New Order: ‘It seemed totally alien to pick up a guitar’

For a band who have toured all over the world over the last 40 years, there are perhaps few places left to play for the first time.

New Order. Picture: Warren Jackson

But this week New Order will break new ground when the Manchester five-piece perform in the Georgian splendour of The Piece Hall in Halifax.

Keyboard player and guitarist Gillian Gilbert says they chose the Grade I listed venue because “the place looks fantastic” and that they are “looking forward” to the gig, adding her husband Stephen Morris, the band’s drummer, remembered playing at the Good Mood Club in Halifax during his days in Joy Division but until now the town has never been on New Order’s tour schedule.

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Two later they are due to play a massive show at Heaton Park in Manchester, their first concert in their home city for four years, yet Gilbert reckons it will be “just as nerve-wracking” playing in Halifax because they have not performed together for 18 months.

“The last time we played (to an audience) was in Australia the day before they locked down, so that one and a half years ago,” she says. “When we got together (to rehearse) it was like, ‘Oh my God, what do we do?’ It seemed totally alien to pick up a guitar. I don’t think Bernard (Sumner) has in a year.

“Phil (Cunningham) and Tom (Chapman) have been doing their side project Sea Fever during lockdown but apart from a couple of remixes that me and Stephen got asked to do, we’ve not really done anything. Stephen has been drumming a lot, but I just think when you stop drumming, you seize up,” she chuckles.

The only newish music in their set is likely to be the 2020 single Be A Rebel, a song that was subsequently remixed by Arthur Baker, the pioneering New York electro producer with whom they first worked in 1983. Throughout the years, he has remained an important figure in the band’s life.

Gilbert recalls: “When we first went over to New York to do a couple of collaborations with him, we had just come over from England and he was this big guy who had all these fantastic records that he’d made so we were a bit in awe of him, really, and he didn’t like any of our ideas at the beginning.

“He’s in the video for Confusion and he’s done Touched By The Hand of God remixes that we all liked. We’ve always loved his work and whenever we get the chance we like to meet him. It’s funny we still keep in touch with Arthur after all these years but he did have a big influence when we made that record.”

Be A Rebel was actually a song that was left over from sessions for the band’s 2015 album Music Complete. “Bernard said it would be good for a track,” Gilbert says. “I think we were doing it for something else like an advert but that fell through. Then I think he worked on it a bit and we did a sort of virtual thing (during lockdown), it was a bit weird that angle because we usually do a track together or do half virtual and half together, because we’ve all got our own studios.”

However it has given them the impetus to start writing again, she reveals. “Since Rebel we thought we could possibly put an EP out,” she says. “I’m not promising, but we have been working on some ideas, so you never know.”

In the meantime a planned co-headline tour of the US with the Pet Shop Boys has been postponed until 2022. Gilbert admits some frustration “because you can’t really plan other things” but recognises that “everybody has been hanging round waiting” during the pandemic. They remain undecided whether to bring the tour to the UK, she says. “Some of us are a bit like, ‘Is it a bit like a Rewind festival?’ and some of us think ‘Well, we’ve never done it before’ or been on that sort of tour where it’s quite full-on. New Order like to play three nights and have a couple of days off, we don’t like doing like what the Pet Shop Boys are doing, but we thought, ‘Let’s have a go and see how it goes’.

“With the England thing, it would be a bit like a Rewind thing, which I’m personally not against. But you never know. We never thought we’d do that...If it’s lots of fun we probably will.”

Music Complete was a significant juncture for New Order, heralding Gilbert’s return to the recording with them for the first time since 2001. It was also Tom Chapman’s first album as their bassist since taking over from Peter Hook. Gilbert says it felt like the band had been rejuvenated.

“When I went back in 2011 the idea was just to play in small venues because we didn’t really want to promote ourselves as New Order with the new line-up,” she says. “We didn’t know how people were going to react to it.

“When Ian (Curtis) died at the end of Joy Division, a lot of people didn’t like New Order for a long time because they just wanted Joy Division, and I think our music was getting a bit more upbeat and we didn’t want to play Joy Division songs anyway. We do now, you look at the past and think ‘They wrote those songs, let’s do them, they’re good songs’. But in 2011 it all started out very small and then we got offered more gigs and I said, ‘Yes, I’ll do some more, it was quite good fun’. Tom does bring an extra thing to the band, so does Phil. I didn’t really know them, I hadn’t worked with them before, but they’re good fun and nice people.

“We decided the next step was to do an album. I thought I’d rather just do an EP because an album is such a big thing but Bernard wanted to do a collection of songs, so we decided we would just go for an LP. We had a lot of help from Craig Silvey and Daniel Miller, he came up regularly to have a listen to what we’d been doing. I think it’s good having an outside person listening to the tracks you’re doing, especially Daniel because he knows a lot about music.

“We sort of co-produced it ourselves but we had a lot of help from him and Craig Silvey mixed it at the end. There was a lot of to-oing and fro-ing, which is good. I don’t think New Order have done that for quite a long time, apart from Stephen Hague, of course, and a couple of producers of Get Ready. But this had a completely different feel and it sounded to me a bit like the old New Order in a way, when we started. Everybody had just got loads of ideas and we’d say ‘That sounds good’, and with having technology that meant you could work at home and not just in a studio helped. You had more time to work on your own ideas before you presented them to the band, instead of working it all out in the studio.”

