Rock stars and yachts, eh? A fatal combination surely. The acquisition of a sail boat is up there with the farm in the country as a signifier that the musician in question has made a little too much money. Moor it in the Med, employ someone to sail it for you and pose with your famous friends as you spend your royalties.As a veteran of the punk wars of the late 70s it's an image which still rankles, despite the fact that I love sailing myself, but, hell, who said there needed to be consistency?
So when you’re quietly cruising along on the Classic Malts Cruise and get an invitation to interview a rock star on his yacht you don’t say no. You gird the loins once more and go out to pick a fight one last time with the pastel-clad, loafer-wearing prat. But when the rock star in question walks in: shy, bespectacled, with tousled sandy hair, a face glowing from a battering by Hebridean winds and a salt-encrusted fleece, all thoughts of revenge disappear. When you realise this sailor is Bernard Sumner of New Order it’s double-take time.
This is, after all, the guitarist from two bands (Joy Division and New Order) who were hardly famed for a glitzy lifestyle, and whose music was, is, urban to its core. Simon le Bon he most certainly is not. LeBon stars in videos on his yacht, he dresses like he owns a yacht. He sounds like he should own a yacht. His yacht is an extension of him and his lifestyle. He wants people to see him on his yacht. You can imagine a conversation with him going: “oh, didn’t I mention that I own a yacht?”
It’s soon apparent after a couple of minutes chatting with Sumner that his yacht is a refuge, a place where he can stop being ‘Bernard Sumner-from-New-Order-and-Joy-Division’ and be himself. LeBon races and makes a fuss about it. Sumner simply loves to sail. He’s quiet spoken, but not reticent, or filled with the slightly disdainful airs that often come with the music business.
“I’ve been sailing for 25 years, but I keep it completely separate from my music. I’ve loved the sea since I was a child, but I lived in Salford which was very, very urban. I only saw my first tree at age nine! I’ve spent all of my career in urban centres, living there, staying in hotels, touring cities, working in studios, it’s always been a city.”
But why sailing? “It’s one way for me to discover another side of the world. Other people’s cultures, their music, things which I’ve never been exposed to.” His sailing is the opposite of being seen to be in the glamour spots, it’s about slipping away to the west coast of Scotland and losing himself in places where no-one knows or maybe cares who he is. The sea allows him to disappear. It’s also a way to effectively separate the public and professional from the private. The release if you want.
“I’ve just finished a new album and have been working a 14 hour day for the past 18 months, so to come from away from a box, sitting in front of a console to...” he looks out at Loch Harport in the late afternoon sun, “.. space! To the sea to ..” he laughs “Sunshine..!Yes, it’s my little release.”
A triple release perhaps. That summer he’d finally announced the cessation of New Order (pretty much predicted after bass player Peter Hook left in 2007) and the formation of a new band Bad Lieutenant, whose new album he’s recovering from.
It’s the next step in a musical journey which has seen him in two groups which helped change modern music. Joy Division were remarkable in being one of those very rare bands who appear out of nowhere with a sound that was fully formed and entirely their own. Then, after the suicide of singer Ian Curtis, Sumner and his bandmates repeated the trick with New Order who become the pioneers of.. what exactly?dance-pop? techno-rock? It’s hard to say precisely what New Order were because (bar Arthur Russell maybe) there had never been anything quite like their fusing of dub, post-punk, New York disco and European electronica before. The ground-breaking Blue Monday and Thieves Like Us; the rumble of Murder, the proto-house of Confusion, the techno-pop perfection of Perfect Kiss and True Faith changed the way we thought of ‘dance music’. In fact it was ‘dance music” before people use the term.
New Order music always had an edge. Sleek it may have been in the middle period of the group’s existence, but it was never glossy, there was always a distance to it, partly driven by Sumner’s light unemotive vocals which with the synthesised beats and heavy bass hooks helped to create a separation between the band and the listener. You could dance to New Order – it’s hard not to – but their music was never simply hands in the air, crowd pleasing tunes, it was knowing with a recurring sense of poignant loss. Even if their later years saw a return to a more guitar-based sound, they remained identifiably themselves. Guilt Is A Useless Emotion is both the best example of this late style and a perfect title for a band with their attitude to bow out with.
And is the creative process still easy, 30 years on? “When I write music, it’s from some subconscious layer. I start with a chord structure, then the melody and a beat. Lyrics come last. They come from the atmosphere you’ve created, just plucking words and ideas from out of the ether. I don’t sit down knowing what to write about. That’s been my method for 30 years. It’s a method, just as making whisky is a method.
“Playing and singing are mechanical. Creating music from nothing is mental. To get out on the water and sail is a mental process as well.” So does the sea act as inspiration? Sitting on deck, guitar in hand, words in the mind? He grins, shakes his head vigorously. “I keep the sea out of it. There’s too many dreadful sea songs!”
Managing to become Bernard Sumner again must be a peculiar business. After all, this is a man who in the past few years has seen two actors play him on screen – in 24 Hour Party People (about Factory Records) and Control (Anton Corbijn’s masterly recounting of the Joy Division story). What’s it like to see youself on screen? “Control was accurate, it was good, but when you’ve spent a lifetime in the eye of the media it doesn’t feel strange.”
Is there always this sense of dislocation between you and ‘Bernard Sumner’? “On stage it’s not you it’s you plus the audience and the audience has an effect on you.”
For the only time he gives a classic rock star answer. Maybe both are real, but you get the feeling that here is where he is at his most comfortable; no audience feeding off him, no bloody journalists, just friends and the waves.
But why end up here on Skye? “I did the Classic Malts Cruise for the first time in 2007 and have been back each year. You get to meet the locals, hear their music. It’s a great introduction to the Hebrides. I’ve sailed around the world and this is one of the most beautiful places you can cruise in. Last year I sailed for two weeks before the Malts Cruise in Tahiti. It was a lifetime’s ambition, but you know, on a sunny day Eigg does a fair impersonation of Tahiti!”
And what of whisky for this wine drinker who is now of the age when hangovers last for three days? “I came on the Cruise because of the sailing, not out of any prior love of whisky, but I’ve now also learned about it [whisky] and what a significant part it plays in Highland culture – and it’s important to understand that connection. “Caol Ila has become the favourite on board, but,” a look outside again, “there’s something terribly seductive about drinking Talisker in Talisker.
“It’s the special thing about sailing that you experience the solitude of the sea, but then the boats and people come together and share your experiences. You learn to savour the visual landscape, to savour time.. in my life it can go so quick. Here you learn to slow down – and it’s the same for making and drinking whisky.”
In a few days time he’ll be down south on a round of interviews promoting the album, then the tour, then back into the studio on other projects. It sounds an enviable lifestyle, but it’s draining. Sailing, and maybe a dram, helps with the balance.