ACK in the day, New Order were the ultimate reluctant rock stars. The 1980s indie icons may have been responsible for such enduring anthems as ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘True Faith’ (and, if one includes their earlier tragic incarnation as Joy Division, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’). Yet they were introverted and visibly uncomfortable in the spotlight. And they toured only when absolutely necessary.
“A few things played a part,” says guitarist Phil Cunningham. “There was an element of wanting to be around as kids were growing up and not spend too long on the road. But it ultimately had to do with being really scared of hangovers. In the ’80s, New Order would go out and do an amazing gig and then everyone would stay out all night partying. The next gig would be dreadful — the hangovers were too much. Everyone’s that bit older now and staying up all night isn’t an option.”
Having reunited five years ago minus original bassist Peter Hook, New Order are one of the big names at Electric Picnic 2016. And though they nominally qualify as ‘heritage act’ by dint of a catalogue stretching back 35 years, they are also touring a dazzling new (ish) record, 2015’s stunning Music Complete. It is the rare example of late-in-the-day LP that holds its own alongside a storied outfit’s finest output. Here, finally, are new songs you actually want to hear.
“Having the new stuff as ammunition has been fantastic,” says Cunningham. “It’s been fun playing them live — they stand up alongside ‘True Faith’ and ‘Blue Monday’. They really work. We got back together in 2011 and toured our catalogue. It got to the point where we thought, ‘We just can’t keep doing this forever’. So we went back to the studio. We’ve been bowled over by the response. ”
Since emerging from the ashes of Joy Division after that band’s lead singer, Ian Curtis, killed himself in 1980, New Order have proved masters of chaos. There have been winning albums — but the occasional stumble into mediocrity too (see 1993’s Republic — the sound of four musicians sleepwalking to irrelevance).
“It’s a tricky one,” says the amiable Cunningham, who joined as guitarist on 2001’s Get Ready album as cover for departed keyboardist Gillian Gilbert (back manning the synths for Music Complete). “Nobody knows what is happening. We’ll have a band meeting and have no idea how things are going to work out until we’ve finished this block of stuff. No one talks about the future. Will it last another year — another five years? I don’t really know.”
“For instance, our single ‘People On the High Line’ went to number one in the physical charts this year. But we didn’t have it in the set. How many bands would have a number one single — and not put it in the set?”
New Order’s previous LP, Waiting For The Siren’s Call, was dismissed by former member Peter Hook as a glorified solo album from singer Bernard Sumner. But Music Complete is very much a New Order project and has drawn favourable comparisons with their arguable masterpiece, 1989’s Technique. Both locate a sweet spot between indie and electronica, the student disco and the Balearic dance floor.
“People need a reference point,” says Cunningham. “With New Order, there is always that combination of guitar and electronic stuff. We went more towards the electronic on this one. However, we never sat down to write another Technique. You don’t plan a record that way. It’s about going into the studio and putting in the hours and trying to come up with something you can believe in.”
Music Complete was significant for another reason: it was the first New Order project without Peter Hook. Though the bass player and frontman Sumner are widely understood to be old friends, the truth is more complicated.
“We are quite different people,” Sumner told me. “You probably wouldn’t see it from the outside. You can’t possibly get to know someone from an interview and from seeing them on stage.
“It just got to the point on the last New Order album where, if I said ‘black’, he’d say’ white’. It got very frustrating and pointless. It obviously didn’t seem to be working.”
Hook’s replacement, Tom Chapman, has weathered his share of opprobrium — but he’s holding up. He contributed meaningfully to Music Complete without ever trying to ape his predecessor’s distinctively swaggering style.
“Tom moved from France to Manchester as a teenager,” says Cunningham. “You can imagine the stick that a French teenager in Manchester received. After that, I reckon he’s prepared for anything.”
- New Order headline Electric Picnic Sunday September 4.