Peter Hook: Life in a Northern Town
Joy Division/New Order bassist resurrects two classic LPs
By Richard Whittaker,
1:47PM, Tue. Sep. 17, 2013
It’s a long way from rain-drenched Manchester to sun-baked Texas. For Peter Hook, source of the driving and defining bass lines of Joy Division and New Order, playing in America has always been a case of “very more-ish.” He and his new band the Light perform tonight at the Belmont.
When Peter Hook & the Light go on this evening, it’ll be a little over 30 years since he first set foot in Austin. In 1983, New Order played the now-shuttered Nightlife, one of their first gigs as a fourpiece and one of the first stops on their first American tour. According to Hook, that trans-Atlantic jaunt changed their career plan.
“That unbridled enthusiasm that Americans have for English music, it’s very addictive,” he says. “We made a decision, and it’s really weird to think that we sat there and decided this – to ignore Europe and concentrate on America.”
It paid off. When New Order split in 2006, they were filling 30,000-seat arenas in the U.S., a feat no UK band has repeated since.
“It’s an amazing feat, when you consider the Spice Girls didn’t manage it, neither did Oasis,” he acknowledges. “I don’t know whether One Direction will do it, but I don’t know if they count.”
Before this current U.S. tour, Hook was holidaying in Majorca with his family. I mentioned that I’d grown up in Macclesfield, the same Northern English town that his late Joy Division bandmate and friend Ian Curtis lived and died in.“Oh my god,” came the reply. “Then you can sympathize with the drizzle and grey skies.”
As part of Joy Division, Hook rehearsed there in a pub called the Talbot, and when the survivors morphed into New Order, they played there one solitary time – in 1991. Odd, says the bassist, considering that Curtis, New Order keyboardist/guitarist Gillian Gilbert, and her husband Stephen Morris, drummer for both bands, lived there. Odder still, the first time any member of Joy Division played the band’s songs there for an audience was last year, when Hook’s outfit played the annual local Barnaby festival.
After all, he’s from up the road in Salford, 30 miles on the map, but a million light years away back when the band started performing in 1976. Never missing a chance to jab at his old band mates, he grouses.
“You’d have to say that they completely ignore [the town], and still continue to ignore it. You wouldn’t get that from a Manchester band. They’d be proud to play in Manchester, wouldn’t they?”
Hook has infamously and litigiously gone rogue from New Order. As part of his ongoing quest to perform every track he ever recorded live, tonight’s set retraces the transition in his career from post-punk pioneer to dance innovator. It remains a strange transition, since much of New Order’s 1981 debut LP Movement was written before Curtis’ suicide.
“Movement is a Joy Division album with New Order vocals, whereas Power, Corruption & Lies is very much a New Order LP with New Order vocals. Big difference between the two albums, but bugger me, they go great into each other.”
It wasn’t just Curtis’ death that changed the sound, but a change in producers during the Movement sessions.
“[Producer] Martin Hannett hated our vocals, and made no bones about telling us how shit we were. Really, it didn’t give us a great bedrock to start the next phase of our career.”
Two years later, the band took control of its destiny with Power, Corruption & Lies, when Hook and guitarist Bernard Sumner became vying leaders/producers, while Sumner and Morris became increasingly fascinated in recording technology.
“We were lucky that [band manager] Rob Gretton didn’t put the money into [infamous loss-making Manchester nightclub] the Hacienda to buy us the gear.”
Hook has, with typical North of England bluffness, taken swipes at his reunited former bandmates (“New Odour,” as he dubs the current touring line-up) on every level from their set lists (“very lazy and very catholic”) to replacement bassist Tom Chapman’s choice of instrument for playing classic riffs (“like taking a Ford Escort on a Formula 1 track”). Now he’s in control of his own destiny.
“It’s nice now to be able to play Movement and deliver with it 57 years of confidence and experience – give it the little finishing piece it didn’t have when it was recorded.”
Austin Chronicle: Whenever I try to explain to people what Manchester was like in the early Eighties, I just say, “You know the rhythm on Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’? Sounds like that all the time. It’s that feel of rain.”
Peter Hook: And gloom.
