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Bernard Sumner of New Order talks about new music and recovering from COVID-19

Bernard Sumner of New Order - interview with Jill Riley
Bernard Sumner of New Order - interview with Jill RileyFrazer Harrison/Getty Images
  Play Now [9:16]

by Jill Riley

November 12, 2020

Jill Riley checks in with Bernard Sumner at his home in England. Sumner, who is recovering from COVID-19, talks about New Order's new single, "Be A Rebel," which we've been playing on The Current.

In addition to talking about his getting over the coronavirus, Sumner also reflects on New Order's origins in post-industrial Manchester, on his fondness for learning about new instruments and musical styles, and on the merits of boredom. Watch the complete interview above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

JILL RILEY: Hi, you're listening to The Current. I'm Jill Riley from The Current's Morning Show, on video and on the radio, it's the way of the world, it's the way that we're doing business in the radio biz these days. Well, I'm really excited to have a special guest on the line and on video as well: Bernard Sumner of New Order. Bernard, how are you?

BERNARD SUMNER: Hi, Jill. I'm good, thank you, yeah. I'm good. I'm just recovering from coronavirus, actually.

Are you really?

Yeah, I got it three weeks ago off someone who worked here, actually, which is rather annoying. But I'm OK; my voice is a little bit gruff, but I was one of the lucky ones, you know; I didn't get it too bad, so I'm OK.

What was it like for you? I mean, did you kind of just get that loss of smell and taste? Were you just kind of wiped out for a while?

Well, I still can't smell anything. And I just felt really fatigued, really extreme fatigue, and I felt like something was having a go at my system, and felt like I had a little bit of a temperature, but not much, then it went away. I had that for four days; it went away for four days. And then came back four days, and when it came back, it was more severe, but still not too bad. I just felt extreme fatigue, like a really bad hangover, and then it went away, and I'm OK, you know? But I've heard some horror stories over here about it; a couple people know people who have died from it. So I'm very lucky, you know? Very lucky.

Well, I'm so glad to hear that you're on the other side of it, and that you're feeling better, because I know here in the U.S., there are places all around the country where we're hearing about more and more cases, and it's kind of like we're getting this second wave this fall. So again, we're just trying to do our best to social distance, wear masks, and...

Yeah, we're right in a second wave. We had a lockdown, a month-long lockdown, that started yesterday. It's serious; we've got a real serious second wave here. But it seems like Russian roulette; like, you know, you can get light symptoms like me or it can kill you. It's crazy. Apparently, lots of vitamin D and lots of vitamin K, K1 and K2, is the secret to combat it.

OK! Well, I'm going to remember that in case I'm one of the unfortunate ones as well, you know? And who knew this is where we were going to be in the year 2020? You know, especially for you, and for New Order, and I know that we've been playing the new New Order song, "Be a Rebel," here on The Current, and I know that you had these plans, like, "We're going to release this song, and we're going to go on tour," and all those best-laid plans come to an end and they change.

Yeah, we were, us and the Pet Shop Boys were both going to go on tour together.


And it was all sold and everything was done and dusted. And then this horrible virus came along, and you know, just stopped everything dead in its tracks. We also had to cancel — postpone, sorry — postpone a Japanese tour because it was seriously kicking off in Japan. We did do a short Australian tour, but then we had to put everything else on hold. But we are coming back, and I think it's like late September, October next year.

I see the new date for the Armory in Minneapolis: so October 3, New Order with Pet Shop Boys, and you know, we just have to be patient, and you know, wait for times to be safe. But I know so many fans in the Twin Cities are looking forward to that postponed date. You know, people that were kind of sitting on their tickets like, "Gah... the year 2020!"

We'll be there.

Yeah. Well, we look forward to seeing you here. But you know what? You did release the song, "Be a Rebel," and so it was kind of nice that you had something that you could give the fans during this time.

Yeah, and I think it's quite a positive song as well, so it's nice to come out with a positive message, you know? And it's unusual for me to write a positive song! (laughs) An accident, a fluke, a freak of nature that I ended up writing a positive song, but it's quite up, and it's very optimistic and interesting, and I really like the song, but I had to finish that song here in my little studio without any engineers, and just email it out to the band to ask what they thought, and they didn't say anything! (laughs)

Which can be a positive sign, yeah!

Yeah, no news is good news. So I actually engineered it as well and produced it and did everything that I could, here, in a little recording studio, which was interesting, but it was kind of, I ended up chasing my tail a few times, you know? But yeah, it's good and I'm proud of it. I'm really proud of it, and I've just been working on a different mix here last night of it. So it's good, it's good to put stuff out, yeah, but it's difficult working together as a band because we can't go into our rehearsal and studio space together — or we couldn't when I was preparing this song because it was ultra-lockdown here, which we're in again. Also, over at our studio, over at Steve's [Morris], the drummer's place, the floor has been ripped out of the studio because the floor — there was something wrong with the floor — so we couldn't use the studio. So it's been a bit of a down — not a down year, but a downtime year, where we had to down tools, really, and we're limited in what we could do, what we could get together. We had a Zoom meeting together last week, and we've had one other meeting, one physical meeting, this summer, just to chat about stuff and see each other, you know, but it's the same for everyone, isn't it? You know.

