New Order: Building From Scratch

Music Features New Order
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When a band has been around as long as New Order has—35 years—the tendency is to take the collective foot completely off the gas pedal and just idle. It’s a time for another repackaging of the greatest hits. Maybe a reissue campaign of the classic albums with just a few added features to get people to buy them for a third time. And if they’re lucky, a nice lucrative concert tour that satisfies the punters with all the hits and a few deep cuts for the obsessive fans.

To a point, New Order has played that game. They’ve released five compilations of their best known material over the years, as well as a career-spanning box set. Their first five LPs have all been remastered and re-released with additional discs of bonus material. And since 2011, the group has been touring on and off, not in support of any album.

But during the shows that the band played last year, they started to sneak new material into the set. These weren’t throwaway songs either. Both tracks—the Giorgio Moroder-inspired “Plastic,” and “Singularity,” a sequencer heavy anthem that further explores the spirit of the band in its earliest post-Joy Division incarnation—hit that tantalizing sweet spot that any band hopes to hit, sounding both classic and modern at the same time. Apparently, they had no intention of becoming simply a nostalgia act.

Those songs proved to be just the beginning for a revitalized New Order. This week, they release their ninth studio album, Music Complete, a collection that is just as potent and engaging and inspired as you would ever want from the band. Shades of the old days abound with “Restless” and “Academic” hearkening back to their pure pop moments of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, and the various strains of the dance music (disco, electro and early breakbeats) that inspired their best-known singles wended in throughout.

As recognizable as some elements of Music Complete are, the album still feels fresh and current. Some of that is thanks to the band allowing in some outside input. Two of the best tracks on the LP were produced by Tom Rowlands of the Chemical Brothers, and scattered throughout are vocal performances by Brandon Flowers of The Killers and La Roux vocalist Elly Jackson.

“Brandon is good friends with Bernard [Sumner, New Order’s front man],” says drummer Stephen Morris of the album’s guests. “Whenever we’re around each other, he’ll come and sing during our set, or Bernard will go and play guitar during a Killers show. As for Elly, we did some gigs with La Roux and we felt like she’s got a voice that, on record, doesn’t really come across as good as it is live.”

Even more important than that were the contributions of the newest additions of New Order’s lineup, Tom Chapman and Phil Cunningham. Each was brought on initially to fill a gap left by a departed member. Cunningham took over for keyboardist Gillian Gilbert when she took leave to be with family, and Chapman came on board after bassist Peter Hook quit the band acrimoniously in the early ‘00s. (Both men are also members of Bad Lieutenant, the side project of Sumner and Morris.)

Jumping into the mix was especially daunting for Cunningham. Hook’s high-pitched basslines were a signature element to New Order’s sound, right from the group’s very first single, “Ceremony.”

“My approach was trying to do justice to the song,” Chapman says. “I didn’t focus on the basslines. I focused on what felt right for the songs. It was really important to me to have some form of ownership with the songs.”

A pretty gutsy move, but one that has served the 43-year-old musician well. Especially when he and Cunningham went about trying to write material for Music Complete. Any other newbies might have taken a backseat to the folks that have been in the band longest, but those two, working separately from Sumner, Gilbert and Morris, helped concoct two of the album’s best songs: “Academic” and the slinky disco pop number “On The High Line.”

This practice of having the members of the group writing separately from the rest is another aspect of Music Complete’s creation that was completely unheard of for New Order.

“In the past, we’d all be in the room at the same time, and we’d just play and play and play all day,” Morris says. “Then we’d listen to it and find maybe two seconds that were kind of alright and jam on those. This time, me and Gillian would get some ideas, and Phil and Tom had some ideas. So we’d be starting off with a bit of a verse or a chorus and then let the others work on it. We were all working on each other’s ideas all the time.”

For such a scattershot writing method, it’s a wonder that Music Complete came out sounding so, well, complete. It’s even more impressive considering the band attempted to write and record much of it while they were on the road. When they finally saw the madness in that method, they put a halt to live performing and concentrated on the album.

“It involved a lot of putting songs under a microscope and making them sound like New Order,” Chapman says. “It was very time consuming. Something like one month per song on average. It felt almost like we were building a car from scratch.”

What they wound up with, though, is a sleek, aerodynamic and sexy vehicle—a brand-new model for a brand-new generation of music fans, and something their longtime fans will be dazzled by. After three decades of influencing the sound and direction of electronic-based pop, New Order are still very much a part of the present and future of modern music.