A visibly animated Bernard Sumner holds his drink — a pick-me-up “power smoothie” that resembles antifreeze in color and consistency — up to the light and grimaces. “Bloody hell! It's like drinking sulfur,” he says. “Have a whiff of that — it's like bad eggs, innit?” He offers the concoction to guitarist Phil Cunningham, who waves his hand in mock protest and laughs.
It helps to have a slightly twisted sense of humor if you're a member of New Order; in fact, it's probably a prerequisite. The band has experienced its share of peaks and valleys, going all the way back to 1980, when Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Steve Morris had to rethink their future as a unit after the demise of Joy Division — the cultish post-punk outfit they had founded several years earlier with fellow Manchester, England, native and lead singer Ian Curtis, who committed suicide just as the group was about to embark on its first American tour. From the ashes of Joy Division rose New Order, and by the mid-1980s, the group had become, to some extent unwillingly, the UK's leading exponent of the emergent synth-pop phenomenon. Things exploded for the band with the worldwide dance hit “Blue Monday” (produced by “Planet Rock” co-creator Arthur Baker), literally defining the genre.
In 1993, after a string of hugely successful albums and world tours, New Order went on what was touted as a temporary hiatus amid rumors of rancorous infighting. The members pursued their own side projects — Sumner with ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr in Electronic, Morris with his wife (and former New Order keyboardist) Gillian Gilbert as the Other Two, and Hook with the groups Revenge and Monaco — until eventually they felt the pull to perform together again. The band's set at the 1998 Reading Festival (captured on the brilliant Warner/Rhino DVD New Order 316) proved to any doubters that the group's infectious live energy was still very much intact.
Waiting for the Sirens' Call (Warner Bros., 2005) — New Order's second release since its much-publicized “comeback” album, Get Ready (Warner Bros., 2001) — finds the group retooling its signature punk-meets-electronic pop sound with a much more layered production style and a seasoned, rock-oriented edge. As Sumner describes it, the album is the result of a long creative spurt that yielded nearly 20 complete songs (a number of which have been set aside for a future release) and might easily have been recorded and mixed in its entirety by New Order alone, had the band not planned ahead.
“We just decided to hedge our bets,” Sumner says of the group's decision to hire outside producers — specifically Stephen Street (The Smiths, Blur), John Leckie (XTC, Stone Roses, The Verve) and Stuart Price (Madonna). “We sort of auditioned them, really. If you're making that much of a commitment, then it's got to be right. What's different is that on this album, you're hearing more of the band. Although the producers were a fantastic help to us, the songs took shape in our writing space rather than taking shape in the studio with the producer there.”
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DEMO
Work on Sirens' Call started in earnest more than a year ago, when the band set up a number of impromptu studio jams at Morris' house in the idyllic outskirts of Manchester to begin fleshing out chord progressions and song arrangements. Back in his own home studio (equipped with Steinberg Cubase running on an Apple Mac G4), Sumner then imported those ideas and generated new ones using either a Roland XV-5080 or Doepfer MS-404 synth to create string parts, additional bass lines or background atmospherics.
“After years of experimentation, I've got this way of working,” Sumner explains. “It used to be that whenever I wanted to write anything or got a moment of inspiration, I needed a fucking engineer just to run all the equipment. And I just thought, ‘This is bollocks. I need to be able to operate this when I'm drunk — I mean, I can't even operate it when I'm sober!’ So, now, if I get an idea in the middle of the night, I come in and hit one switch, and it's all up and working. That's what I really like about Cubase: It's fluid, and it's a language that I can speak, so I can use it quickly and end up with a very nice demo to work from when we get to the bigger studio.”
While Sumner — known for his tireless and exacting ear in the studio — pored over tracks at home, the rest of the band continued to try out more material. Recalling the process, Hook gives his bandmate a good-natured ribbing: “It's easy to hate computers for the amount of choices they give you, and with someone like Bernard, who cannot decide what fucking trouser leg to put on first, he can be there forever! [Laughs.] But in his defense, that's what he has to do to satisfy himself, because he can't bear to think that he might not have tried it. And it has to be that way — if somebody wants to try something as a musician, you have to let it happen.”
