Peter Hook on revisting classic Joy Division songs and what he learned about Ian Curtis
With his ground-breaking band Joy Division, Peter Hook (due this Monday, September 19, at the Bluebird Theater) perhaps accidentally created a style of playing bass that made the instrument not just a part of the rhythm section but also a carrier of the melody.
In effect, Hook's role in the band helped to put rhythm at the forefront of post-punk music in general. This set the music in league with pioneering funk bands, krautrock, jazz and indigenous music around the world without sounding much like any of that.
Though Joy Division has a reputation for being darker than dark and as bleak as a death in the family, its music served as a catharsis of inner turmoil and anger, as well as an expression of singer Ian Curtis' far-ranging imagination and the capacity of his lyrics to tap into and express his rich personal mythology.
Mixing jagged guitars with deep, melodic grooves and a willingness to experiment with sounds beyond what most people would consider music at the time, Joy Division was more adventurous than, not much like, most bands of the 1970s.
When Curtis committed suicide in May 1980, he abruptly ended a promising career as one of the most important and influential artists of his generation. Somehow, his former bandmates carried on and put together New Order later that year with drummer Stephen Morris' girlfriend Gillian Gilbert brought in as a keyboard player.
That group's debut album, 1981's Movement, bore the sonic stamp of Joy Division but with more extensive use of synthesizers. New Order went on to write some of the most popular dance and pop music of the next thirty years, and became massively influential in its own right.
In 2010, Hook started touring performing the two full-length Joy Division albums, 1979's Unknown Pleasures and 1980's Closer, in their entirety, taking on vocal duties as well as playing bass. He is currently on tour with his band the Light performing Unknown Pleasures. We spoke at length with the humorous and amiable Hook when he was in Majorca, Spain about his club, the music, his gear and his recent foray into writing about the past.
Westword: When you were writing Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club, what did you do for your new club that went beyond just what not to do as you discussed in your book? And after your experience with the Hacienda, why did you even want to start a new club?
Peter Hook: The reason I started the new club was because my partner in it [Aaron Mellor] is a businessman, and quite a hard-working businessman. He runs twenty night clubs in England. He's managed to keep them all through this horrible recession that we've all been through. I met him when I was a DJ, and he's a real Factory fan. And he loves music, and it was quite easy, really, because he'd been my friend for four or five years. I'd started DJing before he came up with the idea of the club.
The problem with the Hacienda was that while we had wonderful ideas, we had no business acumen. And life, whether you like it or not, is a balance between reality and creativity. So we're all very good at being creative as artists but you can't look after the pennies. As my mother used to say, "If you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves." So what my partner does, he looks after the boring bit, makes sure I don't do anything ridiculous and we get along just fine at the moment. He DJs at the club, as well. It's nice.
The thing is that it's an odd situation to be in because what happened with the building that was Factory's office was due to be redeveloped and knocked down and made into flats like The Hacienda. What happened was because of the credit crunch, the builder went bankrupt. So they offered the building up for rent and my partner said, "Let's get it before they knock it down. You know, this is an important landmark for Manchester, for the world!" Factory's office and what Factory achieved was important to the world, and he thought it was worth saving, and I had to agree with him, really. I'm quite proud of it. I'm a great believer of using the past as a stepping stone to the future.
How did you come to work with Rowetta on these new versions of Joy Division songs, and did her vocals suggest a different kind of interpretation of the music after you started working together?
Well, when I came to do the Joy Division celebration, for want of a better word, I envisaged playing bass and having guest vocalists. And what happened was was that because of the internet criticism surrounding it, the idea of it, the vocalists that I'd enlisted ran for the hills, really. Rowetta was the only one who stuck with me. I was very proud of her for doing that and also very grateful. Then I started singing, and we started doing it together. She sings "New Dawn Fades," "Insight" and "Atmosphere." She only plays with us in England. We can't afford to bring her abroad.
