From the Vaults: An interview with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr

When two songwriting icons collide: In the latest model of our irregular From the Vaults series, we present our editor-in-chief Utmost Dax’s 1996 interview with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr. The in-depth conversation originates from around the period they released Raise the Pressure as Electronic and is presented here in English for the first time. Photos: Bernard Sumner by Andrea Stappert, Ashton Marr (cc) University of Salford, 2007.

Max Dax: It is remarkable that two musicians from Manchester with such unparalleled careers—with Joy Division and New Purchase and The Smiths respectively—have started working together and that the songs which have come out of the collaboration sound so different to the music you’ve made before. It is much more club-oriented and has a techno feel to it.

Bernard Sumner: When we were in the studio with Digital recording our new album Raise the Pressure , Ashton brought in an album for me called… Wait a minute…

Johnny Marr: New York Garage Trax ?

BS: Exactly. That’s an album full of great club tracks. After all, we both love the Haçienda within Manchester, where they play music like this. If I were the owner of a record store for DJs in Manchester however would have thousands of these types of records laying around in the store.

MD: What constitutes a song?

BS: If you think about what individuals like about the music that Ashton and I make, it’s the songs and the harmonic structures in our tunes. By comparison, it would have been too easy to just write a record full of dancing tracks.

MARYLAND: Because these days machines make the process so easy?

BS: Simply no, no, even simpler than that. In England you can buy copyright-free grooves on CD right off the shelf. A single CD is full of drum loops, the next CD has dozens of bass lines, then there are CDs with piano jingles. You can sample entire bars of music made up of these hackneyed collections and put together an authentic sounding dance track. If you’re skilled and your hard drive doesn’t continuously crash, then you can write a track per night. However it’s not simple to write an original melody. In comparison to a melody, a groove is super easy in order to program. But even today it’s tough for me to write a melody along with a chord progression in a form that hasn’t been done before. Why is that? Because it’s difficult!

MD: It takes skill to write a melody. Would you describe it as craftsmanship?

JM: Yes, what we’re talking about here is craftsmanship. And emotions. And touch. A melody has to touch me and bring me in order to tears. That’s the benchmark. That is what we’re searching for.

BS: Simply, it’s hard work to write a melody. Above all it means continuously throwing away tips that you previously believed were exciting.

JM: It’s mostly craftsmanship, yet there are also exceptions. Sometimes you find yourself within the right place at the right time. Occasionally an idea simply drops through the roofing and hits you unexpectedly. Such things as that don’t happen to you whenever you’re in the supermarket shopping or when you’re in the car traveling to the supermarket listening to music—maybe sometimes when you’re driving, but rarely. I’ve been writing music meant for so many years and I must say that ideas only come to me when I have a guitar lying around someplace near me, or a piano. This sometimes happens to me that I’m within the studio in the morning, overtired, working on some music, and then I get most of agitated and suddenly notice that I am actually working on a completely different item. Our song “Forbidden City” came about when I was working on another music, “Free Fall”. Those who know all of them will know that they are two very different items of music. We were programming, it was calm, there was no music playing for just one or two minutes and in this particular break I heard the music in my head with its whole chord progression, rhythm and refrain. I was worried that I would lose the idea, so I grabbed a guitar, plugged it in and let the DAT run. My only hope was that this particular magic wouldn’t disappear, I attempted to not think about anything else other than this particular song that had come to myself. If I had been outside of the studio the particular song would have faded away wonderful.

BS: Someone I know who produces books once said to me which he could touch-type with ten fingertips at an incredible speed. He informed me that this ability had enabled your pet, for the first time, to bash a believed or a sentence that he suddenly got in his head into the computer immediately without interruption—and then after that to enter the following sentence. He sometimes produces like he is in a trance, because the speed of his thoughts refers to the typing speed of his fingers. The thought of having to first labour to write a sentence before then thinking back to the other connected ideas that he had really does him within.

JM: Unfortunately these moments in which songs suddenly appear out of nothing like dreams don’t really happen that often. You simply have to be there ready for it when they do. It’s a different way of working than simply being at the studio room getting drugs and hanging around the particular pill table.

BS: But that doesn’t sound bad either.

MD: What comes first? The text, a line, a word? Or the idea to want to meditate about a particular topic?

BS: Most of the time it begins with a line that comes out of nowhere and straight away means something to me. Later, I make sense out of it and then find the rest of the words which turn that fragment into a music. When I write I try to go with the flow of things. This only rarely happens that I sit down at the table with the clear purpose of writing a song. Really it was only that way with my confession, the song “Second Nature”. That was a case where I had the urge to summarize a lot of things that I’d been thinking about. In this song I envision what it is like to die. When I stand face to face with God and I am asked: “What have you learned in your own life? ” and “Second Nature” can be my answer to that question. For me personally a song must always me a story, it must express something that You will find actually been dealing with. But very often these are improvisations.

