“Honestly, it’s like banging your head on a brick wall,” Peter Hook deadpans, barely concealing the gleeful sarcasm in his Mancunian lilt. He’s referring to the reaction of his former New Order bandmates—frontman Bernard Sumner in particular—when they learned last year that Hook would be touring the U.S. in the fall with his band, the Light. At the time, New Order was preparing to announce a spring tour through some of the same cities, and Sumner was not pleased. It’s still a source of immense delight to Hooky (as he’s known to friends and fans), even though he’s had to fend off criticism for the way he left New Order in 2007.
Hook founded the Light in 2010 to bring the music of Joy Division and early New Order to new audiences. Original fans in the Hooky camp cite his indelibly melodic bass lines as the key to New Order’s sound, while others insist that Sumner, keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, and drummer Stephen Morris carry the legitimacy of being three-fourths of the original band. Whatever your take, folding the legacy of Joy Division into the equation raises the stakes. Co-founded in 1976 by Hook, Sumner, Morris, and the brooding, charismatic singer Ian Curtis, who committed suicide in 1980 just as the band was preparing to embark on its first American tour (as documented in the Anton Corbijn-directed biopic Control), Joy Division scorched the British punk-rock landscape, planting the seeds of what would define the mid-1980s’ raved-up “Madchester” sound. “When we were together as New Order, we not only ignored Joy Division almost a hundred percent, but we ignored most of New Order’s early output as well. So there was a burning ambition in me to play these songs. But until I started with the Light, I could never consider playing them without Barney [Bernard Sumner] and Steve. It was a big step for me to go, ‘Well, you know what? I’d rather have the songs and not have the band than not have anything.’ And it’s been wonderful. My ambition is to play every song that New Order and Joy Division have ever written and recorded. Hopefully I’ll be able to manage it all before I shuffle off this mortal coil.”
One sitting with Substance: Inside New Order, Hook’s hefty (and by no means hagiographic) account of his exhilarating rollercoaster ride with one of Britain’s biggest bands, might lead you to conclude that his mission is fueled by the acrimony of his split with the band. But he draws great enjoyment out of playing with the Light. “Being in a group enables you to act like a child for most of your life and get away with it. I really do wake up and have to pinch myself to think that my job is to go out and play great tunes to an appreciative audience. I mean, what a fucking job that is, mate. You can’t knock it.”
It’s been a tall order, considering how Joy Division’s two iconic albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, are forever linked to the haunting voice and presence of Ian Curtis. Hook eventually found the confidence to sing the songs himself (sometimes with the Happy Mondays’ Rowetta on guest vocals), and he recruited his son, Jack Bates, to augment and anchor the bass parts. Rounded out by guitarist David Potts, keyboardist Andy Poole, and drummer Paul Kehoe—all played in Hook’s late-’90s New Order side project, Monaco—the Light has coalesced into a formidable live unit. “I used to think singing bass players were the kiss of death, and it’s just my luck that I would bloody become one,” Hooky jokes. “The interesting thing is I really can’t sing and play, which is why I asked Jack to be in the band. It amazes me when I watch people like Phil Lynott—the way they can switch their mind and do two completely separate things. It fills me with awe. Sting is another one who’s very good at it. But I suppose it’s like driving a car and speaking on the phone, isn’t it?”
He still plays the custom Eccleshall 335-style basses that became his trademark with New Order, as well as the Shergold Marathon 6-string (which he first used to record several songs on Joy Division’s Closer, as well as Movement, New Order’s 1981 debut), but Jack hefts the instrument that started it all: the Yamaha BB1200S. Hook acquired his first one in England in the fall of 1980, shortly after New Order’s gear was stolen on its first visit to New York, and he’s played it on every album since. The Yamaha’s brightness is perfectly tailored for his technique—almost a rhythm guitarist’s approach, high up on the neck and rich with chords and melody—so much so that Yamaha is working on a signature model (the BB1200S was discontinued in the 1980s).