What she does to the songs is give them a different vision. A completely different feel. It was very nice, really, I thought it needed recording for posterity. It was quite funny because it was something Stephen Morris said that I thought was really unfair that actually prompted me to do the recording because he compared it to Susan Boyle, which I really took exception to.
And that was the reason I went in and recorded it. It was just to please my friend, because Rowetta is a very big critic of herself and she doesn't have much belief in herself, and so it was great to be able to record them and play them to her and go, "Look, I told you it was fantastic." She's a great girl and she's a great friend.
What has been most surprising and rewarding to you in revisiting those Joy Division songs for the recent shows and tours you've been doing, in terms of what you realized about the music you didn't fully appreciate before, and in terms of audience reaction to the material?
Two part question. The thing it brought home to me was how fantastic a lyricist and how fantastic a wordsmith Ian was. I never took much notice when I played with him. He kept his end up admirably, and he went for it. So I didn't really need to know every word he was saying, I just knew that every word that he said was delivered with passion and belief and a wonderful, wonderful sense of theater. And I just went along with it and was totally happy with it.
When I came to sing it, it was completely different. While Unknown Pleasures is quite aggressive, quite rocky, quite confident, when you contrast it to Closer -- it's a hell of a contrast -- so you go through two completely different emotions with each album. Which is nice. It's been very nice to sit down and read his words and concentrate and focus on them. It has been a revelation to me, actually. I've enjoyed it a lot, I must admit. There were a lot things about Ian that I took for granted. It also helps me now. I use a lot of his tricks, that I noticed, in new things that I do, which is great.
Audience reaction: While the idea was greeted rather badly, shall we say, the practice has been fantastic. The audiences are a complete mix of young and old. I thought they'd just all be old. They're not. The reaction is fantastic. It's really heartening because the thing is that when Joy Division finished, New Order basically ignored it for thirty years. And even when New Order split, we were still ignoring it.
And it's nice to hear people say to you, "Oh god, I thought I'd never hear 'New Dawn Fades' played live. I love it!" I must admit, and this is the honest truth, not one person has come up to me after a gig and said, "You shouldn't have done it." There's always been someone who has said, "Man, you should have done it years ago." [laughs] For me the time was right. It was absurd that you get accused of cashing in your band's heritage, when you've completely ignored it for thirty years. I must be the worst casher-inner in the world.
People say a lot of mean stuff.
The internet's very good for that, isn't it? Keyboard terrorists, everybody gets a voice, so it's a true democracy in a way, isn't it?
I always assumed that you were playing a baritone guitar on the early New Order records, but it was actually a specific kind of six-string bass. What about Shergold Marathon and then the Eccleshall recommended themselves to you, and what do you play today?
The Shergold six-string? It's a six string bass that's strung as a guitar. It's an octave down from a normal guitar. I mean it was totally Bernard's encouragement to get that. To be honest with you, I didn't have a bloody clue what the hell I was going to do with it. But I suppose that it's such an unusual guitar that you can only play it in a certain way. You cannot play it like a bass because the neck is too wide and the strings are too close together. You can't play it like a guitar because the strings are too far apart and they're too heavy. So you have to develop a certain style.
I think the interesting thing is that if you look at a lot of Joy Division's instrumentation, on Closer, there's not a lot of guitar. There's a lot of keyboards, a lot of six-string bass, which people assume is the guitar, and so yeah, so you did have to adapt. And it's a beautiful guitar. I mean I got out of the habit of playing it with New Order. It's actually quite sad.
One of the great things about Freebass was that I got to be able to play the six-string bass again. It's a wonderful instrument. My son plays bass for me in the Light, my twenty-year old son, Jack, plays bass, and he hates six-string. He can't stand it. He can play all the other bass lines dead easy: "She's Lost Control" and "New Dawn Fades." But you get him to try to play "Heart and Soul" and "Passover," he really, really struggles with it. So I suppose in a funny way, that's one thing that I can count that is quite unique to me, the six-string bass. Great instrument.
