Joy Division’s Peter Hook: An Interview
In some circles, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures is a more important record than Abbey Road and Exile on Main Street combined. It’s filled with a haunted sense of longing and loss that was only magnified after singer Ian Curtis committed suicide a couple of years after it was made. The remaining band members, including bassist Peter Hook, went on to form New Order and the group became the international stars that Joy Division never had the chance to be. Even though they had a number of hits that will always be classics—“Blue Monday,” “Regret,” “Bizarre Love Triangle,” “True Faith,” and on and on—there's something special and sacred about Unknown Pleasures (and its follow-up Closer) that New Order never recaptured. Hook has had many musical dalliances over the years, including Monaco and Revenge, and now he has two more. The first is Freebass, a bassist supergroup (insert your own joke here) that includes Gary "Mani" Mounfield from the Stones Roses and Primal Scream and Andy Rourke from The Smiths. After many years of talking about it, the group is finally releasing what will be its first and last album, It’s a Beautiful Life. On top of this, Hook and his backing band the Light are hitting the road and performing Unknown Pleasures in its entirety (they're at the 9:30 Club tonight), along with a handful of Joy Division hits and some of its earliest compositions. It may not be Joy Division, but 25 percent of the band is better than 0 percent.
Washington City Paper: What gave you the idea to do the first 30th anniversary shows of Unknown Pleasures back in May at your Manchester club?
Peter Hook: Originally, it wasn’t my idea. It was posed by the Macclesfield city council, the town where Ian was born. Some guy in the council came up with the idea of doing the 30th anniversary in celebration of Ian and it would also be a charity gig. Then, all of the sudden, the backing for the show just disappeared. So, I sat there and thought to myself, “Well, I didn’t celebrate one year and I didn’t celebrate five, 10, 15, or 25 years and yet Ian and Joy Division are still very important in my life.” So I just thought, “Fuck it, I’ll do it meself.” I will admit that I was absolutely terrified beyond belief, because the gravity of the group and the record are certainly not lost on me. I appreciate how important it is to so many people, so I was absolutely terrified. And I ended up singing, which I didn’t envision. Other people were supposed to be singing, but then they got a bit worried about the gravity of the situation.
WCP: Was it difficult for you to sing the songs either emotionally or logistically?
PH: It was emotional. I wanted to do it justice and show Ian respect as much as possible, so I was very careful to stick very much to the recorded versions that I did with Ian. I stayed very, very faithful to the originals. I must admit that it came out a lot rockier and a lot ballsier though.
WCP: You talked about the gravity of doing a concert like this and there are obviously some people who want to just see the record stay the record, never to be touched again. What do you have to say to those detractors who feel like you’re just sullying Ian’s memory?
PH: I call that kind of talk keyboard terrorism. In this day and age with YouTube, nothing is left to the imagination. People can look at what we’ve done and decide. If anyone is wondering whether I’m going to be any good at all – or whether I’m not showing enough deference or respect – they can go look at it on YouTube and then just stay away if they don’t like what they see. But since we did those two nights in Manchester, I’ve been bombarded with requests from all around the world to play it. We’ve just done a sold out tour of Australia and I never thought I’d get to Australia again after New Order split. We also did very well in Spain and we are going to Italy before we come to America. Judging by the reaction of the ticket sales in America, I think we’re going to do really really well over there. I’ve always found that America is one of those places that if you go over there and you show them you mean it, it’s like a snowball going downhill – everybody catches on. They get the vibe and they get the passion.
WCP: There are obviously so many young bands that are influenced by Joy Division, such as White Lies, the Drums and Editors. Do you enjoy listening to any of them?
PH: Funnily enough, we played with White Lies in Portugal. It was quite easy to sit there with a wry smile on my face thinking, “Oh my god, they sound like Joy Division.” I always take it as a great compliment. When people come up and say, “Oh man, you’re a living legend,” the thing that strikes me most is the living bit. I’d like to be a living legend instead of a dead legend.
WCP: You’re in the middle of writing a two-part memoir. One will cover Joy Division and one will cover New Order. How difficult or easy is it to exhume all of those memories and how much of it do you actually remember?
PH: I can’t blame the loss of memory on anything other than youthful exuberance, because we had no money. We had not been introduced to drugs at all back then, so we were literally high on life. Frankly, I couldn’t remember a lot of it when I started writing. But as I’ve started delving into my memories, a lot of it has started to come back. I’ve read so many books about Joy Division from people who weren’t there, so it’s time for somebody who was there to bloody write the story. Now I bet you $100 that Bernard and Stephen will not agree with me, because, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that everybody remembers everything differently. So this autobiography will be the story of Joy Division from my point of view. It will be my truth.
WCP: You’re on the verge of releasing the Freebass record. It’s been years and years in the making, so what took it so long to come to fruition?
PH: Because of the simple reason that we all have separate careers and all could only get together to finish it when the time allowed us. Mani, Andy and I are all pretty much impoverished, jobbing musicians. We’re not at the poverty line, but we still have to work for a living. So you couldn’t just get everybody together, which is why it took so long. The saddest thing was that when we did actually get everybody together, it didn’t work.
WCP: There was some really brutal sniping between you and Man in the press right before it was announced that the record was actually going to come out. What happened there?
PH: We’re beyond that now. We are the best of friends again, which is quite funny. I learned with New Order that you do not take your argument to the world and Mani hadn’t learned that yet. So he had to learn the hard way, in the same way that I had to learn the hard way. But Mani is still a great friend of mine; he always will be. He’s part of Manchester and he’s part of what I grew up with and that will never change. Freebass was a fantastic idea and it’s a great record, but the group just couldn’t work. But now I’m here with the Light doing Unknown Pleasures, so I couldn’t be happier. It all worked out in the end.
PETER HOOK AND THE LIGHT PLAY ON WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 1 AT THE 9:30 CLUB, 815 V ST. NW. $25. (202) 265-0930.