Stephen Morris: In His Own Words
[When going into an interview with the member of a legendary band – let along two legendary bands – it’s hard not to imagine your subject possessing some degree of ego. In the case of Joy Division / New Order co-founder Stephen Morris, nothing could have been further from the truth. He is easily the nicest, goofiest guy you could ever have a conversation with. And on top of the wonderful conversation, I quite like how the piece came out with the In Their Own Words format we occasionally use, where we lose the interviewer’s side of the conversation, and boil the quotes to the creme de la creme.]
Stephen Morris is no ordinary drummer.
Along with Bernard Summer, Peter Hook and the late, great Ian Curtis, Morris co-founded legendary post-punk act Joy Division in 1976, which reformed into the equally legendary band New Order, following Curtis’ tragic death in 1980.
His idiosyncratic, machine-like drumming has been a defining of feature of both famous outfits, not to mention his programming of the trailblazing synthesizers that New Order would make its lasting mark with. And alongside lead singer Bernard Summer, Morris is the only member who has remained through the entirety of both projects since founding bassist Peter Hook parted ways in 2007.
On Music Complete, New Order’s newest album and first in ten years, the electronic pioneers return to the synth-laden dance rock they first helped coin.
With the departure of Hook, the return of longtime keyboardist (and Morris’ wife) Gillian Gilbert and the additional hand of Tom Rowlans (the Chemical Brothers), the 35-year-old British band sounds more current in 2015 they have since the ‘90s. Simply put, Music Complete the best New Order album in 20 years, with featured appearances by Iggy Pop, Brandon Flowers and La Roux as the cherries on top.
We had a long conversation with Stephen Morris about the new album, staying fresh after four decades, being in a band with your wife, and the lasting memories of Joy Division.
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It’s quite an ‘up’ record we managed to make. It’s not a 100 percent dance album, it’s got different speeds in it, but it leaves you feeling happy.
The only conscious decision we made when we started was using synthesizer again. And it seems to have worked. The last couple of records were more guitar-led. I won’t say we were trying to get away from it, but that’s what happened, especially since we got Gillian back on keyboards.
I suppose it came from doing a lot of gigs. We played all over America and noticed how much people seemed to like the dancey-synthy ones. We thought we could write some more of those kinds of songs. So that was where we started off.
We started working with Tom Rowlans of the Chemical Brothers. We’ve known him for quite a while now. He’s got a few synthesizers, I’ve got a few synthesizers, we went mad with each others’ synthesizers, and got to writing some stuff. “Singularity” – I think that was the first one we did with Tom, and it worked out quite well. Then we did “Unlearn This Hatred.”
Halfway through, Bernard turned up and said, “I’ve got this idea for a song.” He had a title for it, “Tutti Frutti” and he wanted this Elly guy [La Roux’s Elly Jackson] on it. So that song was nearly finished already. [laughs] It’s so rare things arrive that fully formed, especially with a title. If you’ve got a title, that’s half the battle already won. Usually the most painful thing is knowing what to call it.
(New Order, 2015: (from L to R) Stephen Morris, Phil Cunningham, Bernard Summers, Gillian Gilbert, Tom Chapman.) [Photo: Nick Wilson]
For years and years and years you’d get new bands always talking about Joy Division. But in the last few years more young bands have started up and said, “I really like New Order.” Like this group Factory Floor; I heard their stuff, and it so reminded me of what we were doing when we first started using electronics. It just makes you think, yeah, we should go back and revisit this again.
All music is somewhat electronic these days. It’s pretty much everywhere; there’s no getting away from it. It’s a lot easier now. When we started the equipment was really, really expensive. It seems stupid to say that it was really difficult to do, [laughs] when today there’s more processing power in your phone than the stuff that we had, but it’s true. The stuff that we had was like clockwork compared to what you’ve got these days. But in a way that was kind of good because it made you wring out every last drip of what the thing could do. You really knew what the thing could do, and you pushed it as far as it would go. You pushed it too far most of the time, because it used to break down very regularly. [laughs]
I was always a bit of a tech nerd. Computers and technology – I just found it very, very interesting. It was the future, you could tell then that it was going to be a very important thing in music. But I had absolutely no idea that it would go quite as far as it has. I used to bore people to death, telling them, “You’re going to be able to program drum machines from a computer. You’re going to be able to write and record on a computer.” But I never thought you were going to have a record shop on your computer, I wouldn’t have seen that coming in a million years. I would have said, “You’re dreaming, boy!”
Now, because it’s so easy and you’ve got access to such great tools, the thing is staying focused. If I was starting out today I’d be like a kid in a sweets shop – I don’t know if I could get anything done. It happens a lot. You spend so much time fiddling about that you forget what your original idea was. I’m very easily distracted by a new item on the menu.
