Interview with Andy Gill: Gang of Four does nothing that means nothing

If you listen to KEXP, you’ve heard Gang of Four. If by some chance you’ve missed out on hearing the real thing, you’ll still know the sound. The band’s sonic signature — the harsh stutter of Andy Gill’s guitar slicing up the rhythm section’s heavy grooves, topped with Jon King’s urgent vocal delivery — has been so widely imitated they might as well be the Velvet Underground of post-punk. The only problem with that is they weren’t post-punk… they were there from the beginning. If they had been willing to make a few tweaks lyrically (say, trim the politics down to slogans brief enough to fit onto a sticker or a badge) and musically (where are the guitar solos?) they’d have been as successful as the Clash. But Gang of Four were never about compromise. They still aren’t.

Content is the band’s new album, and the first featuring new material since 1995. Gill and King remain at the helm; original rhythm section Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham have departed, and bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Mark Heaney now hold down the low end. The new lineup is flat out ferocious; McNeice’s basslines prowl menacingly without losing the groove, a stark contrast to the pure funk approach mid-period Gang of Four had when Dave Allen left the band and was replaced by Sarah Lee.

The band engaged with their fans via PledgeMusic, where fans can pay for a variety of premium offerings, such as private events with the band and limited edition versions of the record – to help finance the project, and Content is available via Yep Roc in the U.S. The record comes in multiple formats, including a deluxe metal can that includes, among several other intriguing items, a container of Gill and King’s blood. Would you expect any less? Gang of Four remains a band that does nothing that means nothing.

Andy Gill took time to speak with KEXP from his home in London as the band prepared to bring their current tour to the U.S., including a February 16 stop at the Showbox at the Market and an in-studio performance at KEXP that same day.

KEXP: How did you come to be involved with PledgeMusic?

Andy Gill: The music world is quite a bit different than it used to be; that’s probably the understatement of the year. So it’s one thing to write a bunch of new songs to make a record, but then you have to reinvent how you’re going to work, really reinvent your relationship with the music business. Working with a major label might be good for U2, bands of that size, but when you’re mere mortals they take a slice of every bit of your income on top of a pathetic royalty to begin with. It’s an absolute waste of time.

So the last eighteen months, two years has been a bit of a journey for us. It’s been a lot of work, especially for me in a kind of semi-management capacity. I’ve spent a lot of time doing things I don’t particularly want to be doing (laughs), trying to figure out how to make this all work.

The pledge thing enabled us to get some funds at a time when we really needed them. The first single from the new album that went to radio in the U.K. was “You Don’t Have to Be Mad”, and that really started the process. You have to pay pluggers, you have to pay p.r. people, and the pledge thing gave us a bit of money to do that. It’s all very well making a great record, but if you nobody hears it, you’ve kind of wasted your time, do you know what I mean?

Did using the system influence the process at all from a creative standpoint? I know you’d been writing and recording these songs well before you hooked up with PledgeMusic, but no one can truly work in a vacuum. And you must know what your core fans will respond to most strongly.

The record was basically done when we got involved with Pledge; I was just doing some final mixes by then. One of the most exciting things about working with them was we got to sit around at a table and think, “what kinds of things can we do?” Things that are over and above what records usually are now — a record and a little bit of packaging — that would be really special for Gang of Four supporters. People pledged, and we had things like private listening sessions of the new album, which was a great experience for us as well. But even then, we’d already planned out what the special edition metal can was going to be. I’m trying to think of any specific way it influenced the process, and I can’t.

Your show next week here in Seattle is at the Showbox, a venue that has a bit of history for you. I believe the first gig you ever played without the original lineup was at the Showbox.

Nobody quite knows why Dave Allen suddenly took off six days into a tour, you know? I still don’t know, and to be honest I’m not even sure Dave knows (laughs). But that’s what happened. Leave he did, and we were about to just get on a plane back to England. But our A&R guy at Warners said, “you don’t have to do that, there are a couple of other bass players that would fit right in.” And Busta Jones was the guy who stepped in. We did one pretty much 24 hour rehearsal with him, and then moved on to the next show, which was Seattle.

