Bernard Sumner talks to Northern Soul
It’s a sunny Autumn afternoon out on the terrace bar at The Lowry in Salford and Bernard Sumner is explaining how he came to write his autobiography. “I had at the back of my mind that one day I would write a book and I just decided the time was right, really, and that I was old enough. So I decided to do it and then we approached the publisher through an agent.”
He reconsiders. “Actually, that’s not strictly true. We had been approached by another publisher before about writing a book, and that was kind of the kindling that started the fire.” Suddenly, he starts laughing. “See, I’m getting all poetic, all literary! ‘Kindling that started the fire’ – I don’t normally talk like that, you know. It’s just that I’ve just written this book and it’s gone to my head. I think I’m bloody Shakespeare now!”
Sumner is very quick to insist that he’s “not a wordy person” – but you’d have to say that he’s done pretty well out of words over the years. As lyricist and singer with New Order, he’s been the focal point of one of the most beloved and influential bands of the last 30 years. Or course, it’s a role that only came about through calamity when Ian Curtis committed suicide in May 1980, leaving the rest of Joy Division lost and without a front man. In fact, Sumner’s autobiography came about out of a kind of harsh necessity, too. “It was just about setting down a record of what I’ve done, as fairly and as cleanly as possible,” he says. “I tried to correct errors and untruths that have been written. It was a purposeful book. It’s not a dalliance.”
To get the book written, Sumner collaborated with an established author, his friend Charlie Connelly. “I’d read a couple of his books – Attention All Shipping, and And Did Those Feet, which is a kind of historical travelogue through Great Britain and Ireland. And I wrote him a fan letter – well, a fan email – saying ‘I really like your books’, and we became friends. So when I decided to write this book, I thought he would be a good guy to help me write it.”
It was a long, involved process, and Sumner was far from a back-seat passenger. “The publishers quite rightly wanted it to be very much in my own words, and I didn’t want it to be like celebrity perfume where I go [sniff] ‘Hmm, yes, that smells nice’, and put my name on it. It was not like that at all.” In practice, it grew out of a series of recorded interviews between Connelly and Sumner. “We just decided to talk about a certain period, or a certain subject, or a certain era and he’d plonk the tape recorder down – and then wouldn’t say anything for two or three hours. During the process of the whole book, Charlie probably asked me about eight questions. He did his job well. He just left it up to me to free-wheel, really.”
Connelly then transcribed these tapes, and handed the transcript back to Sumner. “He’d take all the crap out of it, basically, and convert it to the written word. I would then go through what he’d done and edit it. I’d go, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean it that way, I meant it this way’, or sometimes it would prompt me to remember some more stuff and put that in.”
Sumner is full of gratitude for Connelly’s input. “If it hadn’t have been for Charlie, I think it would have taken me twice as long. That’s why you work with a writer. If it’s down to you, you’d be like, ‘Hmm, what would I rather do today? Lie here in the sun scratching my balls – or go inside in front of a laptop and write the book?’. Every time it would be lie in the sun and scratch my balls, with a glass of something in one hand.”
Now that it’s been published, Sumner admits to being happy with the end result. “I am, yeah. I’m just reading it again. Obviously it’s quite an intense experience, writing a book about yourself. It’s a bit like self-analysis, really, so it’s been a while before I could face reading it…but I can’t put it down! It’s a weird experience, because it’s a bit like pillaging your own brain, pouring your heart out to the world, which is so unnatural really. Especially because, as I say in the book, I’m quite a private person. It’s a bit like exposing yourself over the counter at Boots.”
Indeed, Sumner’s book, Chapter and Verse, marks this usually discreet figure opening up far more than he ever has before, and in a winningly cool, deadpan fashion. It starts off with a vivid snapshot of growing up during the 60s in Lower Broughton, just a stone’s thrown from what is now The Lowry and MediaCity. “It’s changed rather a lot,”, Sumner remarks dryly. During his childhood, he was never exactly bookish. “I’ve had to become a wordy person, but I wasn’t. I was a visual person. I thought in pictures and images and impressions. I’d walk into a multi-storey car park and I’d get an enormous impression of the place, a vibe and a feeling for it. I’d remember exactly what it looked like, but it wouldn’t drive me to words. I found it difficult at school I think, because a lot of the words that the teachers were speaking to me just didn’t stick, they just slipped past me.”
Sumner’s upbringing sounds rough going at times, but it was by no means bleak and he went on to forge a career in which he explored his artistic inclinations to great success. One of the most curious and least well-documented episodes in this career is the period in the mid to late 70s, soon after he left school, which he spent working at the then newly-opened Cosgrove Hall animation studios. It’s a strange thought, but often he would spend the night in a van travelling to and from a Joy Division gig, only to get up a few hours later to colour-in backgrounds for Jamie and the Magic Torch.
“Very often we’d go straight to work and sort of try and keep it together throughout the day,” he recalls. “But it was great working at Cosgrove Hall, it really was. It just wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do.” This juggling of two careers couldn’t really last. “I always look back at my time there with fondness. I did want to work in a creative sphere, but one of the things about animation is that it is a very repetitive form of art, and I couldn’t stand the repetition of reproducing cels one after another. I didn’t enjoy that aspect of it. Also, I wasn’t making any progress there. And my heart had drifted towards music.”
