By David Sason
Stephen Morris is so affable and naturally gleeful that it’s hard to believe he was in Joy Division, the mythic Manchester band with distinctively bleak post-punk songs like “Dead Souls“&”Atrocity Exhibition“. While Joy Division became New Order by way of singer Ian Curtis’ suicide in 1980, the latter group’s demise was awkward, with bassist Peter Hook’s very public unilateral insistence that his departure was the definitive deathblow.
Thankfully, Morris (above, right) has returned as part of Bad Lieutenant, along with New Order brethren Bernard Sumner (left) and Phil Cunningham, Jake Evans (center), and Alex James of Blur fame. On the eve of their first U.S. tour, the drummer/keyboardist chats about revisiting his youth, putting a new spin on classics, and how being in a band really is like marriage.
DS: I definitely want to talk about Never Cry Another Tear, which is a tremendous album. But the last few years, you guys have been everywhere revisiting your past through two excellent films about Joy Division [2007’s dramatization Control and rockumentary Joy Division]. Are you surprised that there’s still so much interest?
SM: (laughing) It’s a bit weird, really. There’s been three films made about Joy Division. The first one was the Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People, which was a bit of a romp, really, because it was a comedy thing. It was quite funny.
DS: With Steve Coogan.
SM: Yeah, it was a bit of a laugh. And then Anton [Corbijn] made Control, which is really a story about Ian, and it’s a completely different film. It’s not funny really (laughing).
DS: Yeah, that’s one of its strengths, I think. I remember when I saw it I was astounded by the one near-laugh being the line “I don’t like hot dogs” –
SM: Oh, that’s right! (laughing)
DS: – And I was like, “what a brilliantly dark film”, because even with the one near-laugh, you feel guilty if you laugh about it, because it was a mentally challenged guy who said it.
SM: Yeah (laughing). No, Anton did a great job. The trouble with doing a film that’s based on someone’s life is that it’s a film, it’s entertainment, it’s not…Okay, it’s fact, but it’s not the whole thing, it’s not the whole truth. You know, if we put the whole truth in the film, it would be incredibly long and very boring. But it’s still very weird seeing your life portrayed, well Ian’s life portrayed, but the events you took part in, being made into a film. Very weird indeed.
And I never thought 30 years ago that that’d happen. I never thought 30 years ago that Joy Division would be as well-respected and as popular and influential, really, as they are today. I mean, I think it’s fantastic. My own theory is it’s because there hasn’t really been…there isn’t that much of Joy Division. There’s three albums, well two albums and Still. There isn’t that much, and I think we’re kind of one of these bands…when I first got into music, it was like The Velvet Underground. You went around to someone’s house and they said, “here’s a record.” You’d get turned on to a band, and then you’d have to find out about them for yourselves, because it’s not all over the show, not widely known. It’s great that Joy Division has still been kind of “cool”, which is fantastic. And it’s just kind of carried on without us doing anything.
DS: Was the documentary Joy Division a cathartic experience for you?
SM: Um…a little bit, a little bit, because it was all going on at the same time. They were making Control. And it was really odd to sit down and having to relive your life again for the benefit of the viewing public. I like the documentary. I think it works really well as a sort of sidepiece to Control. It’s more about the band, and it fills in a few gaps that got left out of the film Control. Anyway.
DS: I think your Velvet Underground comparison is great, because both groups were subterranean, and through word of mouth it’s a great discovery for the people. Did Ian Curtis have any idea about Joy Division’s appeal before he died?
SM: Well, the thing was we all kind of knew it was going somewhere. Everything that we did, it was going somewhere (laughing). That was really part of the problem with Ian. I think, as we said in the documentary, that it really couldn’t have carried on. It really couldn’t.
The best thing we could’ve done was to say “right, just let’s stop it now” and not carry on. But you can’t do that. You can’t. I mean, you can say that with the benefit of hindsight. But when you’re four lads embarking on a journey and it’s all you’ve ever wanted to do in your life, not doing it is the last thing you want to think about. So, yeah, I guess Ian…we well knew we were going somewhere, but at the same time, it was never going to happen, really.
DS: This is kind of a broad question, but can you compare the transition from New Order to Bad Lieutenant to that from Joy Division to New Order?