MD: In your music “One Day” there is line where you sing “It’s hard to face being rejected / What used to be affection. ” This has a wonderful effect—is it also the consequence of an improvisation?

BS: That’s a song that I would probably need longer to determine the real meaning of. Obviously it is about love. That’s apparent. And about rejection. But what else?

MD: You don’t know?

BS: No . But look at this way: additional songs don’t need any phrases, these being the dance tracks. When lyrics pop up in these, you can just relax and forget about all of them.

MD: But surely good words don’t ruin a dance monitor?

BS: I’m coming ever nearer to the realization that the whole stage of dance music is to forget—it’s escapism. Forgetting about seriousness. A flash of freedom. Dancing to forget about. You can work hard and concentrate most of week because you want to reach or achieve something—at least in the greatest cases—and then at the end of the week you go to a club and want to forget about the pressure that these days have burdened you with. In this moment I personally use music to forget about the pressure, in order to suppress what is inside of me. What in a dance track are generally only superficial. If I write a dancing track then I don’t want to discompose people from the rhythm and the flow of the melody. So in this way I approach different types of songs in different methods.

MD: Surprisingly, on the cover of the Electronic album Enhance the Pressure there seem to be diary-like texts. With New Purchase you don’t communicate in this way.

BS: I wrote the notes that you could read on the sleeve of Raise The Pressure when I couldn’t fall asleep one night. Late at night I sat in front of my computer and wrote lower what was going through my head. What I noticed in the social realities of today, of times in which I live. I published about how I see children, who are of an age where they don’t understand what’s happening to them because they are not really yet capable of abstract thought, becoming divided into two groups: one half of the children will lead a successful life, and will always experience devotion, love, attention. The other half are usually sorted out and denied this particular.

MD: Are you talking about yourself? Had been you sorted out in this way?

BS: In a way. On the other hand though, these children don’t just disappear into thin air. They continue to grow and become adults—and this is as meaningless as it is useless for society. What do these people do? They hang around and create problems for society. Society expects that these sorted out people will simply disappear into tough jobs with McDonald’s or UPS. Of course a lot of them don’t do this plus instead become criminals. Or they will become psychologically ill because they perfectly know that they were denied the chance to get a good life at a point whenever they couldn’t yet responsibly think meant for themselves. They simple weren’t permitted in. Our education system within Britain is responsible for a range of problems that our own society has today, because it does not treat all children with the same level of respect. It ridicules some of them. Our society is responsible for creating its underclass.

MARYLAND: Today you are the father of two children.

BS: I did not have these thoughts because You will find children myself so much, but rather mainly because some of my best friends are bad guys. I asked myself why my friends have gone down this path, because these are, without exception, friendly and their own way genuine, honest individuals. I would like to note that this particular worldview, and how it can be formulated as tunes in my band with Johnny Marr, can not be transferred over to other tasks. Songs are not innocent. We do not do anything like this with Brand new Order. That wasn’t ever feasible. With New Order it was constantly about being passive. With Brand new Order the lyrics follow a code. We now have never made an active statement with New Order. We thought it better not to make observations or symbolize any viewpoints. For me it was extremely important with Electronic to step out in the protection that such a concept provides. It’s very easy to hide oneself behind the secretive or the vague. It can be so shocking to actually observe the globe.

JM: We both still live fairly close to the places where we were raised. That means the crew which connects us to the places that remind us of our past is still around. But today we have more money. We are successful. I don’t live where I used to. I live close by, in a better region.

BS: I also live in a well-off area of Manchester. But I come from a very poor family. I can view the transformation. Today, the gap in between rich and poor is larger in England than in Kenya. That’s how things are in England. I’m talking about a division of society and I have experienced this division through my own life because I come from one end and have now moved around at the other end.

JM: The strange thing is that we do not really fit in to either of the two classes.

MD: You declared that with New Order it was about being passive. How do you mean that?

BS: New Order was escapism, obviously, above all it was a game of hide and seek. As the songwriter of New Order I never said a word concerning the lyrics that I wrote. With Brand new Order everything is unclear plus indistinctly laid out. It is intentionally not clear and misleading. You must understand that I was never a songwriter and never wished to be a singer. I only became a singer because Ian Curtis, our singer, killed himself. We nonetheless needed to and wanted to carry on, and the idea of replacing him with someone from outside seemed to all of us disconcerting and even artificial. Through his suicide he interfered with my future, he changed my life. I had developed to suddenly do something that I got never considered. I had to change the way I looked at life. Up to that time I was always the one who was in the corner and could observe the other people. Even on stage. I was the guitar gamer, the observer. In this role I really could also sit back in peace plus register what all those around myself were doing. I found that extremely interesting. As the singer you can’t accomplish that. As the singer you have to face the folks directly, you are the object being seen and you receive the attention. That is the state of mind of the singer and frontman. I had developed to change my worldview, my manner and as a consequence myself in order to make it as a singer and to be successful. My lyrics with New Order were therefore arranged as a way of safeguarding myself, so that no one, really nobody, should know what was going through my head. I had developed to sing because it was my job. I was the only one that could steer the ship off of the reef that it had landed on with Ian’s suicide, and I therefore gave myself the right the hide myself.

