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Reaching another emotional level: an interview with Joy Division’s Peter Hook

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Joy Division’s legendary bass player, Peter Hook, reflects on the band’s tragic past, and celebrates their seminal catalogue of post-punk music, with an orchestral performance. He speaks with Portia Conyers-East.

It’s 2012, I’m 15-years-old and scribbling the lyrics of Love Will Tears Us Apart on the back of my bedroom door (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ Love Is Pain serves as the front-door adage to my youth).

Joy Division’s domination over the bedroom walls of angst-ridden teens, three decades after the band’s peak (tragically cut-short following lead singer Ian Curtis taking his own life on the eve of the band’s first American tour in May 1980), is a testament to their musical and cultural prowess.

At 63 years old, Peter Hook – legendary bassist for Joy Division (and later New Order) – continues to perform the soundtrack that created a legacy for the band as post-punk pioneers.

With his latest endeavour, which sees him play the music of Joy Division with an orchestral accompaniment from the Metropolitan Orchestra, Hook treats Joy Division’s canon with great reverence, care, enthusiasm and passion.

The show debuts in Australia this August. He discusses what audiences can expect from a show that incorporates Joy Division’s post-punk repertoire with classical elements.

Why do you think the orchestra works so well in collaboration with Joy Division?

As musicians, we spend time emulating classical music. For example, when we got the string synth out and used the piano on Closer [Joy Division’s second album]. In a way, we are giving the music back to the orchestra.

But also, Joy Division’s music can lend itself to an orchestral interpretation because of post-punk’s already present dramatics, which are only accentuated under an orchestra – taking the music to another emotional level.

Why do you think an orchestra gives that more passionate feeling?

The thing that I noticed from doing the Hacienda Classical [a periodic live show that sees classical re-workings of the dance tracks played in Manchester’s legendary Hacienda club, of which Hook was a co-owner] is that people respond to the expression an orchestra gives. The orchestra offers a depth and warmth to the music. Having 40-70 people playing your favourite songs has an empowering effect.

PeterHook Credit To Mark McNulty

Pic: Mark McNulty

What inspired you to create this concert?

Since I’ve been doing Hacienda Classical with conductor Tim Crooks, he would constantly say “I’d love to get my hands on Joy Division,” and I’d be like, “In your dreams mate. We’re a rock band, you haven’t got a chance.” But through Hacienda, I saw how the songs were interpreted, and the power the orchestra has on the audience.

It was only in 2010 that I returned to Joy Division with Peter Hook and the Light [Hook’s rock band, formed in 2010], and I reconnected with a really important part of my life. I’m enjoying every single moment.

Re-working Joy Division into an orchestral performance, as you said, adds a heightened level of emotion. Is there a reason you wanted to highlight the sombre feelings Joy Division evokes?

Ian’s story is so tragic, and what we would call an absolute waste in the way suicide is with anybody, but especially with someone who is as culturally and musically known as Ian, who still has an impact today.

In this show, we are not only able to celebrate Ian’s music, but also his life, which is immensely important to me. Without what Ian did musically, I wouldn’t have lived as I have.

There is a great melancholy for what could have been, so I’m hoping we can all have a good wallow in that, and what the audience will hopefully pick up on.

So, the show is a tribute to Ian, his music, legacy and life?

Don’t get me wrong, Joy Division was definitely a collaborative effort, in the sense that each Joy Division member added a hell of a lot of their own talent to the strength that was Joy Division.

In a funny way it commemorates the tragedy of losing Ian and the group, while really enhancing the sound of the music. Listening to the versions, I’m pretty much in awe.

So there is a feeling of loss not only for Ian, but also for Joy Division as a collective?

Absolutely. Since I fell out with Bernard and Steven, which has been very publicly known, I’d like to say we have a better relationship at the moment, but we don’t.

Since I fell out with Bernard and Steven, which has been very publicly known, I’d like to say we have a better relationship at the moment, but we don’t.

Unfortunately, there is always that other dark cloud. Ian is the biggest dark cloud and the demise of the group when we were at our peak is another dark cloud. But a strong dark cloud for some reason is the fact that the remaining members of Joy Division are unable to sit in the same room to plan any aspects of their legacy, even now.

Sometimes I come home from a gig and think, oh my God, wouldn’t it be lovely if I could call Bernard up and say, “Oh man, I had a great gig in Scarborough. You should have seen it, they went mad for it. We did the right thing, we created something wonderful,” but I can’t.

In Australia, you are working with the Metropolitan Orchestra. What has it been like for you, a rock musician, to work with what would be called ‘high-brow’ musicians?

Like the Hacienda, most of these musicians have never worked professionally in this arena We are putting them in a unique world. A lot of them do thank me, saying they are fed up with playing Mozart and Strauss.

You said in your book Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division that “Joy Division gave the arty, intellectual image but back in the day you were just working-class thieves.” Do you think with time, you have developed into the arty intellectual type, with this orchestra show, or have you maintained the persona of a ratbag at heart?

I must admit that every time I’m with the orchestra, I do feel like a fraud. They are so schooled and precise, and I’m the opposite. I’m self-taught by ear, I ad-lib, and drop notes constantly.

The two worlds really are vastly different. However, if I had a pound for every time one of the orchestra members has come up to me on the Hacienda dates and said “Oh I used to go to the Hacienda, I was off my head for weeks, I’d be well off…”

It’s funny, the players appear to be well to-do in the same way Joy Division appeared to be arty. But they aren’t. They have their vocation and their art, but as people, we are all pretty much the same.

What does it mean to be returning back to Australia?

Mate, I love Australia. It’s my favourite part of the world. Every time I leave Australia, I say to myself, “Why do I live in bloody Manchester?”

When I began celebrating Joy Division with The Light in 2010, Melbourne was our seventh gig. The reaction from the crowd … I knew I was in good company, and that it was the right decision to return to Joy Division.

Mate, I love Australia. It’s my favourite part of the world. Every time I leave Australia, I say to myself, “Why do I live in bloody Manchester?”

With no previews available online, what can audiences expect from the show?

You only have my word for it that this is going to be stupendous. Because it will be. If anyone disagrees with me, I’ll give them their money back. We are asking people to take a chance and come. I think they will be very pleasantly surprised. It is a lot of work. The most work I have ever put into Joy Division. I must admit, listening to it every time in rehearsals, it sends shivers down my spine. I cannot wait for people to see it.

Peter Hook: The Sound of Joy Division Orchestrated, featuring the Metropolitan Orchestra, tours Australia in August:

Friday, August 2, Sydney Opera House

Saturday, August 3, AEC Theatre Adelaide

Tuesday, August 6, BCEC Brisbane

Friday, August 9, Perth Concert Hall

Sunday, August 11, Plenary Theatre Melbourne

If you or someone you know needs support, you can contact:

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Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636

Feature image credit: Peter Kaminski

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