Hellbent: A Conversation with New Order's Peter Hook

We sit down with New Order and Joy Division bassist to talk sex, drugs, money, and abuse in the wild ride that is his new book, 'Substance.'

|
Mar 1 2017, 3:00pm

Thirty or 40 years ago, Peter Hook might've beat up a guy like him. The 60-year-old Joy Division and New Order co-founder is reclining on a chaise outside a prim lobby bar in LA's Omni Hotel, every bit the picture of an upstanding English gentleman: Tailored gray suit, coordinated silk scarf and pocket square, a judicious spritz of cologne. Twelve years sober, he sips from a virgin Bloody Mary whilst nibbling at a charcuterie plate. 

The image is decidedly not that of the bloody-fingernailed bassist who, along with his bandmates, took to drugs and sex like "pigs at trough," as described in Hook's comprehensive new account of New Order's 30-plus year history, Substance: Inside New Order.

That's not to say that the sneering, outspoken Hooky that fans have come to know is no more. That fellow very much remains, there in the voluptuous Mancunian drawl of his "ponk" rock recollections, and in the mischievous grin and twinkling eyes that punctuate the astute, if often unfiltered, thoughts he gleefully doles out in both conversation and his writing. 

"The biggest thing was to get rid of all of the old farts they felt were clogging up the music," Hook says, reflecting on the punk and post-punk movements his bands helped shape. "And here we are now, old farts, and we're glad they didn't get their own way. What would we be doing if Johnny Rotten or I would've had my way? 'Cause I was gonna get rid of all these old bastards, ya-da-da! It's actually quite bizarre."

Substance marks Hook's third book, following his critically acclaimed histories of Joy Division and the New Order co-founded Hacienda club. Here, he returns as sharp, witty, and unflinching as ever, though this time with quite a bit more ground to cover. "Do we need to go into the circumstances of Ian's death?" Hook asks by way of opening the book, referring to the 1980 suicide of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis at the peak of the young band's success. "If Joy Division defined my life, New Order shaped it." 

The 800 pages that follow don't offer an answer as much as an exploration of the 31 years the group spent reconciling that question—and reshaping the course of pop and electronic music in the process. It's less salacious tell-all (though, there's certainly plenty of that) than a story about connection and creation after loss, a warts-and-all look at how death and success perpetually defined and fractured the band as they sought to make sense of who they were in the wake of the tragedy from which New Order was born. 

Substance offers a comprehensive, and, depending whom you ask, controversial history that scrubs the mystique from the influential dance rock greats. Beneath chapter titles like "Marooned in the middle of puke" and "Turns out his cure for jetlag was the biggest line of coke I'd ever seen," Hook details New Order's hedonistic highs and lows alongside the less sexy details like the band's financial strife and his personal struggles with depression, addiction, and domestic abuse at the hands of his late wife, the popular English comedian Caroline Aherne.

"I think if they hadn't have re-formed without me in the despicable fashion that they did it in, I probably wouldn't have written it, to be honest," Hook says, referring to the band's ongoing legal battle over royalties after Hook and the group parted ways in 2007 (He now performs with his band The Light). "Because it was always the frutiest book, shall we say. When I started thinking about it, I thought, 'Would people like to know that one of their most enigmatic, mysterious groups were just Motley Crue in disguise?'"

There's not much by way of self-pity or bitterness. Hook knows how to have a good laugh at himself first and foremost, and to learn from his mistakes: The book opens with a telling list of "Ten things you should always do when you form a group." We sat down with Hook during a recent stop on his book tour to discuss the stories behind the book, New Order's embattled history, punk and politics, and noted Joy Division fan Vince Staples. 

Noisey: As you started writing the book, did you know that you wanted it to be this sort of warts-and-all retrospective? 
Peter Hook: Oh God, yeah. You know, it's a salutary lesson, life, and the only way you get help in life is by other people's experience. So, with a lot of the things I've been through, especially like the spousal abuse that I suffered, and the alcoholism and the drug addiction, you know, it was obvious that you needed to put it in. Because it was a very difficult thing that you went through. And people that helped you, you also deserve it really, and need to give other people the chance if they need it. You know, I needed a lot of inspiration to get through those. Two terrible lows, and yeah, it's nice if you can inspire someone else that's going through it just to show that other people suffer too. 