As it turned out, the demos that Sumner coaxed into being ended up defining most of the sound of Sirens' Call before the band even met with an outside producer. “The synths are a good example of that,” he says. “The Roland string sounds are so good that very often, we just ended up using them — we just couldn't beat those demo versions. Sometimes, the synth that you wrote the track on ends up sounding the best, because if you get a certain sound when you're writing, you also tend to find the best area in the keyboard for that sound. It might be just one octave where it sounds best, and if you try and place it somewhere else or duplicate it on another keyboard, you can't beat it.”
SHEETS OF LAYERED SOUND
New Order has never been a band to shy away from technology, most notably in the area of digital recording. This time around, Sumner and his cohorts chose to take full advantage of the digital realm by stacking parts in arrangements that sound much more lush and complex than almost anything else they've done to date.
“If I'm gonna make any general statement about New Order's music, it would be that these days, it's much more layered and also very balanced,” Hook observes. “In the old days, it was a bit wilder, but now — I don't think ‘smoothed out’ is the right phrase, but it's definitely polished. We did do the final mixes on half-inch tape at the end, so you keep some of that analog crunchiness. Still, it's staggering, when you think of a track like ‘Krafty,’ that we had something like 96 channels set aside for that in Pro Tools. That's totally unheard of for any of our older albums.”
The Kraftwerk-inspired single “Krafty” is indeed a perfect case in point, melding programmed and live elements into a seamless sonic experience. The track opens with a driving uptempo beat — which Morris composed using Propellerhead Reason — paired with a simple monosynth line that gives way almost immediately, as Sumner's lead vocal kicks in, to a surging mix of string patches and Hook's echo-saturated bass chops. Live drums fill out the overall sound during the choruses while Cunningham's tube-warmed guitars dance in and around the other instruments with just the right amount of rock 'n' roll bite.
“It's just a good mix of electronics and acoustics,” Sumner says proudly. “And it's just got a positive vibe to it, which is a rarity for us. [Laughs.]” He is also quick to give credit to Mac Quayle, the DJ and remix specialist who has collaborated with dance luminaries such as Victor Calderone, Jack Elliot and Hex Hector. “He did some really great work for us,” Sumner continues. “He came in and laid down some keyboards on the more acoustic tracks, sort of beefing them up a bit: some synths on ‘Krafty,’ the synth-bass lines on ‘Morning Night and Day’ and a fair amount of stuff that will be on the next album.” And as reported in early March on the fan site New Order Online (http://neworderonline.com), the U.S. release of Sirens' Call was also scheduled to include Quayle's vocal mix of the track “Guilt Is a Useless Emotion.”
BREAKING THROUGH TO THE NEW
Fresh perspectives from outside parties can be a gift to any artist whose goal is to keep moving forward, but it also helps to be open to any situation. Sumner points to the genesis of the dancehall-influenced “I Told You So,” which came about when he was on holiday in the Caribbean and managed to record a gaggle of island-style beats off his shortwave radio. The track is one of several that the band produced; this includes the album's title cut — destined to be a New Order classic for its gut-grabbing hook — and another one that Sumner took great pains to perfect in terms of his vocals.
“I felt the backing tracks were so brilliant on that, I just had to try a lot of things until I got it,” he says. “A lot of the tracks came out through jamming and experimenting, and sometimes we just felt, ‘Right, that's it. We don't want to change that in any way — it's done.’ And, yeah, it's true we were fortunate enough to work with some producers who were amazingly inventive. But however it happens, I think there's no better time than right now to try something different, no matter what it is.”
