Inside New Order's Triumphant Return to Dance-Rock

'Music Complete' is the Manchester group's best album in a quarter century. They just had to reevaluate the band to make it

New Order's tenth album, 'Music Complete,' marks a return to the group's dance-rock roots. Credit: Nick Wilson

It took a crisis to reunite New Order. The pioneering dance-rock group had ostensibly called it quits in the latter half of the Aughts, but in 2011, they learned that their friend, "Blue Monday" and "True Faith" video director Michael H. Shamberg, had taken seriously ill. So the band regrouped and booked some gigs to raise money for his medical bills.

Originally, the band — which consists these days of frontman Bernard Sumner, drummer Stephen Morris and returning keyboardist Gillian Gilbert (who had left in 2001), along with guitarist Phil Cunningham and bassist Tom Chapman — was set to play only three gigs. But Sumner, who is age 59 and typically soft-spoken, says the reunion snowballed. "We've been on tour for three-and-a-half years off and on," he says from his home near Macclesfield, England. "It seemed like the opportunity to write an album."

New Order's first record of new music in 10 years — and first without founding bassist Peter Hook, who acrimoniously departed the group in 2007 — sounds like a triumphant rebirth, their best record since 1989's Technique. After two LPs of largely guitar-oriented alt-rock in the 2000s, the new album, the 11-track Music Complete, signals a return to kaleidoscopic synthesizer-driven dance-rock. From its wistfully melancholic opener, "Restless," to its uplifting, poppy closer "Superheated," and its diversions into bouncy house piano ("People on the High Line"), dusky, poetic tableaux ("Stray Dog") and ebullient alt-pop odysseys ("Nothing but a Fool"), it shows everything the band — now in its 35th year — is capable of, without ever lagging. Moreover, guest appearances by Iggy Pop, the Killers' Brandon Flowers, La Roux singer Elly Jackson and former Primal Scream singer Denise Johnson blend in and add to tracks rather than serving as distractions. Like its title, the album is indeed music complete, well thought-out and executed.

"It still sounds like New Order," says Morris — who is age 57, quick to make jokes and lives in the same area as Sumner — with a laugh. "We're not trying to be New Order on this record, because why the hell should we? It all jells really, really well."

Before the group could really get back to business, though, they had to deal with some unpleasantness. Months after what became their last gig with Peter Hook, who had co-founded both New Order and Joy Division with Sumner and Morris, the band had to rebuke the bassist's claims in mid-2007 that they had broken up. "New Order have not split up," Sumner and Morris said in a joint statement that summer. Hook retaliated by threatening to sue them.

"What actually happened was we wanted to take a few steps back from New Order, just to get away from it for a little bit," Sumner says. "So I made a Bad Lieutenant album. Gillian got ill; she had breast cancer. So Steve [who married Gilbert in 1994] had to make sure she was OK. So he looked after her, spent time with her and their kids. She got through it all and made a full recovery, which I'm glad to say. So when Bad Lieutenant reached its conclusion, we were like, 'What are we going to do next? 'Cause I could make a Bad Lieutenant album or we could do New Order again.' And then we got the request to play the charity gigs for Michael."

"That was when we asked Gillian if she would be open to doing it, and she said, 'Yeah,'" Morris says. "He was a great friend of ours; he sadly died last year. But it was, you know, the idea of doing something for Michael, for a friend, that got us together."

Meanwhile, Sumner consulted with his lawyers, who assured him that New Order could carry on without Hook, who subsequently formed his own band, Peter Hook and the Light, which plays Joy Division and New Order material, and authored books about his time in Joy Division and the Haçienda nightclub that New Order co-owned. As of this past April, the bassist reported that he had ongoing legal action with his former bandmates, suing them over the use of the New Order name and trademark. A rep for Hook did not return a request for comment in time for the publication of this article.

What happened since the split, though, has amounted to a nasty, public back-and-forth between the two parties. Last October, Hook penned a negative review of Sumner's memoir, Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me — which is getting a U.S. release on November 3rd — taking issue with accounts in the book where Sumner said Hook started arguments with him.

"It's a real shame," Sumner says. "My heart bleeds for him. He left the band, and then he complained about leaving the band. But I wish him good luck and that he gets on with what he's chosen to do instead of calling me all sorts of names. He's so angry. If you choose to take a path in life, don't blame other people for the path you've chosen to take."

"I really don't like it when members of bands slag each other off in the press," Morris says. "If you've got a problem, you should sort it out without going public. It's not very pretty, is it?"