MD: What are the New Order lyrics about if you talk about them from the range of today?

BS: At a metaphysical level they were always about communication. Among people. Also and perhaps exactly whenever this communication didn’t occur or when it broke down. Furthermore, I would possess felt open to attack if the communication had worked, if people got understood what was going on with me.

MD: But isn’t everyone who raises his or her voice on stage vulnerable?

BS: When I write a melody, a chord progression, that is something subjective. Even if this melody warms a person, and hopefully it does warm a person, it remains a sequence of acoustic guitar notes. The melody remains a sense. A song lyric on the other hand is really a literary concept; in my case it was the considered idea of a susceptible human being. To say it positively: this individual who has nothing to say cannot conceal or conceal this nothingness possibly.

JM: That’s very interesting for me to hear, Bernard, because, generally, additional singers can hardly wait for the next time they stand in front of an market and can let loose and have enjoyable. I know what I’m talking about. Or even they just can’t stop their own thoughts flowing when they write words, because they are caught up in a sexual pride trip or they just need to obtain oh-so-important emotions down on paper. People who work in such a way are, inside my eyes, nonetheless entertainers. I don’t possess anything against entertainers: entertainers come with an enormously important role to play in society. People want entertainers because they desire to be entertained. Every one of us needs entertainers. Bernard on the other hand works in a totally different way when he approaches his lyrics. Maybe it is actually due to idea that he only became a vocalist due to a tragic twist of fate. His story has always captivated me right from the beginning. We both were raised and lived our childhood in a really hard English working class environment. Artistic expression was the last thing that individuals were encouraged to do by our own parents. If as a youth you had expressed an interest in an artistic career, it was not supported. Today I could understand why it couldn’t have been any different: when you come from the functioning class you have to be able to provide for yourself financially and an artistic job certainly didn’t provide the security you should guarantee that. If you can’t answer the core question of how you will definitely survive, then that means you have to hole yourself against your parents and the worst case, leave all of them. And what then? Back then, where would you try out the artistic talent which you may have? I come from the northern of Manchester, a very hard portion of the city and when I was still children we moved to an area in the south of Manchester that wasn’t very so hard. When I told people that I came from the north, they were worried about me stealing their watches plus wallets whereas for me it was such as moving to Beverly Hills.

BS: What Johnny means is that exactly where we grew up it was difficult to decide to be a musician or an designer because these weren’t the qualifications that would have allowed you to have a easy life. You had to be aggressive plus defend your ground. Around all of us those were the qualifications that counted.

JM: In Manchester additionally, there are areas of the city in which your hippy parents would start you with piano lessons at age four. They would then say to you, because they them selves would have loved to have been musicians, “You will be an artist on our behalf. Go to art school. ” In the north there wasn’t everything like that. I nevertheless knew which i wanted to be a musician. That was not up for debate. And I think that this situation, that we had to struggle for the living we wanted, found good expression through our music, for me using the Smiths and for Bernard with Pleasure Division and New Order. You can hear it in the determination as well as the vulnerability of the music. The despair that we had picked up along the way, as well as the doubt. That is perhaps the element that appeals to me the most about the music that I make. Even today, although I now lead a very privileged living. There are things one never does not remember. I’m not referring to depression, but rather to melancholy and sadness. Depressive disorder just leaves me empty. Unhappiness on the other hand is a strong emotional sensation. Sometimes it is even necessary, because life is that way. Where I grew up the particular houses are from the Victorian era, they are black and run-down and they also seem gothic. When I think to my walks to school, when it rained there was something in the atmosphere there that was beautiful.

BS: The band Electronic has a much less depressing undertone than The Smiths or Brand new Order ever had. We have also transformed as people since those days. The worst time of my life was between ages of eighteen and twenty three. Back then my life was a never-ending procession of emotional storms. Thunder storms. These days I say to myself, if you survived this period, then you will survive anything throughout your life. What do you want from living? I want to be happier. And today We are a very happy person. ~

This particular interview was originally published within German in Max Dax’s Dreißig Gespräche / Thirty Discussions , published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2008.

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