New Order Interview: On Sydney’s lockout laws and getting funky with their latest album
July 10th 2016
Last month, Darren Lesaguis visited the Sydney Opera House to speak to two members of New Order: guitarist Phil Cunningham and bassist Tom Chapman. Preparing for a four-performance stint for Vivid LIVE, the band were about to rehearse with an orchestra – the Australian Chamber Orchestra, no less – for the first time ever. They chatted about New Order’s latest album Music Complete, the pressures of joining one of the world’s most respected bands and how rules like Sydney’s lockout laws were “meant to be broken.”
I want to start with your new record. Music Complete came out last year. Congratulations, first of all. It’s really tapped into a balance between newness and a characteristically New Order sound. In saying that though, it is predominantly a dance music record. Why a more electronic release rather than a more guitar driven record for this one?
TOM: A couple of reasons, I think the last two New Order albums ‘Get Ready’ and ‘Waiting For The Siren’s Call’ were more guitar orientated and we also did a project with Bernard Sumner called Bad Leiutenant and Jake Evans our friend which was very much 8sort of guitar driven and it felt like a natural progression to go towards making an electronic record. Plus I think we were really influenced by the end of our set in the New Order set while touring for the last two years and seeing the reaction with the more electronic songs so I think it felt right to work towards that direction. And very importantly try to sort of fit those new songs into our current live set as well. Which I think we’ve achieved quite well…it kind of flows.
Gillian Gilbert was on board with it and there’s been a healthy introduction of more bass synth lines – Tom as a bassist how did it open up your contribution to the process of music writing?
TOM: I think the music of New Order has always been sort of bass driven with synth lines which opens up the possibility for maybe the bass guitar to be quite melodic. So I think I still had that sort of frame of mind when writing but I also try to inject a different sort of style of bass playing. Maybe on Tutti Fruiti or People In The High Line, which is a bit more…funkier.
PHIL: You got a bit funky. Just say it Tom!
TOM: I just don’t wanna use the word ‘funk’…
What’s wrong with the word funk?
PHIL: There’s nothing the matter with funk!
TOM: Yeah, I think I probably injected a bit of funk into New Order.
PHIL: It gets people dancing.
Now, all the tracks are more than four minutes long. And on top of that you rereleased Music Complete with extended mix versions as well. What was the thought process behind that?
TOM: There was an abundance of ideas when it came to writing. There was three different teams of writers. There was Phil and Myself, Steve and Gillian, and Bernard on his own. And we were really prolific with the amount of ideas we had. And we threw a lot of overdubs at songs and there was a lot of ideas and we liked a lot of them so that sort of made it difficult to reduce the length of the song hence maybe the length of the tracks. And then I guess the extended album was us trying to make the tracks breathe a little bit more and sort of show the ideas that were happening in the songs a bit more sparsely, if that makes sense. And also the fact we worked with different producers and mixers.
PHIL: And the nature of it just being more sort of a dance-y album. I think dance music affords those extended mixes anyways, as opposed to it being a guitar record.
I feel like the extended mix version is kinda like the special commentary on the first release. It’s drawing everything out so people can really have space to listen.
PHIL: Yeah that’s it.
TOM: That’s a good comment. That’s a good description of it, yeah.
Yeah you said just then, the tracks are very much dance orientated – is there room to just lay down a groove when you’re playing live and improvise as instrumentalists over it or is it tighter than that?
PHIL: Not particularly, no. We rehearse a lot and everything’s kind of set to a format, really with New Order.
TOM: Yeah, I would say the band’s less chaotic than it used to be back in the days. We’re more together, we work very hard on arranging our songs. Working on the visuals.
PHIL: The tempos of the songs…
TOM: The arrangement of the songs. It’s a lot of hard work goes into it, basically.
PHIL: Like a DJ puts songs together and the tempo thing. Just making sure you’re not getting a big shock from one to another.
TOM: And the fact as well that New Order is the perfect hybrid band between rock and dance music so we always try to organise our set list. Maybe start with more guitar orientated songs via towards the more electronic sets towards the end – try and sort of get people dancing.
A structured way to dance?
TOM: Yeah, so it is structured I guess – that’s what I’m trying to say.
Now you guys joined the band a while ago and are very much a part of New Order as we know it today. But it’s still a band that kinda looms in a lot of people’s musical consciousness, really quite presently. How have you guys stepped in, or how did you guys step in and make yourselves your own part of the band?
PHIL: It took years. To feel truly part of it, to be perfectly frank. And it was quite daunting at first, cos New Order, as you say – it’s kind of a legendary band and I still feel lucky to be part of it. And every record we make I feel more part of it of course. It’s not a bad band to be in.
TOM: Similar to Phil really. It takes a really long time to get into the groove of things with a new band. I’d say for me probably a couple of years where I felt sort of really comfortable being the bass player but it’s a good apprenticeship to sort of be on the road with New Order and learn the craft and then when the writing came with the Music Complete, it just felt like good to sort of put my stamp as a musician on the music, really. And I’m extremely proud now when I sign a Music Complete sort-of vinyl for the fans – you know, it’s a really good feeling. It’s a good thing. An achievement. It’s great.