AC: And dourness. Joy Division was always the most Manchester band for me.
PH: It’s like [Factory Records co-founder] Tony Wilson used to say, “You’ve captured Manchester perfectly with Joy Division.” I suppose in a funny way, we captured Manchester again in the Eighties with New Order, because it was more vibrant, brighter – more easy going. The music became more lighthearted, poppier, frivolous, if you like, than it had been in Joy Division, which was very dark.
I suppose it’s part of growing up as well. When you’re young, you do have that awful chip on your shoulder and feel that life’s against you. Then all of a sudden, you get a good job and start looking at the world in a completely different light.
AC: When Alice in Chains reformed, they said they wanted a vocalist who could do what Layne Staley did, but wasn’t a Layne Staley imitator. When you’re trying to recreate the music of two classic albums by two different bands, how did you put it all together?
PH: What struck me about playing Joy Division in particular was that most people had only heard the record. They’d never heard Joy Division. Martin Hannett added a lot of ambiance to Closer, Unknown Pleasures, and Movement. Most people who have heard of the group and heard the music have heard his additions.
Thing is, when Joy Division played live, there was no guitar when Barney played keyboards, and when he played guitar, there was no keyboards. So Joy Division live were very edgy, and very empty. Martin Hannett’s interpretation of Joy Division that gave them their life – a long, long life – was completely different. So the idea was to become more faithful to the record.
AC: As a bandleader, how do you say, “Right, we’re not doing it like that, we’re doing it like this” without it becoming a history lesson?
PH: Most music is a history lesson, because as soon as the record comes out, it becomes history. It’s just how long its historic value is. If you look at, say [British rapper] Example, who released an album in February, that’s history, isn’t it? It’s an indefinable thing. Is it a week ago? Two weeks ago? According to the Internet, it’s an hour ago. Or is it 30 years ago? It’s quite an intangible argument, that one.
The thing is, what I do is listen to the records, and I’m celebrating the art of the LP, which is an art form that is sadly suffering because of the Internet. Because of the way that music is delivered so quickly, and processed – shall we say devoured? – there’s no time to celebrate 30 minutes of it. It’s an alien concept to most young people that you’d sit there and listen and go off into a world of your own for 35, 40 minutes. Yet it’s how I was brought up.
I must say that some of the best moments in my life, apart from the obvious, would be listening to people’s LPs. Ian Drury. Velvet Underground. Nico. Even Bruce Springsteen, for god’s sake, or Roxy Music and Cockney Rebel, moving on through Lust for Life by Iggy Pop. You listen to that collection, there’s something in that amount of time that gives you another way of looking at the world. That’s what I’m celebrating. I’m celebrating the art of the LP.
AC: Some of this material, it’s obviously got connections to Ian. Going back and doing it, how’s that felt?
PH: The worst one of them all is “In a Lonely Place,” because the lyrics are quite shocking when you know what happened to Ian. That’s an odd one, because we played that one with Ian. It was one of the last ones we wrote as Joy Division, and it became one of the first ones we did as New Order. When you get to that bit where, “The hangman looks round as he waits/the cord stretches tight/then it breaks. How I live in your dreams/how I wish you were here with me now.”
Oh my god. It’s almost becomes too much. It’s like the perfect suicide note.
Then, strangely enough, as you go into New Order where we’re writing the lyrics, I can actually remember writing the references to Ian. If you look at a song like “ICB,” it was called “Ian Curtis Buried,” which was interesting. You know when the flight cases come back from America? When we went as New Order, they had a sticker on them – ICB. I went, “Look at that. It’s Ian Curtis Buried.” It was actually the name of the transport company, International Couriers Business or something. But it was also ICB and everyone liked that.
So, we’re into celebrating our feelings in the songs, which I can recognize now that I’m doing Movement again.
AC: In your autobiography (Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division), you write that you felt the later albums were over-written or too pefectly performed. It gets easier, because you have more studio time and the technology can take out all the bum notes. Now that you’re thinking about doing that music, how are you going to approach it?
