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On Sniffing Dry Cleaning Fluid In School, Iggy Pop And Wild Cats

8 October 2015 | 3:17 pm | Bryget Chrisfield

"I mean, drumming's really like a slightly less embarrassing form of dancing because you're sittin' down"

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New Order's new album Music Complete is as incredible as anything they've ever done. A lot of said album was written in "a little studio in a barn" in Stephen Morris' house, about which the drummer says, "It's got cows outside, which is nice; it's got mice inside, which isn't nice". Does he have cats to take care of those mice? "Yeah, there's a few cats: there's an indoor cat, which doesn't bother with the mice, and there's a wild cat outside that seems to go for everything apart from the mice. It's a bit annoying; he prefers rabbits, which is a bit distressing really. He's a genuine wild cat - he's not mine - he just turns up and he looks like, you know Dr Seuss? The whatchamacallit, The Cat In The Hat. He's just, like, a bruiser and he won't have anything to do with people, but he's quite violent [laughs]." When Morris really guffaws, he wheezes, a little bit like Muttley from Wacky Races.

When asked whether there are loads of extra bedrooms in his house in case sessions go late into the night, Morris sounds horrified. "Oh, god no! I don't want people stopping, no. What would the children think? Um, no, I kind of work from very early in the morning 'til about tea time. And the great thing about having a barn is you can make a lotta noise and nobody complains. And then Bernard [Sumner, frontman] sort of likes working in the evening, he's got his own studio at his house and he likes workin' on his own at night with, um, a glass - or a bottle - of wine."

"There's an indoor cat, which doesn't bother with the mice, and there's a wild cat outside that seems to go for everything apart from the mice."

Working separately in this way sounds very different from Joy Division's modus operandi in the late-'70s. "I mean, the whole thing - I was thinking about this the other day - has become so rapid that you can send stuff, like, so instantaneously. And I don't necessarily think it's made the world a better place. 'Cause a thing that's happened this week is that the album came out in Japan, and just because it came out in Japan now means it's out everywhere - all of the world. Whereas when I first started buying records, just because a record was out in America - uh, it still meant you had to wait five weeks before you could get it in England."

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We reflect back on ordering imports - limited-edition, extended dance mixes - from the record store and then waiting (im)patiently for the landline phone call/handwritten message on the table from your mum telling you the precious item had arrived. "Yeah, yeah!" Morris enthuses. "It's like there's been people involved in the process of delivering it to ya instead of a machine, which has just furrowed some data down a bit of wire... I don't know, as a thing human beings are becoming more and more impatient, whereas there was something really good about the anticipation of a 12-inch square of vinyl arriving at your door with a foreign stamp on it and then putting it on, and you kind of savoured it more. Whereas when it's just on your computer, with every other bit of files and data, you just put it on and it's, like, 'Was that it?'"

Never mind the fact that fans are so impatient for new material these days that they end up Googling dodgy camera-phone footage taken from the middle of a field during a festival set. The typically dodgy sound quality of this YouTube-fixated era certainly must frustrate musicians. "Uh, yeah," Morris allows, before adding. "It's more frustrating I think for the people who do the engineering and who actually produce the record 'cause they're, like, trying to produce it to the highest standards and then someone puts it out on something that's probably - is it as bad as a cassette? I don't know." Especially if the cassette has been salvaged by repeatedly winding the tape back into its cartridges with a pencil! "No, that's right. Once it had sort of unravelled across the floor a few times, yeah.

"You do put a lot of work in and people don't really notice a lot of the time. I mean, the thing that we've done on this record is we actually kind of went and did it twice: we did one - we finished the album and thought we'd done it - and then they said, 'Oh, no, you've got to do an extended version'. So we kind of had to go in, do it all again - I mean, obviously we didn't re-record it all but we had to be involved in sort of extending it and sorting out the mixes and everything. Um, and look that was interesting." So does that mean two versions of Music Complete will be available? "Well, no, there won't be two versions available, although at the minute I think the extended one is some sort of limited edition thing that record companies do. But [laughs] it is actually fantastic, yeah." Once could never tire of hearing Morris say "thing"; he separates the word into two syllables by overemphasising the 'g'.  

