TAS Interview: Bad Lieutenant's Bernard Sumner Takes...
The wrath of Iceland's belligerent, ash-coughing volcano, which closed European airspace, forced Bernard Sumner and his band Bad Lieutenant, whose new single is portentously named "Twist of Fate," to cancel their US tour last week, the second time in the last six months that the group has had to postpone a North American road trip. Back in December they were derailed by vexing visa issues. However, as the former New Order frontman and Joy Division guitarist told The Alternate Side recently, he's become quite adept when it comes to adapting to unexpected detours and fresh beginnings.
Bad Lieutenant isn't quite a tabula rasa for Sumner. There are recognizable Manchester roots anchoring the fledgling group, formed in 2007 after New Order, already plagued with frequent band disagreements and the 2001 departure of Gillian Gilbert, wheezed to a halt after bassist Peter Hook's contentious departure. According to Sumner, who officially declared last year that he no longer wished to make music as New Order, he and Hook still do not speak.
Though Hooky is out of the picture, Bad Lieutenant's New Order parentage is quite apparent. Sumner's longtime New Order and Joy Division colleague Stephen Morris is on drums for the album and live performances. New Order's touring guitarist Phil Cunningham is one of Bad Lieutenant's three founding members. However, it's the input of vocalist Jake Evans, 28, who splits singing duties with Sumner on Bad Lieutenant's debut Never Cry Another Tear, which establishes the lushly melodic, guitar-focused project as something far more than a New Order spinoff. In fact, Sumner admits that he rather enjoys sharing the frontman spotlight with Evans, giving himself the time he needs to produce and get back to the guitar.
Still, it's Sumner's plaintive vocals and distinctively detached delivery that gently marks the band's handsome first single, "Sink or Swim," and their second, "Twist of Fate." Unlike Sumner's other bands, such as Electronic which he founded in the early 90s with guitar great Johnny Marr, the emphasis in Bad Lieutenant is spirited, straight-up alternative pop and rock, leaning on its abundance of guitarists, rather than the synth-swept, bass-shuddering dance rock of its predecessor.
When TAS caught up with Sumner on the phone from Manchester earlier this month, he was still anticipating the band's U.S. tour. Given the bizarre obstacles that have prevented Bad Lieutenant from making it over the pond thus far - curiously the band's arrival in mid-April would have nearly coincided with the 30th anniversary of Joy Division's aborted tour of the States in May 1980 - it's still not clear when Sumner, Cunningham, Evans, Morris and bassist Tom Chapman will be able to reschedule their cancelled dates here. We'll keep you posted:
TAS: What was the catalyst for you to redirect Bad Lieutenant with a sound that was far more acoustic and more guitar-oriented than anything you'd done previously? Even with Johnny Marr and Electronic?
Bernard Sumner: A number of reasons really. When you're working on synthesizers and programming stuff - well, any keyboads - it's quite a solitary thing. It's you in front of a computer and it's not much fun for the rest of the band. I was working with two guys - Phillip Cunningham, he replaced Gillian [Gilbert] in New Order when she went AWOL - and Jake Evans who is just a young guitarist from nearby where I live. He was 28 when we started the record and he's been playing guitar since he was five years old. Brilliant guitarist. And I didn't want to [sit in front of a computer] with two great guitarists while they're just twiddling their thumbs in the other studio. I thought that would be counterproductive. Also, not utilizing the talent that I had working with me - so it seemed an obvious to get those guys on the guitars and get them fired up straight away.
Also, with electronic music as well - I think New Order made dance-oriented electronic music - it kind of changes every six months and there's a new flavor every six months and you've really got to be on the ball. It's more putting one-offs out and I didn't want to be a one-off. I also didn't want to be DJ fodder as well (laughs). It's got a bit that the guy who makes the music really isn't that important; it's the DJ that's important and it's a bit off-putting really (laughs).
TAS: Also, the era of looking at an album as on entity has also shifted because of digital downloading and all else. The first single that was released off of the Bad Lieutenant album, "Sink or Swim," was, for me, sounded the most like New Order, whereas the album itself is quite unlike that band. Perhaps you were gently easing people into the idea that you were now in a completely different project?
Bernard: No, I'm not that contrived! (laugh). We just put that track out first because it was the most melodic, tuneful song.
TAS: It is a beautiful song.
Bernard: Yeah, and we thought that what was what you choose for a first single. And I guess if that had been on a New Order album, we would have chosen that track as well. You're right though, the album does drift off into different directions - it's a real band effort, this album - and those directions represent everyone's taste in the band. I have to steer the guys away from the old classic rock sometimes. Both of those guys come from a small town called Macclesfield, which is actually where Ian Curtis and Stephen Morris come from, and I'm from right the other side of town, near the center of Manchester, where I grew up. And those guys from that town have a penchant for classic rock, shall we say. Sometimes I have to encourage them to look forward, rather than looking back.
