Under New Orders
More than a decade and a half after they first fell out of Manchester, New Order's most married couple are still at the nerve-centre of the band's activities. Helping them come to terms with it all - Phil Ward
A new label, a new producer and a new sound. Well, the name of the band is New Order, after all. In the wake of Republic, Phil Ward meets Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert, and discovers what else is new in their hi-tech retreat...
Of course the album reached Number One. How could anyone have doubted it? But in the midst of enormous changes last year, New Order had reason to approach the release of Republic with some trepidation. Factory Records had folded, and the finished product passed into the hands of a new regime, namely, London Records. This company's marketing campaign has completed New Order's inevitable progress into media-friendliness, painting over the blurred technical realities of hi-tech music making and presenting to the world the image of a traditional pop group - guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. Well, it worked.
Begun at the converted barn adjoining the hillside home of drummer Stephen Morris and keyboard player Gillian Gilbert, and completed at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios, the album itself represents still further alterations to the old order. Sitting in this barn today, Stephen can look back on developments with hindsight, and reveal why success was by no means a foregone conclusion.
"It's the first album we've done with a producer since we worked with Martin Hannett," he observes. Hannett, by the way, legendarily carved out the Joy Division sound in the late 70s, and last collaborated with New Order on their 1981 debut Movement.
"We decided beforehand that this time we'd get someone else in to sort it all out. The idea was that we wouldn't actually write songs, but just collect a series of riffs together and bang them into some kind of part A, part B, part C format - and do that for each idea. And that was how we started, up here, with Bernard and Peter coming round and knockin' out ideas. Sometimes Bernard would come round and just jam, but he's not really a big fan of jamming.
"At that stage, I wanted to try recording whole sections into ProTools, and construct the tracks in there. Unfortunately, that didn't entirely work out, but we did end up with 14 or 15 separate ideas on DAT - which we sent to Hague. He picked the ones he wanted to work on."
"Hague" is Stephen's affectionate term for producer Stephen Hague, whose production of Republic was not, in fact, the first encounter between them. In 1987, Hague's contribution to the single 'True Faith' helped it into the UK Top Five. But, eventual chart success notwithstanding, not all the sailing was plain...
"One aspect of this method which didn't work, unfortunately, was that initially Bernard had written all the lyrics before we went into the studio, which was a major achievement. But once there, it was New Order business as usual, with Bernard writing completely new songs instead of the ones he was supposed to be doing."
If the guitar-thrusting band image slightly wrong-footed the established New Order following, so did the relatively non-electronic sound which characterises most of the tracks on Republic.
"That was largely down to Hague," Stephen reveals, "who set out to 'do' a New Order album, as in a highly polished production number. That's something that New Order as producers never do; we normally like to leave a few spikes and things, and leave in lots of weird noises that have come up. Stephen's a very musical person, he's not really a weird sounds guy. But I'm not slagging you off, Stephen, honest...
"The thing you've got to remember about New Order is that you've always got things pinning it down, like, for a start, I played a lot of acoustic drums as usual, and there's always Hooky's bass, and these things make it sound less electronic. It wasn't like we were all writing together and trying to put together something like 'Blue Monday'. In fact, in a way we were trying to make it more musical, because I was getting a bit sick of the way 'techno' was going - sort of like the monster you've created getting out of control. So in spite of starting out from jamming, it is about songs, rather than being techno-bores. I mean, there's a couple of things on the album - like 'Chemical' - which are pretty techno-based, but the rest are straight songs, and Stephen's a songwriter himself so there wasn't that much experimentation like in the old days - you know, just plugging things in to see what would happen. It was much more, like, crafted.
"You still get that spirit of experimentation in some - but not all - techno music, and I've always felt that that's where the most interesting things in music happen. But when we started Republic it all seemed a bit stale, and to try and consciously do a dance album seemed like competing with ourselves. There was no point in making 'Technique 2'."
The 'band' image and the crafted sound perhaps also reflect the extent to which New Order are disillusioned with the design of hi-tech instruments. Stephen Morris is well placed to appraise developments; he's also well aware of the irony of a technology-based music industry falling out of love with technology.
"There's more technology than ever," he agrees, "but it's not as lovable somehow; it doesn't invite you to play with it like it used to. When synths had knobs on, you could just twiddle away and come up with something interesting. I suppose the start of that change was Yamaha's DX-7: to get sounds, you really had to know how it worked. You almost had to be a mathematician, and remember an absurd series of key presses. It's kind of like working on a PC compared with working on a Mac: they both do the same thing, but only one's user-friendly.
"The only real step forward - or is it a step back? - is the Roland JD-800. But it isn't really a synth, it's a sample player. There are no oscillators in it. It does have knobs, though. I mean, Gillian's all-time favourite keyboard, this Kurzweil K2000, has got oscillators, it is a sampler, it does everything you could ever wish a synth to do. It's the equivalent of one of those monster Moog things. But look at it! Is it sexy? No, it looks terrible..."