New Order have certainly created a euphoric, hands-in-the-air collection in Music Complete and this scribe is transported back to The Fridge nightclub in Brixton. "Oooh, yeah, that's one to go back to," Morris laughs. "Oh dear, we all had it, yeah." On whether The Haçienda was the unparalleled party paradise everyone bangs on about, Morris offers, "I couldn't - I'm slightly biased, because I could never really appreciate what The Haçienda had to offer... It was kind of, um, you were kind of looking at it with a view to, 'Oh my god, the paint's falling off, that needs fixing...' As soon as you walked in the door, you kind of - not all the time, but a lotta the time - you sort of felt responsible, like you ought to be tidying up, haha. So unless I was particularly relaxed for, let's say, one reason or another, I found it difficult to get into party mode. But, yeah! I did have some good nights though, let's say that."

Another now-defunct clubbing haven, New York's Studio 54 across the Atlantic, was widely reported as a spiritual experience and Morris racks his brain: "I think I went to Studio 54, but do you know? I can't remember!" That sounds about right. He chuckles, "I know, um, yeah."

While we're in the discotheque, one of New Order's new album tracks, Plastic, really evokes Donna Summer's I Feel Love to this set of ears. Is Morris a Moroder fan at all? "Oh god, yeah! Yeah, Plastic was kind of a little bit moving in the direction of Giorgio Moroder. I mean, he did a talk at, um, I think it was called the LEAF [London Electronic Arts Festival] festival in London a couple of years ago that me and Bernard went to, and we met him and he's a really nice guy. And he's done some fantastic stuff so, yeah! It was kind of a little nod to Giorgio Moroder. But, the thing is, as soon as you start doing stuff like that you automatically move into that kinda direction - you know if you start using that motorik synth rhythm, he's kind of written the book on that."

"There was something really good about the anticipation of a 12-inch square of vinyl arriving at your door with a foreign stamp on it and then putting it on..."

On how he feels about electronic drums, Morris contemplates, "Oh, how do I feel about 'em? Love 'em and hate 'em. I mean, yeah! Love 'em and hate 'em, really. I enjoy 'em up to a point and then I start disliking them immensely and then - it's the same thing: you're never happy; everything is a sort of wonderment and frustration. Even when you're on a real kit you're saying, you know, 'It'd be great if I could just change the snare sound a little bit,' and, 'Oh, yeah, well I need an electronic kit to do that,' so, yeah! There's good things and bad things about both of 'em." And there's nothing quite like watching an actual drummer playing with metronomic precision. "Oh, yeah!" Morris agrees. "Yeah, it's great to watch, but I think when you do it - I mean, drumming's really like a slightly less embarrassing form of dancing because you're sittin' down. It ticks a lot of boxes for me: I don't have to move, but I can move at the same time and you can watch other people."

So does Morris enjoy peering out from behind his drum kit safe in the knowledge that most of the crowd will be gawking at the other musicians? "It is fun, yeah," he admits. "I do like that occasionally, although I find it very difficult to do because; the funny thing is with doing, like, drumming live when you actually - drumming anyway is, for me anyway, one of those things you can only do well by not thinking about it. Yeah, it's hard to explain: if I think about what I'm doing, I automatically make a mess of it [laughs], because if you just think about - I tend to think about what I've got to get from the shops and I play brilliantly." It is muscle memory isn't it, really. "Yeah, it is. It's very much muscle memory, yeah, yeah. And the thing is, if you do think of it too much you end up doing the same thing 'cause, I mean, the very essence of drumming is repetition, but only up to a point; you can't play the same thing all the way through every song, there's got to be a few variations in there somewhere. And sometimes just by not thinking about it, you'll make what you think is a mistake, but it's actually your brain saying, 'You need to be a bit more creative'. Um, which is nice, you know; you kind of find yourself improvising." Rather than being greased off by his bandmates when he indulges in a few creative flourishes, Morris reckons "they sometimes say, 'What's come over 'im?' Hahaha."