It’s 41 years since Gilbert joined New Order, having first encountered Sumner, Morris and Hook when they were in Joy Division and she was in an all-girl punk group called The Inadequates. She remembers: “Me and my sister and her friend used to go and watch bands in Manchester when we were 15 and 17. The town where we lived (Macclesfield) had quite a good music scene, but it wasn’t punky music, it was heavy rock and heavy metal groups, so we went to Manchester.

“When we were at school a reporter came up and we said we wanted to be in a punk band and somehow the Macclesfield Express got hold of it and we all had to sit looking miserable like punks. It was totally weird, I don’t know how it came about, I think it was my sister’s friend who got the call, so we did that and then we got all these phone calls saying ‘Do you want to come and talk to me about doing a record?’ I remember The Adverts phoned up and said ‘Do you want to play at this party?’

“We rehearsed in Macclesfield at this old mill and then we got rehearsal rooms in Manchester and that’s when we met Joy Division, rehearsing next door to them, so there was a lot of ‘Do you want to come and listen to my band?’

“But I only played one party and that was it really with The Inadequates because I was still at school and doing other things. I just got to know Stephen and Ian because they lived in Macclesfield and they’d give me lifts to Manchester instead of getting the train, and then I sat next to his sister in geography when I went on to do my A-levels and she’d tell me about her mad brother who was in this band.”

Gilbert’s keyboard playing, programming and guitar became a key element of New Order’s sound. She says she found her new bandmates receptive to dance music coming in from New York. “We did go over to America, instead of concentrating to England, because they had better clubs,” Gilbert says. “People didn’t really know anything about Joy Division (in the US) so they were quite intrigued, they used to come and watch you and because we had things like drum machines and sequencers on stage we were playing different music.

“Joy Division had just started getting into keyboards, especially Love Will Tear Us Apart, (before the death of Ian Curtis), so I’d like to think we just carried on in that vein. I remember when I joined New Order it was ‘Let’s come up with a fast dancey one’, it got the audiences going, so I think that built confidence. We built our confidence in America and brought it back over here and tried to do something a bit more dance, (like) a lot of the records we were listening to, especially Arthur Baker and Afrika Bambaataa and all that sort of stuff. We tried to put that influence in the music.

“At the start I was just adding on sequencers. Sequences in those days you could only do one or two bass lines and then you had to play over the top. I was like an extra pair of hands but then I used to have to wire everything together before the soundcheck, and actually do the soundcheck with the keyboards, then it was like ‘Can you do that...’ So I just sort of built up what I could do. We just had pretty basic synthesisers and drum machines that didn’t really like going out of the studio too much, so if it was in a club and overheating I’d be the one who’d go ‘What are we going to do now? Plug another lead in’. I was basically doing that and then as I went on in New Order I came up with my own riffs and that’s how I started songwriting. At the time I didn’t know anything about writing songs. I’d done a few punky songs with lyrics when I was 16, but not coming to a group like Joy Division that had three songwriters doing the music. It was a bit daunting at first. I was like the apprentice and I gradually grew more and more from the programming into actually writing stuff.”

Johnny Marr once remarked on how important Gilbert had been in encouraging more women to join indie bands, transforming what had once been a very male-dominated scene. She says “in a way” she was conscious of being a role model for others.

“A lot of girls used to come up to us at the end (of gigs),” she says. “Joy Division gigs were very male-dominated but I think bringing me into the band a lot of girls came to see us. Seeing a girl on stage with three boys, it was very unusual in those days with them not being the singer. I hope I encouraged people. I never really thought I was like an apprentice, I was treated the same as each band member, like an equal, which was quite important.”

Gilbert did take a break from New Order for a decade to raise her and Morris’ daughters, Tilly and Grace. She says “it felt the right time” to return to the band in 2011. Back when their children were younger, she recalls: “In my heart I didn’t really want to leave the kids and go on tour or go in the recording studio. We had moved to a farm with animals and started a little recording studio in the barn.”

For a time she struggled to balance band commitments with family life but when Grace became ill with neuromyelitis optica during the making of New Order’s 2001 album Get Ready she decided it was time to “leave and take a sabbatical until she was better”. Besides, she says: “Phil [had come] in to do the guitars anyway because Bernard wanted to do a rock album, so I thought, ‘Oh right, then’.”

Today she takes pride that her now grown-up daughters are following in her musical footsteps. “When they turned 15 and 16 and I think I was going back to New Order (in 2011) they were like, ‘Oh, that’s what my mum does’. Tilly thought, ‘I can play keyboards now’, then Grace, my other daughter, is into programming and playing the drums and singing, she does a bit of everything, even playing guitar. It’s great. She goes into her room and puts some songs out there and Tilly is in a band. (Before lockdown) she was doing loads of gigs and they played with us in Paris and Brussels...It’s good because they keep themselves entertained and they’re really interested in it.”

New Order play at Halifax Piece Hall on Wednesday September 8. www.neworder.com