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Gillian Gilbert: lawsuits, orchestras and being 'the girl' in New Order

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Written by
Nick Dent
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Resilience is sometimes defined as the ability not merely to bounce back, but to bounce forward. It’s a modus operandi that defines Britain’s masters of chilly electronic pop, New Order, from the moment they sprang into existence from the ashes of Joy Division following the 1980 suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis.

In recent years, they have weathered the departure of keyboardist-guitarist Gillian Gilbert, who left in 2001 to raise her children with drummer Stephen Morris (he remained in the group). And then came the blow that could have killed them: founding member Peter Hook, whose thrumming, melodic basslines were key to the band’s sound, announced in 2007 that New Order was over.

That didn’t stop frontman Bernard Sumner reforming them for a second time in 2011, with Tom Chapman replacing Hook on bass, and Gilbert making her long-awaited return to the line-up. “[Hook] must’ve really wanted to leave, he’s obviously happy with what he’s doing now, and it’s a shame he can’t just draw the line and say, ‘I’ve gone’, you know,” Gilbert says, on the phone from her home in Macclesfield, Cheshire. “He’s not leaving without fighting… though I can’t really talk about it.”

Legal wrangling over income and the rights to the name ‘New Order’ did not hamper work on the latest album, last year’s Music Complete – a return to the classic synth-driven dance sound of their 1980s heyday that reached number 2 on the UK album charts. Now New Order are coming to headline Vivid Live at the Sydney Opera House, performing four shows – two of which will see them on stage with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Gilbert confirms they have never performed with a live orchestra before. “We don’t know what’s going to happen!” she laughs. “We’ve got Joe Duddell on board – he did all the string arranging for Music Complete. We want to do something with [breakthrough 1983 single] ‘Blue Monday’ because – well, we’re not fed up with ‘Blue Monday’, but we’d like to have another version of it. And on ‘Regret’, because we didn’t use proper strings, originally: we didn’t have the money.”

"We’re not fed up with ‘Blue Monday’, but we’d like to have another version of it"

Ten years’ sabbatical from the band, for Gilbert, was a tough necessity. “I can’t lie, I was heartbroken! I really hated it at the beginning because I went straight from college into the band when I was like, 18, so I’d not really done anything else. But many things happened, so I’m quite glad I took a break.” One thing that happened was Gilbert and Morris’s younger daughter Grace being diagnosed with a spinal condition, transverse myelitis. Gilbert herself got breast cancer but has been in the clear for nearly a decade now.

The new album was largely recorded at Gilbert and Morris’s home studio and brought on board guests with different kinds of connections to New Order, such as the Killers’ Brandon Flowers, who owes the name of his band to the fake band in the video for New Order song ‘Crystal’. Iggy Pop contributes a spoken-word section in track ‘Stray Dog’ (Iggy’s album The Idiot was found on Curtis’s turntable, nearby his body). “That was weird: when Iggy said he’d do the poem it was like, no ums and ahs or waiting for weeks, he just did it... We used Elly out of La Roux [on two tracks including single ‘Tutti Frutti’]: she’s a really nice girl with a fantastic voice.”

Few groups can boast a catalogue of hummable and danceable hits as big as New Order: ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’; ‘True Faith’; ’60 Miles an Hour’. And such is their central place in UK pop, Gilbert has been portrayed twice in movies: in the Factory Records comedy 24 Hour Party People, and in Anton Corbijn’s paean to Ian Curtis, Control, which Gilbert loves.

“When I saw the rushes I thought, this looks ridiculous, because it’s all in black and white and so depressing,” she says. “I don’t remember it being depressing at the time. I mean, I think Joy Division has become this very serious band because Ian died. But the end result, I thought, was just brilliant; I was crying.”

New Order play the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House. Jun 1, 2, 4 & 5. 

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