LONDON (Billboard) - Tony Wilson is difficult to pigeonhole. The veteran British music man -- whose Factory Records spearheaded the career of Joy Division, among other bands -- is a raconteur, an A&R exec, a scene-builder, a businessman and a celebrity.
Wilson can now add “fighter” to his list. The man whose unconventional career was the subject of 2002 feature film “24 Hour Party People” is battling cancer. But the illness hasn’t curbed his zest for music and his commitment to bringing new artists to the fore.
Wilson is bringing his long-running Manchester, England, music conference In the City to New York June 13-14. In signature fashion, Wilson promises hot artist showcases by night and equally hot panel discussions by day. The Happy Mondays, originally signed to Factory, the post-punk label that is now synonymous with the rise of Manchester as a creative hotbed, are confirmed to perform.
On the eve of In the City of New York, Billboard sat down with Wilson, who, after all these years and recent health hardships, remains one incredibly colorful music industry vet.
Q: First, I’m sorry to hear you’ve been ill. How have you been responding to the treatment?
A: I’m on new medication, and I’m not going to know for sure for another three or four weeks, but I think it’s doing well. Certainly, I’m well compared to what I was on before, which was terrifying. I went through a few weeks in February when I came out of the hospital and thought, “Well, that’s it.” It was f***ing awful. But I’m not lying in bed, I’m not shaking like an idiot, and I’m not vomiting all the time. So I’m all right. I’ve been groggy every day, but I get through most of my day’s work.
Q: Why did you feel the need to take In the City to New York?
A: Originally, it was (AEG Live senior VP) Rob Hallett’s idea. About two years ago, we ran into each other at Coachella and we talked about the declining special relationship between British music and the U.S., which occasionally has blips like it has in the last two months. He said, “Why don’t you A&R a British Invasion-type event? Why don’t we construct something?” We’ve always thought a lot of money in the British industry is wasted on taking two dozen bands to South by Southwest and watching them get lost, by and large, in a sea of 1,500 bands. It seemed to be an interesting idea to have a focused new British talent event. I thought it would be nice to do it in New York and return to our spiritual home.
Q: Do you believe the time is ripe for the next wave of British talent?
A: Yes, I do. I think there’s some very good stuff around at the moment. The band I am most excited about bringing to New York -- because they’re my favorite band in the world -- is Enter Shikari. I think there’s a real chance for British music to reinvent and establish itself. It just needs one or two major acts to come through.
Q: There were plans for an In the City in Perth, Australia. Will that ever happen?
A: We still want to do Perth, because we think it is a wonderful opportunity. But in a way, that’s been delayed by my illness. We think people have tried to do Pacific Rim conferences before in Singapore and Hong Kong. But, in a way, they didn’t work, because neither is a music city.
Q: Is the record business still a good place to be?
A: Yes, if you find a great band. The reason myself and my mates coped with our ridiculous way of behaving for 15 years was because we began and ended with two great bands. If you have a great band, it’s fine.
Q: You’ve been involved as a co-producer in the Joy Division film “Control” (a biopic of the band’s Ian Curtis). What did you think of the final product?
A: I know it was hysterically received in Cannes, but I’ve been so ill that I’ve not seen it.
Q: What did you make of Steve Coogan’s performance of yourself in “24 Hour Party People?”
A: Oh, I loved it. Basically, I’m a complete tw*t, but he played me as an affable fool, which is very sweet. I’m not really an affable fool, but I’m very happy to be portrayed as such. Whenever movie people touch my business of rock ‘n’ roll, they tend to f*** it up. They make a terrible mess of it in one way or another. But I am so proud of “24 Hour Party People” because it is very funny. I am now a celebrity in America because of that film, which is bizarre.
Q: Factory Records featured Joy Division, which morphed into dance-oriented New Order, which has apparently split for good. Can you see New Order ever reuniting?
A: Possibly -- that is, if (bassist Peter Hook) Hooky shuts his mouth for long enough. They were recently asked to do a gig, they all said yes, except Hooky who said, “I will only do it if we call it New Order’s farewell concert.” At which point, (drummer) Steve (Morris) said, “For f***’s sake, forget this.” I would listen to Steve.
Q; What is vexing you at the moment?
A: When I see great back catalog albums selling for 4 pounds ($7.90). That really, really pisses me off. I also hate cheap packaging. I hate that the industry has forgotten how to make a product memorable. You worry why you’re not selling CDs. It’s because you f***ed it, you idiots. The sheer foolhardiness of people.
Q: You’ve been called many things over the years. What would you call yourself?
A: An enthusiast.