Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

IE Rewind: New Order comes to Riot Fest

| September 14, 2017

New Order 2017

When New Order keyboardist Gillian Gilbert stopped touring with the band in 1998, then quit altogether during the recording of its 2001 album Get Ready, she did it graciously, almost secretly, without any official departure announcement in the press. “And I wanted it that way,” she admits of her decision to stay home and take care of her two daughters, Matilda and Grace, who had been diagnosed with a rare spinal condition. “But don’t get me wrong – I was dying to say a few things. But I thought the best way was to keep quiet, which was hard. But I’d rather be a bit more mysterious – I just want to be known for what I’m doing, music-wise.”

In retrospect, Gilbert cedes that it was difficult to watch her husband – band drummer Stephen Morris, and her partner in side project The Other Two – pack his bags and head out on subsequent New Order tours, with Phil Cunningham on board as her replacement. “But I didn’t really have a choice,” she sighs. “In those days, just going somewhere like Paris was a massive thing, and with husbands and wives, the wife looked after the kids and it was all very traditional. Stephen and I were so young when we started going out together that that’s all we knew was the band. But as soon as we had kids, it was like, ‘There’s somebody else to think of,’ and I quite like that because it grounds you. So I couldn’t think of anything worse than taking them on tour.”

Gilbert, 56, is happy to have rejoined her old compatriots, first for world tours beginning in 2011, and more recently for its effervescent 2015 comeback album, Music Complete. Her velvety textures – which cascaded so perfectly into place on New Order’s definitive 1983 sophomore set, Power, Corruption & Lies, helping to separate the group sonically from its angular, guitar-driven precursor Joy Division that ended with the 1980 suicide of catacomb-voiced frontman Ian Curtis – have grown even more majestic, on finger-snapping thumpers “Tutti Frutti” and “People on the High Line” (both featuring La Roux’s Elly Jackson), the moody “Stray Dog” (with sinister narration from Iggy Pop), and a “Blue Monday”-anthemic “Superheated,” with vocalist Bernard Sumner trading vocals with Killers bandleader (and avowed New Order superfan) Brandon Flowers. Her helium-fluffy filigrees carry every track aloft like a Jules Verne balloon, proving just how sorely her presence has been missed in the interim. “I think I added something,” she laughs. “But I don’t the band would like to think it was a feminine touch. And I’m glad I had the time off – I got my head together, so I’m really enjoying it this time.”

How did the musician spend all that down time? Fans wouldn’t believe it, she says. But aside from working on occasional music projects with friends like The Charlatans, she got heavily into cooking, redecoration the family home, and one other unexpected diversion: Dog agility training. Seriously, she swears. In Britain, a la the movie Babe, there are serious, often televised competitions for almost any animal capable of herding or other skilled behavior, and her Yorkshire terrier – unusually husky for her breed – became quite the learned contender. Proudly, she put her pet through her paces at Britain’s annual four-day event, the Crufts Dog Show – the largest in the world. “She didn’t win, but my sister’s dog did, and that was really annoying,” she says. “But they have thousands of dogs from around the world, and they have agility and everything. I got really into dog obedience training, but now that I’ve gone back to the group, my poor dog is missing it. And she’s probably forgotten everything she’s learned by now. When I joined, I thought, ‘My dog’s not going to do anything.’ But she learned quickly, and she even knows how to do the scent cloths, where the dog sniffs out pieces of fabric. Hopefully, this summer I’ll have the time to get back to it.”

It wasn’t all canine hijinks, however. Gilbert was glad to have her family around when she was blindsided by a breast-cancer diagnosis, early in her sabbatical. “I was so depressed when Grace was ill, then I got depressed just leaving the band and having that part of your life cut off, and then seeing Stephen go away and seeing that I got replaced so quickly,” she recalls. “And being replaced wasn’t a very nice feeling when you’d been in the band for so long. So having the cancer thing was like I couldn’t see any end to the depression, even five years on.” She’s a ten-year survivor now. But the close call made her examine her life in deeper detail. “So when I got the chance to go back (to New Order), I thought, ‘Yeah, if I’m happy – if I keep on being happy in the band, I’ll do it. But I don’t want to commit to anything, long term.”

Touring proved so exhilarating – even though founding bassist Peter Hook had departed the group in a much more acrimonious, litigious fashion, replaced by Tom Chapman – that Gilbert agreed when Sumner suggested that they re-enter the studio for Music Complete. She found that things had changed over the years. Joy Division had always been something of a boy’s club, with Curtis being the first member to get married and have a child. So the men – including Morris – would stay in the studio recording until all hours, while their women stayed at home minding the kids. When Gilbert first met Curtis and company, her all-girl punk band The Inadequates was rehearsing in the same building. The group gave her a ride home one evening, on the proviso that she buy one of their early singles. She began dating Morris, and when Curtis passed, Joy Division ended, and Sumner wanted to change musical direction as New Order. “They didn’t want to emulate something that was very special, and especially Ian,” she says. “So choosing me to join the group was coming from a different place. And when I left – or when I had to leave – and my daughter was ill – I think you definitely missed something about me.”

For Music Complete, mom no longer headed home from the studio at dusk to oversee the kids – at 17 and 21, they were old enough to be left on their own. She and Morris also have their own home studio, where they could perfect potential song ideas, and then play them in collaboration with the rest of the group, something they’d never done before. Technology had greatly changed in Gilbert’s years away – nowadays she can recreate complicated tones and melodies onstage via computer, sans clunky old-school synthesizers, samplers, and sequencers. And the cameo appearances, she adds, were invitations that were immediately accepted. “So they were just songs that happened as we went along. Barney (Sumner) had that Brandon track for a long time, but it was good how everybody agreed – we didn’t want to make a big fuss, or make some big announcement that we were making a new record. We just wanted to bring it out. And we weren’t sure how the Peter Hook thing was going to play out, if people would still attend shows without him in the band. So we just took tiny steps.”

As a mother, Gilbert made many unselfish sacrifices. Did her daughters appreciate her decade-long tabling of stardom to give them a normal home life? She snorts. Exactly the opposite, she explains: “They’re very resentful that they didn’t get to go on tour with us. And the annoying thing is that they’re both into music – one went in the singing direction, and the other is in a band. I thought I’d done a really good job of steering them away, but no.”

– Tom Lanham
Appearing at Riot Fest, Chicago

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