By taking chances and pushing the existing technology to the limits, New Order proved to be pioneers of combining rock and electronic music. And unlike many bands of that era, New Order have been able to progress rather than burn out. The group has always managed to stay in touch with the dance music scene and incorporate elements of it into their own sound without “selling out.” With the collapse of their longtime label Factory, New Order has moved on to London and released “Republic,” their first album in four years, which also marks the first time the band has worked with a producer.
Despite the label problems that the band was having at the time, “Republic” shows New Order still in top form. While the acid house influence that dominated their last outing (“Technique”) is not as evident, the band still proves that they are masters at fusing electronics with more traditional guitar and bass oriented music. It’s been a long wait for new material, but “Republic” is well worth it.
“We actually started writing it about two years ago, sort of very quietly, little bits, and then moved on a bit and picked up the pace,” says bassist Peter Hook on making the LP. “Of course, we’ve all been doing the solo stuff.”
Those solo projects were Hook’s band, Revenge, vocalist Bernard Sumner collaboration with Johnny Marr, Electronic, and, most recently, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert’s The Other Two. The latter saw the first signs of Factory’s downfall when they ran into problems getting their Other Two and You album released. The members of New Order feel that taking the time off and doing other things has helped keep the band fresh, though they do admit that it was a bit strange going back and working together. It was also strange for the band to be working with producer Stephen Hague, as in the past New Order had produced themselves.
“The fact that we used a producer on this record, that was the main difference,” explains Morris. “When we started writing for this record it was always done with the notion that we’d be using a producer. Basically, one of the things that happen when you’ve been together as long as we have is that you know each other very very well and then when you’re producing yourself it’s very hard to take criticism, everything’s personal basically.”
While their previous incarnation, Joy Division, had a more standard guitar/bass/drum set-up, New Order’s incorporation of electronics has blurred the picture in terms of who actually does what in the band. Using electronics was something that the members had wanted to do since the beginning, but it wasn’t until shortly before singer Ian Curtis’s suicide prompted them to re-group as New Order that the technology really became available to them. Gilbert recalls one of the group’s first ventures into the realm of non-traditional instruments and their effect on the band.
“I remember when Stephen was doing Closer, he said ‘we’ve got a drum machine, they don’t need me!,” she says. “And he was like dead upset, but of course he’s seen that you shouldn’t take that attitude; Stephen plays keyboards and everything.”
Starting to use electronics and the more varied sound they provide allowed New Order to go beyond the Joy Division sound that everyone seemed to be copying at the time.
“In England, after Joy Division ceased it was like every band on the John Peel show sounded just like bloody Joy Division!,” explains Morris. “It was like, oh god, the idea being that it was great to inspire people to get together and make music but not to clone it. They should be trying to do something a bit different.”
But as an attempt to stop people from copying them, the change was not effective, as Morris says that “it didn’t work out because ‘Blue Monday” was copied bass-drum-riff.”
From the start, New Order was willing to risk taking the electronics on stage with them instead of using backing tapes. When asked if this was a cause of frustration at the time, Gilbert lets out a sarcastic “no, why?”, with Morris following suit, laughing as he asks “how can you tell.”
“When computers first came out, you wouldn’t dream of taking them anywhere! But we did,” explains Gilbert. “So it was like a really big hassle every night and we used to check all of the leads, because it was just like plugs and wires then, and I used to go on and sound check all the gear before we actually played the concert, which is stupid, you just don’t do that now, but we had to. The gear kept breaking down so we got like second stand-ins and we ended up with four lots of stand-ins on the stage because they were so unreliable.”
At one time, New Order would go out on tour with all of their material prepared for live performance, giving them the chance to pick and choose which songs to play each night. But starting with the last US tour, the group realized that they had to skim things down as it was getting to be a bit too much. Given the fact that everything is running live, their soundman ends up having 24 – 42 tracks to mix on each song. “If you think about it, it’s like him mixing an LP as it was going along because every song is different,” says Gilbert. “It’s like juggling.”
But while the band has been forced to streamline their set list, they still strive for spontaneity, something missing from many electronic band’s shows. “Most bands do ‘a performance’ which is essentially the same set to a certain extent choreographed,” says Morris. “It shouldn’t get away from a gig-type, spur of the moment type feeling which is hit-or-miss , basically.”
Another difference in making the new album was the band’s getting away from the cryptic song titles, which often have no relation to the music.
“Basically, the New Order method of titling is just writing down words that are completely abstract and don’t relate to anything, and then when you’ve written the songs, it’s just like pin the tail on the donkey,” says Morris.
This time around, the band got away from this to some degree. However, New Order is still not about to make things easy.
“We said let’s do something different, let’s name the songs!,” Gillian says. “For instance, ‘Regret’ was always ‘Regret’.”
Unfortunately for listeners, the band was not as direct with the naming of the rest of the album. While they did have about half of the tracks titled before making the album, they felt the need to switch most of them around just to confuse matters.
The bands’ problems with Factory stem from the fact that New Order did not have a normal business relationship with the label; they were friends or at least had personal involvement with those who ran it. Morris explains that while it was great not having a contract in some ways, in the end “the unspoken obligations you have to each other are sort of like the ultimate contract.” So when the band was getting sick of all the meetings regarding The Hacienda, which the label and band were part owners of, they couldn’t just walk out. And when Factory started to experience difficulties, it turned to the band for assistance.
“Every time they had a problem they used to come to us to sort it out for them,” explains Morris. “But we just don’t say ‘well look, if we’ve got a problem with music, what do we do, come to you? Can you explain MIDI to us? I don’t know why this lead isn’t working, could you fix it for us?’ The other way around would just be completely ridiculous.”
On the other hand, Morris feels that New Order may not be around today if it weren’t for Factory. Being with that label enabled the group to exist outside of the main stream music industry, and it gave them a great deal of freedom. Now that they are on London, New Order is getting their first taste of the confines of the mainstream music industry.
“That’s one of the funny things about London, it’s like ‘well you can’t do any solo stuff unless you ask us first. If you appear on any records you’ve got to have a ‘guest appearance’,” explains Morris. “With Factory, it was do what you want, really.”
Had they followed a more traditional path of signing directly to a major and not having the freedom Factory allowed, the group may have burned out and become another casualty of the 80’s. Still, at this stage of the game, New Order see the incident as the dawning of a new era and a relief in some ways.
“The only good thing about the demise of Factory is it’s like a great burden weight off the shoulders in the way that we were involved with so much business rubbish, I never wanted to be a businessman, I never wanted to own a club,” says Morris. “Now that’s all over, it’s sort of a fresh start and you can sort of concentrate on music again.”