For New Order to appear at the Manchester International Festival is in itself not much of surprise: with the band so intrinsically linked to the city it seemed only a matter of time before they would form part of the line up. The challenge was how to make it exciting, how to elevate their shows above the status of a regular gig.
To achieve this, they have joined forces with artist Liam Gillick, who has created an incredible stage set and light experience for the band, alongside their regular collaborator, composer-arranger Joe Duddell, who has reinvented their music with help from a 12-strong synthesiser ensemble from the Royal Northern College of Music. The result is the unusually named ∑(No,12k,Lg,17Mif), a series of gigs which sees the band return to Old Granada Studios in Manchester, where they made their TV debut in 1978 as Joy Division on Tony Wilson’s So It Goes programme.
Talking to Gillick two weeks before the show opened by phone to his studio in New York, he explained how he came to be involved in the project. “The festival thought it was time to do something, or to try to do something, with the band and their history,” he says. “That was knocking about for a while I think and a lot of different ideas were talked about, including originally the idea of breaking down their catalogue and working with different people, remixing tracks.
“I think the idea then was to link remixing tracks with working with people to provide visual material. That was a discussion I got involved in a year ago or more. I was a bit sceptical about it – I thought it took away a bit from what’s interesting about the band, which to me is the music, and not the idea of putting it through a filter in a sense, but to actually confront it quite intimately.”
The band agreed and began working with Gillick to create an experience that is different to anything we’ve seen from New Order before. This is in part down to the music they’ve chosen to perform: eschewing hits such as Blue Monday and True Faith, they’ve instead picked more obscure numbers from their back catalogue, many of which – including Shellshock, Vanishing Point and Joy Division’s Disorder – have not been performed in public for almost three decades. Entwined with the music is Gillick’s light show and stage set, which features the 12 members of the synthesiser orchestra placed behind the band in two rows of ‘rooms’, with slats that open and close over the course of the gig, revealing and concealing the musicians.
From the start Gillick’s desire was to not move too far away from what the band does best, but instead to examine and to deconstruct what we might expect of the concert experience. “What I’m trying to do is find a balance between it being an intimate concert and something that’s got this twist where it has this art component,” he says. “It’s hard to put your finger on what the difference is but it’s to do with the way you tweak and the way you leave things out, maybe. Or you ask questions about what should or shouldn’t be around and normal at a concert. So it’s very much like bringing an attitude to an event.”
Gillick describes the finished experience as a “concert machine”, which features an animated set “which reveals and conceals the 12 keyboard players”. The experience is a mix of analogue and digital, appropriate for a band that has played together – in one form or other – for almost 40 years and is well-known for its experiments with technology.
“You’ve got this analogue component, which is the set and the staging, and this digital component which is the breakdown of all the sequencing files and all that sound in the music that’s broken down amongst a number of players,” says Gillick. “The effect is really extraordinary, it gives it a slightly raw edge.”
Working with the band, and their wider technical team, has been a great experience, according to Gillick. “You know when people say ‘do you want to work on a collaboration?’ and what they really mean is ‘do you want to give us half an idea and we’ll do something with it?’ It happens all the time, right? And this actually turned out to be real, which has been really great for me, really interesting.”
Gillick sees this as a continuation of how the band has always worked. “I think one of the big things about New Order and even Joy Division is they always worked in parallel – when they worked originally with their producer or their designer, everyone would do their thing and they had their own competency,” he continues. “That seems to be almost a principle or a philosophy so they’ve treated me the same way from the beginning and I like that because it’s highly unusual. It’s like working with a very good architect, where they have the ability to let you in and let you do what you do and then they give you access to all of the resources and all of the technical people that they normally work with, and that doesn’t happen every day.
“Bernard I think always has an idea, but what’s interesting is the degree to which he will let you follow an idea without interfering and without being authoritarian.”
The concerts are appearing at the same time as an exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery that examines New Order and Joy Division’s cultural heritage and specifically the influence the bands have had on contemporary artists. That show features work from artists including Jeremy Deller, Mark Leckey and Slater Bradley, who explore a range of themes related to the bands.
Gillick too cites them as being important to his work, but not perhaps in the way you might expect. “I’ve always said they’re a big influence on me but it’s not visual. It’s not necessarily understandable when you look at the artwork but it’s to do with a way of working and a way of treating other people and the way of coming up with a solution,” he says.
“There’s also a deeply sentimental side to some of the songs,” he continues. “There’s something bittersweet and yearning about the music that I find, as a man, as a straight man, quite touching. There’s a few things like that that have stayed with me, over the years.”