Leslie Bunder talks to Steve Morris from top Indie band New Order
Leslie Bunder talks to Steve Morris Drummer with top indie band New Order about the effect computers have had on him and the group's music
When people start reflecting on the music of the 1980s, one group likely to crop up in a long conversation will be New Order. New Order have come a long way since their formation in 1981. It is also along this road to success that New Order drummer Steve Morris has picked up a number of computers to add to his ever increasing collection of techie music gadgets. From a ZX-81, through to an Atari ST and more recently an Apple Mac IIx, Steve has taken a very keen interest in computer technology and the contribution it offers to music. Steve's first hands on experience with a micro was the ZX-81, he reflected on what happened, 'After ordering it, I waited months for it to arrive. Eventually, it tumbled through the door, and I thought 'Oh great I can use this as a sequencer, synthesizer and for videos'. I had loads of plans for it. Then I took it out of the box, read the manual and discovered you really can't do too much with 1k of memory.'
Since their formation in Manchester, at around the time Sir Clive Sinclair announced the release of the ZX-81, New Order have gone from strength to strength. They have notched up a number of top 10 hits worldwide, play sell out concerts everywhere they go and have one of the most diverse fan followings around. Anorak clad bespectacled students will often have heated debates on the social and intellectual merits of a New Order song and try to understand the 'deep meaning of it all'. Whilst on the other end of the spectrum, trendy clubbers will be busy getting on down to the pumping funky bass, thumping drum beats and pulsating synth riffs of New Order records coming from the DJ's turntables.
It is the New Order dance sound which has come to influence many of the house record songs emerging from Chicago, Detroit, New York, Rome and London. Listen to their all time dance classic Blue Monday, and see for yourself how those synth, bass and drum patterns appear on other people's records.
With much dance music of the 1980s being electro based, it is hardly surprising to find Steve Morris' house loft to be full of techie gear. From samplers and synthesizers to videos and computers, Steve's loft is like a musicians dream. Taking pride and place in the loft is an Apple Mac IIx, which is a long way from those monochrome display days of the ZX-81. The Mac, is Steve's latest in the Apple range of computers he has owned. 'Before the Mac and after the ZX-81, I got myself an Apple II Europlus and started to explore it to see what I could do with it I was hoping someone would write some software before I had to. I got a bit disillusioned with it at the level of messing about and writing little routines in code which never really worked anyway, even though I had a debugger.' Steve remembered.
With the Apple, Steve's main concern was trying to get it to operate as a sequencer, 'I was trying to write a sequencing program which was easy to understand because at that time, all the sequencers you could get were very archaic. We used the Prophet Poly sequencer. You entered notes and clicks and you had to remember exactly how many clicks you put in. If you put in one too many your whole thing was completely knackered. You might have just put in eight minutes of music and the only way you could edit it was to put it in again! We did that many a time.
Basically I was trying to write a sequencer and it got as far as sending an ASCII character to an Emulator 1 and I could get it to play a note, but I couldn't stop it. It just played this note forever, so you had to switch everything off.'
So Steve gave up trying to use the Apple as a sequencer and bought a dedicated sequencer instead, the QX-1. 'It was alright for the time really. It was just an 8-bit thing. The clever thing that it did was its disc drive was in use all the time. I'm not quite sure how much memory it had, but it didn't have very much because when it played a long song, it would load in the first so many bars and as it got to the end of its buffer, it loaded the rest in. So the disk drive was a bit of a dodgy area on them, which was the thing that killed them in the end.'
Later on in the development of New Order, came two new micros, an Atari ST and an Apple Mac. Steve explained, 'I got the Apple Mac because I loved the way it worked. Mice or mouse or whatever you want to call them are a great invention. I had a go on a PC and just could not get my head around them, remembering all these stupid commands which are so abstract. I was quite drawn to the Hewlett-Packard touchscreen computers at one time, which everyone in the city had. It seemed like a wonderful idea, but your screen would be smudged with peoples fingerprints. I got the ST indirectly. I bought these Akai samplers and needed a hard disk with them. The only hard disks at the time were Atari SH-20S or Supras (which are for Ataris) but they had to be formatted on an ST, so I got an ST FM pack with $200 worth of free games. I've not really gone for the ST because I don't like the mouse, compared to the Mac it's like a dinky toy and a bit cumbersome. I should have got an RGB monitor for it. It's hopeless when you put it through the telly, the games are great but the display on music packages is so intricate that you really need a monitor.'