So there came a point where all four band members elected to go for it and jack in their day jobs. “It has to be said, we took a huge risk because we weren’t earning enough money to pay ourselves a wage. But we made that commitment and put our belief in Joy Division and things went alright…well, sort of went alright.” Even this decision wasn’t entirely cut-and-dried at the time, though. “I felt more like a visual artist than a musician. But I felt that life was pulling me in a different direction. I had to follow that direction and it caught me by surprise a little.”
And yet, Sumner admits he never draws or paints these days. “No, I’ve lost it. The desire’s completely gone. I think I liked painting and drawing because I was completely crap at everything else. I found it a very meditative process. It flicked a switch within me, a creative switch, I suppose, and now that has changed over and I do the same thing with music. It’s all the same thing really, whether you do poetry, creative writing of any sort, painting, drawing, sculpture, music. It’s just different manifestations of creative instinct.”
The book goes on to detail the gradual rise of Joy Division and the tragic loss of Ian Curtis. Sumner is quick to point out that the established image of that band, as crystallized by Anton Corbijn’s monochrome portraits of them, didn’t necessarily reflect the reality of the lives they were living.
“Well, it’s just a truism that we weren’t these dour, grey figures. I read a book a short while ago called The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It was never really my sort of book to read, but I was blown away by it. It’s very difficult for us to see what people saw in Joy Division or New Order because we were on the inside looking out. But reading that book, instantly the atmosphere was very much like listening to a Joy Division album. And I suddenly got it, what people see: suddenly, right. Right, OK. I was worried that people would find our music too austere, but now I can see that that atmosphere is so alien that it can be engrossing.”
The key point is, he says, that Joy Division and their music were distinct entities. “We weren’t like that as people. It comes out of you into the music, but it doesn’t mean that you’re a miserable get. Which we weren’t, we were just pretty playful adolescents. We might have been 21-years-old in body, but we were about 18-years-old in mind. Which was great – which you should be. Why grow up? Growing up isn’t a good thing. Stay a child as long as possible, because it’s fun. That was our attitude. So it’s strange that this heavy, austere music came out of us, but I guess good music and good art comes from your subconscious, not from your conscious.”
In the wake of Curtis’s death, Joy Division regenerated into New Order and, over the next few years, they rewired their sound with danceable electronic beats. Like all legendary bands, there are many New Order myths circulating online. One alleges that their breakout hit Blue Monday might share some genes with Gerry and the Holograms, a 1979 single recorded under a pseudonym by fellow Manchester music legends CP Lee and John Scott. So, is this a theory and a song that Sumner is familiar with? “Never heard of it! Never ever, I swear on my life. You know – I heard someone else say this the other day so I’m going to pretend that I thought of it – we’re all taken from the same well. There were influences on Blue Monday, but that wasn’t one of them, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart. No, it’s just not true. If it was, I’d admit it.”
The giddy hey-day of the Hacienda, which New Order effectively bankrolled, is conveyed highly effectively in Chapter and Verse. One memorable passage details Sumner’s daily social routine at the time. As biographies go, this features much more vomiting than most. But his lifestyle calmed down over the years, just as New Order albums became more sporadic. Recently there have been major ructions in the New Order camp, not least the rancorous departure of charismatic bass player Peter Hook. A war of words continues to simmer between Hook and Sumner. In past weeks, a photo has done the rounds on Twitter of Hook reading Sumner’s book, pulling a quizzical expression.
“Oh, really?,” Sumner says. “Well, you have to ask yourself, why would he do that, and want people to know that he was doing that? I wouldn’t put a picture of me reading his book on Twitter. I think it’s very illustrative of two different mindsets.” It should go without saying that Hook’s own Joy Division memoir Unknown Pleasures hasn’t found a home on the shelves Chez Sumner. “I’ve not read his book, no. Steve [Morris, Joy Division/New Order drummer] has. He said, ‘Don’t read it, it will annoy you’. I took his advice.”
Sumner’s book contains a photo of the current line-up of New Order, accompanied by the caption ‘Onwards and upwards’. Indeed, it feels like it’s all systems go for the band at the minute. “I’ve got a month of promotion now on this book, and then as soon as I finish that – and actually inbetween the promotion – I’m working on the new New Order album. I was doing some vocals the day before yesterday. And then at the start of October, we’re trying to finish the album.”
It’ll be their first album with a fresh record label, Mute. “We have been with Warners for a long time and they’ve been very good. They still own the back catalogue, and we’ve still got a good and happy relationship with them, but it just felt like time for a change. I mean, there’s been a change within the group, so it felt like time for a change with the record company. I’m a big fan of [Mute boss] Daniel Miller and the way he does things. We’re hoping it’ll be a bit more like Factory, maybe returning to our roots.”
Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me is out now
More information here: http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/divided-joy/9780593073179
Northen Soul Awards 2017
The Northern Soul Awards 2017, hosted by Lemn Sissay MBE, will celebrate and reward cultural and artistic excellence in the North of England.