“The one I play with the Light is my dad’s original bass. It’s the one you see in the video for ‘The Perfect Kiss,’” Bates says, referring to the New Order synth-pop single from 1985. “I’ve been in touch with Yamaha since I did the Smashing Pumpkins tour [in 2015]. I kept telling them, ‘You should think about doing a Peter Hook bass. Everybody wants the 1200S—why don’t you reissue it?’ I think they were getting a bit annoyed with me [laughs]. But then when the Light came through California this year, they brought these new BBs to our show. We tried them and they sounded great.”
To celebrate Record Store Day in April, Peter Hook & the Light released four new live recordings on vinyl, each devoted to a specific album (and whenever possible, its associated singles and B-sides). There’s an unusually nervy edge to Closer Live Tour 2011, which commemorates the band’s first performance of Closer, in front of the home crowd at Manchester’s the Factory. From the opening power-chug of “Incubation” through the classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the Light demonstrates an astounding, free-wheeling punk ferocity. Listening to Hooky on the mic, it’s hard to believe that this guy, pushing 60 at the time, had never really fronted a band. If rock & roll is a young man’s game, Peter Hook has managed to defy the odds and make it look easy.
“With these live records, there was no pressure,” he says. “Andy [Poole] was recording them all, right from the start. So it was just another night where you go out and do your best. We picked [the songs] based on performance, or because they had something that made them stick out, and it was as simple as that. And there’s no overdubs; they’re all absolutely live. I wish I could say that about most New Order albums, but that’s another story, mate.”
You’ve told this story in your book Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, but can you talk about how you first developed your sound and technique?
The strangest thing is that because we were self-taught, both Bernard and I didn’t really listen to other people. We just wanted the energy. We were very young and full of energy, so we just played hard and fast as much as we could. So nothing really influenced me at the start. When we started writing as Joy Division, Ian used to listen to us play, and he would say, ‘That sounds good—let’s focus on that.’
So Ian helped you mold your style?
He did. At the time, I had a Sound City 120 amp that I bought from a Manchester shop for 60 quid—my mother signed the finance so I could buy it—and it sounded like shit. It was chronic, but I couldn’t do anything about it. The only time it sounded decent was when you played high up on the D and the G strings. I did that, and Ian loved it. He pushed me to do it all the time, which I can’t thank him enough for.
“I think I’m actually allergic to playing low bass.”
So Ian picked out the riffs. He’d say, “That sounds great—just play that, and Bernard, you play the guitar for that,” and it was “She’s Lost Control,” you know? And then “Inside,” “24 Hours,” “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” they all came about that way, which made me go more melodic as opposed to playing low bass. I think I’m actually allergic to playing low bass. Whenever anybody says to me, “Can you just follow the root note?” my immediate retort is, “Why don’t you just fuck off?” I hate that. With guitarists, I can tell immediately what kind of a band they are, because as soon as you hear a bass player playing the root notes, you know the guitarist is writing the music.
You drew some inspiration from Jean-Jacques Burnel, right?
Well, in the early Stranglers sound, as in “Peaches” and “Five Minutes” and all those fantastic songs, his bass sounded amazing. I should say the first decent amplifier I got was a Hiwatt, and I bought it because I saw Jean-Jacques used one. I had that stolen in America as well, funnily enough. They’re all hand-wired, and they each have a very individual sound, so you have to go through quite a few of them until you find one that suits you. Now with the Light, I use a Hiwatt 200 with Trace Elliott speakers, and I use those because they gave them to me [laughs]. But they sound great and they’re light, so they work for me. I’ve settled on using 2x15 speakers, for the softness. They’re not as bassy as the 18s tend to get with the Hiwatt.
How does it feel to be playing with your son?
It’s wonderful to hear what Jack does. I was amazed at how good he is at emulating me—which, I suppose, for a son should be quite easy, shouldn’t it? He’s the nearest thing to me in the bloody world. I was very proud of him when he got the Smashing Pumpkins gig. He’s a very good bass player.
His sound has a little less of your signature glassiness on the high end.
That’s true. He does that on purpose to give it more balls—more body, shall we say—which enables me, when I come in to play, to go above him. And that’s nice. It worked out quite naturally.
He’s also playing your legendary Yamaha. What appeals to you about the sound of that bass?