Steve is very much committed to his Mac and quite keen on following future developments of the Mac. 'What I like about what is going to happen with the Mac, is the System 7 where you get virtual RAM. You can use more programs than you've got memory for by keeping a lot of it on hard disk. The MIDI management side of it looks very interesting.'
Another area where the Mac comes in useful for Steve and which he demonstrated to me is in sampling. Linking up the Mac to a keyboard and a compact disc player, Steve proceeded by sampling some break beats off the De La Soul album Three Feet and Rising. Steve said, 'Over the years, we've had a battery of different synthesizers and different noise making things. If you are going to go on the road with all that equipment, much of it is unreliable, old and you would need to take thousands of synths with you. The obvious thing to do is sample them. There are two programs Sound Designer and Alchemy which we use. The Mac is a central 16-bit 44.1 KHz sampler and then we port it out to whatever is available.'
With New Order's use of computers, have they become dependent on them?
'Computers are important, but they're not as important as people. Having the ideas is more important. People think it's dead easy doing it with computers, when actually it's not. They're tools really, not musical instruments. I think they should be looked upon as an aid - to help you get your ideas down quickly. The trouble with many sequencers is that they're so fiddly. By the time you put it in the right mode, you've forgotten your original idea, so I tend to use the computer as a note pad.'
Have New Order ever thought of doing a non-techno album, devoid of synths and computers?
'On our last album, Technique, Loveless and a few other tracks were played live in the studio and we were using the computer just to polish up the sound. They weren't interfering with the music. On other songs we used the computer to write and arrange on. The computer allows us to chop and change without committing to anything.'
So what does Steve consider to be the main advantages and disadvantages of using micros in music?
'Ideally it is quick and flexible. You can change things and try different arrangements. You can do all these things at home with very basic equipment. When you have your song completed, you can then go into a studio, press the 'go' button and there you have your sounds. It saves a lot of time and money. The disadvantage is that it becomes a pain. It's not infallible. It's very easy for a computer to make things sound very robotic and unvaried. But at the end of the day, a person hears a drum machine and a drummer and the average man in the street couldn't care less. They can't tell the difference.'
With Steve having had experience of playing both drums live and also on a drum machine, which form of drumming does he prefer?
'I have found you can do yourself considerable physical damage as a result of playing live drums, as I have just recovered from a back injury. I've injured a few drum machines, but I've never injured myself programming one. I do like playing live drums. In an ideal world it would be a balance between the two, where you could program your percussion parts or whatever on your drum machine and play your drum riff, or program your drum riff and play the percussion parts.'
Steve reflected on old drum machines. 'The only two which have got possible timeless quality are the Roland Bosa Nova and an 808 which are not drum machines but were trying. Those sort of things are interesting. The early sounds you thought were so fantastic like Linns and DMX's now seem a bit stupid because they are 8-bit. The thing with drums, is that you need stuff that cooks. You are only going to get that when you start using 16 bit. You get a realistic sampling rate otherwise you're over emphasizing it with your EQ.'
Even though Steve is a great Mac fan, he wouldn't consider taking it on the road with him. 'Until the Mac laptop comes out fully, there'll be no Macs on stage. I've never been into the idea of having computer and monitors on stage. When we did the album Brotherhood we thought about getting a Fairlight so we borrowed one for a bit - but even at that time it was overpriced. We then had a look at a Synclavier but it was too big. I think the things you need when you are writing songs and when you are performing are separate entities.'
With both a Mac laptop and an Atari portable ST both out, is Steve interested in them?
'Yeah possibly. I'm into new things and I'm a real gimmick fanatic. As soon as something new comes out I like to look at it and see what is does. That's one of New Order's philosophies, like Blue Monday was written by us when we got our first proper sequencer and drum machine. It was written as a lesson on how it works.'
With many companies working on Artificial Intelligence, does Steve feel that this will involve music?
'I think it is a bit too complicated. Music involves being creative and I don't know if computers can ever be programmed to be creative. There is a human element in making music.'
