Hometown: Macclesfield, England
Drums: DW/Pork Pie snares
Sticks: Vic Firth
Stephen Morris was first recognized in the late 1970s when he became a founding member and drummer for the band Joy Division, one of the most influential musicians of punk-rock history. The band exploded in the UK and drew critical acclaim from the British press. Despite their growing success, vocalist Ian Curtis was beset with depression and personal difficulties. In 1980, on the eve of Joy Division’s first American tour, Curtis committed suicide, resulting in disbandment. It had already been decided that if any of the members of Joy Division left the band, that there would be no band. So Morris and two of his fellow bandmates, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, soon collaborated to form the fittingly named band New Order. Despite the tragedy, New Order released eight albums between 1981 and 2005, sold millions of albums worldwide, and amassed gold and platinum awards. The band’s 1983 single, “Blue Monday,” to this day, is the #1 selling 12″ single of all time. Hook left New Order in 2007 and Morris and Sumner formed Bad Lieutenant. Bad Lieutenant is to New Order what New Order was to Joy Division – an evolutionary next step.
Describe how you became involved with Bad Lieutenant. Did you have any reservations about joining the band?
Bad Lieutenant came about as a result of Bernard and Phil — from New Order — and Jake Evans — from Rambo and Leroy — working together. They had written and recorded most of the album Never Cry Another Tear with various drummers (Matt Evans, Jack Mitchell, and Carl Jackson) by the time I got involved. They had two tracks that still needed some live drums — “Runaway” and “Running Out Of Luck” — so I worked on those. I think everyone was pleased with the way they turned out and I got asked to do the drumming at the live shows. This sounded interesting as it involved learning parts that had been originally played by someone else, something I hadn’t had to do before and I do like a challenge. Plus I really don’t like turning work down, as I think drumming is a very social activity, something best performed in the company of others. So no, I didn’t really have any reservations about taking the gig. I had a pretty good idea of what I was letting myself in for.
How much drumming experience did you have before you began playing with Joy Division?
I started drumming at school around 1973 or 1974. A few of my friends wanted to start a band but they all wanted to be guitarists. Spotting an opening, I volunteered to be the drummer. This didn’t go down very well with my parents, who anticipating the extremely loud cacophony that would take place, insisted I have lessons and learn to do the thing “properly.” I had previously tried learning the clarinet and quickly got bored and lost interest so I think a similar outcome was expected. A very patient man called David Greenwood did his best to teach me the rudiments. His lessons, which I really enjoyed, usually culminated in a bit of a loud rambling jam which tended to provoke a negative critical response from both neighbors and passers by. I auditioned unsuccessfully for a few bands, the school one fell apart quite quickly, but I was undeterred by failure having discovered the therapeutic value of hitting things with wooden sticks. I kept practicing regularly for four years until punk happened and I spotted an advertisement in the local music shop, “Drummer wanted for local punk band Warsaw. Phone Ian.” I picked up the phone and the rest is history.
Are you currently using any electronic percussion with Bad Lieutenant?
I use a Roland SPDs sampling pad for samples and an expanded TD20 driven by triggers from the kick and snare for odd sounds. These are only used on about a quarter of the BL songs — the more electronic ones obviously. Previously (for the last ten years) with New Order I used either a TD10 or TD20 V drum kit exclusively with only a real kick and snare to provide triggers. I had a love/hate relationship with that setup. It was great that it had a volume knob that could resolve level wars. Its mixer cut down the number of channels I was taking up and it was fantastic that it gave me an incredible range of sounds to play with and the pads were the most responsive I’ve played. But ultimately, it was too much of a compromise. I think that electronic drums are great but should sound just like that — electronic instead of trying to be an acoustic kit replica. I know that if you listen to them and close your eyes you’d swear it was a “real” kit but you can’t beat the feel of real drums and cymbals and the way you interact with them. Having said that they do stop complaints about late night practicing from the neighbors, I am very happy with the set up I am using now, although, I do feel that there is room for someone to make a more drummer friendly/responsive sampling pad.
There has been a revolution in recording technology during your career. How have advances in digital recording affected your job as a drummer? Do you miss anything about analog recording?
Digital technology has completely changed every aspect of music. These days I spend more time working at a computer editing drum takes than I do actually playing. This does take the stress out of recording. It no longer matters that you get that perfect take — in fact, it’s often the case that mistakes can become the most interesting bits. In the early days working with Martin Hannet we would sometimes record each drum individually for separation and spend hours doing processing things that today take minutes. Technology has always interested me and it was obvious from the start that it was a tool that was going to be important in making music. The fact that computers now give limitless possibilities can be a source of frustration. They are a one man show and not very engaging for the onlookers, usually the band. Whereas the limitations of analog gear meant that recording and mixing in particular would be team efforts … I know I sound like a bit of a luddite. I feel analog recordings have a richer sound than digital ones — swings and roundabouts. I guess for every advance technology gives, there is usually a small step back somewhere else.
Going all the way back to your work with Joy Division, what are a few of your most favorite drumming performances in the studio?
A lot of the drums on Joy Division songs were not a performance as much as a deconstruction of a performance because we recorded each drum separately. Of the songs where we did record the entire kit as a whole, I really like “New Dawn Fades” from the first album and “The Atrocity Exhibition” from Closer. “New Dawn Fades” because it was one of those first take things — the best things usually are — that had a really great feel. In “The Atrocity Exhibition,” I got to use five toms and two snares all at the same time. Later with New Order, I really enjoyed doing “Murder” because it was pretty unconventional.
Which instrument did you learn first: drums or keyboards? Do you get a different type of satisfaction from playing either instrument?
I have only had drum lessons not keyboards, I don’t think that drumming is something that can ever be completely learned. You can pick up the basics and after that its practice, practice, practice. There is always something new to find if you keep at it. In fact, the way I play now is completely different to the way I was taught, but I don’t believe there is a wrong way to drum — it’s whatever works is right for you. There is, however, a wrong way to play keyboards, and that is the way I play most of the time. I find that drumming is something that I do best when I’m not thinking about it too hard, but I really have to concentrate to play keyboards. Live it was always quite difficult going from gripping a stick to pressing keys and back again. So, I prefer drums every time.
How did you decide which New Order songs would feature live drums rather than sequencers and drum machines?
Most of the time the nature of the song makes the decision for you. “Blue Monday,” “Bizarre Love,” “Triangle,” and “The Perfect Kiss” all have lots of keyboards and programmed rhythm tracks, so it made sense that I should play keyboards on those songs. Other songs like “Regret” or “True Faith” that feature loops work better with a mix of live kit and programmed beats. Things like “Ceremony” are all live playing, so whatever suits the song best, really.
Are you writing any music right now?
Yes, I am. At the moment I am working with Gillian on another Other Two record. It’s at quite an early stage which is the most enjoyable bit of writing, the gathering of ideas. It’s always the final stages of finishing off and letting go that I find the most difficult. Oh, and writing lyrics — that’s always a bit like torture. Also doing a bit of producing.
You’ve tended to play with many of the same musicians over the years, even though it was under the auspices of different bands. Did you find it somewhat liberating to work with unrelated projects like NIN or Echo & the Bunnymen? Was the creative process different as a result?
I really love working with different people because it makes you work and think about things in different ways. You can always learn something from playing with other musicians and the process is different every time. Whether it’s taking something that has already been recorded and messing about with it, or helping finish off stuff, playing or programming or doing a spot of producing, it’s all fun most of the time.
What would our readers find most surprising about you and your drumming career?
That I really am as boring as I seem.