What is perhaps most important — albeit in a decidedly unspoken and un-self-conscious manner — to the members of New Order is their desire to maintain the sense of currency and immediacy, which, since the early days, has always been an integral part of the band's mystique. And from the looks of the band's itinerary, it would seem that very little of their sheen of newness has worn off. In addition to sharing live dates with Basement Jaxx and the Chemical Brothers, the band will also join the bill at Coachella 2005. As the avowed elder statesmen of the second British Invasion — along with the newly reunited lineup of Leeds' own Gang of Four, which is also slated to perform at Coachella — New Order provides the vital link to which artists such as Coldplay and Nine Inch Nails owe a huge debt of gratitude.
“One thing we've vowed never to do is repeat ourselves,” Sumner says. “In the Joy Division days, we weren't aware of such things as your typical verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus arrangement. We ended up with some really good songs because we were naive to all of that. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ was a good example. We sometimes get away from that even today, with a track that might just be groove-based, like ‘Working Overtime’ [the closing track on Sirens' Call]. But we don't really concern ourselves with influencing or being influenced. I think what we have now has evolved over many years into the perfect form, we hope, of just playing a good song. That's what we're always working towards.”
MEET THE PRODUCERS
In deciding whom they would approach to work on Waiting for the Sirens' Call, the members of New Order quite naturally lined up some of the best in the business. “We were looking for that personal chemistry,” Bernard Sumner says, “but we also wanted someone, like Stuart Price, who has his head in the contemporary dance world and knows exactly what's going on out there. They're all just fantastic because they were each very respectful of what we wanted.”
“My sessions with the band were at Real World Studios, which has a big control room with an SSL desk [the SSL 4080G 72-channel console with Total Recall],” Leckie explains. “The main ingredient there was with the drum sounds, though, because there's a big wooden, gymnasiumlike room next door. You can hear it in ‘Krafty,’ where Stephen's live drums come in at the chorus. That kind of sets it all on fire, really.
“Bernard also did a lot of work in finding new sounds on that song. It turns out, there's a Doepfer agent nearby the studio who is very good, and I think what happened was that Bernard had a single channel, just one oscillator with him. With a Doepfer, basically, you can add modules into a central unit and build your own synthesizer, so he went and bought a whole big box [the A-100 modular system] with lots of different filters to help him look for new sounds.”
“What really got us into Stuart was he did a Gwen Stefani remix that just sounded like a great take on New Order,” Sumner recalls. “He's got his own writing place, which is like a small loft space, so you're constantly banging your head. [Laughs.] He did some additional keyboards for us, and I loved what he brought to the music. He's a real good bloke, Stuart. I like him because he doesn't take anything too seriously.”
If Price could be accused of turning a cool, pragmatic eye toward anything, it might be his work on the synth-driven dance track “Guilt Is a Useless Emotion” — one of two tracks (the other being “Jetstream,” with the Scissor Sisters' Ana Matronic on backing vocals) he produced for Sirens' Call. “I realized that in basically every song I've ever written, I've ripped off Bernard Sumner in every single way possible when it comes to vocal melodies,” Price admits. “We'd go over vocal parts, and I'd think, ‘Yeah, that's exactly what I would have done here.’ All those early New Order singles, like ‘Temptation’ through to ‘True Faith,’ as a 15-year-old kid, they had such a massive impact on me without me even realizing it.”
“I'd say working with Stephen Street was really quick,” says New Order guitarist Phil Cunningham. “The track ‘Hey Now What You Doing,’ especially, was like that. It was all about getting a performance down, and for me, personally, he was really good at getting guitar sounds because he's a guitar player, as well, and he comes from that background.”
“He's also doing his tracking on Pro Tools and then dropping it into [an Otari] Radar [system],” Sumner says, “which I think gives him something he likes for editing and mixing.”
As Street himself told the UK's Sound on Sound magazine back in 1999: “I'm not into computers and fiddling about with a mouse, because I think that kind of technology can get in the way of the artist/producer relationship. But with Radar, the remote sits on the desk and looks and feels like a tape machine, so people don't even think about it — it's just there recording whatever you're doing with the band. But the great advantage with Radar is that it allows me to go back later and cut and paste the bits of the track that I like. This is such a creative leap that I can't imagine how I used to manage without it.”