Author Q&A: Stephen Morris
Record, Play, Pause (Constable, £20)
Record, Play, Pause (Constable, £20)
The first volume in Stephen Morris’s memoirs details the drummer’s early life, growing up in the sixties and seventies in industrial Macclesfield, the beginnings of Joy Division and the band’s rise to critical acclaim before the untimely death of lead singer Ian Curtis.
What made you want to write this book now?
I’ve always wanted to write a book. I enjoy reading so I figured writing would probably be fun too. I began writing the book about five or six years ago. Originally my idea was to do a novel but I kept forgetting who the characters were and what they were doing. Which was a bit of a problem. I did enjoy writing, but I never had enough time to concentrate on it.
You narrate the story up to the formation of New Order very eloquently, despite it taking place over 40 years ago. What was your writing process?
I just began writing down memories whenever I got a chance, which got me interested in the way that memory works – it’s pretty haphazard and jumbled. I can remember things very vividly but the order that I remembered events happening was mostly impossible. So, in an attempt to make some sense of that I ended up writing yet another memoir. Well, two actually. It turned out that I got a bit carried away and misunderstood the point of the word counter. I ended up writing just over 1,000 pages expecting that it would be easy to edit down.
When did you realise that Joy Division was actually going to make it?
On 13 August 1979 – a couple of months after Unknown Pleasures came out. We were doing a gig at the Nashville in London and had nipped out to the chippy across the road for a bite to eat. Eating my chips (without gravy) I noticed through the window a queue of people stretching round the corner. I wondered what was going on until Rob pointed out that the queue was for us. That was a really exciting gig. I remember meeting Rat Scabies and feeling a bit starstruck. Later that night things took a turn for the worse when on the way home when an artic rammed the van and destroyed most of our gear. Life is full of ups and downs.
Tell us a bit more about the “never peak” marketing strategy. Do you think it was the best choice for Joy Division?
To call it a strategy might be going a bit far. There wasn’t that much forward planning – more a list of things that we didn’t want to do. No singles on albums, no photos of the band on sleeves, we didn’t want to play the same set every night, we didn’t want to leave Manchester and we weren’t particularly fond of the music press either. All in all, things that would be considered bad for a band to do had they been on a major label instead of Factory. We didn’t really go in for what is generally called promotion. It was more important to do things with integrity than to be commercial. Rob Gretton’s theory was that a band like The Kinks was a much more interesting group than say The Beatles because they hadn’t had that massive commercial exposure. They just made consistently brilliant records without too much fuss. The bands that I liked best were all either called cult or underground and that was where I wanted to be.
Mental health is an important and recurring theme in the book. You mention it was a taboo subject during the 1970s. How do you think this has changed since?
I’m no expert on mental health in the 21st century but it does seem to me that thankfully it’s much easier to talk about it today. It’s a subject that is no longer awkward to discuss or shameful to admit to as it was in the seventies. It’s pretty easy to find help and information now. That’s really good thing. A bad thing in today’s world is the huge amount of pressure that exists particularly for the young. There is a growing crisis with mental health of teenagers that doesn’t seem to be being addressed as well as it ought to be.
How has the role of the drummer changed over time?
The drum is possibly the oldest musical instrument and the basic idea of hitting them with varying degrees of violent intensity hasn’t really changed that much. What a drummer can do has become a lot more sophisticated than just going bang! bang! at regular intervals, although it’s still pretty essential. Drumming is something that is always evolving both sonically and stylistically. There’s even an aspect of 21st century drumming that more closely resembles some sort of Olympic athletics event than anything that you might conceive of as being musically useful. I’ve never really gone in for all that superfast ambidextrous complication myself. I’m a great believer in “less is more” when it comes to drumming. Keep it simple. I’ve always been a bit of a technology enthusiast and that is one thing that’s had a big impact (no pun intended) on drumming. I love drum synthesisers, I had of the first ones back in Joy Division and really enjoyed being able to make sounds that were not typically drum like but still rhythmic. Although you could argue about what they have to do with drummers, there’s drum machines or rhythm boxes like the Roland 808, which became a key feature in the sound of electronic music and launched a whole set of musical genres and sub genres – imagine hip-hop without a beat box. I love beat boxes – they’re wonderful machines. The trick is working out when and how they can help you sound better.
How have gigs changed since you first started out? Is there less room for live improvisation nowadays?
You could probably say much the same thing about gigs. Technology gets in everywhere. It’s beginning to become a rarity seeing a band or musician that isn’t using a laptop or an iPad. Although it’s not always true that using a computer means that improvising is impossible. It does make it more difficult to be totally spontaneous. In fact, it was a lot easier to jam with the very early, primitive and not particularly reliable drum machines and sequencers that New Order used in the very early days than it is with a laptop sequencer today. Having said that, not all music has to be that way. I did a gig a few weeks ago with Damo Suzuki which basically involved five people who’d never met, much less played together, before. Improvising for an hour. Just coming up with spontaneous music. That was a very interesting and really enjoyable experience.