TAS: Am I wrong, but aren't there some nods to The Who on "Dynamo"?"
Bernard: There is, yeah (laughs). We started writing that track, it's a track that came from Jake, and it's actually Phil who really likes The Who. So Jake brought the track, in an early incarnation, as a music track. And I said, "well, I sounds a bit like U2. Don't want to sound like U2." And he says, "okay, I'll take it away and work on it." Not that I have anything against U2, I just want to sound like us. So then Jake [brought the song] back in and says, "so what do you think of that?" And I say, "it sounds like the bloody Who now!" (laughs). So I said that I'd rather it sound like The Who than U2 so we'll stick with The Who. Well, the way Jake and Phil saw it, The Who are a fantastic group and it was more of a nod towards them. A symbol of reverence rather than aping them.
TAS: I've always admired you as a guitarist and I was surprised to read that Neil Young was an influence on you.
Bernard: He is. I did have several influences when I was a teenager growing up. I've recently taken to checking out Santana's performance at Woodstock, "Soul Sacrifice." It's an absolutely bloody amazing live performance. Apparently he was tripping while he was playing guitar on that; I read an interview where he said that the neck of his guitar turned into a snake while he was playing because [the band] thought that they were going to go on stage twelve hours later. So he dropped a tab of acid only to be told, "no, no, you're going on stage in one or two hours." So he's like, "oh my god, what am I going to do?" I just checked out their performance and he's a bloody amazing guitarist, he's really getting into it in the performance.
But I digress! I like Neil Young as well because I really like his sound and when he's doing a solo it sounds like he's playing with one finger (laughs). I like [him] because he does more with less, really. I like different guitarists for different reasons. I like Carlos Santana because he's very melodic. I like his early stuff. His later stuff has gone a bit smooth for my taste.
TAS: Is that what you were striving for on this album? Doing more with less? Songs like "Running Out of Luck" or "Walk on Silver Water" are stripped down, yet rather lush.
Bernard: Well, I produced this album and some of the layering came from my personal taste, really. We didn't make any plans of what it was going to be. We literally went into the studio with our guitars and a drummer and just played together without any preconceptions of what we were going to do or what it was going to be. And what it was is what it was. The only concept that we had was that some of the stuff should be suitable for playing live because we knew we would play live with it. Some of the early stuff we wrote was kind of mellow and we thought, "Hmmm. We're going to need something with a bit more energy in it to play live." That's the only sort of contrived thing we did about the album.
TAS: Playing live, is it strange to be playing with Stephen and with Phil, only with a completely different mode of thinking and working? Or ... it must be liberating too.
Bernard: (sharp laugh). Well, without going too far, it's very, very pleasant (laughs). Read into that what you wish!
TAS: No raised voices, eh?
Bernard: Yeah, there's no big egos in this band. Apart from Jake, actually, surprisingly. Burgeoning ego problem (laughs). It's pleasant, you know, because with Jake, we've already done some gigs. We've played Germany, France, the UK and it's good, it's good because everyone's there to have a good time, there's no issues. It's fun. Really fun being with these guys. With Jake, for example, it's the first time he's done any major touring. He's got another band called Rambo and Leroy with his brother Matt, and they've done a few gigs in the Manchester area but he hasn't been on tour before and it's the first time and he absolutely loves it. I don't think he's ever been abroad before?
TAS: You hit some problems coming to the States in December. What happened?
Bernard: We did. Some sort of administrative f**kup. I'm sorry to use that word, but it was a f**kup. I don't know the details but I think we got a visa and it was the wrong sort of visa.
TAS: The timing of you coming to the States with this band this spring - it's almost 30 years to the day that you were to arrive with Joy Division, but did not.
Bernard: Really? We'll have to play a couple of Joy Division songs to remember Ian.
TAS: If you were to have the ability to speak to that younger Bernard and give yourself a bit of advice, what would you say?
Bernard: Retrospect is a wonderful thing, really. There's a few things that I would have altered. Perhaps a little less partying. New Order were a bit wild sometimes. Sometimes we went over the edge a bit and perhaps we messed up a few times because of our 24 hour partying. And that was kind of stupid really. No, it wasn't stupid. It wasn't all bad (laughs). I don't know! As you get older you get wiser and I'm kind of addicted to waking up in the morning feeling good. When my party days were reduced - not completely because I still like a drink and the occasional night out - it's not every single day. At one stage it was every single bloody day when we were on tour in the States. It's nice to wake up in the morning and feel good rather than feeling like s**t, you know? So I'm quite addicted to that. I'm not a teetotaler. There's a middle path through life that I like to take, rather than sway from one extreme to another. But I never really swayed from one extreme to another, I was just once extremely drunk all of the time. I didn't go to extreme sobriety.
