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Peter Hook on Ian Curtis & Gibson Basses

Russell Hall
|
02.18.2013
Peter Hook

How many artists can claim the distinction of co-founding not just one – but two – monumentally influential bands? Peter Hook is a member of that rare club. Inspired by a legendary Sex Pistols show in Manchester, England, in June 1976, Hook, Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and singer Ian Curtis formed Joy Division. Joy Division’s two studio albums – 1979’s Unknown Pleasures and 1980’s Closer – have since become templates for the artier, darker sides of bands as varied as R.E.M., Radiohead and Interpol.

Curtis’s tragic suicide in 1980 cut short Joy Division’s undeniable brilliance. Along with keyboardist-guitarist Gillian Gilbert, Hook and the remaining members carried on as New Order, creating such trendsetting masterworks as 1983’s Power, Corruption & Lies. In his new book, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, Hook offers a thrilling ride through Joy Division’s complicated musical journey. There’s tragedy, to be sure, but there’s also an examination of Curtis’s lighter side, and lots of talk about how the band created their wondrous music.

Recently, Hook chatted with us about the book, bass playing and why his appreciation of Joy Division’s music has grown through the years.

That was the motivation for writing the book?

There’s always been one side of Joy Division that most people pushed, which was the dark intensity, the Gothic splendor of the music. I felt there were other aspects to the personality of the band, and a personality behind Ian that didn’t come out. It was about supplementing information to make the story more human, and also to make it a bit more inspirational to people. The thing that turned me onto music – going back to that first time I saw the Sex Pistols -- was the mere fact that you could do it. The aura around Joy Division in some ways made that prospect too mysterious.

As you worked on the book, did you discover things or uncover feelings in yourself that surprised you?

There were certain ways I realized had changed, in my own mind. The biggest was that I had convinced myself Ian had gotten ill toward the end of Joy Division, when in reality he was ill very much at the start. I think I had done that to assuage my sense of guilt, shall we say, because I was very confused and angry about it. Persuading myself that [he was ill only later] enabled me live with a little easier with what happened. But there was nothing else. The inescapable conclusion you come to is that no one will ever find out why he did what he did, on that night. What drove him to it? What made him feel there was no hope? I was with him on the previous Friday, and he was absolutely fantastic. It’s still very frustrating, and there’s still anger and guilt. But that’s what happens with suicides. A suicide always leaves everybody behind, wishing they had done more and feeling somehow guilty of not doing enough.

In retrospect, were there indications in his lyrics that he was troubled?

The way he delivered them was fantastic. There was nothing lacking. You maybe didn’t get the lyrical nuances, but you definitely got the spirit. His lyrics, especially on Closer, were in contradiction with how he was as a person. If he had been curled into a ball in the fetal position, crying in the corner, we might have thought, “Oh, my God, we had better read his lyrics and see what’s going on.” But there was nothing like that. He seemed very normal, very “up” and very confident. Nothing amiss was apparent until after the fact. As a frontman, he delivered like a tornado, and therefore we were all perfectly happy. He sounded great.

Let’s talk a bit about the music. Is it true you weren’t happy with the sound of Joy Division’s recordings, early on?

The thing I’ve come to realize is that, within the space of about six months, we went from writing straight-up punk songs to writing wonderfully mature, very adult rock songs. But the funny thing is, we still felt like punks -- Bernard and me, in particular -- and we wanted our first album to sound that way, like the Pistols and The Clash. Martin Hannett, our producer, created this wonderful-sounding record. I think you can put it down to our youth, the fact that we didn’t recognize that. We were still at that stage where we wanted to shock, and be very aggressive. Martin gave us a wonderful LP that would last forever, whereas when you’re a 21-year-old punk, you only want to last five minutes. Listening to that album now, I’m so glad I didn’t get my way.

How did you go about learning to play bass?

