The interview: BERNARD SUMNER TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON

The alcohol-fuelled hedonism that drove New Order is behind him, but his new work is no less intense and no less beguiling
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As singer and guitarist with Mancunian machine- soul enigmas New Order, Bernard Sumner was the living embodiment of the good taste and discretion otherwise so sadly lacking in the 1980s. The man who became an icon of English reserve at its most passionate has one over-riding memory of that decade: "Being in America, travelling vast distances and playing to 20,000 people a night."

How does he feel about the way his now-defunct band's once-daunting aesthetic integrity has been compromised over the past few years by their record company's frantic attempts to get a return on a misguided investment? "It's out of our hands now," Sumner grins, a very boyish 40. "To tell you the honest truth, I don't really give a s---. I'm interested in the future, not the past."

Sumner's future currently has a very rosy look about it. The second album by Electronic - the fastidious group he formed with former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr at the turn of the Nineties - is finished at last. On first acquaintance it almost sounds too finished, but on subsequent hearings, the blend of air-brushed musical precision and off-kilter emotional intensity becomes so intoxicating that you can't wait for it to finish so you can start listening to it again. As David Bowie has discovered, the problem with being ahead of the times is that they catch up with you in the end, but these two Eighties survivors seem to have side-stepped that issue very neatly.

"The key words," Sumner posits demurely, "are health and daylight." Like just about everything else he says, this statement is leavened with a fair measure of mischief - never trust a man who claims to have prepared for an interview with "a strenuous walk" - but there is something in it too. Having been laid low by stomach problems resulting from an almost religious devotion to Pernod and orange juice, Sumner has been obliged to clean up his act a bit. "I don't abuse myself with alcohol any more," he insists, "apart from this drink [a Pernod and orange] I've got in my hands now." As if to hammer this point home, he has another one later. Sumner has yet to follow the wiry Marr into the gym - "All those sweaty genitals hanging out in the changing rooms, it doesn't quite grab my fancy ... Johnny seems to like it, though" - but he does go running every day. "I know it sounds really boring," he says apologetically, "like I'm some kind of reformed character, but I don't do it because it makes me feel physically better. I do it for my brain." He has also felt the benefit of a change from traditional alcohol-fuelled four-in-the-afternoon-till- six-thirty-in-the- morning studio working hours: "If you don't see any daylight all week, you get jet lag at the weekend, you're a grumpy bastard with your girlfriend and you're constantly missing the shops or forgetting to go to the bank. You end up like some kind of tramp."

The roots of these hedonistic working practices went deep. New Order's famously dark and doomy predecessors Joy Division, were, according to Sumner, a "party in the studio" type of band too. That is not how they tend to be remembered. "The music was pretty cheerful," Sumner insists, with a fondly disrespectful nod to Joy Division's singer and writer Ian Curtis, whose suicide in 1980 forced him into the spotlight. "It was just that twat's lyrics."

Sumner's determination to break with the habits of a lifetime even led him to allow TV cameras into his previously mysterious creative process . Last year he took part in a bizarre BBC2 programme in which the psychiatrist Oliver James sought to assess the effects of Prozac on creativity by giving it to (and, in one traumatic case, taking it away from) a series of artistic individuals who suffered from depression. Sumner is not happy about how James represented him: "He said I suffered from hyper-critical voices, that I had this big eye watching me all the time and I would crumble when it was looking at me, but if that was true I wouldn't have been standing there with a camera stuck up my nose while I was trying to write lyrics."

But why on earth did he agree to the whole idea in the first place? "I was interested in Prozac from a personal point of view, because I can be a bit moody - things do get on top of me sometimes - so I was quite keen to find out what it would do to my personality." What did it do? "It made me a little less deep," Sumner admits with a half smile, "but it made my life and how I got on with people a lot easier. My girlfriend was in a state of shock the day I ran out. You don't feel like you're on drugs. You just have all the lows filtered from your personality so you end up floating through life on a little fluffy cloud."

The song Sumner wrote under the influence didn't make it on to the new album, so would he take Prozac again? "Yes probably, but I'd buy it off my mates in Moss Side." Sumner's wryly forthright style of conversation makes an engaging contrast to the celebrated inscrutability and open-endedness of his lyrics.

"It's not in my nature to be too literal," he explains. "If I watch a film for instance, say it's an action film where you just see all these things going on - he did this, he did that, and there's no need for any interpretation - I might walk away from it thinking, `That was quite fun', but the next day I'll have completely forgotten it. But if you leave thinking, `What the f--- was that about?', and you have to spend an hour afterwards working it all out, that's much more stimulating. You're a participant within the creativity of that film and that's what I try to do with my lyrics.

"If you take `Forbidden City' for example [the first single from the new album], that's a song about two imaginary characters - a teenage boy growing up with his father in a single-parent family, and his father's a drunkard and abusive, and the young lad hates it and wants to leave but he can't get away because of the pull of that instinctual father/son relationship."

Would he expect the casual listener to work this out for him or herself? "Not necessarily, no."

Sumner ascribes the beguilingly personal quality of his songwriting to being raised as an only child: "When you grow up without a brother or sister, you tend to see things just through your own eyes. You have friends and everything, but you spend most of your time watching TV or sat in a room making decisions about your life on your own." However, it's at the intersection of private and public that his music makes its greatest impact.

Not for nothing has the sense of desolation that was so powerful in Joy Division's music been equated with the waste of Manchester's urban landscapes via the redevelopment of the Sixties and Seventies. "The whole area where I grew up has completely gone," Sumner observes sadly. "When I was a kid I used to have six other members of my family living on the same street, and I remember getting up one morning and 10 houses on the street were boarded up. It was a complete ghost town. The council just said, `Right, you go here, you go there' and the whole family was split up all over Manchester. I still feel a great sense of loss about that. It really has affected me as a person."

Is that one thing the dance music for which Sumner has been such a graceful evangelist over the past 10 years or so has offered people - an idea of community? "Absolutely. Thatcher was wrong. People don't exist, well they don't flourish, as individuals. Life's about swapping ideas and communicating with other people. I remember being in a dance club in the middle of the acid house thing and the thought crossed my mind that it was almost like being in church."

8 Electronic's new single, "Forbidden City", is out on 24 June. Their second album, Raise the Pressure (Parlophone CD/LP/ tape), follows on 8 July.

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