New Order strives for imperfection

July 30, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Ask New Order singer Bernard Sumner what he most looks forward to when touring, and he doesn't mince words: "Finishing the tour," he says with a laugh.

It isn't that he dislikes playing, or that the songs from the group's current album, "Republic," are especially arduous to perform. As he explains over the phone from the band's home base in Manchester, England, he actually relishes the chance to get up in front of an audience.

"When you're onstage it's great," he says. "I do like that, don't get me wrong. But beforehand, it's nerve-wracking, and after the concert, you're usually so exhausted, and you just want to go out and stay out.

"Most of the time you spend bored spitless at airports, watching the belts go around, waiting for your suitcase to come out," he adds. "That's my prevailing memory of touring. The rest of the time you spend hung over, trying to get up at half past 7 in the morning to get to the airport in time to make your flight."

So much for the glories of life on the road. But then, as Sumner freely admits, he's not a typical rock and roller. "I don't know how groups like Dire Straits do it, where they're on tour for like three years at a time," he says. "I mean, those guys must be brain dead."

It isn't just the endless, mind-dulling grind of travel that bothers Sumner. He also despises the total insularity that tour life fosters. When you're on the road, day and night, for months on end, your world is reduced to a rapidly blurring string of hotels, dressing rooms and airport lounges. And given the narrowness of such an existence, what, asks Sumner, is there to write songs about?

"You need a certain amount of experience of life to gain the raw material to write your songs, so that your songs mean something," he says. "So it's very important for me to actually experience living, as well as experience being in the group."

Sumner, presumably, has had more of the former than the latter in recent years. "Republic" is New Order's first album in four years, and that gap left the foursome plenty of time for their private lives, as well as the opportunity to work on side projects.

Of course, not everyone saw it that way. Many in the music press, in fact, speculated that the solo stuff -- particularly Electronic, the duo Sumner formed with former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, and Revenge, bassist Peter Hook's ominously titled dance band -- spelled the end of New Order. Obviously, that wasn't the case, but Sumner admits things got a bit testy during the making of the group's last album, the self-produced "Technique."

"It was not politically sound for the band to produce ourselves," he says, "because it was causing conflicts within band %o members. It's very difficult for one band member to tell another band member not to play on the record."

Consequently, New Order decided to let producer Stephen Hague do all the dirty work on "Republic." "Basically, he took all the [flak]," says Sumner. Nor did anyone in the band mind letting someone else sweat the details. "To be quite honest, by the time we were ready to mix the album, everyone was so sick of being in the studio, we just left Stephen to it. We only came in as he was laying the mixes down," he says.

Despite his seemingly cavalier attitude, Sumner seems quite proud of the album, and bristles a bit when told that some fans found "Republic," with its string arrangements and backup singers, too slick for their liking.

"I think it's kind of inverted snobbery, really," says Sumner. "If it suits the track, like getting a string quartet in, which we got on 'Ruined in a Day,' so be it. But I must say, stuff like Whitney Houston, which is so slick and so polished, is a little bit too perfect for me. Actually, it's boring, I think."

Oddly enough, New Order avoids perfection by using computers to play much of the basic rhythm tracks. True, computers aren't exactly known for their inaccuracy, but as Sumner explains, what makes most computer-controlled music seem so inhumanly perfect is that most people program all the human mistakes out.

"I mean, what you tend to do with a computer is just play, bung it in the machine, and then correct it visually, correct your mistakes on the screen," he says. "But you can decide how many of those mistakes you're going to leave in. So you can get a kind of off-the-wallness with a computer."

That's one of the reasons he doesn't mind using pre-programmed tracks onstage. "I mean, there's two ways of doing it," he says. "One is you use a computer and a sampler, and play the samples via the computer, and then we play over the top of it. The other way of doing it is to get a load of session men in.

"I prefer the former idea, really. I've never liked the idea of having session players onstage very much. It . . . kind of takes the soul out of things a little bit.

"I'm not into the idea of virtuosity," he adds. "Soul is the thing that interests me. There are two aspects of music, really. There's the writing of the music, and there's the content. If you look at it in terms of an orchestra, there's a composer and then there are the players in the orchestra.

"I'm interested in the composer and what he's thinking, not the way it's played. Because . . ." He pauses, then laughs. "Because I'm not very good at playing. No, that's what cynics would say. Playing something well is just a matter of repetition. It's just a physical function, really."

New Order

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion, Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia

Tickets: $30 pavilion, $22.50 lawn

Call: (410) 730-2424 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets

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