With New Order drum maestro Stephen Morris’ autobiography now published, Banjo catches up with the post punk legend.
Stephen Morris does not quite have the image that perhaps pops into people’s minds when they think of a drummer.
Calm rather than crazy, bookish rather than bonkers, Morris has nonetheless created some of the most memorable and iconic drumming in modern music.
Playing in Joy Division, Morris was responsible for the drum riffs to She’s Lost Control and Atmosphere, amongst many other classics. Moving on to for New Order, he was a trailblazer in combining drum machines with ‘real’ drums, helping to build common ground between post punk indie and dance music.
Whilst drummers are obviously important to a band, few can claim that their drumming is as instantly recognisable as Morris’. Just a few bars of Atrocity Exhibition or Blue Monday is enough to identify the songs and to perhaps move the listener to air drumming.
Both Joy Division and New Order have achieved legendary status. Films, books and documentaries about both bands are in plentiful supply, something that seemed an unlikely state of affairs to those of us lucky enough to have seen either band in their early days.
And now there is another book about to join this collection, with Morris’ Record Play Pause now available. Morris promises a new perspective on things, presenting his story, the view from the back of the stage.
A natural wit and storyteller, his autobiography promises to be ‘part memoir, part scrapbook and part aural history’ and can hopefully present the story relatively free of the conflict between Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook that read like mud slinging interludes in otherwise fascinating stories.
To promote Record Play Pause, Morris will give a Q & A session at the British Music Experience in Liverpool’s Cunard Building Monday, 13 May with Dave Haslam.
Ahead of this, we caught up with Morris to ask him a few questions.
In conversation, Morris is down to earth and friendly, he comes across as unassuming as legend suggests. He is a music veteran, having been in the business for well over 40 years, and he has the stories to match.
His responses to our questions come straight out of his mouth with little of the guarded thought processes that self censor other musicians in an interview situation. As a result, our chat is a conversation rather than an interrogation and one that leaves Getintothis with a sense that we genuinely know more about him as a person.
My own relationship with Morris and his music goes back a long way, to the late 70s. Joy Division were the first band I saw at Eric’s and I have been lucky enough to have seen New Order many times over the years. The chance to hear his side of the story is something that myself and other fans will no doubt be keen to catch up on.
So, tell us about your autobiography.
“Yeah, I decided to write a book in 2012. Why has it taken me so long… well first of all I thought I’d write a novel, but the trouble with that was I didn’t have enough time. I’d write something, think ‘this is really good’ and then not be able to do anything on it for a couple of months.
Then I’d come back to it and think ‘this is shit!’ or ‘who are all these people? What are they doing?’ and eventually I thought why should I change the names to protect the innocent, it’s probably much easier if I can just write things that I can remember. That way at least when I go back to it I’ll be able to remember what was going on.
But it took a long time because there were huge gaps in the writing of it, there was quite a while where I couldn’t do anything. I really enjoy writing, but I don’t like having to come back and pick up where I left off. It was only last year when I ended up having a big long stretch of time with nothing else to do, where I could sit down and try to make sense of it. So I ended up writing too much. [laughing]
I said to people ‘I’ve never written a book before’ and they’d say ‘oh just write everything’, so I wrote everything, and then they said ‘you’ve written too much!’ So it turned into two books.
Originally I didn’t want to just write about Joy Division, which is what I’ve ended up doing for the first book. Originally I wanted to cover everything up until when I started writing it I guess, but it ended up being so long you’d need a whole bookshelf for it.
It was over a thousand pages, and I thought somebody would just go at it with a pair of scissors and make it in to a nice short book, but no, two books.
The first one is Joy Division up to the beginning of New Order and the next one is New Order to the end of New Order. Well not the end of New Order, up to now.
In a way the that part was harder to write, I didn’t enjoy writing that because there’s only one death in the first book, but in the second one there’s people dying every five minutes it seems, so it wasn’t so much fun writing that. But it’s pretty much done and that should be out this time next year.”
You’ve always seemed to be something of a private person, how difficult was it writing all of this knowing that it’s going to be available for mass consumption?
“Mostly it was ok. I know what you mean, it was awkward writing about some things, because I am not that much of a public person like you say, but once you start doing it you have to put everything in. So I just gritted my teeth and did it. Or I hope I did.”
And how do you think this is going to differ from Bernard’s book or Hooky’s book?
“Well there’s bound to be certain similarities, but I kind of wanted to write it about the way I felt. I tried to write it about the times, because the time of Joy Division was completely different to now and the way you felt about music, or the way I felt about music or the way the world felt about music was pretty different to what it is now.
So I tried to do that and to explain what it was like making your first record, with a slightly mad producer. But I tried to write something entertaining I hope.”
Do you feel like you had a different viewpoint on the whole thing?
“Yeah, I tried to write it from my point of view as a drummer, which is slightly different. There’s a sense of humour, you’ve got to have that to be a drummer. I don’t know why, it’s just become a tradition. [laughs]
You end up becoming the stereotype. I didn’t want to be a drummer, I had it thrust upon me by my own musical ineptitude. And you just end up becoming a drummer and that sort of personality comes through in what you do or what people expect you to do, you become that person. I wasn’t always like this, I used to be a very serious individual [laughs]”
How would you describe yourself as a musician these days, would you still describe yourself as a drummer?
“I suppose I’ve got to say I’m a drummer, but I’ve never really thought of myself as a musician. I don’t know why. I wanted to be in a band, but I never wanted to be a musician.
I thought musicians were people who played violins. I didn’t want to go through the process of learning, I just wanted to do things as a form of self expression, which is what I did. One of the problems is that the more that you learn about something, it’s kind of like when you find out how a magician does a trick, it takes a bit of the magic out of it.