Yeah, I think no matter who you are or what your circumstances are, I mean, this is, if we're going to see people, it's through a Zoom meeting or even an old-fashioned phone call. I've been making more calls this year than I have in so long. By the way, I'm speaking with Bernard Sumner of New Order. You know, we were just talking a little bit about the new song, "Be a Rebel," and I just wanted to go back to one thing that you said, that it was almost like an accident that you wrote this positive song, because it feels so timely right now as we've been playing it on the radio. And you know, it's one thing to hear a song on the radio or play it on the radio, but you know, I looked at the words on paper and read the words, and I thought to myself, you know, "Take a look at yourself / You may not be the same as everyone else / You're just different, that's OK / We all follow our own way," and as I'm reading that, I'm thinking, "Well, this is almost advice that I'd want to give to a young person." And I wonder if that was a little bit of your intention of where that came from.

Well, maybe. My youngest son was 15 at the time, and he was getting some sh*t from school, basically. I went in and I thought, "They're giving him the same grief that I used to get when I was at school." And yeah, it is a bit. Schools are — I don't know about in the States — but schools over here are becoming very much like exam factories these days, and they don't care about individuals and they don't embrace individuals, so it is something I deeply care about, because I had a real tough time at school. I was basically told I was worthless. And I'm not. Look! I'm not.


I'm talking to you!

You've done all right for yourself, I think, yeah.

Right, yeah. So it's like, because they're so focused on mainstream subjects, they can't see the fine tuning of human beings; they kind of miss out on it. So yeah, there was a bit of an influence there from seeing the way that my son was being treated at school, and the way schools operate in general, which is ... pfft! They don't really care about kids; they just care about their government rating, you know? And it makes me angry, because it was like that when I was at school, and it's still like that now. We don't see it be progressing. But I mean, I think the song's about being an individual, as well; like, you know, just believe in yourself. Don't believe in what people say about you. And — I can't swear!

Yeah, I won't swear, but yeah! Just be an individual. You know, you can... School and college teaches everyone to go in that [holds hands in a pointing motion] direction; sometimes if you ignore that, and you go in that [other] direction, you can achieve much more. And going in that direction rather than that [one] means, you know, just be an individual and try something different from everyone else and don't just take what they give you, you know? Use your imagination. Everyone's born with an imagination. You know, boredom is a great thing. When I was at school, we never had computer games, and we had, I think we had — technically, in the U.K., we had three TV stations. We were in envy of the United States, where they had like, 50 TV stations. We had three. But because the TV antenna — aerial — on our house was pointing the wrong direction, we only got one TV station, and that finished at, like, midnight. So, there was a lot of times that you were bored at home, but being bored can be quite good, because it stimulates your imagination and can create within you a hunger for creativity. So being bored is not a bad thing. Kids these days — "Children these days!" — never, ever, ever get bored because they've always got something to do.

Yeah, and I've started talking like that, too. I have a son that's almost five years old, so he's a lot younger, but when I hear him say, "I'm bored," I'm like, "Good!" or "Go outside and think of something to do!" And his experience is just so much different than mine, where it's a lot of, you know, gadgets and games, and there's always something to stimulate his mind.

Constant stimulation, yeah. Well, that constant stimulation is always on a plate, and it always comes from the outside, delivered to you on a plate, where sometimes it's good if you're bored, and then you've got to find the stimulation yourself, and that's what creates great writers, great musicians, great filmmakers, is creativity, you know? But also great — also, it has to be said — great coders who write computer games. You know, that requires imagination as well. So yeah.

I mean, there's a balance in there somewhere.

I wave the flag for creativity.

I'm talking with Bernard Sumner of New Order. So, I've just started listening to that new podcast, Transmissions, so kind of that official story of Joy Division and New Order. I've listened to the first two episodes, and so I've been kind of this state of mind of kind of going back to the very beginning, you know, the roots of where New Order came from, and I wonder, what is it like for you to reflect on that time as you've had more downtime to be at home, and you're not able to meet up with the band, you weren't able to go on tour, and I know that a lot of people were interviewed for this podcast. Just what is it like for you now to just reflect on what that time meant to you?

Well, it seemed like a long time ago.

Well, it was!