Like that great bass line for "Sunrise."
That's on the four-string, that one. That's one of my favorite bass lines, and "Age of Consent."
Do you still use an Electro-Harmonix Clone theory with your bass?
Yeah! I've got twelve of the bastards. I got so paranoid about them wearing out that I've managed to accumulate twelve Electro-Harmonix chorus pedals, and I've still got the original one that I bought in 1977, '78.
What inspired you to start using them?
Again, amazingly, it was Bernard! There was a really square music shop, and I mean square as in studious, very normal music shop in Manchester, and they started stocking all this really wacky stuff. The stuff they were stocking was Shergold and Electro-Harmonix. You know, the guys had suits on, suits and ties? And black shiny shoes. They were like music teachers. It was quite odd. You went in and listened to things like the Big Muff, the Mighty Wah and the Clone pedal, and we were like, "Wow, these are groovy!"
Bernard, again, used to work next door to the shop in Manchester, and he used to see this stuff arrive. As soon as it arrived, he'd get us all in. The trouble was we didn't have any money. So it was a hell of an expense at the time. If I remember rightly, I paid something like thirty-five pounds for that Electro-Harmonix pedal in 1978. I'm sure that thirty-five pounds is the equivalent of two-hundred thirty pounds now.
So this particular shop in Manchester was actually quite revolutionary in the stuff that it used to stock. And Bernard, because he worked next door, was always looking through the window and going, "Oh my god, let's try that, let's try that." That shop was called Mamelock. God knows why. That's amazing I can still remember that. It's great thing being young, isn't it?
Acquiring that, the thirst and the knowledge for everything you want to try. I went through many periods in my career when I've been paranoid of, "Oh god, my bass sounds the same every time I pick it up." Now, at the ripe old age of fifty-five, it's something I've come to relish and realize it's quite an asset because having an individual style is quite unusual, isn't it?
What do the Trace Elliott amplifiers do for you that maybe the Hiwatts didn't?
The Trace Elliots, the ones I'm using at the moment, actually were built by the guy that built the rig for John Entwhistle. He was John Entwhistle's personal rig builder. He now works for Trace Elliot. The Trace Elliots were fantastic, but they were made in China. The problem that you have with them is that every single one of them that you get sounds different. So I've actually just gone back to Hiwatts because they Hiwatts are hand built by a guy in Nottingham. And they are much more reliable to be honest.
Some people have remarked that you sling your bass pretty low, and that's been sort of part of your performance style for a while. Is there a reason you did that early on, and do you still do that?
Yeah, I modeled it on Paul Simenon of The Clash. I went to see Paul Simenon and The Clash play at Belleview in Manchester with Siouxsie and the Banshees, and I thought, "My god, he looks cool!" I thought, "Why does he look cool?" So in my usual manner, I just took it one step further away. I always thought it was like a subconscious desire to somehow to try and get away from my bass guitar.
People used to say to me, "How do you play when it's on the floor?" The interesting thing is that the further away it is from you, the harder it is you to play. Which is why I played really high because when you play really high, it gets easier to play. I was my own worst enemy.
Do you still play like that, or have you adjusted that since.
Yeah, yeah! It feels natural, to be honest. The only way I can play is to have it that low slung. I mean I'm not as mad as I used to be in the old days. The funny thing about singing is -- the frustration with singing is -- that you don't get to play bass. I'm quite jealous of my son because he gets to play bass.
Why do you think this is the right time to release a recording of "Pictures In My Mind"?
"Pictures In My Mind" was, funnily enough, brought to my attention by a Joy Division fan. It was a tape that was stolen from Rob Gretton's basement. This fan, who became a friend, was asking me, "Have you heard this stolen tape from Rob's basement?" I said, "No, I didn't know anybody had stolen it." He said, "There's an unfinished track on it, which is fantastic. Why don't you finish it?" I said, "I don't know what you're talking about, but give me the track and let me have a listen."