When Steve is not in the studio or travelling the world with New Order, he likes nothing better to relax to than playing a computer game. 'I'm one of those people who walks into the motorway services and is drawn into the corner full of video games machines and start playing. I really like Operation Wolf. On the Mac, I like the Harrier simulator, particularly on the IIx, because I had the IIe before and was pleased to find that it flies twice as fast on the IIx, so it's impossible to fly - but I do like it.'
Is Steve concerned about the growing violence in computer games?
'Yes I am. I always remember when Kraftwerk were asked on their last and only tour of this country what they thought of computers. They said they don't cause violence and are here to bring the people of the world together. I think it's in human nature that people find these things fascinating.'
Quite a bit of new Order's music has appeared on film soundtracks such as Bright Lights, Big City, Pretty In Pink and Empire State. Would Steve like to do the music soundtrack for a computer game?
'Nobody has. But I havn't really given it much thought after the Journey game was released, where you have to escape from the dressing room. That really put me off. It's an interesting idea. It would be quite good to do something different every time you play the game. The one thing I would quite like to do is re-mix a New Order song to get rid of these seemingly endless remixes. To put out a sampled eight tracks then you can make your own song out of them.'
So, is Steve surprised when a new order riff appears on somebody else's dance record?
'Yes it does. It never ceases to amaze me where we can crop up. In our last tour we had a load of house tapes and we played spot the riff. There's a bit of Confusion, there's a bit of The Perfect Kiss and there's a bit of Murder. It's quite interesting to see which New Order records people decide to sample. Occasionally I think I'll have a go at that then, which is what I started doing the other day with the nicking bits of CD. It's not really for me doing that sort of approach. I can understand how it works with people like De La Soul, where basically you're using a backing track off a record.'
So is Steve flattered, insulted or what, when someone decides to sample a New Order riff?
'It's interesting how people have used your music in a different way.'
Going back to the club scene, New Order have had considerable influence on much of what is currently being recorded. How does Steve account for this, what influence does a Mancunian based band have over the worlds hippest dance music producers. Steve explained, 'I really don't know. Possibly because we're into that sort of thing anyway. We go out to clubs and are aware of what is happening on the dance scene. I have said this many a time before, in contemporary music at the moment, dance music is the only area in which there is any sort of progress being made. Everything else is rehashes of the 50s, or the 60s or Glen Miller. They're just rehashing the past. There are still things happening, they are still new ideas. What's going to happen now is that those new ideas will become the mainstream, which is happening already to the 'house' sound.'
In the past, New Order has used an Apple II in the production of promo videos. 'It was very Mickey Mouse. It was just these coloured blobs and we used a video digitiser. That was for the original Blue Monday. It was just a cheap experiment and something I am interested in with good computer graphics. We also had a bit of Zaxxon in Blue Monday, in the scene where you get to shoot the Robot at the end.'
Both the New Order albums Power, Corruption and Lies and the single Blue Monday featured computer influenced sleeves. 'Both were based around floppy discs. With Blue Monday there were holes cut in it as well. We soon stopped doing the disc based sleeves as we were losing about 4p on every one sold. Since then we haven't done any obvious computer based artwork.'
Aside from making music with New order, what music excited Steve?
'I think house music, but everything is now classified as house. Occasionally, I pick out a record at random and listen to it. But I'm still recovering from our last tour and the last thing you want to do is listen to music.'
Reflecting on the media image New order played up in the past as being depressed young people from Manchester, has this now changed?
'I don't think we've changed that much. Maybe we have become a bit more confident. The way the audience has changed has surprised us. The audience, generally has got younger as we've got older which we feel is a very positive thing.'
As New Order start preparing for their future in the 1990s, they have already shown they are well clued up. With Steve showing and more importantly, knowing about computers, New Order will be in the forefront for music of the 1990s. How far New Order go in the 90s is anybody's guess, one thing for certain, New Order still have a lot more to offer the music industry and their fresh, often bold and exciting ideas show no sign of drying up. New Order have both the potential and ability to make it as one of the supergroups for the 1990s. The journey, for New Order at least, has only just begun.
Interview by Leslie Bunder
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