Yes. Well, I always think those days were a bit grim. Manchester was a post-industrial city. It used to be the industrial heartland of the United Kingdom. And also I lived in, I grew up in a place called Salford, which was — if you've got Manchester there [holds hand up in a C shape], Salford's there [nests other hand within the curve of the C]. It's very strange, but some parts of Salford are closer to the center of Manchester than some parts of Manchester, so it's kind of like a city within a city. And Salford was the ultra-industrial part of Manchester and Salford, you know. It was the real industrial heartland. And you've got this in America, in the States, where you have cities that were, you know, maybe part of the Industrial Revolution, where a lot of construction took place, but no longer; say, Detroit, it's no longer like that. And Cleveland, maybe? That's what Manchester, in the days of Joy Division, which would have been the late '70s; Joy Division was formed in '77, I think — the end of the '70s, the early '80s. It was post-industrial decay and no job prospects. Well, there were a few, but not very good job prospects, and no industry there anymore and these decaying factories. So I guess that had an effect on the music we were making; you know, the music of Joy Division maybe reflected that sort of cold austerity that we were surrounded by. You know, you've got the Beach Boys in L.A.; their music's been influenced by surfing and sunshine and waves. And then you get Kraftwerk from Dusseldorf, and their music's been influenced by their surroundings. And I think that was the case with Joy Division.

But then with New Order, when we started traveling around a bit more, started traveling around the world, spent a lot of time in New York and the Eastern Seaboard of the States and all over Europe, and then that kind of enlightened us in a way and extended our outlook and our view of the world, and we saw that it could be a different place. And going to a lot of clubs and listening to club music opened up our musical scope, really. So traveling changed us and changed our outlook, and it was no longer centered on one place, because, like I say, I grew up in Salford, I grew up in Manchester; very rarely traveled. I mean, my parents and grandparents never even went to London, ever! And never went out of the country. Never. They never went to France or Spain or Germany ever. Didn't even go to London. So it was all very insular, and where we lived, we were insular to Salford. We never really went out of Salford very much.

Occasionally we did. I was a scooter boy. I had a Lambretta scooter, and we used to go on scooter rallies. I remember we went down to Brighton once, and we went to Blackpool. And we used to escape the city and go out — surrounding Manchester are a lot of green hills; we call them the Moors. And we used to go out on our scooters, even when it was snowing, without any crash helmets on or eye protection. In the snow. On ice. On scooters. And the wheels on scooters are about this big! So it was extremely dangerous. In fog as well. But it was an escape, you know? So yeah, I have to say about the current coronavirus situation, I really miss traveling, being able to travel, being able to get on a plane and just travel somewhere interesting. I really miss it.

Yeah, and even by the way that you describe, you know, getting out of that closed-off, insular environment, I mean, you can hear it in the music, you know, that there was this darkness that has evolved into a light. Your hand was pretty forced when you reinvented, you guys reinvented yourselves as New Order, you know, that wasn't exactly a choice at the time after the tragic passing of Ian Curtis. But even within New Order, the ability to keep expanding and growing and to, I guess, stay relevant in the times.

Well, I think that comes down to education again, because, as I said before, I hated school. I felt I had a poor education. Where suddenly, we're learning about music and teaching yourself, and teaching yourself about techniques and about using new instrumentation like synthesizers and computers. That, I thought, was fascinating. Really absorbing. Really interesting. And, you know, you didn't have a teacher teaching you; if you didn't know something about a synthesizer, you'd ask your friend — phone a friend, you know? He'd say, "Oh no, you need to press this button there." "Oh, OK!"

And we actually had, we worked with a scientist guide in the early '80s, but in the early '80s, a lot of these synthesizers were really expensive, so I used to build them from electronic kits. But alongside this scientist guide, he would design circuitry for me, so he taught me a lot about the technicalities of synthesis. But having been bored at school for, like — well, I left school when I was 16; started school when I was five — for all those years, the only thing I learned was to read and write, and do basic arithmetic.

And then, suddenly to come out of that environment and join a band, but with like-minded people, and be able to teach myself techniques, suddenly it was a real eye opener. It was like, you know, I see a new world, you know? And it's really interesting and it's fascinating and it's creative and it's exciting. And you know, it was great.

Well, I'm talking with Bernard Sumner of New Order, and I think our time is about up, unfortunately, because I'm really enjoying this conversation with you. We really look forward to the time where a band can be on the stage, and a crowd in the audience, and we're waiting patiently for that time. But New Order and Pet Shop Boys, coming to the Armory about a year from now, October 3, in Minneapolis.

Yes, a year. Well, we're looking forward to coming over, and it's going to be a long time, but it's going to be a real vibe when we get there.

Oh yeah!

We can't wait. Can't wait.

That energy is going to be pretty incredible.

Yeah! It's going to be.

I think there's going to be a newfound gratefulness for that experience that gets shared.

It's going to be fun.

Bernard, thank you so much. I'm so glad that you're on the mend and that you're doing well, OK?

OK. Nice to speak to you.

OK, you take care. Thank you so much.

Take care. Stay safe.

You too. OK, have a good weekend. Bye-bye.


New Order - official site

Transmissions: The Definitive Story of Joy Division | New Order - podcast

Audience inside the Armory in Minneapolis in 2019
Music fans at The Armory in Minneapolis on January 8, 2019.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images