistic than previous albums.
New Order have moved on from the days of 'Blue Monday'. They have learned how to write coherent albums, their songs have been reduced from eight minutes to four. As a result they now get playlisted for daytime radio. At the same time the band have managed to maintain their credibility, building up a huge international following.
The history of New Order is well documented. Formed from the ashes of Joy Division by Morris with Barney Albrecht and Peter Hook (handling vocals and bass respectively), they were joined on keyboards by Gillian Gilbert. Their sound has developed in line with advancements in technology, yet surprisingly it is the drummer who seems the most technologically aware.
"Playing drums is basically a very repetitive operation", Morris explains, sipping his Earl Grey. "If you're a drummer you're just doing the same things over and over again, and a lot of it is best left to a machine. Then you can do some of the more interesting bits yourself. I also always wanted to have access to a wide range of sounds, because with conventional drum kits you're stuck with one. As soon as the first little programmable drum machine, the little Boss Dr Rhythm, came out, I grabbed it. When I first got it I chucked the manual away, assumed you just had to tap your rhythm in and was disappointed to realise it didn't work like that.'
Nowadays Morris has taken drum machine programming very much to heart. One of the most famous bass drum riffs of all time opened 'Blue Monday'. That was programmed on an Oberheim DMX. More recently Morris has acquired a Roland R8.
"Lovely machine, lovely machine...", he enthuses. "I used to have a Yamaha RX5 but that was stolen. When I went out to get a replacement I walked into a music shop and saw the R8. It looked like it was covered in fuzzy felt which I thought was a good gimmick for a start. I've not yet completely got to grips with its Human Rhythm Composer title, but it's an interesting box with good sounds. I wish Roland would bring out 808 and 909 cards for it. The thing that I liked about the R8 was that someone was putting out a drum machine with the specific idea that it shouldn't sound like a drum machine. Even putting very subtle variations in can make it harder to detect as a machine."
All the songs on Technique were played live on a drum kit, with samples replacing the kit sounds once the basic drum track had been recorded.
"We took the drums into loads of different rooms in the studio, whacked them and recorded them onto DAT". comes the explanation. "We sampled the best sounds into Mike Johnson's Greengate and then we recorded the drums that were on tape into the Master Tracks sequencing program on a Mac using a Syco PSP. It was the first time I've managed to get one of those to work. I've tried triggering it off tape before but never with any success. I always got a delay, but once it's recorded onto a sequencer track and you know what that delay is, you can move everything back so it all lines up. We didn't quantise it that much, we just kept the feel and replaced it with our wazzo drum sounds."
Occasional drum patterns are also worked out on an Apple Macintosh with the aid of Intelligent Music's Upbeat software. Although primarily designed for drum programming, Morris also uses it for writing sequences - especially basslines.
"I love the fact that it's so interactive", he enthuses. "It's like a massive TR808 really, because everything you put into it gets automatically quantised, and there's no way to turn it off. I generally save sequences from it as a MIDI File and load it into Master Tracks for humanisation. The Mac has become increasingly important to us as a songwriting tool. Not quite 50% of this album was written through jamming for ages and picking up on bits we wanted to work on. The rest started out as ideas that someone had got which we then all worked on with the Mac. The great thing about a program like Upbeat is that it's dead easy for anybody to knock out an ace drum riff. It's equally as easy to come up with a wazzing bassline, whereas I couldn't sit down in a practice room and come out with an ace keyboard riff because I'm not really a very good keyboard player. I'm not even that good a drummer I suppose, now you come to mention it."
WHEN NEW ORDER were last interviewed in E&MM (March 1985), they spoke of their love for a pair of Voyetra eight-voice rack-mounted synthesisers. While the company that made them, New York based Octave-Plateau, has mutated into Voyetra Software, the former mainstays of the New Order synthesiser lineup have remained intact ... but only just.
"They're still alive and kicking . . . but very bruised", comments Morris. "They've each developed their own particular little quirks. Modulation's been spontaneously induced in one of them which is a bit embarrassing when you actually go on stage, you get a lot of dirty looks.
