The warm laugh from the other end of the phone line seems out of character for Peter Hook. As the bassist for minimalist and melancholy English band Joy Division, and then synth-pop pioneers New Order, Hook helped lay the musical foundation for countless current bands clad in black and forging their sounds within the crucible of their misery. At 63, Hook, having spent more than four decades in bands, seems to enjoy describing the challenges of collaborating with other musicians.
“You know groups are full of cliches, aren’t they?” Hook said. “You know the drummer is generally a cliche unto himself; the lead guitarist is always into black magic; you know the singer is always a complete tightwad; the bass player is usually deemed to be the quiet, dependable one; so I think I’m sort of happy with that cliche. And I will say this conforms to every group I’ve ever been in or met.”
Hook, born Peter Woodhead, is perfectly positioned to reflect on his career, as he has spent almost a decade touring and performing the back catalog of Joy Division and New Order albums with his band, Peter Hook & The Light.
“You know what? I’ve actually banished a lot of pain and a lot of frustration by doing the music the way that I have done,” Hook said. “I always felt that when we were together as New Order, before we split up, that we’d got into a terrible habit of ignoring, not only all of Joy Division, but also a vast quantity of New Order’s songs. We just didn’t play them, for one reason or another. …
“So when we split up, it gave me a chance to explore Joy Division’s catalog, which was the best thing that happened to me. It banished the pain and the sort of grief that I felt not only losing a great friend and a great singer [Ian Curtis], a great compatriot, but also losing the whole of Joy Division’s catalog. The whole thing was utterly heartbreaking, so to be able to stand up and play those songs was absolutely amazing.”
Currently, Hook is performing two New Order albums, 1989’s Technique and 1993’s Republic, in their entirety on his latest tour. Technique was the band’s best-selling album in England, and Republic was its best-selling album in America. Next year, Hook plans to tour in support of the 40th anniversary of what are arguably his greatest artistic achievements: Joy Division’s first two albums, 1979’s Unknown Pleasures and 1980’s Atmosphere.
Hook’s stint in Joy Division is the stuff of legends. Curtis, who committed suicide in 1980, became an alluring and enigmatic figure and the subject of the 2007 biopic Control, the 2007 documentary, Joy Division, and the 2002 comedy film about the Manchester scene in the late 1970s, 24 Hour Party People. The tragic story of the band’s rise, along with Curtis’s ill-fated romance and suicide, has captured the imagination of each subsequent generation of ennui-encumbered youth.
No single track better captures the band’s tragic history and gloomy vibe than “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which was released as a single just a month after Curtis’ death. The song, which chronicles Curtis’s failing marriage and troubled psyche, was constructed around Hook’s unique bass line.
“‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ was written in about three hours,” Hook said. “Stephen (Morris) and I wrote the rhythm tracks … and Ian said, ‘Ooh, you know what? I’m going to go and write some lyrics to that.’ We did it in an hour and a half on a Wednesday night. … Ian then added guitar over it when we recorded it, when we had various overdubs done, mainly emulating the Ronettes, actually, with that guitar riff at the end.”
The somber anthem has subsequently been covered by everyone from pop-rock acts like Soul Asylum and Fall Out Boy to Michael Gira’s minimalist sludge outfit, Swans.
Hook’s contribution to the song, a sinewy and propulsive melody played high on the neck of the bass, is a perfect example of his unique style. Legend holds that Hook’s first cheap bass amplifier simply didn’t have the size or power necessary for the low notes from his bass, and so he developed a style that showcased the instrument’s upper register.
“In the old days the bass player was the one that brought width to the music, shall we say, and followed the guitar,” Hook said. “That’s been something I’ve been unable to do ever since I began. I don’t know really what made me play the way I do, probably ego; maybe every bass player is a frustrated guitarist. So yeah, I mean, as soon as I began, I had a knack for writing very unique-sounding riffs.”
Joy Division’s music isn’t the only thing that’s captured pop culture’s collective imagination; the minimalist black and white cover art for Unknown Pleasures has become an internet sensation, an iconographic image that can be mashed up, combined and remixed with any number of other pop culture references. A quick Google image search reveals the album’s artwork combined with everything from kittens to Klingons. Ironically, the band never really took much interest in its album covers.
“The designer who we liked and trusted was given full reign because, to be honest with you, we were having so much fun playing, getting drunk, et cetera and writing the music, that we weren’t really bothered about …our achievement,” Hook said. “We’d have been happy getting the music out if it came in a paper bag.“
Hook said the band hated self-promotion, but the record sleeve worked to its advantage. They were not interested in trying to politicize anything or make it enigmatic.
“We were sticking to that weird punk ethic: letting the music talk for itself and not entering into this sort of niche that we’d seen and preached against for many years,” Hook said.
Aside from mining his back catalog on tour, Hook also helps to teach a class on the music business at Preston College in Lancashire, England. He didn’t like that people learned about music in a classroom without hands-on experience.
“It just didn’t make sense. So myself and my partner in my nightclub in town—we educate the kids,” Hook said. “Instead of reading about how to deal with a drunken drug dealer at 12 o’clock on a dance floor, you can actually go and experience it, or you can come with me on the road as they do, and they work for us at an actual gig, so they’re actually in the firing line.”
Hook is well-suited to his role as elder statesmen of rock and roll. He has become a cheerleader for new generations, educating and encouraging young players everywhere, including on the internet.
“I was watching some kid on Instagram today. … He was trying to play ‘Atmosphere’ on the bass, and he wasn’t doing a great job of it, so I just sent him a little message going, ‘Come on, mate, you can do it. Keep trying.’ You know what I mean? I mean I remember when I was like that, and I couldn’t play.”
Far from being bitter as he looks back on his epic adventure in rock and roll, Hook exudes good-natured gratitude for his experiences.
“I’ve had a fantastic life, and I still have a fantastic life,” he said. “If you go for it, mate, you don’t sit there spending your whole life regretting not going for it. If you go for it and you can’t do it, that’s perfectly fine. You had a go. And if you go for it and you make it—wow—what a world; it’s fantastic.”
Follow writer David Gill at Twitter.com/Songotaku.