"It must be getting a bit boring for people," Sumner says. "He did leave a bad taste in my mouth. ... I think we made some great records with Peter. I would never diss what he's done as a musician. But we couldn't get on together, so he's gone off to do his thing and it's his choice."

Once New Order decided to carry on with their own thing and make what would become Music Complete, they had to decide what direction they would take. Feeling burnt out on making guitar records — as both 2001's Get Ready and 2005's Waiting for the Siren's Call had leaned heavily on the instrument — Sumner decided he wanted to make a dance record. As it happened, Morris had also been getting back into dance music after remixing a track by the electronic group Factory Floor. And when Rolling Stone polled the pair independently of one another about their music tastes, both Sumner and Morris declared themselves fans of Hot Chip. So a dance record seemed to be what the universe was telling them to make.

"It just seemed like the time is right now to return to synthesizers and electronics, and it was interesting to see the way that technology has advanced," Sumner says. "We can now do what we've always wanted to do."

Morris and Gilbert began working on song ideas, which they filtered through Sumner. They revisited their love of Italo-disco for what would become Music Complete's "Tutti Frutti" "When we started up, we used to listen to a lot of Italian electro records," Morris says. "I really have no idea who they were even by. This guy just used to send us mixtapes, and you'd just play them in the car. That's all we had in the car, this tape of Italian electro. So since it was an early influence, we decided to get a bit of Italian playfulness in it."

Things really got started, though, when they brought in a co-producer with a notable dance background: Chemical Brothers' Tom Rowland. "We thought we might as well get a bloke who's got more synthesizers than us, and he was the only one we could find," Morris says with a laugh. "We worked on 'Singularity,' which was an idea of Tom's, and we did 'Unlearn This Hatred,' which we started with just lyrics and no music."

The first song they felt comfortable playing live, though, was "Singularity." The group debuted it in South America during the spring of 2014, but the band wasn't ready for it to take off — at least in the way it took off. "We didn't have a title for it, just a working title, 'Drop the Guitar,' because it was written with a guitar in drop-D tuning," Sumner recalls. "I told Steve at the first gig, 'We've got to get a bloody title. Why don't we all just sit down and think of a title of the song?' But it never happened. So the first time we played it, somebody must've picked up the set list. The next fucking day it was all over the Internet. 'New Order played a great new song. It's called "Drop the Guitar."' Fucking hell. That night we thought of the title 'Singularity,' which, as I understand it, is the point at which artificial intelligence overtakes human intelligence. And then there's 'singularity,' which refers to the beginning of the universe." From there, it was on.

One of Music Complete's most fascinating aspects is the guests who make appearances on the record. All of them came about organically, and in the case of Iggy Pop — who provides the deep poetry recitation on "Stray Dog" — it was a full-circle moment for the band. As it turns out, Iggy was a uniting force for Joy Division early on, especially between Sumner and the group's now-deceased singer Ian Curtis.

"We'd put an advertisement up in Virgin Records in Manchester for a singer for a punk group," Sumner recalls. "We didn't have a name for it yet, but we were a punk group. We weren't a punk group really, but anyway. And I get all these nobs calling my mother's house, 'cause she had a phone, and I still lived with her then. I got all these lunatics calling and we'd audition them and they would be a disaster. This went on for three weeks and it was driving us crazy. Then Ian called, and I recognized his voice, just seeing him at concerts, at punk gigs. And I said, 'Are you Ian, that Ian Curtis guy?' He said 'Yeah, that's me.' And I said, 'You can have the job.' I didn't audition him. I didn't tell him what we'd just been through; I just gave him the job. I just thought it was all right. I knew him from the gigs, and I knew he liked good music, similar to us.

"I went round to meet him at his house, just to talk about rehearsals," he continues. "It was the week that the Idiot album had come out by Iggy, produced by David Bowie, and Ian said, 'Listen to this, listen to this, it's just come out.' And he played me The Idiot and it was fucking great, in'nit. And I was blown away by it. So Ian kind of introduced me to Iggy."

"We went to see Iggy right after The Idiot came out," Morris says. "It was in Manchester, and it was quite strange because I was at that gig, and Bernard was at that gig, and Hooky was at that gig, and Ian was at that gig, and basically everybody we know now was at that gig, but we never knew each other. It was really strange. It's one of those things, 'Do you remember Iggy at the Apollo?' 'Oh, I was there.' It's like the Sex Pistols all over again." (Sumner and Hook formed Joy Division after attending a Sex Pistols concert.)

In 2014, the organizers of the Tibet House benefit at New York's Carnegie Hall invited Sumner to perform alongside Iggy Pop. The pair ended up singing Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" at the event. "It was amazing," Sumner says. "I can imagine Ian smiling when we did it. It would have meant a lot to him."