For my playing style with the melody, it has a hollowness and a brightness that other basses can’t hold a candle to—they really can’t. I’m not a normal bass player as such; I don’t play root notes, and I don’t keep a rhythm. I sort of cut across everything and play melody, mainly, and the BB1200S doesn’t particularly get in the way of the vocal, but it’s there, you know? It has a presence. Bear in mind that most bass players would play it and go, “Oh, it’s too hollow.” It’s got bottom, it’s got top, but it’s sort of missing a “normal” bass sound, and that’s why it’s perfect for me—and believe you me, mate, I have tried every bass guitar.
And you’re still playing the Eccleshall basses on tour?
Yeah. It’s basically a semi-acoustic BB1200S, because it’s treblier and it gives me feedback. The BB1200S is fantastic, but it doesn’t feed back. So Chris Eccleshall built me one that feeds back, with the same electronics. His original brief was to copy the Yamaha, so he went out and bought up all the remaining Yamaha electronics for the BB1200S. He’s actually just doing me one last bass guitar with the last vintage set of original electronics, which I’m looking forward to because he’s been ill, sadly, so it’s taken him a lot longer than we thought, poor bugger. He’s nearly 80 years old now, and still doing it.
Then there’s the Shergold Marathon 6-string.
That’s the only other bass guitar that I’ve used for years, and still use. It’s tuned EADGBE, so a guitarist can pick it up and play it. And I still use my Electro-Harmonix Clone Theory chorus pedal that I bought in 1978 with Joy Division. I had 12 of them that I alternate when they need to be fixed, and I think I’m down to nine now, because we’ve had to pillage three. They remake them, but they don’t sound like the old ones.
Is there any chance you might write original material with the Light?
No—the Light are a vehicle for the old stuff, and personally I think it needs keeping separate. I do a lot of projects on my own, and I also have a project called Man Ray with my partner, Phil Murphy. We’ve written quite a lot of tracks. I’ve got a track with Wolfgang Flür from Kraftwerk that we’re supposed to be doing, and another track with a French band, the Limiñanas, that I had a hit with in France last year. I’ve just done a cover version for Cleopatra Records of a Captain Beyond track called “Dancing Madly Backwards,” and Pottsy [David Potts] and I have been talking quite deeply about doing another Monaco LP. So I’ve got a lot on the go. Whilst I miss the dynamic of writing in a group, I don’t miss the angst and the tension that you get with it, I must admit.
It’s great that you’re putting out all this history, too. When you start off Substance: Inside New Order with the caveat that “girls, cocaine, and Barney being a twat” will be recurring themes, that says it all.
[Laughs.] You know what, I was really inspired by Barney’s book [Chapter and Verse: Joy Division, New Order, and Me], and how not to write a rock biography. I’m reading Grace Jones’ at the moment, and I’ve just finished Ginger Baker’s. I’ve read Steve Jones’ from the Sex Pistols, which is a great book. But all groups are the same. I long for the day when I read a rock biography where they all get on and live happily ever after. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write one—but I wrote the book that I wanted to read. That’s why I put all the geek facts in, and all the equipment lists, because I know people like that. Plus, you’ve got all the financial fuck-ups, the bickering, the legal stuff—it was all there to show a comprehensive picture of the great times you get in a band, but also the bad times. It’s about debunking a few myths by showing that anybody can do it, and showing that it’s done by normal people. We’re not gods. We make all the mistakes that everybody else makes. It’s just that we happened to be pretty good at making music.
Peter Hook & the Light, [all 2017, Let Them Eat Vinyl] Unknown Pleasures Tour 2012; Closer Live Tour 2011; Movement Tour 2013; Power, Corruption, & Lies Tour 2013
Basses Yamaha BB1200S, Eccleshall 335-style, Shergold Marathon 6-string
Rig Hiwatt 200, Trace Elliot 2x15
Effects JOYO D-Seed delay, Electro-Harmonix The Clone Theory chorus (Jack Bates: “When you plug anything through that Clone Theory pedal, you’re automatically like, okay, that sounds like Peter Hook. Then it’s just a case of dialing it in right. You don’t want it to sound too harsh. When you play those higher strings on the Shergold through the pedal with the right amount of treble, you immediately get that sound everybody loves.”)
Strings Bass Centre Elites (.060, .065, .085, .105)—beefier G string to enable a fuller sound when playing high on the neck