"The main problem with them is Voyetra themselves. They're very helpful but they've given up repairing them, and basically you're stuck with a somewhat redundant piece of equipment which is very hard to replace.
"Every time you get a piece of equipment you've got to bear in mind that you've got a back-catalogue of sounds to recreate."
"We're thinking about sampling the basic sounds into Emulator IIIs and then using the EIIIs to get the creative variations that we use. It's a big job really. Every time you get a piece of equipment you've got to bear in mind that you've got a back-catalogue of sounds to recreate. The obvious solution would be to sample them, but it's not as easy as it sounds."
The current New Order armoury is based around four Akai S900s and two Emulator IIs. But not for long.
"The EIIs are going, I'm afraid. They've got this annoying habit of working fine until you want them to and then they don't. We're going to France in the next couple of days and I've had an EII here. It crashed twice in the set at the G-Mex concert last month which was slightly embarrassing. But it worked fine here until the day before it was supposed to go, and then it got really noisy, the buttons stopped working, the bottom disk drive stopped working. It knows these things know!
"We've just replaced the QX1s that we've been using ever since they came out. They were very reliable until just recently when they all went at the same time - the disk drives stopped working, and the displays went on both of them. We decided to hire one and that one broke as well. I'd never seen a broken QX1 before, but the other day I went into a shop and people were bringing them in in droves. I reckon Yamaha are putting a little bit of software like a virus into them that makes it commit Hara Kiri after five years, so you've got to go out and buy a new one. If they all had different things wrong with them I could understand it. I reckon it's a conspiracy.
"The same thing with EIIs, they lasted very well until the EIII came out. How do they know? The S900s are still there, they've seen an S950 but they still carry on working. They've not seen an S1000 yet, I'd like to see what effect that has on them."
The band bought an Emulator III while they were in the studio, but look likely to replace their Emulator IIs with Akai S1000s.
"The idea behind getting the EIII was that we could sample everything 16-bit, store it in the Mac, and then, if necessary, degrade it slightly to whatever samplers we bought. The weird thing we found with the Akais was that if you sampled into the Emulator which is 8-bit and then transferred it into a 12-bit Akai it sounded better then if it was sampled directly onto the Akai. Another suspicious thing."
NEW ORDER GIGS have a reputation for being joyously shambolic. A nationwide tour seems as far away as ever, but the band have recently returned from a visit to Brazil where, much to their amusement, they are regarded as megastars. Playing live does seem important to Morris, but the size and nature of New Order's following creates serious practical problems.
"It would be nice to do a full tour but at the moment it looks like we are just going to be playing two big gigs, one at the NEC and one at the SEC. We prefer playing small club-type places, but a lot of kids can't get in because of the licensing laws and people have problems if they can't get buses home. We get a lot of letters from people about seeing us live, so just this once we've decided to do big gigs.
"I don't like touring that much. Eight or ten dates is about the most i can do without feeling myself turning into a bit of a robot. We do different sets every night but there are only so many different permutations, and the whole process of touring is very repetitive. Usually live I would play to a click track. Unfortunately I must be really deaf because I have to have it so incredibly loud that everybody else can hear it and they all start playing as though they are wooden. We tried a Human Clock out the other day but it expired very rapidly. That's the sort of thing I'd like to get into - something to play live to without having to worry very much about this woodpecker taking the top off my head on every beat."
Surprisingly, New Order rarely play 'Blue Monday' now - to many fans disappointment.
"Sometimes we play it because we fancy playing it, but most of the time we're just too sick to death of it. It's down to who decides - do you let the audience dictate to you or the other way round? We've got loads of songs as good as, if not better than 'Blue Monday', it's just like a catchphrase really and I think that's awful. I would be disappointed if I went to see a band and they didn't do my favourite song. but I'd like to think I could understand why they didn't do it."