SM: (laughing) It’s completely different. For me, it’s completely different because Bat Lieutenant is basically Bernard and Phil and Jake, and they kind of wanted to do the album. I wasn’t that involved for one reason or another. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be involved. There was just a lot of personal stuff going on, so I wasn’t really around that much while they were writing stuff. We did a couple tracks here at my studio, but I’ve more or less been brought in the album’s been written. In some cases, the parts have already been played and everything, and it’s like learning somebody else’s stuff and changing it a bit.
DS: Do you think you’ll be more involved with the next Bad Lieutenant project?
SM: Oh yeah, yeah. I would’ve been more involved, but I just had personal stuff I had to do.
DS: Do you guys write songs on the road? I know you’re about to embark on a short U.S. tour.
SM: I’m looking forward to it. Writing is a funny thing. You see, in the early days, the great thing about Joy Division is that we wrote as a group. Songwriting was a cooperative affair. It was a bit of jamming, but we kind of got away with writing songs that kind of worked for everybody. And that kind of had to stop when we became New Order, because it really wouldn’t work anymore. We didn’t want to be “Joy Division Mark Two” or “Joy Division Lite”, so we had to find a new way of writing, which is a little bit contrived but we managed to hit on something that worked again.
But as time’s gone on, it’s not a group thing anymore. Someone will have an idea, like Phil will have a guitar riff, and we’ll all get involved and craft it. It’s kind of become a long, drawn-out process, whereas with Joy Division it was a bit like doing a photograph, a Polaroid photograph. It all happened very quickly. What we’ve ended up doing lately with New Order and Bad Lieutenant is like taking a photograph, taking it and getting it developed, then putting it in Photoshop (laughs)…you know, that sort of thing. It’s a process.
DS: What has your wife Gillian [Gilbert, former member of New Order and The Other Two, a duo with Morris] been up to? I know a lot of the longtime fans miss her. How is she doing?
SM: Gillian’s fine. The reason she left New Order [in 2001] was because our daughter was really ill [from Transverse myelitis], and she had to look after her. But she’s fine, she’s actually (laughing)…with The Other Two‘s back catalog, well it’s not a back catalog, it’s just two records made and are being re-released. And she says she’s going to sing on somebody’s record, but she’s been saying that for years. So I have a stick to…not actually beat her with, but I try to lure her into the studio to do a bit of work. But yeah, she’s been quite content.
DS: So the first time you embarked on a New Order tour and said “Okay, I’ll see you later, honey”, she wasn’t envious at all?
SM: Oh no, she was very envious. It’s the worst thing in the world when something that you’ve been part of for as long as Gillian was…as soon as she was out of school she was in the ban…then when you can’t do it anymore, you want it to stop, you want everything to stop, but it doesn’t, and that’s really, really hard, like, I don’t know, some awful type of divorce. (Laughing) It’s not a divorce, because she’d come and see us and everything, but it was very, very difficult for her.
DS: I imagine. Are you guys going to do another The Other Two album?
SM: (laughing) I think we might, yeah. We’ve got a load of soundtracks and stuff we haven’t used for anything. And with some of the other ideas, it sounds like an album, so we probably will do another one.
DS: Any timeframe on that?
SM: Well, Gillian’s been getting drunk and telling people it’ll be finished in October, even though she hasn’t done a stitch of work. (Laughing) It’s good to have a deadline.
DS: You guys have always been so honest in the press, which I think is part of the appeal of Joy Division and New Order. You guys present yourselves as you are, just regular folks.
DS: And the whole Peter Hook controversy was definitely weird, but also unique when compared to other bands’ in-feuding. You personally, Stephen, do you still speak to Peter? Is he still in the circle socially?
SM: Well, we’ve never really been big social animals, except within the group. We don’t really see each other outside of the group anyway. But I try not to fall out with people. There’s no point in falling out with anybody.
DS: So you don’t know if he’s heard the new Bad Lieutenant album or anything like that?
SM: Well, I actually would that he would’ve heard it (laughs). Um, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t really know.
DS: That’s got to be incredibly weird, something you’ve spent all these highs and lows with, and how that relationship evolves. Would you consider band mates of this tenure to be like a marriage, like you said earlier about Gillian? Would you say that’s an apt analogy?
SM: It is really. It is. I was reading a book by Bill Bruford the drummer for Yes and King Crimson. He’s done an autobiography [entitled Bill Bruford: The Autobiography] and it’s great and very funny, if you have a chance to read it. His take on it is, it always hurts when bits fall off bands. He’s got this great thing about when bands fall apart, it’s always heartache and harder than any divorce. It’s hard to explain, really, but you are really, really involved in it, and there’s no way it can not be painful.