In New Order, for some reason, we work better in a crisis situation. [laughs] I think this time, because it’s the first time we’ve been working with Gillian in a bit, and we’re working with Tom [Rowlands] and a new bass player, it was all kind of new. It made us work in a way we wouldn’t normally work in, just that little thing made it a lot more interesting.
The thing is to try and do new things to keep the momentum going. That’s one of the most difficult things to do [as a musician]. I think we managed to do it on this record, but it’s very easy to get comfortable when you’re not being forced to do something different. It’s easy to say, “I’m going to do something new,” but it’s the hardest thing to do because you’re automatically drawn to doing the thing you’ve done before. And it’s not just music – you can sleepwalk into a way of doing anything. You get to a place and say, “I know how to do this now,” and you just carry on doing it in a certain way.
Peter [Hook] is a great bass player. He’s fantastic. But he was very unhappy with the way the band was going, so he left.
Gillian was away for a bit because of family stuff. Her daughter was ill, then Gillian got ill, so she was kind of on the sidelines for a bit because we live together [Morris and Gilbert are married] and the studio we work in is just across the way, so I think she found it a bit painful to watch New Order carry on without her. She really really enjoyed doing the gigs with us again [starting in 2011] and I think she was really excited to start writing together again.
How do I explain it without sounding terribly sexist?… If you get a bunch of males together, a bunch of lads, they will behave in a certain way. And as soon as a female enters the equation, the way they behave subtly changes, shall we say. [laughs] It’s quite interesting getting a female perspective back on things. I do occasionally disagree with Gillian about things, but eventually I learn it’s just because I can’t see it from that perspective. And I usually come to realize that she was right all along, which is sometimes a bit painful to admit. [laughs]
The time Gillian was famously right was when we were recording ‘Republic,’ back in the ‘90s when [Factory Records] was closing down. Gillian was quite adamant, saying, “Why don’t we go on strike, and not record until they sort things out?” We said, “Oh, no. We’ll just carry on,” and Factory Records eventually went down anyway. If we had gone on strike it would have sorted things out a lot quicker, and saved everyone a lot of hassle. Of course the record probably wouldn’t have gotten made, but you can’t have everything.
I haven’t got a technique. Basically I learned the drums from a very nice man who taught me how to play properly back in 1974, and I promptly forgot everything I’d been told. [laughs] When we got together in Joy Division, we kind of learned how to play, and how to play in a group, together.
Playing the drums is a tricky thing because you need other people to do it. A guitarist can play a guitar on their own, but when you play the drums alone you’re basically just annoying people. It’s not the sort of thing you can listen to for any length of time and think, “that was nice.” It’s not nice, it’s a racket, but if you put it in the context of a bunch of other musicians, it plays an important part. It’s a very social thing, drumming. It keeps you fit and it’s a great stress reliever.
There’s another side to drumming that I don’t quite get, where it’s just a bunch of athletics, like in the film Whiplash. I don’t understand that at all. I went to see [the movie] and I just got angry with the people in it, like, Why are you doing that?! You’re supposed to enjoy it. He’s just torturing you, and you’re just torturing yourself! No! I admire people who can play like that, it’s a skill and technique I haven’t got. I can appreciate it in other people, but it’s not something I’d like to do me-self.
(Joy Division filming the music video for “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” 1980.)
Unfortunately, the lasting memory [of Joy Division] is ultimately the tragic end, because that’s the thing you keep asking yourself. Why did that happen? It never leaves you. Everything up to that point was just a series of fantastic events and brilliant people. I wasreally fantastic. We did what we did and we did it in such a short span of time. Was it three years? Four years? It seemed to last forever, but when you look at a calendar or a diary from those days, you wonder, How did we write all those songs?
Joy Division was just something that happened when the four of us got in a room. I can’t explain it. We just got in a room and it was Joy Division. You didn’t have to think about it – which is a really funny thing – it just happened. We started playing and that’s the sound it made.
Writing stuff was really easy. Ian was a fantastic lyricist. He’s the only person I’ve known who’d turn up with a box full of lyrics. If you’ve got someone like that, you can write a song very quickly; he’d be mumbling some words, you’d be interacting with him, and the song would just come together before your eyes. And then every time we’d play it he’d change the words and the thing would evolve. It was an incredible thing to be a part of.
I still really miss Ian. I think he would have gone on to do fantastic things. He would have been a brilliant writer, as well as a singer. I miss those times and those people. It really was good, but your memory is just marred by the way it ended. You just never end asking yourself why it happened. Eventually you realize you’re just beating yourself up because you’ll never get the answer.
Joy Division always seems unfulfilled to me because Joy Division had so much potential and it never got to where it could have gone. You’re always wondering –and that’s the question everyone always asks – What would have happened if we had carried on? I’d like to know that too. I’d love to know. But I really don’t.
[As told to Ryan Pinkard. Main image by NickWilson.]