Did you have any reservations about revealing this more unexpected side to fans?  
Why it should be unexpected I would never know, really, with the reputation the 80s had. But yeah, I mean there was a bit of the demystification of New Order, the myth that was built up, mainly our own proving. We created the myth by refusing to talk about what we were doing and why we were doing it, and people just jumped to conclusions, which is quite interesting. You know, the press, when not being told what you were doing, seemed to then turn it into this, like, dark art. Which was far from the truth but it was great for us. It used to make us laugh. They thought we were very enigmatic, very intense, obviously, very intelligent. People hiding behind these covers with no pictures, et cetera, et cetera. If anything I suppose you walked into a trap, didn't you? We didn't know what we were doing. But, not playing down our own importance, when you make great music, it's quite easy to manufacture an image if you like and to keep it up, because the music will always be your saving grace.

Was that your intent going into the band, or was that more of a product of the band? It took a minute for New Order to find its footing and understand what it was going to be.
It took more than a minute to find New Order's footing, without a shadow of a doubt. The thing was, we didn't wanna talk about Ian, we didn't wanna talk about Joy Division. We were still feeling very vulnerable, very wounded by Ian's death and the loss of Joy Division. So when we started releasing records, we were given the option by Tony Wilson [and] the record company—complete independent, maverick, lunatic—didn't really care what we did as long as he liked the music. Our manager was the same mold. And they simply said to us, "Do you wanna talk about this?" and we went, "No." And he just said OK. That was it, so we didn't do any interviews, for years and years. And it's funny now, because now that you do so many, I suppose you do always wonder why you didn't do them. But hey, it made life a lot easier. We didn't have to bullshit, shall we say, your way through what you were doing. Because a lot of the time we never talked about what we were doing. We never planned anything, we just did it quite naturally. So, you know, in a sad way you didn't have much to talk about. And you were young. I don't think you find many young people in music who are gagging to tell you what a song's about. Or is that wrong?

I don't know, it's hard to imagine New Order doing what they did today. People are so eager to talk about themselves, especially because of social media.  Even when a new band emerges shrouded in mystery, it's almost as though that only exists in response to the fact that everything is so out on the table now and there's very little mystique, whether intentional or not.
Well, I mean luckily at the ripe old age of 60 I hope I never have to go through what a new artist goes through without a shadow of a doubt. I mean, don't forget in my day we used to sell records. God knows how people even contemplate now, because I find it very very difficult to have to give everything away. It takes the same time. And as we all know in life, the most important thing is time.

Had the other band members been given the heads up? Did you have to run, for legal purposes, any bits in the book by them? 
Given that we're in court together anyway? Yes, I'm sure there'd be a large concern. The legal read, I was confidently told, was the longest legal read they've ever had. Three-hundred fifty pages, so it took a lot of work. The libel and the privacy laws in England are now the envy of the world for every reprobate out there. Not good for authors, I'm afraid. You had to temper yourself. It's very weird. When you write a book, the thing is that you quite, not selfishly, but quite rightly tell the story proper. And then that story is interpreted in many different ways. It'd be interpreted by you, It'd be interpreted by the person that reads it, and it's also interpreted completely differently by a lawyer. It's up to you whether you indemnify them and print the story, which is what they always say to you. So writing a book with a publisher isn't the get-out that many people think it is. You have to be responsible for what you are writing. 

What's the response been so far? Have you heard from any of the band members, or others?
I believe certain of them are not happy, I mean, it couldn't have come at a worse time really for the legal battle. But, you know a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. I suppose you can ask [Bernard Sumner] if you ever get him. [Laughs] I'm sure they'd love to be asked. I've certainly given you a lot of questions. 