Iggy Pop features on the outstanding album track, Stray Dog. So if someone told Morris at the start of his musical career that Iggy Pop would feature on one of his future tracks, how would he have reacted? "Um, I would have scoffed, to be quite honest," he reveals. "Uh, I never ever, ever in a million years thought we'd be having Iggy Pop on a New Order record, or any record. It's just amazing, absolutely amazing." If you didn't have previous knowledge that Pop features on this album, you could be forgiven for needing to check out the liner notes and Morris concurs: "It's not what you'd expect Iggy to do, is it?" But it really does work. "Oh, it's brilliant," Morris gushes. "I mean, he's totally taken the idea and taken it somewhere where I never imagined it being. And it is like a little film, yeah! It's just like listening to a film; you could imagine it, you could actually see where it's going on and, yeah! First of all Iggy Pop, then Iggy Pop doing something that makes us sound like we played in the Louisiana swamps."

"I never ever, ever in a million years thought we'd be having Iggy Pop on a New Order record."

Stray Dog transports both New Order and Iggy Pop to a totally different sonic environment. "Yeah, yeah, it does. You know, I never thought that," Morris confesses. "But the thing is; you get asked, 'What was he like to work with?' And I get embarrassed now, because, well, I don't know, haha. I'm really, really - I don't like, um, meeting people like that particularly; someone like Iggy who, you know, he's played such a big part in me and music, really. From the first Stooges album, you know, I listened to that in me bedroom, and Metallic KO and seeing the video of 'im where he's covered 'imself with peanut butter. And it's just made such a big impression on you, and you've got this idea of Iggy in your head, and you don't want it to be spoilt by meetin' 'im and findin' out that he's not like that. 'Cause most people aren't like how you imagine 'em and it's kind of - I'm a bit wary of, you know, meetin' your idols in case they disillusion you.

"I mean, I've met 'im and I've kind of embarrassed meself because I always remember - you know the first Stooges album? I got it and it was really, really thick vinyl. It was like a really, really - it weighed a lot, it was the heaviest record in my collection; you knew when you got the Stooges album just by the sheer weight of it. And Bernard, he'd done this gig with 'im and he said, 'Oh, come over and meet Iggy,' and I was, '[puts on crazy starstruck voice] Er, I gotta meet Iggy,' and all I could say to 'im was, 'Hi, Iggy, that first Stooges album, that was a really heavy album!'" We both laugh. Then the penny suddenly drops that "heavy" has an alternate meaning in America, as in 'heavy, man'. "Yeah, exactly," Morris cringes, "which, haha, I didn't mean! And so I quit while I'm ahead he might not 'ave noticed." So the drummer chose not to explain himself? "It makes it worse!" he opines, "and you're digging yourself into an even deeper hole you didn't know you were diggin' in the first place, hahaha."

Morris is one of the subjects in's 16 Again video interview series, which he admits was "a lot fun to do". Reflecting back on his 16-year-old self, the drummer mentions dry cleaning fluid as some kind of recreational drug. He guffaws when this is mentioned before elaborating, "It's the carbon tetrachloride craze of 1974. It's very dangerous." So what do you do, just swallow it? "No! No! No! Don't do that! That will kill you!" he warns. "No, No, it was kind of sniffing glue for beginners... What happened at school, was you'd get a bottle of dry cleaning fluid and put a dab of it on the sleeve of your blazer and, yeah, you just sort of like [inhales slowly] smelling your blazer's cuff." Was it a little bit like poppers? "It was, yeah, very much. Poppers for beginners but, yeah! It got absolutely hilarious 'cause I can remember one Friday it was, the English Master was daydreaming about - his team was in the cup final so he wasn't really payin' attention. And I looked around and the entire class was virtually comatose - sorta slumped over - sniffing the blazers, like. And this guy was just - you could literally see birds, you know, swimmin' 'round his head and he didn't realise! And, why he couldn't smell it!? Maybe he just had a very bad sense of smell but, um, yeah! That was how it started off. It's very dangerous, ah, I couldn't encourage anyone to indulge in it, no. But, yeah! That was what I did when I should've been learning. It would've been much better to have gotten a job in a cleaning place and then you wouldn't have had to buy it from the chemists [laughs]." This makes casual classroom magic-marker sniffing sound harmless. "That's the first thing you do when you get a marker, you got to, yeah. And then there's some that don't smell like they used to. But usually I just never bother putting the top back on those and they just dry up by their own accord, and then I go and buy another one. Yeah, you can't beat the old-fashioned magic marker. Oh dear, what we talking about?" Morris chuckles.