PH: That’s right at the end, to be honest. The most overly-produced album we ever did was Waiting for the Siren’s Call, which took three years from start to finish, which was absolutely fucking ridiculous when you consider that Unknown Pleasures took about two weeks. The thing is, technology does allow you to disappear up your own arse, without a shadow of a doubt. By the time I get to those, I’m going to be 60-odd years old. I shouldn’t be doing it really. No doubt I bloody will be, but it’s going to be a nice way to finish.
If you look at Lost Sirens, the idea was to do another LP quickly after Waiting for the Sirens’ Call, but Bernard’s whole thing was, “You can’t do two things at once.” So while we were playing live, promoting Waiting for the Siren’s Call, he would not record any new songs to finish off that LP. Unfortunately, we split up two years after we’d written it, so it never got finished. Then he wouldn’t finish it off, because he was busy doing Bad Lieutenant, and he kept saying, “You can only do one thing at once.” That’s his adage.
AC: Sounds like my nan.
PH: Exactly. Well, it’s true in a way. The thing that it meant to my mind was that if you love being in the studio, you’re rocking, but if you’d rather play live, then you’re very frustrated. The thing is that by the time of Waiting for the Siren’s Call, it became so venomous between us. When Lost Sirens came out, it was actually a relief to hear the good bit about our relationship, which was the music. We actually did make some great music together, even while we hated each other. Because, from Get Ready when we came back, it was mainly Bernard and I that wrote most the music.
It was nice, actually, after the bickering which is still ongoing, to listen to the music and think, “Oh my god, you did actually do some great stuff together.” It’s like looking tearfully at an old photograph album and going, “Oh, we did have some good times, didn’t we?”
AC: You look at Joy Division and it’s hard not to consider their influence on music. They were the band everyone loved – metalers, indie kids, goths. Was there a point where you went, “Fucking hell, that wasn’t just us sitting in the back of a van. That had some real impact.”
PH: For us, Joy Division finished when Ian died, and we never really looked back at it. So whatever happened to the music, and however people digested and revered it, we didn’t care because we were busy doing New Order. I must admit, that was one of the problems when New Order split. We got to 2006 and I thought, “Why do we never celebrate anything to do with Joy Division?” The answer was, “Because we were in New Order.”
Once New Order finished, then I could think, “God, what a shame we never celebrated five years, 10 years of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart,’ Closer, Unknown Pleasures.” We hadn’t celebrated anything to do with the group that enabled us to make New Order a success. But again, once New Order split in 2006, it seemed very sad afterward. It’s been 30 years since Ian died, and that was the idea to play Unknown Pleasures in 2010.
What really amused me was that we were so roundly slagged off by Bernard and Stephen, who then had actually played it with Bad Lieutenant before I celebrated Ian’s 30th year. So they were slagging me off for doing something that they’d already done, which was played it without asking. They said, “Oh, he should have asked us for permission,” and I thought, “Hang on a minute, when you were Bad Lieutenant you never asked me for permission.”
When I was in New Order, I always felt it was never “do as I do.” It was always “do as I say,” which was one of the big problems with Bernard. He was always very contradictory in the way that he acted and the way that he wanted you to act. That became one of the big problems in our relationship.
AC: How did it get that bad?
PH: That’s what my lawyer keeps asking me, just before he takes the checks off me. I think he says, “Thank god it got that bad.” No, really, it’s a lack of communication, to be honest. I’m sure that if Bernard and I sat down, we’d come out shaking hands and going, “Listen, you enjoy your life and I’ll enjoy mine.”
The thing is the bullying way they’ve acted, with little regard for me and for the fans. I get thousands of messages saying, “Oh, I went to see New Order in Austin and you weren’t playing. What happened?” The fact that they don’t even tell anybody that it’s a different group is lazy and arrogant. I can’t do anything about it, because half the time I don’t even know they’re playing.
AC: Right up until the check arrives.
PH: Tell you what, I’m not waiting on the check, mate. That’s part of the problem.
AC: Nothing like two men from Manchester to argue about money.
PH: We’re Northerners. We have to do that, don’t we?
Peter Hook & the Light, with Slaves of Venus, perform tonight – Tue., Sept. 17, 7:30pm – at the Belmont, 305 W. Sixth.