You spend some time in this book discussing the band's dealings with money. That's something that tends to be left out or kept vague in books like this, because it's not necessarily the most exciting thing to read about. Can you talk a little bit about your choice to include that?
The reason I put the financial details in is because whenever I read a book about rock 'n' roll and it hasn't got them in, it really pisses me off. Because it's the most obvious bloody thing in the world. I always go, "Oh, I wonder how much they got for that gig? I wonder how much they got for that record?" Because they allude to it, but then never give you the details. The one that really upset me, actually, was James Corden's book, because it was a fantastic book of rags to riches with no mention of the riches. And you were reading it and you think, well how much did he get for that? It actually makes me quite frustrated. So I think the thing is that really, if you're telling a story, then the story has to be told properly. And the most interesting part is the machinations of the business. I mean we all know that The Beatles and The Stones got ripped off by their managers. It's just a matter of, no one's ever said how much by. What did he take? What did he do? That's one of my main frustrations, that they never give you the full story, and that's boring. I just think it's cowardly. 

That seems to be where a lot of musicians get shot in the foot.
Yeah, well I basically learned by not having a manager and working through this business on my own as I do now, that the act gets ripped off right the way through to the end. And because they're so captured by the headiness of it, they forget it all. The celebrity and the pampered-ness causes them to not question the end result. And the answer usually is nothing, because you spent it all on limos, staff, lights, flying your equipment around the world, drugs, and all that crap. If I had a pound for every musician I've heard about who invariably after his heyday will phone up his manager and go, "Where did all the money go?" Oh yeah, it's a strange position to be in. I'm sure it's the same with comedians. All people that are pampered. Because the very fact that they're like, "Oh no, don't worry about that, here, have another drink, here, have a line," means maybe, basically, they're hiding it from you. [Laughs]

Do you think that the way the music industry has changed so much in the past decade has made that better or worse for artists?  
I think it's disgusting, the way that it's run by these huge corporations that are soulless and just all about money. I mean in the 80s, 90s, a record company would sign a band and they would show loyalty. And they would work with them because they believed in them as an artist. So if the first record wasn't a hit they'd be looking forward to doing the next, looking forward to doing the next. Nowadays if the first record's not a hit then you're out. And it's a really awful predicament to be in as a musician.

The lifestyle and music captured in this book, and to an extent the era of Joy Division as well, reflect the bleak outlook on culture and society of the time, and of the Thatcher days. It feels like there are some parallels to that in our current political climate. How do you think the two compare, as far as the lens of music? 
I'm not really sure that politics is something that should be mixed with musicians. They always seem to come unstuck with it, and embarrass themselves, I've found. The best politics you can preach as a musician is self politics, and you have to act properly. You have to look after people. That's why you're preaching. You're preaching equality, fairness, respect. That's what you should be doing. The politicians, I think you have to leave politics to them. 

The interesting thing about punk is that it came at a very bad time in England. England needed a revolution, it really did. And it got it—it got punk. Then you went into post-punk, after the Thatcher years. During the Thatcher years, everything brightened up, actually. The early 80s, even the late 80s, were a very bright period. You had another revolution, which was acid house, and then you had a sort of musical revolution which was Madchester, that we had in England. Our politics changed throughout it. But the thing is, as musicians, New Order were very good at acting politically because we didn't promote, we were very awkward. People couldn't understand it. Every time we got offered a prime opportunity to plug yourselves, we went out of our way to not use it, or not do it because we thought it was boring. And if we fucked it up, we were delighted. [Laughs] So yeah, our politics were actually quite independent. And it was really putting two fingers to the world, and it was also like that with the audience. We used to have riots all the time because we wouldn't play encores. Because we felt that encores were cheesy.

Yeah, in the book you describe a riot in Boston that was started because you refused to do an encore. 
We had riots all the time. And the hilarious thing, when somebody would get ahold of me, they'd say, "You'll never play in this town again!" Supposedly I'm never playing in Los Angeles again, I'm never playing in Boston again, I'm never playing in Athens again, I'm never playing in Tokyo again, I'm never playing in New York. The list is just endless of the places that I will never be playing in again. And it's fantastic, you know? You just gotta stand up for what you believe in. And that's what it was about, it was a struggle. Those years as a punk in England were violent and aggressive. It was shocking what you had to put up with as a musician. And it did give you a hard exterior. It was tough, made you tough, cause you knew what to expect. 

