Wed 15th Feb, 2012 in Features
This year’s edition of Future Music Festival boasts the kind of lineup to make fans sick with anticipation – a seemingly endless list of colossal or merely legendary names spanning many genres and generations. But none of them could be bigger than New Order, not only because of their history dating back 35 years to the dawn of the postpunk era, but because of the sheer primal influence they’ve had on so many of today’s acts – from co-headliners like Friendly Fires and The Rapture to everyone on the DFA stage.
New Order didn’t just make the world safe for a marriage of rock and electronics. Their sound, somehow both elementary and impenetrable, both otherworldly and pop, has an unparalleled timeless quality, in part due to bandleader and songwriter Bernard Sumner’s almost neurotic avoidance of convention and cliché. Refusing to play with the pop marketing machine for all this time hasn’t hurt either. The much more recent work of fellow Mancunians Oasis – just to pick on one example – sounds dated by comparison, or at least tied to a definite era; but New Order seem to occupy their own space and time. Thus each generation of fans discovers their work almost as if it was contemporary.
Guitarist Phil Cunningham would probably count as one of those fans. A former member of Britpop group Marion, and a relative youngster compared to his 50-something bandmates, Cunningham joined New Order’s touring lineup after keyboardist Gillian Gilbert left in 2001. When founding bassist Peter Hook split with the group acrimoniously in 2007, Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris formed a new band, Bad Lieutenant, with Cunningham and bassist Tom Chapman.
Last year, after much speculation – and even more back-and-forth between Hook and the others in the press – New Order reunited, with Gilbert back in the fold, and Chapman replacing Hook on bass. In the past few months they’ve played a series of one-off gigs both at home in England and on the continent to a lot of fanfare, and are now preparing for a world tour.
Cunningham recently took time out from rehearsals on a snowy winter’s day to talk to us about the upcoming tour. Despite his “newbie” status in this iconic band, Cunningham has been around the block a few times. But he comes across as a very friendly, unpretentious bloke from Macclesfield who seems unfazed by it all as he relates what it’s like to take on a legend.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m just sat by really warm fire – we’ve got snow and blizzards outside; it’s probably the exact opposite to where you are. We’ve just been rehearsing up at Steve’s [drummer Stephen Morris] – he’s got a farm just outside Macclesfield, and we’ve been rehearsing there all day. We’re just getting the set ready to come out to Australia and play – I can’t wait.
Is the farm where you always rehearse?
It is, yeah – that’s where the studio is, we record and rehearse up there, and we’re just getting the set together. But everyone’s in hibernation mode at the moment cause it’s been so cold here; we’re looking forward to coming out there!
Does working in a more remote place like that influence the way you play or write music?
I think it does, yeah, because you’re kind of isolated and you can focus on it. I think it’s good for us too, because there’s no distractions – if you want to go to a pub and have a drink you’ve literally got to drive 20 or 30 minutes to get to a little bit of civilisation.
It’s good, we’ve just been getting a few of the more-obscure New Order songs into the set – because we’ve got a couple of [sideshows] in Australia, where we’ll be able to play a longer set than at the festival. It’s a little bit of experimenting – putting in some stuff we haven’t played before. It’s exciting, rediscovering some of the old tunes.
Speaking of obscure tunes, I saw a clip of last year’s show in Paris where you played 5-8-6 (from 1983’s Power, Corruption and Lies LP), which is one of my favourite old New Order cuts.
Yeah, I’ve always loved that track! I’ve been on to Bernard for years for us to do a version of that, and finally we did it – and it’s been going down really well at the gigs. We’ve checked out early versions of those songs – there are so many early versions of 5-8-6. We did a bit of homework and listened to live versions, and there was one particular version where Bernard said, “God knows how we got anywhere playing this sort of shit!” [laughs] Because it was a bit loose. But I thought it sounded good – it had its own kind of spirit to it. We’ve just kind of consolidated all the versions into our version now, and it’s really working.
Tell us more about that process of going through all of that old material.
Well, everyone has their favourites – like my suggestion was 5-8-6 – and everyone will suggest stuff, and then we’ll get a mock-up version of it together. Because, you know, there’s computers and technology involved; you have to get a template to work to, rather than just getting in a room and jamming it out. So we do that first. And sometimes, to be honest, the songs just don’t work. Some of them might have been written in a bad key for Bernard’s voice – and nowadays he likes to say he’s more professional in his kind of joking way, and he just can’t reach the notes, so we tend to shy away from those. Or we just go for the ones that feel good and work when we go through them. We’ve just been through the process of doing about six or seven songs, and then only a couple of them were feeling good, so we’re going with them.
New Order’s live sound for the past few years has been more guitar-oriented, but from the footage I’ve seen you’ve incorporated more electronics this time round.
Well, I think it’s really because we’ve come back to playing a lot of the classic New Order stuff, which always has featured the electronics prominently, and that’s the basis of our set at the moment. And that’s what we want to do really – that’s the point of it. After we play Australia we’re going to go on and play some festivals over the summer in Europe. And we just want to play the best of New Order – and maybe try and tuck in the odd obscure track – but to be honest the best of New Order is all the classics like Blue Monday, Temptation, Crystal. Loads of electronic stuff going on in there, because that’s what people love about the band I think.
Was that an adjustment for you as a guitar player, to fit into a more electronic sound?
Yeah, kind of. I’ve obviously got to work around it, and it’s turned me into a different guitar player – in a good way. It’s kind of figuring out a way to fit into it, but I’ve enjoyed the process you know – rather than just hammering chords over everything, it’s been a learning process you know, making it fit without making it sound like you’re overdoing it.
And it’s great having Gillian back in the band, because when I joined back in 2001, I was taking care of keyboards and guitars. Now it just gives me the opportunity to focus more on playing guitar and Gillian’s covering the keyboards – which is cool by me.