When I heard the track, I thought, "Oh, my god, it's almost finished." It was obviously form the phase where we were turning Warsaw into Joy Division. It's sort of punky and rocky number. The thing that I remembered was that Ian Curtis always used to say, "We always should finish every song off because somebody always loves it." It's something that's stuck with me over the years.
You'll have a song that you could finish up quite easily but it's not what you consider to be A-list. So you put it out as a B-list and someone loves it. And a lot of people will come up to you and say, "Oh god, yeah, that B-side, like '1963,' I loved that more than the A-side." And things like that. So his idea was that you should always finish it because you're not always the greatest judge.
When I heard "Pictures" I thought, "Man, I could finish that in an hour." Everything was there, it was just badly played and badly recorded. And honestly, I'd never heard it before. Which was weird, I could not remember it. Also, it was great to put it with the EP, because it gave it a relevance rather than just it being a covers EP with Rowetta. I think it gave it some bollocks, as we say in England.
What, musically, drew you to the Revenge project?
That, for me, was a very lost period when I started Revenge. I really did start it as a reaction against Bernard starting Electronic and I felt betrayed when he split New Order up to do Electronic. I knew that I wanted to carry on but I didn't know what the hell I was going to do. And again I did something really stupid, which was I didn't play bass.
I mean, it's like that thing...you know when you have a bad break-up and you cut your hair? Because you want it to be different? It was like that. And I thought, "Right, well I'm going to start this but I'm not going to play bass." It was stupid. Thank god Pottsy managed to talk me back into playing bass for when we got back to Monaco and we started doing the songs normally, if you like.
But Revenge very difficult. I had to learn. I thought a song was finished when you put the bass up. I didn't know anyone else bothered singing or anything like that, it was finished when I put the bass up. But with Revenge I realized there's a little bit more to it than that. I mean it was enjoyable. The thing was that New Order was very miserable in 1990. To be honest with you, to get rid of that miserable bastard was a blessing. I was happy with the guys in Revenge. We had a great time. You know, I knew it wasn't the best LP in the world. But we went all around the world and played and really enjoyed ourselves. Then I blew it by going back to New Order. [laughs]
But no, it wasn't that bad. I'm lying. I mean there were some good songs on it, but at the end when we finally learned how to do it, it was too late. I thought, "Shit, can't start again." I have to say it was an education to say the least.
You have books planned on Joy Division and New Order. Why do you feel this is the time to tell those stories and what changed about your perspectives on life, maybe, that you feel would be appropriate for writing about those experiences now?
I suppose that thing is that as you get older, things become a little easier. I don't think you agonize over decisions. Things come a little more naturally. It's interesting because I'm doing the Joy Division book at the moment, I'm halfway through the Joy Division book. It's not something I could have done when I was young. It was the right to wait. Even when the Hacienda closed in 1997, to write the book in 2008 was the right distance. You do have to distance yourself from it to tell the story.
I feel better about it now. Also, because when we were together in New Order, Bernard was always very negative about Joy Division. He always felt it should be left alone. He never wanted to play any old songs. Nevermind Joy Divison, he never wanted to play any New Order old songs. He really just wanted to concentrate on the future. And I think there's a place for the old ones and for the new ones. But he didn't agree. So it sort of stopped you from doing anything with regard to Joy Division whilst you were in New Order.
It was only when I left New Order and got the distance that I was about to see that, as a musician, which I still am and I earn my living and feed my family by playing music, I have to revert to my music. So it seemed logical to go, "Well, why shouldn't I play Joy Divison? Why shouldn't I play Unknown Pleasures? Why shouldn't I play Closer? Why shouldn't I play Movement? Why shouldn't I play Low-Life? Why shouldn't I play Brotherhood?" I think it would be a wonderful thing if I got to play each one of them before I die. I'd be a very happy man when I got to meet my maker.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.