A rabid following and a story that tragically ended in the suicide of frontman Ian Curtis mean such a project must be treated respectfully, carefully, creatively and above all, well.
Despite these potential hurdles, this is exactly what designer and visual artist Matt Watkins, electronic musician Scanner and Brighton’s Heritage Orchestra, and visual artist Matt Watkins undertook for the Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked show.
The piece debuted at last year’s Brighton Festival, and will start its full UK tour this September. It sees elements and motifs of Joy Division’s work used to form an immersive AV performance that looks to pay homage to the sprit of the band, eschewing direct covers or facsimiles of their work.
‘I felt it was almost sacrilegious – you can’t just cash in on a dead rock star’, says Watkins. ‘We’re not just regurgitating [Curtis’] legacy and his work – it had to be something passionate and respectful to him.’
As such, the beauty of Live_Transmission is that rather than simply acting as a stage for Joy Division’s work, the songs are reconfigured into an entirely new piece. It’s not a cover version – it’s a new artwork with its own heart and soul.
Watkins, who has previously worked on visuals for musician such as Gorillaz, created visuals are shown projected across two screens. The imagery looks to complement the sounds of the orchestra with a visual transmission flickering between moments of clarity and disorder.
‘I was just asked to interpret the music and whole concept as I saw fit’, explains Watkins. ‘One of the keys things for me about the band was that Ian Curtis was trying to elevate himself from a working class background through art.
’I came at it from a sentimental, rather than a technical perspective.’
For much of the time he was creating the visuals Watkins eschewed digital technology in favour of painting and collage, utilising Peter Saville’s iconic album artwork in places. He also worked heavily with photography to create the melange of abstractions, dense atmosphere and shadowplay.
He says, ‘As it’s an 80s band I wanted to nod to techniques like Super8 film, but I had to fit the tonality to work with the orchestra. They’re so interesting to watch – I didn’t want to create a distraction, but something that complemented them and didn’t compete.’
While Watkins used ‘a couple’ of direct images of Joy Division in isolation, the majority of the design draws on his own interpretation of the mood.
‘There’s no singing, so the responsibility of the visuals is to represent the vocals’, he explains. ‘A couple of the tracks use Ian Curtis’ handwriting, but the music is so timeless, so any nods to the real world are more an abstraction of the thoughts and feelings Ian Curtis was putting into the lyrics.’
While many tributes to Joy Division look to wallow in misery and myth, Live_Transmission succeeds in forming a new work that respectfully creates new art from the band’s weighty legacy. To paraphrase Curtis himself in Heart & Soul, ‘ past is now part of [the] future.’
Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked begins its tour on 21 September at London Royal Festival Hall before travelling the UK. For more information visit http://www.theheritageorchestra.com/