Writing a song, you’re discovering something, you can do something that you didn’t think you could do. And once you’ve learned how to do that, the next song is just building on that knowledge and you think ‘I know how to write a song now.’
And I think that’s a bit dangerous, you should try to do things in different ways, but as you get older it becomes very difficult.”
Is this the punk in you speaking, saying that you didn’t want to learn anything you just wanted to hit things?
“Yeah. It was punk that kind of gave me permission to do all that stuff, and really early on it was the energy of it. It still is really, you should be piling in a lot of energy, even though Unknown Pleasures doesn’t sound like that now. It was a great record, but it doesn’t sound like The Clash or the MC5 or anything like that. But it has got its own kind of energy.”
I think the Northern take on punk was very different to the Southern take on it anyway. We had bands that were notably different from the music that came our way.
“Yeah, even though Bernard says we were a punk band we never really were that much. Us and the like of Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen didn’t do 1-2-3-4 ramalama kind of stuff. It wasn’t that kind of energy. I used to want to play as fast as I could.”
A lot of the drum parts in Joy Division, and this goes right back to those early gigs, they were quite different and intricate, songs like She’s Lost Control and Dead Souls.
“I did want to do that, once I’d figured out how to play drums, I wanted to play more riffs on the toms, not straight four on the floor kind of thing, which I did end up doing when we became New Order I suppose. In Joy Division I did try to do something different. Angular was the word people used to describe it.
When we were rehearsing it was easier to build on those kind of rhythms, rather than just being like a metronome. All the songs grew out of the bass and drums and I did want to explore the differences. But that makes it sound like I thought about it! [laughs] and I didn’t think about it at all.
The only thing I did think about was getting a drum synthesizer, I thought one of those would be fantastic. How we wrote She’s Lost Control was, I got this drum synth and tried to work out what Phil Spector would sound like if he used a drum synth.”
Which drummers would you say were an influence back then?
“Jaki [Liebezeit] out of Can was absolutely amazing. I never knew his name at the time, but Stephen French, Drumbo from Captain Beefheart’s band. He did a lot of those peculiar tom rhythms. And Maureen Tucker out of the Velvet Underground I quite liked. That’s what I mean about the energy, she had that certain insistence about her drumming. “
Going back to those early gigs for a moment, the first time I saw Joy Division play a headline show, there was probably about thirty people in the audience. When did you get to the stage where you looked out at the crowd and thought ‘this is it, we’ve made it’
“There were two things that signified making it to me. One was when we played the Nashville in London. We went out to get some fish & chips and we saw this queue of people and I thought ‘what are they doing, why are those people standing there?” and someone said ‘they’ve come to see you!”
And the other things is, what used to happen is that there was always a bit of a chasm between where the stage ended and the audience started [laughs], there was always a big gap. And gradually, that gap got less and less until the day arrived when there was actually somebody at the front.
That was when I figured we’d made it [laughs]”
Are you ever surprised at just how big Joy Division have become?
“Surprised doesn’t really go far enough, I find it totally incomprehensible. I really do. That was another reason for writing the book, it started to seem that it all happened to somebody else, that Joy Division were another band and they had very little to do with me.
I had no inkling that 40 years on things would be what they are today. It’s absolutely uncanny, I literally can’t comprehend it. And that t-shirt, that image is bloody everywhere.
I’ve got to admit I don’t understand it. We didn’t do much, and maybe that’s why, there wasn’t that much but what there was, was really really good.
The only explanation I can come up with is that we never made that difficult third album, where people went ‘oh they used to be good, but they’re not anymore’”.
It’s intriguing to think what that third album would have sounded like though.
“That’s another thing. I don’t know, I think it was all just a slice of time and now it’s gone. What I find staggering is that a lot of young people like Joy Division but they never saw them live and there isn’t much visual reference other than still photographs.
There aren’t even many colour pictures of Ian, they’re all black and white. Which is kind of how I’ve begun to remember it.
When I think about it, it wasn’t all black and white obviously, and they weren’t all horrible times, we were having a laugh most of the time.”
I think that comes over in all the books and features I’ve seen about you, the sense of humour that you had and the fun that you used to have on the road.
“The thing that gets to me is you don’t see pictures of Ian laughing, but most of the time he was , we were all having a joke. And he’s presented as a much more serious bloke than he was in reality.”
To have done all that and then to have come back as New Order, who were one of the defining bands of the 80s is an incredible achievement. Did it come naturally to change the way you did?
“Not naturally in that it was an evolution, because we were kind of forced into it. We had to change and we were just lucky that we managed to change successfully. We were changing anyway, with Closer we were using more keyboards and drum machines, which we ended up carrying in to New Order.
But it was kind of forced upon us because we didn’t want to be Joy Division anymore, but we didn’t know anything else.
I didn’t want to play drums like that anymore, even though most of Movement has got tom riffs in. I thought I should just play very, very simple beats, to try to fit in with the new machines we had.
It wasn’t an easy thing to do. The most difficult thing was figuring what we were going to do without a singer. It took a lot of experimenting before we got to the idea of not getting Gillian in and letting Bernard do the singing.
It was a pretty difficult process to go through. But once we’d got there, Power, Corruption and Lies was great, we got back to experimenting again. Once we’d got used to who was doing the singing, we could do that, we could get back to experimenting.”
And that seems like an appropriate place for us to pause our conversation, at roughly the same part as Stephen Morris’ first book also draws to a close.
His is a remarkable story. No other musicians have so successfully transformed themselves or have turned adversity into triumph.
The back catalogue Morris and his bandmates have left behind them has no real equal. The chance to read about this all again from a fresh perspective is one that cannot be turned down.
Record Play Pause will be undoubtedly one of the year’s must reads.