"Awards don't mean anything really; the BPI award was buggered when we got it - it had one prong broken off it and New Order was spelt wrong."
Away from the more conventional aspects of the pop world, New Order have recently been earning some cash on the side working on the soundtrack for the BBC comedy/drama Making Out. As well as the opening and closing themes, they have also been responsible for all of the incidental music.
"The producer turned up about 18 months ago and we agreed to do it because it seemed an interesting project. We didn't hear any more until we got to Ibiza. Then scripts started turning up, followed by videos and then deadlines. We did it in parallel with work on the album, and that's why a version of 'Vanishing Point', one of the album tracks, is the theme tune.
"I quite like working to picture. In a band you tend to write music on fours and eights, but when you're doing stuff to picture it's threes, two and a halfs, sixes, sevens. If you listen to it on its own it doesn't make much sense, but if you're watching it on screen it does."
While Morris generally seems to have enjoyed the project, one brief from the producer caused more problems than most.
"They wanted us to play the organ for a wedding march and the bridal chorus, so we went out and got the sheet music", he recalls. "I can only read music a little bit, and the rest of it is baffling to me. I cheated really, because I laboriously entered every note into a sequencer. It was quite an interesting experiment to work on a piece of music when you know how it sounds but you don't know how to play it.
"It's amazing how difficult it was to get a really rotten organ sound that sounded convincing. D50s are only eight-note polyphonic, whereas on an actual organ you've got one note for every key, and you've got bass pedals as well. When we put the full music in, notes were being dropped and half of it disappeared. In the end we had to edit the music to fit the limitations of the synthesisers. It took ages, but you'd scarcely notice it on the programme."
BY THE TIME you read this interview New Order hope to be working with Michael Powell, "a famous but ageing film director" who the band had approached with the intention of doing a video.
"He came back to us with a specific idea which I can't tell you about because it'll spoil the surprise", says Morris, mysteriously. "We're going to base it all on a poem, so we're going to get someone to read it at various tempos, and then write the music and make the video at the same time. It's not a video to promote anything, and it's not a commercial venture in any sense of the term. There's no way it's ever going to make any money, we just wanted to work with him.
"I was saying the other day. Try and imagine the world without music video. If there were no video and radio, how on earth would people sell records? Most videos are just an advert for the song whereas this Michael Powell project is an anti-video, it's not an advert for the record, it's a film.
"We were very pleased when we won the BPI award for the 'True Faith' video, but awards don't mean bloody anything really. They're something nice to stick on your mantelpiece, but that one was buggered when we got it anyway. It had one prong broken off it, New Order was spelt wrong and they'd got the title of the record down as 'True Face'. It was a complete farce they didn't even know we were there. Everybody else were in little boxes and we were sat with the punters, and we didn't know what to do."
Although New Order are generally independent in their work, the award-winning 'True Faith' video demonstrated their ability to profit from a liason with another artist. On the musical side, the band have tried working with several different producers and remixers - 'Round And Round', their new single, has been remixed by both Inner City's Kevin Saunderson and 'True Faith' producer, Stephen Hague.
"It would have been pointless us doing the remix because we've already done the best we could do with it", Morris explains. "Shep Pettibone originally got involved at the record company's suggestion but we liked what he did to 'Bizarre Love Triangle' so we got him to do the remix of 'True Faith'. We worked with Arthur Baker because we'd heard 'Planet Rock' and other stuff he had done which we thought was interesting.
"In a band you tend to write music on fours and eights, but when you write to picture it's threes, two and a halfs, sixes, sevens. On its own it doesn't make much sense, but if you're watching it on screen it does."
"If you stick in your own little world of writing songs and producing yourself, you reach a point from where you never get an further. If you work with someone else, however traumatic the process may be, they've got a way of working which is going to be a bit different to yours. It may result in a clash or it may result in perfect harmony but either way you come away with a lot of new experiences that you can employ yourself in the future.