"You'd get a bottle of dry cleaning fluid and put a dab of it on the sleeve of your blazer..."

We digressed. Anyway, New Order have really gone nuts with the orchestration on this album (see: Superheated). "We got Joe Duddell doing some string arranging," Morris explains. "We did a day at a studio in Manchester with a bunch of string players and that was a first; actually watching people who get paid for playing in orchestras playin' on one of our records." Morris says he "found it really interesting", further explaining "there's a different kind of precision" about their playing. "They don't groove very well, orchestras - that's the trouble," he laughs.

Has Morris seen the film Whiplash? "Yes, I have. Have you seen it?" Affirmative. How did he go with it? "Ah, honestly? I hated it. I absolutely hated it," he stresses, going so far as to say. "It just made me very angry, as you can tell. Because, for me, it's about having fun, really, and enjoying playing, and nobody seemed to be enjoying any of it. It's just that there is this kind of branch of drumming, which I think is trying to get it in the Olympics as some sort of endurance sport -  um, which is brilliant! I can't knock it. I can't do it either; I don't want to do it. I think it's fantastic that people want to play a million miles an hour, but I find it very difficult to listen to. I'm sorry, but it just sounds like someone pushing a barrel of nails down stairs very quickly.

"It reminds me - again, we're back being 16 again - of [how] I used to go to gigs and every band, I don't know what it was in the '70s; every band would have to have, like, a 15 minute..." Extended freak-out! "Oh, god yeah. Yeah! Oh they were awful, absolutely awful. Um, even I started going to the bar and, you know, not watchin' 'em at one point. And I should've been interested [laughs]." Self-indulgent, perhaps? "Exactly. It's self-indulgent. Don't be a self-indulgent drummer, you won't make friends. All you'll do is, you'll annoy your neighbours - they don't like it, either. Nobody likes a self-indulgent drummer, they don't. Stick to the beat, that'll do."

Let's rewind back to New Order's 2011 reunion shows - two benefit gigs for filmmaker Michael Shamberg - when Bad Lieutenant bassist Tom Chapman replaced Peter Hook and Morris' wife, keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, returned to the band after a ten-year break. One can't even begin to imagine how Gilbert felt backstage, prior to the show. Morris chuckles, "Unsurprisingly nervous!" When asked whether there were conversations in the band room or complete silence, Morris enlightens, "Oh, everybody was very excited because it was really exciting to be doin' it again, but also at the same time, there was kind of like - when it's the first time you're doin' anything you're obviously nervous, it's nervous excitement. And also, because it was the first time that we'd done anything without Peter [Hook], ah, people might think that we were rubbish [laughs]. So it's a mixture of apprehension and excitement. Ah, I mean, we all enjoyed doin' it - 'cause' just rehearsing the songs and putting the thing together to do it, was a lot of fun, but there was a bit of apprehension about how other people might, ah, take to us a bit." By all accounts the crowd was vocally enthusiastic straight away. "Oh, yeah," Morris acknowledges. "About halfway through the second song we realised that we didn't have anything to worry about and kind of just settled back into enjoying it, which was great! Yeah, no: big smiles, really, from that point!"

So is Hooky still giving the band grief? "Ah, ah, well, Peter's doing what he's doing and we're doing what we're doing. And that's it, really." When asked whether it's still unpleasant with impending lawsuits and the like, Morris sighs, "Um..." Does it take up much of his headspace? "You can't really let it take up - because, what is it? 'How many muscles it takes to smile and how many it takes to...' Being angry and annoyed is just - it's a waste of time, really. You know, life's too short to bloody spend grumbling."