“What is EDM?!” asks Stephen Morris. “Can you tell me? I don’t know!”
New Order’s drummer can’t even recognize the genre he co-fathered. Back in 1983, the English band wrote “Blue Monday,” the original club banger. The tune’s innovative (at the time) drum machine-and-synthesizer stomp helped plant the seeds for the Tiëstos, Aviccis and Skrillexes of today. It became the best-selling 12” single ever, the proceeds of which they used to fund Manchester’s Haçienda nightclub, ground zero for the global rave movement. But Morris isn’t exactly proud of the Molly-addled mutant monster electronic dance music has become.
I can see the funny side of it, I’m not a miserable son of a bitch.
“There are so many categories of what it is,” gripes the 57-year-old. “You’ve got techno, progressive house, minimalist—God, I can’t even remember them all! It’s too specialist, really. It’s a turn off.”
Call them curmudgeonly, but New Order can still walk the talk. On their latest record, Music Complete, the dance icons throw the gauntlet down to today’s headphone-fondling DJs with 11 lustrous tracks of EDM—or their take on it, anyhow. Here they utilize modern programming tech, while bringing it something sorely lacking from today’s knob-twiddling party noise: a human touch. There are laser-like blips and searing synths, but also orchestral flourishes, guitar atmospherics, Morris’ muscular, mortal beats and Bernard Sumner’s vulnerable, average bloke croons. The result? Songs that actually make you feel something, from agitation (“Restlessness”) to euphoria (“Superheated”).
Nobody marries flesh and machine quite like New Order, even today. And yet, they never planned on becoming electro gods. In a past life they were Joy Division, playing somber post-punk—until singer Ian Curtis’ infamous suicide in 1980. The band’s surviving members decided to keep trucking, but to another place: the dance floor. They eschewed the agonized guitars and doomy bass lines for synths and sequencers, forging a wistful fusion of post-punk and dance music that wound up dominating ’80s pop charts. “We made a conscious effort that we were going to do something that would take us away from Joy Division,” says Morris. “We needed New Order to be a completely different thing.”
Nowadays, though, New Order have their hands full protecting both their past and present legacies. The last decade has seen hordes of acts— from Interpol to The Killers (whose singer Brandon Flowers guests on Music Complete)—shamelessly ape the band’s brand of happy-sad dance-rock. At the same time, fascination with Joy Division has grown exponentially, inspiring cinematic retellings (24 Hour Party People, Control) and fashion trends (see: that Unknown Pleasures t-shirt hipsters can’t stop wearing). And then there’s that laptop-generated frat boy racket they helped spawn. For better or worse, they’ve left a mark.
“I can see the funny side of it, I’m not a miserable son of a bitch,” Morris chuckles. “But you have to ask: ‘what would Ian have thought of all this?’ I don’t really know.”
And he can’t really know. Nor can New Order control the newer order. All they can do is keep their own beat going—and see where it drops.