Order of the Day
why drummer stephen morris prefers programming computers to bashing skins
AFTER TEN YEARS OF FILLING THE DANCEFLOOR WITH SOME OF THE FRESHEST BEATS IN EUROPE, NEW ORDER SOUND AS ORIGINAL AS EVER. THEIR SLOGAN IS SIMPLE: STICK TO YOUR GUNS, NO MATTER WHAT PEOPLE SAY ABOUT YOU.
HERE'S A QUICK history question: what's round, black, and goes bam bam bababababababababam bam? Answer: 'Blue Monday' by New Order, the best-selling 12" single of all time.
In the six years since it made its chart debut, 'Blue Monday' - an indie electronic experiment turned Euro dance smash - has become a bit of a millstone around the band's collective neck. Yet in 1989 they are an established chart act, with countless hit singles to their credit (the last one was 'Fine Time'), currently enjoying a new peak of artistic, commercial and critical success.
They are determinedly independent - still signed to Manchester's Factory Records, and still defiantly refusing to play established record industry games like moving to London and smiling on 'Top Of The Pops'. Drummer Stephen Morris is keen to explain the band's actions.
"I don't think we are perceived on 'Top Of The Pops' as quite the same as everyone else", he says. "When people do 'Top Of The Pops' they behave in a certain sort of way. We were nearly chucked off when we did 'Fine Time'. As soon as you turn up and say you're playing live they say: 'Oh no you're not, there's some mistake there'. It's like chucking a spanner in the works, because they're not geared up for it.
"Every time we've been on the programme we've played live - even 'Fine Time' was live. Barney didn't want to go on and do 'Fine Time' because we were all a bit reluctant for it to be the single. We told our manager, Rob, that if it got in the charts he could do the rap vocal, because it's embarrassing. In the end the rap vocals were sequenced and it took a lot longer than it would have done if we'd actually mimed the thing. We had several problems, the main one being that our gear was stuck in Brazil, so we were faced with doing the show with no equipment, which was a bit awkward and which led to compromise... But nobody would own up to it. We get a lot of stick for seeming to be indifferent, but that's honest. If that's how you feel, what's the point of putting on a beaming smile and shaking everyone's hand and saying it's great to be here? It's totally insincere. I'd rather get slagged off for being indifferent because that's how I am. Take it or leave it."
The key to the New Order sound lies in the chemistry between the group's four individual members. It's a mix of chaos and experimentation that in recent years has resulted in some unique yet very commercial music.
In a band with a singer (Barney Albrecht), bassist (Peter Hook), and keyboard player (Gillian Gilbert), it is surprisingly the drummer, Morris, who has the keenest regard for equipment and technology. Sitting in his attic, surrounded by a wide assortment of computers, synthesizers and drum machines, he begins to explain why.
"Playing drums is basically a very repetitive operation: you're just doing the same things over and over again. A lot of it is best left to a machine because that's what machines are best at. I also wanted access to a wide range of sounds, because with conventional drum kits you're stuck with just the one. Keyboard players and guitarists can change the sound from one song to the next, and that seems like an unfair balance."
New Order's fifth album, the recently released 'Technique', was recorded in the surprisingly exotic location of Ibiza, before being mixed at Real World studios in Bath. It's the band's most consistent album to date, and entered the chart at number one in its week of release. It also marks a new approach to songwriting.
"DANCE MUSIC IS THE ONLY AREA WHERE ANYTHING INTERESTING HAS BEEN HAPPENING. ROCK 'N' ROLL SEEMS TO HAVE GONE AS FAR AS YOU CAN GO WITH IT."
"When we started work for this album it was really hard because it had been so long since we'd actually had to sit down and write", Morris explains. "It used to be a case of sitting round and jamming for ages, and picking out the bits we wanted to work on. Some of this album started out that way, but most of it stemmed from ideas that someone had got which we all then worked with on the Mac."
That phrase, "on the Mac", refers to the Apple Macintosh computer, which New Order have been using to help them make music. One of their favourite pieces of Mac music software is a program called Upbeat. It's basically a drum sequencer, but Stephen Morris has found applications for it outside the purely rhythmic domain.
"It's dead easy for anybody to knock out an ace drum riff, but it's just as easy to come up with a wazzing bassline as well", he says. "I can'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, now you come to mention it. I love the interactiveness of Upbeat, the way you can loop bars round and round and keep changing them.
"Upbeat is really like a massive TR808 drum machine in that it's very rigid. Everything you put into it has got an 808-type sound which is automatically quantised, and there's no way to turn it off, which can be a problem. To get round that I'd save the sequence as a MIDI file and then edit it on another program called MasterTracks, where it can be humanised much more effectively."
The drum tracks on 'Technique' were originally recorded live with a kit to create a feel, and then the sounds were replaced with samples.
"The original sounds were diabolical really, so we took the drums into loads of different rooms in the studio, whacked them, and recorded them onto DAT", says Stephen. "We then listened back to all the sounds we'd recorded, picked the best ones, and sampled them. Then we recorded the drums that were on tape into MasterTracks using a MIDI tape trigger. You always get a delay doing that, but because you're recording it into a sequencer, you can move everything back so it all lines up. Then we got the sequencer to play the samples, keeping the feel of the original track, but replacing it with our wazzo drum sounds."
Apart from the drum sounds, previous New Order records have made good use of two Octave-Plateau Voyetra synthesizers, big, obscure American machines that never really caught on in this country. Their analogue sounds are distinctive, but sadly the hardware is beginning to give up the chase, and they are now candidates for replacement. Finding a worthy successor has not been easy.