Now, audiences are so soft and well behaved. So middle class. Literally, you could do anything to them. I've went to see The Killers live in Manchester, and they had to stop mid-show because Brandon's voice went. And eventually, when the audience were getting very ornery, someone came on and said Brandon was ill, and the concert would have to be cancelled. And I thought, "Yeahhh, rip the gaff up! Yeah come on, fires!" And the audience was like, "Oh God, I hope he's alright. Oh, I do worry about him." Oh, what the hell? What's happened to rock 'n' roll? You don't get reactions anymore, do ya?

What do you think that says? Your music was a response, whether that was through the action of punk or later through this kind of hedonism and excess. Do you think, especially the era of Trump, we're going to see music evolve as an escape or as a way to cope? 
You're gonna need some kind of escape, aren't you? [Laughs] It's tricky. The thing is that subconsciously, you have no idea the effect. And subconsciously it probably did have an effect. Because for someone [like Joy Division] to form a group, after seeing the Sex Pistols, they must've been moved by something, and to drag their carcasses around the world against all the odds and make it a success is actually quite a statement, isn't it? It shows an amazing belief in what you're doing and what you're saying, against all the odds. So, it is a political statement, as such. 

But you're right, I mean the thing was that punk grabbed me because I was 20 years old, I was just coming out of my teenage years, I didn't know what I wanted to do. Nobody was giving me any idea of what I should do. I was scared, I was frustrated, and rebelling is the easiest thing to do, isn't it? What I loved about Johnny Rotten, when I saw him on stage, was that he was telling us all to fuck off. That was something that Led Zeppelin didn't do. Deep Purple, "Ooh, you're the best audience we've ever had," but I'm sure they said the same the next night and the night before. And there was Johnny Rotten, calling us all a bunch of bastards and saying how shit we were. And we were like, "Wow! He talks just like us!" You know, he did actually talk to you. And it's a very, very strange position to be in. It's a hell of a decision that we made after that gig, to become a musician. I was a musician in a band, and I'd never even owned an instrument or played one. What is that? 

Do you think music could still provide kind of a similar sort of reaction now? How do you see the future of music?
The strangest thing for me is that really I should be coming to the end of my musical career, so I should be leaving it to the youngsters, shouldn't I? There's millions of them out there. It's quite odd really to think that when I started, being a musician was classed as being a gypsy. You know, when you used to go and hire a van there was no musicians, no hawkers, no gypsies, no one Irish. It's really in England. You know, with that far down the social ladder and to be here now, where everywhere you go, there's music schools teaching you how to DJ, how to play in a group, how to act in a group. Teach you how to be a manager of a group, teaching you how to be a roadie, for God's sake. So all these kids can go to all these schools and live this great life. And we say when we come to need one, we can never find one. So, it may be something that cannot be taught. Maybe it's the wrong people trying to "learn" it. 

It always makes me laugh that a lot of young kids, when you resurrect something, they say, "No, we don't want all this old shit again." It was boring the first time, and they weren't even born. But the thing is, if you want to eclipse it, then you have to get up and do it. That's what we went through. I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. We went through several musical revolutions that changed the course of the world. It changed the world culturally, and it changed the world musically. And that is something that I sit back sometimes and think, "Wow, I must've done something right." Because nobody can say anything to you, because literally you were there for every great happening that's happened in the past 20, 25, 30 years in punk. Forty-one years, Jesus. It just shocks me. And the thing is you hope that you're used for inspiration. An impetus to kids, to say, "You know what? I'm gonna smash that. Yeah!" That's what you need. You need people that say, "I'm gonna smash that!" and they get off and do it. That's why I admire bands like The 1975. He's a friend of mine, that kid Matt, he's a neighbor. And they're a great group, there's interest in the way they do the music. It's not like normal groups. When they play live they don't play like a normal band, and you really have to admire it.  

What do you mean by a normal band?
Because normal bands have choruses and bridges, and his stuff's actually quite groovy. But very effective. I was very very pleased when I heard the second LP, because I thought in many ways that it was actually better than the first LP. Which is usually quite difficult. So there are musicians that are taking a risk, taking a chance, and there are great characters that are great on stage, like [Matt] is. You know, he deserves everything he gets. And I just hope that he doesn't turn around in ten years, phone up his manager and go, "Where did all the money go?" [Laughs] And I bet you he will, just like everybody else has done exactly the same thing.

