Chapter Six: Relax, Mate
The interview was scheduled for 3:00 P.M. at the El Rey Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, but Peter Hook was three hours late. While waiting around, I drank too much coffee and tried to decide whether or not I should abort. Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of techno-pop or synth-dance or Euro-disco or whatever, I was intrigued by New Order, Hook’s former band. They rarely gave interviews and were supposed to be drug-soaked fascists who’d driven themselves mad through their excesses and isolation. Formed from the ashes of Joy Division after the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis in 1980, New Order had been at the forefront of British club culture. They set the standards for an entire genre of music, popularizing the the twelve-inch single and making extensive use of the new computer and sequencer technology while retaining a human, even raw, sound. Critics generally regarded them as one of the most important links between seventies dance and eighties house music.
Significance and controversy aside, the main reason I was drawn to New Order was their misspent potential. Loved by reviewers and blessed with rabidly devoted fans, they still never topped the success of their breakthrough smash hit “Blue Monday,” the best-selling twelve-inch of all time. They were media stars in Britain but hadn’t caught on in the United States except as a cult band, possibly because under the snappy electronic drums and burbling synthesizers the lyrics were uniformly morose. The stark packaging of the records perpetuated a cold, distant image, and when a notoriously erratic live show and a refusal to do encores were thrown in, the result was an act that just didn’t endear itself to the average American listener. There was also persistent innuendo of totalitarian leanings, an allegation stemming in part from the band names themselves: “Joy Divisions” were the forced brothels in Nazi death camps, and the “New Order” was what Cambodian genocideur Pol Pot called his rule.
Low Life was mentioned repeatedly in my references as a model for the British dance scene of the late eighties and early nineties, but every time New Order seemed to be getting back on track, a rumor would surface that they were breaking up. Someone was always unhappy no matter which direction they were going, and they rarely capitalized on the momentum they’d built. When this interview took place in 1997, it wasn’t clear if the quartet was still active, the British press reporting that the relentless “internal tensions” had finally done it in. True or not, the members were all off on solo projects, and their former label, Factory Records, had collapsed four years earlier.
In keeping with New Order’s reputation as innovators, Peter Hook was a unique bass guitarist. He was one of the few who could accurately be called a “lead bassist,” which isn’t to say that he fired off a million notes per second à la guitarist Eddie Van Halen. What he did instead was play simple, effective, twangy melodies in the upper registers, the actual bass lines usually provided by a keyboard or sequencer. Every interviewer asked him about it, and his answer was always the same, that he started doing it because higher notes were easier for him to hear, especially when all the other instruments were going. I resolved not to bring it up. I did want ask how the electric bass-synth bass combination worked in a live context, and I wanted to know how he’d made the change in style from his Joy Division days, when he was a relatively orthodox bassist. I also wanted to touch on his own band, Revenge, a defunct “hard rock-dance outfit” that had been murdered by the critics and completely ignored by the public.
In retrospect, it was probably the caffeine that prompted me to stick it out. I was overheated and very optimistic, convinced he’d gladly make up for my wasted time after he saw how patient I’d been. With nothing else to do, I reread the press kit supplied by Polydor Records. All the clippings were from British magazines or newspapers, and they concentrated on Hook’s titanic drinking, his brawling, his failed marriage to British television comedienne Caroline Aherne, and a recent public encounter he’d had with her new boyfriend. This particular scuffle had been caught on film, the writers dissecting it blow-by-blow in the most mind-bogglingly cynical prose I’d ever come across: “The punch that rocked Manchester!” “Hello, old fist!” “A left, a right another right! Oh, dear!”
With sledgehammer irony, they used all sorts of cute nicknames too, including the grotesque diminutive “Hooky,” “The Beast,” and “The Lizard King,” a recycled monicker that was supposed to invoke the sleaze and miasma of Jim Morrison, I guess. I’d always loved Britain, but these articles were absolutely foul in their giggling snideness. They were also incomprehensible. One interview was peppered with the word(?) “Heeurgh!” and the rest contained huge wads of Mancunian dialect. I later looked the word “Mancunian” up and discovered that it was an adjective used to describe someone of something from Manchester, Hook’s home town.
Hook finally strolled in at six o’clock, his hair bleached a startling blond-white. A young woman staggered along behind him, clutching a case of Heineken to her chest. I stood up, and the tour manager, a tall, heavyset, damp-looking Brit, approached and said, “Right: You’ve got twenty minutes.” Stunned, I explained that I wanted to write a feature-length article, an in-depth study of this iconoclastic, two-fisted ex-dockworker with the strange style of playing. The manager just said, “Sorry. That’s all the time we can spare.” I asked if there was any way we could reschedule. He shook his head. “Can’t be done. This is it.” Then he walked away.
Peter Hook ambled over over and pressed my hand, sipping from a bottle of beer. I told him that we couldn’t possibly do a good interview in twenty minutes; he shrugged and said nothing. With no other alternative except just turning around and walking out, I began a frantic search for a quiet place. Hook followed at a stately pace, one hand in the pocket of his shorts. I was marvelously aware that all my notes on New Order, Joy Division, and Revenge were useless. We’d have to concentrate on Monaco, the duo he’d formed with guitarist David “Pottsy” Potts, but since I didn’t really like their album, Music for Pleasure, I had no idea what to ask. I’d been assigned do a profile, not an ad for a new product, my editor having told me to “get this guy’s story.”
The full sound check suddenly started, making the theater as noisy as a boiler factory. We tried standing in the earsplitting lobby and then moved out onto the sidewalk in front of the building. I turned my tape recorder on because we’d already used up one precious minute.
Since we only have twenty minutes, we have to get started. [Thundering passage of truck.] Jesus. What about those VIP rooms, or the bathroom, or anything? I mean, since we only have twenty minutes![We go back into lobby and find theater manager.]
Hook: [To theater manager]: We’re doing an interview, and we need someplace to go.
A place to talk!
Theater Manager: A quiet place to do an interview. Come up to the kitchen.
Cool.[Tape picks up several seconds of footsteps as we make our way up the long flight of wooden stairs to the second floor.]
Theater Manager: How many guys are coming up?
Theater Manager: I can probably get you a couple chairs. Come on over here. It’s not aesthetically pleasing, but who’ll ever know?
Hook: Thank you very much.
Twenty minutes. We’ve got twenty minutes to go over twenty years.
Twenty years? Nobody told me we were going over twenty years. [Laughs.]
That’d take a hell of a long time, wouldn’t it?
Well, it’s supposed to be a feature article, and looking over all this material here, it’s just kind of a… Okay. It seems like, especially the British press, seems to mostly talk about you as a person, and almost never mentions your music.
I think that’s pretty much the British press. [Laughs.] With every band, I think. They’re more interested in my marriage than my music.
Well, it’s a shame, because in those twenty years, you’ve pretty much done everything as a bassist. So… I guess, uh… [Shuffling notes desperately.] Um, uh…[Pats me on shoulder.] Relax. Relax. Relax.
Okay. Tell me about, uh… Goddamn. I’m just kind of flustered.
Well, don’t, don’t be flustered. Relax. You must’ve known what you’re going to ask.