"We're thinking about getting an Emulator III and sampling the basic sounds, and then editing them to get the creative variations that we use", says Morris. "It's a big job really. Every time you get a new piece of equipment you've got to bear in mind that you've got a back catalogue to recreate. To replace the Voyetras the obvious thing is sampling, but it's never quite as easy as it sounds. I personally think it would be better getting a synth. Maybe you could possibly do it with a Roland D50, but there again, you would be very hard-pressed."
While the Voyetras are vintage instruments by today's standards, the rest of the New Order equipment line-up is impressively modern. For sampling the band have four Akai S900s, an Emulator III, and two Emulator IIs shortly to be replaced by Akai S1000s.
"I'm afraid the EIIs are going to have to go", Morris reveals. "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 ready to take with us. It crashed twice in the set at our recent G-Mex concert, which was slightly embarrassing. 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 just know!"
"IF YOU STICK IN YOUR OWN LITTLE WORLD OF WRITING SONGS AND PRODUCING YOURSELF, YOU REACH A POINT WHERE YOU NEVER GET ANY FURTHER."
As if to confirm their unusually detailed knowledge of how modern equipment works, New Order have produced 'Technique' all by themselves. But the band's new single, 'Round And Round', has been remixed by Inner City's Kevin Saunderson and Mark Moore of S'Express. This is not a new phenomenon. Previous New Order remix projects have involved people like Shep Pettibone and Steve 'Silk' Hurley. The band never remix their own songs, because they feel they only release them in the first place when they've taken them as far as they can go. Remix producers are normally suggested by the record company, but the band themselves welcome the outside contributions.
"If you stick in your own little world of writing songs and producing yourself, you reach a point where you never get any further", comments Stephen Morris. "If you work with someone else, however traumatic the process may be, they will have 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 you come away with a lot of new experiences that you can employ in the future.
"Most of the time we work with producers from scratch - and it's a case of co-writing. Certainly that was the situation when we worked with Stephen Hague on 'True Faith' and '1963'. 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 huge wall of sound. Sometimes it must be really difficult for Barney to find any space, so Stephen Hague helped a lot in that department."
Co-operation with others has also led to New Order making an unlikely debut in the world of TV soundtracks. Keen BBC1 viewers may have noticed the band's name cropping up in the closing credits of the Friday night comedy/drama 'Making Out'. In fact they composed all of the music for the series, the main theme being a version of 'Vanishing Point' from the new album.
"The producer turned up about 18 months ago and asked us if we wanted to do the music for his new TV series", Morris recalls. "We said yes because it sounded interesting, but we didn't hear any more until we got to Ibiza. Then scripts started turning up, followed by videos and then the dreaded deadlines.
"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-halves, 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.
"In March we're working with Michael Powell, a very famous but ageing film director. We approached him to do a video, and he came back to us with a specific idea which I can't tell you about because it'll spoil the surprise. He wanted to make a video of a poem, so we're going to get someone to read it at various tempos, and then we're going to write some music and make a film around it simultaneously. 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."
The last time New Order made headlines with a video was with the promo that accompanied the single 'True Faith'. That won the 1988 BPI award for Best Video. Morris remembers the occasion with obvious amusement, since in its own way it was clearly as bad a shambles as this year's "Brit" award ceremony last month...
"We were very pleased with the BPI award, but when we got the award it had one prong broken off, 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. All the other bands were in little boxes but we were sat with the punters, and we didn't know what to do. Music awards don't mean anything. They are something nice to stick on your mantlepiece, but that one was buggered when we got it anyway."
"WHAT'S THE POINT OF PUTTING ON A BEAMING SMILE AND SHAKING EVERYONE'S HAND AND SAYING ITS GREAT TO BE HERE? IT'S TOTALLY INSINCERE."
New Order are currently enjoying the greatest success of their careers, yet they don't seem to have as many imitators as the band they evolved from - Joy Division. Now they were the kind of band that inspired other musicians to emulate their every move. Stephen Morris puts this seeming lack of direct influence down to the fact that New Order are not just a dance group - they diversify into acoustic and soundtrack fields, making them very hard to copy. And the band themselves draw influences from anything (and everything) they happen to like. At the moment, House music, in its various forms, seems to be having the greatest impact on them.
"The area known as 'dance music' is the only area where anything interesting has been happening", Morris states. "Rock 'n' roll seems to have gone as far as you can go with it. A lot of dance music I can't stand listening to at home - Gillian drives me mad with her bleeding House compilations.
"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 their record to sound like the last No.1 record."
Well, there's no need for New Order to start engaging in that kind of struggle. For them, it's time to sit back and relax, and reflect on their triumphs. Stephen Morris is in a happy frame of mind.
"I think you're always really pleased when you actually get an album out, because it takes a long time and it's a lot of work. At the end of the day, when you actually get something you can hold in your hand you're really relieved, more than proud.
"The bigger you get and the more records you sell, the bigger the pressures get because you don't have time to do everything yourself. You reach the stage where you can't physically keep tabs on everything - you have to rely on somebody else's judgement. When things weren't so big we had complete control of everything. In theory we still have complete control now, but time doesn't allow us to exert it.
"It's still down to us: if something comes out in a shit sleeve, it's down to us. We can blame somebody else but we could have done something about it if we wanted. Bloody hell! There are only 36 hours in a day, after all...
"The only thing I'm proud about is staying together really, and managing to carry on functioning as a band all this time."
That New Order have survived the 1980s intact is one thing to be proud of. Another triumph is that despite their success, they are still four incredibly down-to-earth people, who have remained completely unspoilt by fame. While 'Blue Monday' may have guaranteed their place in the history books, it's a consistent depth of imagination and integrity that's prolonged their success. And in that, there's a lesson for everybody.
Interview by David Bradwell
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