Later, Sumner found himself writing stanzas to a poem while watching TV on a night off. Whenever he'd get bored, he'd jot down a line. When he was done, he figured it would sit well over some music Morris and Gilbert had written, the track that would become "Stray Dog." On a whim, he emailed his new acquaintance to see if he'd sing on it. He got a reply: "Hi Bernard, it's Iggy. Yes, I can do this."

"The only time that I'd met Iggy was a result of this," Morris says. "It was really embarrassing because I had the first Stooges album and it was amazing, but it was on really, really think vinyl. It was a really heavy record. Physically, it was like the thickest record that I had. So the only time I met him, I said, 'That first Stooges record, man. That was a really heavy record. Oh, God. I meant it weighed a lot. Not that it was .... Oh, fuck. I've really made a mess of this, haven't I?' He thinks I'm a right idiot." He laughs.

"When I heard what Iggy did with ['Stray Dog'], I was amazed," Morris continues. "It's like a little film."

A few months after Sumner sang with Iggy, New Order met another one of their Music Complete guests ­— La Roux's Elly Jackson, who provides backup vocals on "Plastic," "People on the High Line" and "Tutti Frutti" — after watching her open up for them. But in this instance, she felt nervous meeting about meeting the group that had first made her excited about synthesizers.

"You get told things about bands before you meet them that aren't accurate, especially if they have a reputation, like, 'Oh, they'll come say hi, but that will be about it,'" Jackson recalls of the encounter. "Anyway, Bernard came and said hello, and I was chuffed with that, and later on, I went up to their dressing room after the show, and we got to talking about Quando Quango, a band who put out a track called 'Love Tempo' on Factory Records.

"I said, 'You know, it was so weird that [Quando Quango vocalist, DJ] Mike Pickering had produced that,'" she continues. "And he was like, 'Mike Pickering didn't fucking produce it; I fucking did.' And I was like, that's why I like it so much. It was an amusing moment."

With the ice broken, Sumner offered her the opportunity to hear some of the tracks that were going on Music Complete, which she said were in a remarkably finished form, and asked if she'd sing on them. "I said, 'I'll be your vocal bitch, whatever you want me to do,'" Jackson recalls.

"We watched her onstage, and we were all very impressed with her voice," Sumner says. "She was great to work with. She is very sweet, and she worked really quick. I think her voice, you know, is a nice counterbalance to mine."

"Singing with New Order is something I would have wished for when I was 18, and now I know what it feels like," Jackson says. "It's lovely."

The other massive New Order fan to make an appearance on Music Complete is Brandon Flowers, who owes a unique debt to the band. When the group made a video for "Crystal," the first single off their 2001 album Get Ready, the clip featured a video that followed around a fictional band called the Killers. Flowers and Co. took their name from the video.

New Order and the singer have been friendly with each other over the years. This past May, Sumner even joined Flowers at a solo gig where they sang New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" together. So it was hardly surprising when it was revealed that Flowers sings on the cheerful Music Complete closing track "Superheated."

"He still owes us money for using the name," Morris says, joking. "He's paying us off by singing on our record."

The whole experience of working with so many guest artists has been inspiring to Sumner. "It's just interesting, like discovering a new color and putting it on this palette," he says.

When Sumner and Morris speak to Rolling Stone, they're both in the midst of reworking the songs on Music Complete into extended versions. Each of elongated versions will appear on a deluxe vinyl edition of the record.

"I'm trying to figure out what 'Singularity' is going to turn out like, so I don't know about that one," says Morris, who prefers extended versions of songs over the edits and remembers arguing with New Order's label over keeping "Blue Monday" at seven-and-a-half minutes. "But 'The Game,' which seems quite short on the album, goes into a big long guitar solo at the end. It's kind of turned into some kind of electro-epic and it sounds really completely different."

By their own accounts, New Order still feel fresh in the journey they started out on, despite a few speed bumps here and there. After the record comes out, they'll be hitting the road in the U.K. and Europe beginning in November and into December.

Although they're showing no signs of stopping, the album title — a pun on the electroacoustic music genre musique concrète — begs the question, does "music complete" mean an end? "We weren't thinking people would think, 'It's your last record, isn't it?'" Morris says. "We didn't think it meant that. It also doesn't mean, 'Oh, bloody New Order has got a new compilation. We just thought it fits, because it's like a few different styles of music."

"I think the title was the last thing we did," Sumner says. "We were completing the album, music complete. It just felt right."