TAS: In your lyrics, you're enigmatic, but you've never shied away from being honest about your personal situation, whatever that might be. True?
Bernard: The way I write lyrics, I believe they call it stream-of-consciousness in books where. I very, very sit down with a subject and write about that subject. I normally try and listen to the music that was written and try to find what the soul of that music is, listen to it and see how the music talks to me. What it's saying to me. Sometimes in a very abstract way but I think that words can be abstract in the way that painting can be abstract and still have some dreamlike quality that means something to you on a different level, rather than purely literal. I guess when I'm writing lyrics it's a bit like daydreaming, really, and describing that daydream. But the dream is influenced by the vibe in the music. It's the only way I can do it.
I can sit down and write about a subject like ... sometimes I can write story lyrics. Say like "1963" by New Order. It was kind of a story that I made up. There's a song by Electronic called "Flicker" and that was influenced by watching the news. What I did literally with that song is that I got a load of newspaper articles, cut them out and threw them on the floor. In the little studio where I write my lyrics I've got a swivel chair and I swiveled round and whatever headline caught my eye, I would write a few lines about that headline and put the song together in a very experimental way. It was interesting to do, but I only did it once.
Before I was a musician, I used to [paint and draw], so I have come at it at that angle. Also, you've got to remember that I never even dreamed about being a lyric writer when I was a teenager. I just wanted to be a guitarist. I didn't think about anything else, except girls of course. But fate intervened, fate took a detour and I ended up being a singer in the group. I never thought that would happen.
TAS: Do you find it a little surreal when you see so many younger bands, like Delphic from Manchester or The Editors, so influenced by New Order? How do you walk anywhere, a Tesco supermarket even, without being approached by musicians who spot you?
Bernard: It's much more preferable to being forgotten! [It's nice] that young musicians remember you, to have that effect. It's a good thing that people treat your music with reverence and remember it. I mean, we did the same thing when we were starting out in Joy Division. Someone would bring in a new Iggy Pop or David Bowie record and we'd listen to it and go, "oh, that's great, let's do something like that." I think no musician starts from year zero, from a complete vacuum. Even if you go back to Beethoven and classical composers like that. They started often by recreating other pieces by other composers that came before them, so you have to learn your art somewhere. And being self-taught as a musician you have to learn from other people's songs. It's natural. I'm really glad that our music has proved influential after all this time.
TAS: Perhaps more so than ever, given the rise of dance and rock.
Bernard: I guess one of the reasons is that we never went out-and-out commercial. Or corporate, rather. We were quite commercially successful but we never burned so bright that we completely burned out. Particularly the music of Joy Division, there's a kind of feeling of self-discovery because it's not a wide open commercial group that tons of people know about. So young people can discover it for themselves. It's remained a hip band really. My friend was with his 14-year-old daughter the other day and she was listening to an iPod. He [asked her what she was listening to] and she said this band called Joy Division (laughs). It's amazing that this band has spanned the ages.
I think people can tell when something is real. Sometimes people join groups to become famous. And sometimes people join a group because people love music. And I think in the long term, it becomes obvious to the listener. And it's the music that lasts.
TAS: Are you still working on a more synth-focused project with producer Stuart Price [aka Jacques Lu Cont and Les Rythmes Digitales]?
Bernard: No, I put that aside because I want to concentrate on Bad Lieutenant really. This is my bag and I want to see this through ... to the end (laughs).
TAS: Are you already talking about a second album?
Bernard: We're actually working on a track downstairs. We're doing a charity record for Centrepoint in the UK for homeless teenagers. It was formed in 1969 as a charity. It's named after an infamous tower block that was in London, still in London, and it was empty for years and years and there were tons of homeless people about. So the charity is putting together an album of songs from 1969 and the song that we have chosen is "In The Ghetto" by Mr. Elvis Aaron Presley.
TAS: Are you singing lead on that?
Bernard: Yes! (laughs). I'll do my Elvis impersonation. So we're working together on that. But the main thing really is concentrating on playing live this summer.
TAS: Since you've been revisiting New Order and Joy Division songs during those gigs, have you redeveloped a new affection for any of the songs?
Bernard: Yeah, well, obviously we want to showcase the Bad Lieutenant stuff. The live set is a bit of career retrospective since we do a bit of Joy Division and New Order. And I do an Electronic song and the song I did with The Chemical Brothers ["Out of Control"]. When you write an album, you don't write a set, you write an album. So it's very difficult to put a set together with one album. And I also think people want to hear the old stuff as well. And I want to play the old stuff (laughs).