"I think it's sexy," says Gillian, who has appeared with a welcome basketful of beers. You suddenly remember that this is where they actually live. There proceeds a domestic discussion on the Kurzweil's relative merits.
"This is the actual keyboard that Music Technology slagged us off for grabbing first," Stephen accuses. Well, let's put the record straight. In our July 1992 issue, the review of the K2000 is prefaced by the following observation: "MT grabbed one for review only to find it had been sold to New Order..." Hardly a slagging, really. Anyway, we got hold of one in the end and were very favourable towards it - especially given the dearth of genuinely new synths at that time and since.
"You can do great things with it," admits Stephen, "but you've got to know what you want it to do. I mean, there's things in there that can be found like you're walking around in a library!"
"Have you mentioned the intonations yet?" asks Gillian.
"No, we've not done the intonation yet."
"Let's not tell him about it! It's a secret..."
I feel as though I'm eavesdropping. Well, I am, really...
"There's this intonation thing," Gillian continues. "You can put your sequence through, from the computer, and just skip through them. It's brilliant; you can end up with these really weird chords."
"The only way to get past Gillian's depth of experimentation," says Stephen, "is by superimposing two kinds of intonation on each other, which is what we did in 'Avalanche'. Some bits are in Equal intonation, and some bits are in Pythagorean."
Stephen is more enthusiastic about the idea of digital modelling as a way forward in synthesis, and recalls MT's interview with Wendy Carlos (June 1993) in which she describes computer programs which analyse acoustics with such power as to create virtual instruments. He also remembers further back than that...
"There was kind of a buzzword in Music Technology about 18 months or a year ago - this whole concept of re-synthesis, which seems quite fascinating, the concept is great. The idea is that you can get any sound and muck about with it. Didn't Zyklus do a re-synthesiser thing which had sliders for every harmonic on it? Now there's something like that in this Kurzweil somewhere. I've seen it once..."
But you can't find it again...
"No, I can't find it again! There's just page after page. There's one bit in it where you've got modulators, but it's not an obvious thing to use. Bernard just uses a T3 for the same thing. You're not really going to modify the sound greatly, all you're doing is taking a bit of top off it and putting a bit more release on it. There isn't any real modulation."
"What about the disk?" demands Gillian. "You know, it asks you if you want to save the sequence and you say 'yes', and then it asks if you're sure, and you say 'yes', then it asks again - and the truth is you really don't know. There's so many steps, by the time you reach the last prompt you've forgotten what you're doing."
"You have to say 'yes' about five times," confirms Stephen. "Imagine going all the way through to the last step, and then saying, oh all right then, 'no'!
"I've lifted the top off the thing and looked inside it. There's nothing inside it, absolutely nothing, just one board. At a recent NAMM show, they had one on a card for a Mac - which made a lot more sense to me, really, even though I'm not really a big fan of computer graphic editors running at the same time as a sequencer. It all seems to me to be asking for trouble. Stuff like OMS, the Opcode Music System, and Unison, the Mac Unicorn one - they always seem to be inviting disaster to me. I just don't trust them - but at least you can see what's going on, you can manipulate it in real time. Either that, or put a load of bloody knobs on it! Mind you, it'd probably be about three quarters of a mile long..."
Let's face it, it's a computer with the wrong kind of keyboard and no monitor. The analogue revival starts here...
"Someone was telling us about an analogue sequencer, God knows what it is, it's been handmade by these German people..." That would be the Doepfer MAQ 16/3, Stephen. "I can understand it. It's kind of a reaction. Nobody's really doing anything about it, not really. Take the JD-800. It's OK, like a computer halfway house thing, and then they immediately ditched the loads-of-knobs idea and went straight back to one knob and four buttons. It's quite sad. I mean, you can't beat a Juno for coming up with quick sounds."
Nobody's doing anything about it because the home keyboard market is booming...
"And these are the sort of people who aren't really bothered with experimentation. All the research and development is going into ways in which people can play Richard Clayderman tunes. And also, I've noticed that the sale of guitars and drums has actually gone up - which is a good sign, but I'm a firm believer that these things come in cycles. It's a shame, but you just get fed up with something and you go back to doing something else. You always go the opposite way. You never say, I could get a guitar, but I could use it differently. Yeah, I could do techno music - but on proper instruments. Or, if I used loads of synths, I could make it sound different. It's always a complete reaction."
Fundamentally, instruments suggest their own music. Once you've chosen the tools of your trade, you've usually already chosen the style you're going to play. It takes a lot of will to actually break through that barrier and do something else. The music industry that was once based on the synthesiser was a pioneering industry, because they were the pioneering instruments. Today, New Order, at least, are going through a cycle away from progressive musical electronics, hence an album that doesn't sound very electronic. How and when the cycle will continue, who knows? In the meantime, recording projects continue - at Peter Hook's Suite 16 studio in Rochdale, chez Barney, and in Stephen and Gillian's beauteous barn.
