Interview: Joy Division Producer Tom Atencio
Mon, 09 Jun 2008 10:43:33
Joy Division was one of the most definable New Wave bands during the late '70s and early '80s, yet in 2008, they still enjoy revered cult status. Their quintessential song, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," remains an anthem for the heartbroken, disaffected youth that still flocks to the band's tragically relatively small catalog, which can be attributed to the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, who suffered poor health due to epilepsy and depression over his failed marriage. While New Order, the band that rose from Joy Division's charred and scattered ashes, went on to enjoy much larger commercial success, fans remain fascinated by the story of Curtis and Joy Division, as if attracted to the unfulfilled potential snuffed out by Curtis' hanging himself.
Curtis and Joy Division continue to incite public interest, and they are the subject and the focal point of not one, but two recent films. One is Control, a biopic focusing on Curtis and his personal battles. The other is the simply titled Joy Division, a documentary featuring interviews with surviving band members, archival footage, and a chronology of the band's rise and fall in the burgeoning Manchester music scene.
Clearly, Joy Division mania continues to blaze at a fevered pitch. Tom Atencio, who served as a producer on the documentary, chatted with ARTISTdirect about why Ian Curtis continues to generate interest nearly 30 years after his demise.
Why is interest in Ian Curtis so prevalent, even today?
I think that one of the remarkable things about Ian and Joy Division is that they were around for only two-and-a-half years over 30 years ago. What kind of band in that period of time can establish a 30 year legacy? Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones all established themselves over decades. In two-and-a-half years, Joy Division established themselves and that is the remarkable aspect of the legacy. You can hear their influence all over today. It certainly has had a resurgence in the last couple of years. It's referenced by musicians, that's why you are talking about it right now and why it seems contemporary, because they are being quoted in their musical influence of other bands. It's not suddenly topical. It's in the air and it's distilled down to references, like Interpol and She Wants Revenge, who are literal in their referencing. There are also other bands who are clearly influenced or have a creative correspondence with it. It's something in the air, increasingly. It's always been around, but it's distillated. You have other artists in other disciplines saying this might be the right time to do something about Joy Division.
Why did you decide to be involved in this film?
I managed New Order in North America for 18 years, so I am close to the subject. You could see from record sales that there was an increasing awareness of Joy Division so it might be viable to make a film. [Ian's wife] Debbie wrote a book that was optioned long before the principals of Control got involved in this movie and we felt that it needed to be addressed because I felt Debbie didn't have the proximity to the band members to come up with a complete story. Certainly, she can talk about her relationship with her husband, and if you look at Control, the band members are peripheral and sort of pranksters in the background. I felt that the story of the band's creativity needed to be told. They made some brave decisions and getting to the bottom of those decisions was the story. I felt like the band's story needed to be told.
Was it an eerie process? Did you feel the presence of Ian hanging in the air when going over old footage and with interviews with the bandmates?
Even with New Order, the presence of Ian is there. Here was a person of great intelligence and he changed their lives, certainly. The band didn't hesitate when I brought up the idea of a Joy Division documentary. They wanted to express their feelings about Ian and his influence for them. It's not just an eerie, ghostly presence that he has. There is a direct acknowledgement and an aesthetic platform being honored. It's stronger than a ghostlike presence.
What does this doc reveal about Ian and Joy Division that may not have been known before, if anything?
People don't understand how desperate the area that they came from in England was. It's analogous to our rust belt in America. At the turn of the century, the area was an industrial landscape that was very prosperous and then 60 years later, it is a place where nobody wanted to live. Mining was the main economic supplier. Literally, it was either pick up a guitar or go down a mineshaft. Joy Division made brave and almost unconscious decisions. It was, 'Make something great, creative, and original' rather than being poppier and just successful. The story of them opting for a local label rather than a major label was an interior choice made on quality and feel. I want people to walk away from the movie thinking if you want a 30 year career with a catalog that continues to sell, you can be thinking of your own experiences rather than miming someone who sounds successful. Joy Division did the best they could from their own experiences and gave the band a unique sound. Ian did very literary lyrics. Today, the pressure for success is much different. The internet provides so much information that artists can figure out their end game before they've written a substantial song. They know the car they want to buy before they write the hit and it wasn't like that before.
The doc is balanced, looking not only at Ian but the band's development in the Manchester scene. How did you decide how to split the focus? Clearly, Ian is the more sensational story that people are always looking for answers about, but you manage a delicate balance. What's striking is how you show the depressed, gray British steel towns and how beautiful art flourished in such a dark, desperate place.
Great art reflects a time and a place. You have to make a film and establish the time and place for the viewer. You can see that constant drizzle and rain and the physical location for Manchester. It's mountains and moors. So, the countryside is there. It's an urban area but it's surrounded by nature. The moors and constant rain is going to affect your mindset. That's the physical aspect. The time was the economic time for north of England. Manufacturing and providing coal to make the South wealthy was what was done and none of that wealth was spent in North of England. So, there were severe economic situations in England, which gave rise to punk, and it was even more extreme in the North. It was easy to color the film and give it a sense of chronology. It was essential to the process. I don't think the band thought about it that much, in the moment. So there is a freshness to the interviews. It's not like the band had spent a lot of time thinking about the process and they certainly had never answered questions like, 'What were you doing at the time of Ian's death when you got the call?' They stumble through their personal recollections and you can see the emotion come across each of their faces as each of them recalls it—where they were and what they were doing. Everyone talks about it in the present tense, too.
So it was it emotionally taxing to speak to the people who were involved with Joy Division as the band existed!
It's great to see that sense of recollection, asking them what they were doing and where they were. It was taxing but real. One thing is for sure: you don't feel any of it is rehearsed or overly explored for the participants. The visceral aspects are apparent.
Were the former members easily convinced to appear since you already had long standing relationships with them?
Before, they had chosen not to talk about it extensively. They were not going to talk about it around strangers or strange filmmakers.
Can you sum the documentary up in one fell swoop?
The documentary is a nostalgic look at a different time in the recording business, when the executives and those around the music were as interesting as the people making it. It's a team of people, not just the musicians. It's a look at the time when musicians weren't afraid to be original and they surrounded themselves with interesting choices and interesting people to work with, like Tony Wilson, who was a brave, visionary executive when he signed the band. It was my nostalgic look at the record business, which doesn't exist anymore. Bands used to be helped in their quest by talented executives.
The record company business model is outdated and is not changing with digital times, that's for sure!
Bands need to remember to aspire to something wonderful and not just to be on MTV Cribs.
— Amy Sciarretto