There’s more of an electronic tip to this record, we were speaking earlier. You’ve said that when you play electronic kind of songs live there’s a certain response that you get from the crowd. I’m really interested in this idea of like a gig venue vs. a club. Do you guys respond more to a crowd that is say dancing more than ‘rocking’ kinda thing?
PHIL: I think it depend where you are. Like we just played some shows in Japan and the audiences there are like nowhere else really. They get into it but between the songs it’s like deadly silent. And they’re doing a lot of listening rather than the raucous clouds that you get in certain places in Europe. And I think you react differently depending on how the crowd are reacting, you know? And that breathes life into the songs cos we’re stuck in a rehearsal. We’ve been going over and over songs. When you get out onto the road it’s – they take on another life. And you get something out of it, that’s different really. It’s quite hard to explain but it’s definitely good to get out of the rehearsal rooms.
TOM: And one thing I’ll add as well is that it’s always a 50/50 relationship between the band and the audience, you know. The more the audience gives to the band, the more we’ll give back to them. So, I think it all depends on how people react to your music, and how they respond to it. and how we respond back – and that’s the beauty of the show.
TOM: I think one of the things with New Order being a hybrid band, is that we can sometimes let the machines do the talking for us. And sort of sit back and let the machines play the music. and then we can sort of inject our instruments into the songs again.
PHIL: and of course nowadays, we’ve got a lot of visuals which just inject a whole other level to it, you know? And then of course for these shows it’s two nights with an orchestra. So it should be interesting to see how that blends in and stuff. We’re yet to experience it.
TOM: We’ve never done this before.
PHIL: We’re going to have a rehearsal tomorrow.
Will that be the first rehearsal?
TOM: Yes it is.
It’s with Joe Duddell?
TOM: Joe Duddell.
He worked on the record as well…
TOM: He’s worked on the record. He’s worked with loads of people from Manchester. From Jimmy Goodwin, Doves Elbow as well.
PHIL: We’ve got a good working relationship with him and we did a show in New York with him a few years back where we performed with Iggy Pop – that’s the connection for the record. Getting Iggy involved on that. So we know Joe pretty well. But um as it is now, it’s all in his head – he’s done the music score, but we haven’t actually rehearsed with them orchestra.
What if you don’t like it when you hear it?
PHIL: [laughs] Not gonna happen!
TOM: I think somebody’s gonna be in trouble! Touch wood – it’s gonna be good man! You can’t jinx it!
I feel like you’ve come at a historical time. I’m not sure if you’re across it but a couple of years ago we had these laws wherein people are locked out of venues at 130am and venues are usually shut by 3am. Less people are going out and it’s putting a real strain on bands, DJs, bookers, promoters to be able to do what they do. and do it well. What advice would you give to creatives in Sydney who are trying to work in a time like this?
PHIL: You’ve just gotta keep at it. I mean if you’re creative you don’t have a choice to you because it’s in your blood, but let’s just hope that people get better for people you know.
TOM: I think that’s one of the great things about musicians: they’re very resourceful you know? Even if there’s laws against them or like the music industry’s changed very much in the last 15 years but people always seem to find a way to sort of make things happen.
PHIL: It’s like the course of water – it will always find it’s way.
TOM: That’s a good analogy. But just keep doing it, and hopefully people will see sense and change the rules. Rules are meant to be broken…
I spoke with Ben Marshall, he’s the head of contemporary music programming here at the Opera House. And I asked him, what is it that drew you to the artists on this year’s Vivid program? And he said he wanted artists who are ambitious, and that was the theme. Creating this piece of work in collaboration with the Opera House, the ACO – if anything, it’s ambition personified. Considering you’re gonna rehearse it for the first time tomorrow, then play it twice this week… there are not many bands that can pull it off.
Has this piece of work set your ambitions for another project, or any other projects in the future?
TOM: As far as writing, we’ve not really discussed this with New Order. It was a very long process and I wouldn’t say it was painful but it was a lot of hard work and long hours working towards the completion of Music Complete. Bernard’s got a good analogy, it’s like asking a woman who’s just given birth if she’s gonna have another child straight away, which the answer would be probably no! So, at the minute we’re just enjoying touring Music Complete, and we’ll see what the future holds.
PHIL: And as far as working with the Orchestra and stuff, who knows where that could take us in our relationship with Joe. I mean, who knows?
TOM: The other thing about New Order is we don’t really make future plans.
Just take it as it comes.
TOM: We kinda take it as it comes.
PHIL: That’s the policy really.
TOM: It’s always worked for us like that.
Do you feel it’s less pressure if it’s that way?
TOM: Yeah, I think you just enjoy the moment. Enjoy it for what it is. Whatever happens, happens.