DS: I imagine. How would you compare this new record to the last New Order record, which was [2005’s] Waiting for the Sirens’ Call? I’ve heard it described as a true “Manchester Rock” album.
SM: I think with Jake on board singing, being a singer, has helped a lot. And it’s a bit weird having three guitars (laughing). We’ve got more guitars than you could shake a stick at. But Jake is really good, and he’s got a lot of his own ideas and he’s not afraid to let you know. Some people would be a bit in awe, I think, of Bernard, but he doesn’t seem to be.
DS: You guys are still thriving and trying new things and are really vital, which a lot of veteran musicians cannot say. Do you think you guys just adapt to tragedy or changing circumstances better? Many musicians would’ve been disheartened after Ian’s suicide and the loss of that momentum, but you guys kept going and you keep going now. What do you attribute that to?
SM: I can only speak for myself, really. My take on it is there’s always something to learn, always something you haven’t done. As long as it’s still enjoyable, then there’s a reason to do it. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, then there’s something wrong, you’re doing the wrong thing. Thankfully, being in Bad Lieutenant is quite an enjoyable thing. I’ve certainly enjoyed it thus far. I get to play the drums in a band. It’s a very familiar environment (laughing). I know the singer quite well! But it’s fun. We really do genuinely enjoy it.
DS: One last question, Stephen, and I thank you again for taking the time. What can we expect at the San Francisco show setlist-wise? You guys have so much material.
SM: Well, Bernard’s thing about Bad Lieutenant live was he wanted to do a cross section of songs from his past, which was fine but he wouldn’t tell us what they were (laughs). So we had to learn a lot of songs, which was really interesting. We did some Electronic songs [Electronic is Bernard Sumner’s group with Johnny Marr]. He likes “Tighten Up” best, off the first album. And then I said “well, why don’t we do ‘Out of Control‘, that thing you did with the Chemical Brothers.”
DS: Oh, wow. That’s a modern classic.
SM: So we’ll be doing that one. Some Joy Division ones, some New Order ones. It’s about 50/50. Half of it is Bad Lieutenant. But we kind of reworked them, when we’ve gone back to a Joy Division song or a New Order song. We sat down and were like, “we have been playing this a long time; can we find a way to make it a bit more interesting for us?” I think the latest one that we’ve done that’s had that treatment is “Atmosphere“, and it works out really well. You shouldn’t really mess with “Atmosphere”, but…it’s quite subtle what we’ve done to it, but it works really well.
DS: You mentioned the three guitars. Are the songs more heavily guitar-oriented?
SM: Yeah, that’s the trouble. It’s a bit of challenge when you do those sorts of things. You’ve got songs that weren’t really written for three guitarists (laughs). And we can’t have you just standing about doing nothing, so we’ll have to think of something. The bits that we’ve come up with, they do kind of work.
DS: It must keep the songs fresh.
SM: Yeah, yeah, it does.
DS: Well, thank you so much, Stephen. We’re looking forward to the San Francisco show. Give my regards to your wife-
SM: I certainly will.
DS: -and I’m looking forward to hearing some more The Other Two material.
SM: (laughing) Yeah, don’t hold your breath. It won’t be out in October, I don’t care what she says!
DS: Last question, where are you calling from London? Do you live in London?
SM: NO, no, no, no, not in London. I’m just outside Manchester. In the hills outside Manchester.
*Bad Lieutenant will perform at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco next Friday, April 16. Run Run Run supports. Tickets are still available. *
UPDATE FROM BAD LT.’S MANAGEMENT:Bad Lieutenant, scheduled to kick off their U.S. concert debut tomorrow night at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, have been forced to cancel the date due to this morning’s volcanic eruption in Iceland that closed British airspace. The band members – Bernard Sumner, Phil Cunningham, Jake Evans, Stephen Morris and Tom Chapman – who all live in the UK, had been scheduled to travel today into San Francisco. When British airspace was closed this morning and all flights were cancelled, they were able to get last-minute bookings for tomorrow on a flight that would have put them into San Francisco late in the day; but just moments ago, American Airlines announced that that flight has also been cancelled.Bad Lieutenant is extremely disappointed in this bizarre turn of events as they had been very much looking forward to coming to the Bay Area. The band’s management is doing everything it can to make an alternative flight itinerary for the remaining dates.Refunds will be available for ticket holders at the point of purchase.