You were talking earlier about all of these different musical and cultural revolutions that you lived through, but some people are looking around right now and saying, "Well, for what?" How does that make you feel? Do you agree with that?
Well you see, what we did with Factory and The Hacienda, there's no parallel that anybody else has ever done in the world. No one's entertained a whole city for 16 years at their own expense. And a lot of these groups could afford to do that. We created a musical movement, we created another cultural movement, especially in Manchester in England, which is the opening up of groups because punks, post-punks had nowhere to go. The entertainment business started discos. It was very staid, it was very smart. You or me at that time didn't have anywhere to go. You couldn't go anywhere, you know, because you weren't normal. They were very very normal. So we actually put our money where our mouth was. Because we didn't have a club to go to, we opened one. Now that was pretty radical. And people use that as a template for taking action in the world. The weird thing was is that it didn't work financially. But that's because we were idiots. We were idealists. We weren't businessmen.

Is it possible to be both? A successful idealist?
You have to temper idealism with realism to survive. No one survives in this world by being an idealist and not being a realist. It's wonderful if you get indulged to that point. Some people did get indulged. You have to look at people like Bowie, he was indulged a lot when he was on his way up. He did put himself in some dodgy situations, but managed to pull it off and become a quite venerated old gentleman. A musician. But really, when you're driving around Berlin dressed like a Black Shirt with your arm stuck in the air, full of coke, someone's gonna go "Woaaaah man, woof." But what a thing to do? It took balls, didn't it, to do that? The Sex Pistols, for Jordan, their dancer to dress in a Nazi uniform as a protest against Nazis mostly, and get completely misconstrued. That took a lot of balls in those days. 

You know, these people were fighting for their lives, but they believed it. And yeah it's quite nihilistic, quite aggressive. The biggest thing was to get rid of all of the old farts they felt were clogging up the music. And here we are now, old farts, and we're glad they didn't get their own way [Laughs]. What would we be doing if Johnny Rotten or I would've had my way? Cause I was gonna get rid of all these old bastards, yah-da-da. It's actually quite bizarre. But it has to come down to how good you are at what you do. I still DJ and at the age of 60 to go in a club full of 25 year olds who enjoy it. If I went into a club at 25 and the DJ was 60, I would have walked out. But you know, in a way I suppose you've earned your wings, haven't you? You've got your badges on. No one's gonna say you shouldn't be here. 

That's what I'm asking you.
I don't know. It depends, doesn't it? I listen to what you'd call political music. You know, when you listen to Bob Dylan, you listen to protest songs. Especially in the hippie days, you know when they were trying to be free. That's what it was all about in the 60s. It was all about being free, being free to grow your hair long, for God's sake. I mean, could you imagine that? If you go to Singapore you can still go to a country where you can't have long hair. It's quite strange position to be in isn't it? At my age, I'm not going to change the world again. I've changed the world enough times. It's time for me to maybe enjoy myself and kick back a little with all the things that I achieved and all the things that I did. And even if you look at the New Order book, to bring it back to the book, it's a hell of a story and it's a hell of a thing to go through. When people look at that and they read that they're gonna go, "Woah." All he did was go and see The Sex Pistols, and look what happened to him. You know, you hope it's an inspiration.

Back to the book, talk about your choice to come forward about the spousal abuse you experienced. Especially since it's less common for men to speak publicly about survival.
Well, it was a big part of my life, and it was also a very low point of my life. To have somebody you loved treat you like that is immediately disturbing, and where it led me, into clinical depression, panic attacks, et cetera—you know, it is tough to say it, because men aren't supposed to talk about that, especially men from the north of England. It was sort of hampered by my wife. She was a very popular comedian who was in the public eye, and a lot of people wouldn't believe it. Weird thing, like I'd make something like that up. It was only 17 pages of an 800 page memoir, but in England, of the many things in there, people pounced on that. 

At that time, I needed help. And I needed help badly. There were a few people who came and helped me. And I was very grateful for that. I'm happy to speak out about it in the hope that somebody will read it, male or female. Straight after I published it, a young lady came up to me near where I lived and asked me for help. And I was like, shit, you know? We had a long conversation where I tried my best to advise her and speak from my experiences about what she was suffering from. And I still see her now, occasionally. She lives near me, and she always comes up to me and says, "Thank you for that, I feel a lot better now, I'm working through it." So yeah, I don't give a shit what anybody says, I did it for myself. I did it to tell my story, and I did it in the hopes that it helps other people. 