"Yes, everyone's back doing their solo projects. Except me and Gillian aren't really 'back' - we're finally getting ours out. I mean, the whole of the last 18 months, recording Republic, there's been a real upheaval in our way of life, both as New Order and as The Other Two. We've had the record company go bust; we've had to find a new label; and we've had an album put on the shelf for God knows how long. It's all been... not the best of circumstances. It's surprising we're as happy as we are. Glad to be out of it, though..."
Is life settling down now, new label and all that? "Yeah. I still think they're going to impose a certain 'London-ness' on us, but they still want us to be the same. I don't quite know how we can do that."
Am I right in suspecting that "a certain London-ness" corresponds with Steven Hague's idea of how to make a record?
"It's like, the first question they ask is 'who's a good remixer?' Whereas before, all the remix ideas came from us, or from records we'd heard. And with video, they tend to use conventional video directors. The thing that characterised a lot of the New Order videos was the fact that a lot of them were done by people who weren't video makers - like Jonathan Demme, who did 'Perfect Kiss', and Robert Longow who did 'Bizarre Love Triangle'. People like that, who I don't think London would go for. Making a video is a gamble at the best of times, but to go with someone who isn't a professional is inviting disaster. We were very lucky with our videos."
Perhaps not just lucky. Stephen is developing an interest in desktop video himself, both as a natural extension of his interest in technology and as a means of retaining control over the image of his band.
"Before, it was a case of getting this guy Michael Schomberg in New York, who is a friend of ours who works in film and television, to come up with ideas. He'd give us ideas and he'd suggest people to do a video with before we needed to do one.
Now, we do a record and then sit there and watch loads of showreels - you know, 'not seen that before, let's go for that'. But video is something I'm personally interested in - hence this thing here..." He gestures towards an imposing Mac. "The multimedia bandwagon steams on! What I've got here is my video suite...
"This is a Quadra 950 with VideoVision, and Adobe Premier version 3 - not yet available in this country, I hasten to add. I like video editing and I like the concept of this thing. It's nearly the same as using ProTools in that you're basically sampling video. Although, the word 'multimedia', to me, seems to imply something that's not as good as the real thing. It's like a botch-up of everything. But this software has really come on, from a little window to full-screen, full-motion video.
"One of the ways it works is that you could theoretically be doing your video at the same time as you were writing your song. Or write a video in the same way you do a song."
"We want to do our own video for each song," reveals Gillian. "We don't want to be like just a normal band when we're playing live, we want to use video projections. This should enable us to do our own story for each song."
Do you forsee that you would use actual footage rather than just graphics, giving you real subject matter rather than purely psychedelic effects?
"A bit of both really," Stephen replies. "It would be dead easy just to do stuff that was psychedelic, but a bit of a waste to use this as the equivalent of a liquid wheel. There's a new version of ProTools that I got through the post this morning, that has actually got the facility for grabbing video in QuickTime, which means that someone else is thinking along the same lines as me. With this particular version of Premier, I've only just scratched the surface and there's something like 99 tracks of audio. I can't see how you can manage to use up all that as well as umpteen tracks of video.
"What's important is the way that this sort of technology is coming down in price, because what we're looking at here is the equivalent of Avid [a Mac-based, professional video editing system] - big boy stuff. And the fact that you can do it on this sort of machine. You can see that in a year's time you'll be doing it on rinky, dinky little machines."
For Stephen, multimedia doesn't necessarily help in the writing of pop songs, but his professional soundtrack experience (he and Gillian wrote and produced the theme music for BBC TV's Making Out and Reportage) has already begun to change at least some of his attitudes to the invention of music.
"I suppose, really, we kind of got tucked into finding out the nuts and bolts of video through writing stuff for TV. It's surprising what a difference it makes when you've got an image on the screen and someone's told you to write a bit of music to go with it. Normally when you write a song, you do it by plucking something out of thin air - which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. But with this technology, it doesn't have to be anything special, you can just grab a bit off the telly and make some music to go with it. It's your idea that counts, you can discard the video if you want once you've got your stuff done. It's another way of doing it."
The watchword is control. Like many others steeped in a sort of hi-tech tradition, Stephen Morris is monitoring technology as it develops and more than anything else is keen to keep both hands on the wheel. Or rather, the mouse. He's also in a band that has to make records and videos. And, he says, "If you've got to do that, you might as well find out what it's all about instead of just leaving it to other people." Quite how this affects New Order, only time will tell. In the meantime, isn't it exciting how the technology is empowering the musician in these other areas, Stephen?
"Yes, it is exciting. But it's bloody expensive, though."
Interview by Phil Ward
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!