"The 'Blue Monday' 1988 remix as just an attempt to try to get Quincy Jones off his arse and do something. We're signed to his label in America, and he kept saying he wanted a remix, so we told him he could have one if he did it."
When Stephen Hague was called in for 'True Faith' and '1963' the songs ended up being co-written by the producer.
"Most of the time we do work with producers it is a case of co-writing. With Stephen Hague we just had two very rough ideas. He wanted to do some pre-production, which we'd never done before, and which we didn't have time to do. So we just went into the studio for ten days with two ideas and wrote the whole songs from that. He has an interesting approach to the vocals - he wanted the vocals done early on so he could change the music around them. The music was just a backing to the vocal, whereas a lot of our songs are written so that the music stands up on its own before you put the vocals on, and occasionally you just get this wall of sound thing. Sometimes it must be really difficult for Barney to find any space, but Stephen Hague helped a lot. It was at the time when we were first getting into Macs. He'd got a Mac, so we got the sounds we wanted to use on our Mac and let him have them."
Indications within the industry point to the 3" CD single as the logical successor to 7" vinyl. Morris is horrified b the prospect.
"I think it's awful, a terrible thing. I can't get my head round that one at all. If sales are plummeting you should just release better singles. If you get rid of singles a lot of people won't be able to afford albums or CDs. There's something nice about a single, it's nostalgia I suppose. 'Blue Monday' was a 12"-only single, but that was how long the song was, and we thought we'd be compromising it a bit to edit it down. Only the edited version of 'Blue Monday' came out as a 7" and that was somewhat reluctantly. We'd never do a 7" version of the original. You can do a lot in a 12" mix that you can't do an a 7", but if you can get your ideas out in three or four minutes why spin it out to eight? 'Blue Monday' was structured as a long song. 'Fine Time' I prefer on 7" because it gets in there and straight to the point. There's a bit in the middle of the 12" where it drops down to the bass drum for far too long, but that's just how long we did it for when we did it, and we couldn't be bothered to change it."
THINGS COULDN'T REALLY be going better for New Order at the moment. They're more successful now than ever before, and with their new-found maturity in songwriting they've earned respect right across the music industry. The weekly music press has hailed the arrival of Technique as the highpoint in their career. Even Radio 1 and Top Of The Pops seem to like them - although many producers of TOTP have stumbled over the band's insistence on playing live. Morris has his own ideas about why the band are successful:
"We draw our influences from things that we like or are interested in. The area known as 'dance music' is the only area where anything interesting has been happening. Rock 'n' roll seems to have gone as far as anyone can take it. There isn't really anyone doing what Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were doing. There are loads of Velvet Undergound imitations knocking about. but there's nobody working in the same way that they, were. One thing that always annoyed me about Joy Division is that we did it, and instead of other people trying to do it but differently, they all copied us. The problem with the music business is that everyone wants a record to sound like the last No. 1 record.
"I don't think we influence people as much musically as Joy Division, because Joy Division started the Joy Division Syndrome. I think 'Blue Monday' was an influential record in that it was copied, for example by Divine with 'Love Reaction'. I think there's more to New Order than just dance music, there's also acoustic stuff that's more of a soundtrack type of thing. I think if New Order were just one thing, like an electro-dance group, we could be very influential, but it's the whole attitude, and even in a way the image."
That image used to be one of great mystery, of a band from Manchester who released doom-laden records and never did interviews. Nowadays it's all so different.
"I don't mind doing interviews, I'll talk to anyone", Morris reveals. "Usually I get picked on by Irish tramps in the street, I'm that sort of person. Out of a group of 20 they'll pick on me and start telling me their whole life story and I, like a fool, listen to them. I can't help it - 'Oh, yeah, you're alright mate, you and me against the world eh?'."
Very often when success takes a band away from its roots its values become distorted, and that very success sows the seeds of destruction. New Order are staying true to their beliefs and their origins. They have refused to play conventional music business games and seem to have carved their own enviable niche in the world of popular music. It's a technique that's served them well for the last ten years, but the real New Order has only just begun.