I will say one thing that really did shock me was how many friends of mine actually got in touch with me. And they said "Shit, you know what? I never actually knew you suffered from that, 'cause I did as well." And that was a surprise. So it was easy, really. I knew I was gonna do it, I knew it held a important place in my life, and I knew that it needed saying. The same thing with the alcoholism and the drug addiction. Going into rehab, I thought my life was over. In reality, my life was just starting, And I've been sober for 12 years. I've never felt better, and I'm actually happy with myself. Now, I know that doesn't work for everyone, but the thing is that when I went into rehab, I was inspired by a lot of people, and when I came out of rehab, I was further inspired, and it was a hell of a struggle. I know I take great delight whenever I meet someone like me, Friend of Bill. I'm happy to say that there is a life beyond drowning yourself in drugs and illegal substances. Because it used to make me feel like I wanted to end my life. And I've had a great life, and it's ridiculous. So that's just about inspiring people again.

Did you feel like you couldn't speak out about it before?
No, I didn't have the opportunity and I didn't have the platform. I used to talk about it because people would ask me about it in interviews. But I'll tell you one other thing, it's fucking surreal, and it was like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And it struck me that while in England you read about a lot of people going through rehab, but they never talk about what it was like in rehab. And that's what I wanted to write about as well. All right, we were all on our asses. We were rock bottom, literally. It was a laugh going through it and coming out of it. It was difficult being sober, because the world is very much against you sober. And that's how I felt, I felt I had nothing left when I lost drinking. But the truth was I had everything left. And strangely, I got my love for music back, because I loved music at the start when I was drunk and I didn't have any money. I loved it with a passion that you wouldn't believe. And I fought against the world to establish my musical career. And I lost it in the middle when people were giving me money, drugs, drink, and it was killing me. And all of a sudden they took it all off me, I lost it all. And all of a sudden I got the love for bloody music back again. I was like, Wow! [Laughs] Shit, this is fantastical, you don't need that shit. It's like a trap you fall into, a cliche most musicians fall into. And now I find most of the sober people in the room are musicians. Really weird. Me, Johnny, Ian Brown. 

"You hope that you never end up as sad as Ian Curtis, where you think there's nothing left but to take your own life...I never wanna get like that, and you realize that it is a struggle to pick yourself up every day and get on with it."

In music especially there's a kind of taboo around it, too. Like a romanticism attached to addiction and struggles with mental health. I wonder if that's starting to be lifted now.
It's sometimes seen as a sign of weakness, isn't it? I suffer from panic attacks. This legal case I've been going through with New Order has been very good at rekindling my panic attacks, thank you. So you know, it's just part of life that you have to deal with, don't you? You hope that you never end up as sad as Ian Curtis, where you think there's nothing left but to take your own life. You hope that you never end up as sad as a lot of my friends. I lost two in the past month to suicide. I never wanna get like that, and you realize that it is a struggle to pick yourself up every day and get on with it, for whatever reason. So I hope the book, apart from telling a great story very entertainingly, I hope that if someone's suffering from that type of thing, they can read it and go, you know what? There's help. 

Are you a fan of Vince Staples? 
What's his group called? I'll check it out. Is he American or English?

He's an American, he's from LA. Long Beach. He's cited Joy Division as an influence, and his album art references Unknown Pleasures, so I was curious if you've heard him. 
You know what, as soon as I get home I'll have a listen. Strangely enough, I'm into rap music because my daughter has my iTunes account. All her music comes up on mine, so when I'm jogging it's all her music. It's all Drake, 50 Cent, Flo Rida, all these people. Kanye West, of all people. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis is my favorite. But I've actually grown to quite like it. As an art form, it's actually quite underrated because it appears to be quite simple, but it's actually quite difficult to pull off well. And quite difficult to do well, because there's so many people that do it, so I will check him out. 

Substance: Inside New Order is available now.

Andrea Domanick is not the kind that likes to tell you, just what you want her to. Follow her on Twitter.