I learned by listening to punk records. That’s what we all did. There was one point where I bought a book – Palmer Hughes’ How to Play Rock 'N Roll Electric Bass Guitar -- but that lasted only about five minutes. The only good thing about the book is that it had stickers to show you where the notes were. I had great fun putting those stickers on my bass. I’ve never been good at doing things “by the book.” We just learned on the hoof, at rehearsals, which I why to this day I play with just three fingers.

Is being self-taught a good thing?

That’s one reason I don’t like my daughter to have music lessons. Not being formally taught, you have no preconceived ideas. Nobody’s told you what you can or cannot do. In a strange way, the world is your oyster. You can whatever you want. There’s no one there to say, “That’s wrong,” to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do. If someone had told us that, in Joy Division, we probably wouldn’t have made music as good as we made.

Were there certain bass players you tried to emulate?

Only Jean-Jacques Burnel, the bass player for The Stranglers. His bass-playing was very “attack-y,” and cutting. It was also high in the mix. That appealed to my ego. (laughs)

Where does the strong sense of melody in your playing come from?

I suppose I have to put that down to my mother and father. It’s in the genes. I was 21 before I started playing – no previous experience at all. Had I never gone to that Sex Pistols concert, I may never have discovered bass playing at all. Also, if I hadn’t bought a bad bass speaker, originally, I may have ended up being a “normal” bass player. The first speaker I bought cost me twenty dollars -- it sounded horrible. I could hear myself only by playing high on the strings. Ian loved that, the fact that I played melodic lines high up on the neck. He felt it drove the band along, sensationally. He encouraged me to do that at every opportunity.

What was your first bass?

It was an SG copy. I still have it. Then I moved on to a Gibson EB-01. I’ve always found Gibsons to have a great sound. It’s quite distorted, but in a nice fat way. I loved that guitar. I also have small hands, which is another reason I like Gibson basses, because their necks are narrow. Later I ended up using a custom-made guitar with the same features, except for a straight-through long-scale neck instead of a bolt-on. I wish I still had that original EB-01. I sold it when I got the custom-made guitar, because I had no money.

Didn’t Sumner play Gibsons as well?

He always used Gibsons. The first guitar he had was an SG copy, which he himself customized. And then he started using a Shergold. Then, when we were in America on tour, we went to Manny’s in New York, and that’s where he fell in love with a cherry red Gibson SG. Fortunately, the SG was a “second;” otherwise we couldn’t have afforded it. It actually had the word “second” stamped on the neck. We could never figure out why, because it seemed absolutely perfect. Bernard used that guitar for years. He switched only when he started experimenting. The guitar he’s used most since then is an ES-335. He’s truly a Gibson aficionado.

How difficult was it starting New Order, after Curtis died?

We had to re-learn a new method of writing, to find a way to write without Ian. He was like the orchestra leader. He listened and told us which bits were fantastic, which bits we should focus on. This was before we even had a tape recorder. Without him, we had to record everything, and then listen back to it and start picking it apart. It involved writing in a completely different sort of way. Another problem was that Ian’s death really seemed to affect our producer, Martin Hammett, who loved Ian’s singing. Martin sort of fell out of love with us.

But obviously you found your way.

We had to limp along for a while, but I do think it came quite quickly. It came within a period of two years. It was a different group, but we were back to strength. If you listen to Movement, you hear a Joy Division album with New Order vocals – very fragile vocals, completely different from Ian’s. And when you get to Power Corruption & Lies, you have a New Order album, with New Order vocals. The musical difference was complete. We had found our feet.

You’re now writing a book about New Order. Will your approach to that story be different?

The Joy Division story wasn’t tainted by money or sex or drugs. It was a very honest time, and a very hard-working time for members of the group. When we got to New Order, we were allowed to indulge and it became more of a normal rock and roll story. Every cliché about sex, drugs and rock and roll is in New Order – and it was mainly me. (laughs) But the thing about New Order is that the band was there for several huge movements that changed the culture of music. New Order has a very interesting history. The next book will have a different feel.

Photo Credit: HarperCollins/Julien Lachausee)


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