And it was an amazing show. Busta was delighted, being dropped into this situation that he was so suited for. He’s an incredible bass player — Jon still talks about how much he loves his playing. The show ended up being sort of an epic show, and I’m told it was a show that Kurt Cobain, among others, was at. So it was a show that did end up leaving a rather long shadow.

I just read the Damaged Gods book about the Gang of Four, and…

Waste of time.

It’s not something you endorse.

No. Hugo, God bless him, has profusely apologized to me for what went on in that book.

It’s a book that was written in a big hurry. The author was going through a divorce at the time, and needed to make some money, and pretty much told me he was going to try and get five books out in a year’s time. It was certainly a rush job. Basically, the guy just got people to talk, and printed everything verbatim. It’s full of inaccuracies as well, and really does the band no justice at all.

The four of you are quoted at length, not only about the early days of the group but the reformation in 2004 that included a tour as well as the Return the Gift release. I was taken aback at how bitter both Hugo and Dave came off. They had some acrimonious comments, most of them about finance rather than music, and much of it directed at you in particular.

It’s such a petty, argumentative little book. And as I said, Hugo does feel really bad about it. But… we move on. We did talk about it. I think some people had perhaps been whispering some malicious things in Hugo’s ear, telling him some things were the case that were absolutely not the case, let’s leave it at that. If those interviews were done now, I think they would be quite different. We’re friends; we’ve moved past it.

In terms of your work as a producer, what influences your decisions on who to take on? You’ve worked with Therapy?, Killing Joke, Michael Hutchence, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Boss Hogg… I imagine you get loads of inquiries. Not only serious calls based of your body of work, but also feelers from people who’d love to have the name Andy Gill appear on their record.

You’re right, I do get a lot, and I listen carefully to everything that’s put in front of me. I do notice that most everything I get is very good in some way. If it’s something that isn’t right for me, I’ll say so. If it sounds interesting, I’ll start a conversation and see where that goes. But things seem to decide themselves in that world, really.

There was an interview up on the Gang of Four website recently in which Jon and you were addressing the fact that many of the bands who borrow from you seem to only do so musically; they don’t carry the torch of addressing political situations and social issues, as you’ve always done and continue to do. You gave the Futureheads as an example, saying “I really don’t know what they’re on about” with regard to their lyrics. That’s a band you’ve produced; how much you involve yourself with that side of things? The message?

Yeah, yeah, sure. I often talk to people I produce about the lyrics, what the songs are about. You have to judge these things carefully, though. Some people are interested in talking things through, and do want you to have something to say about it. Other people… are not. As far as they’re concerned, it’s done, don’t go there. And the Futureheads were like that. I loved some of the things they did, the fantastic noise.

I’d also hate to give the impression that I think all bands should have political subject matter, because nothing could be further from the truth. There are many, many ways to describe the world, and people use all kinds of analogues to do that. With the Futureheads, it’s always a bit magical and fascinating. But I do stand by that comment (laughs), because I don’t always know what the songs are about. And that can be intriguing as well. Some of their songs, you do know – the great song where they describe the first day working in a call center, for example. Other songs, like “A to B”, aren’t as clear.

Lyrics can be very open ended; that’s something to be celebrated. The idea that one should pin a meaning on every song, to define it, is not what I’m into, nor would I advocate that approach.

At this point with Gang of Four, how far ahead do you plan? This certainly seems to be an ongoing concern; I haven’t heard any of you frame it as a one-off.

Yeah, it is an ongoing concern. Clearly, before 2004, there was no Gang of Four activity for many years. And then, for various reasons, it resurfaced as a viable idea. The idea at that time was the commitment would be for a relatively short-term project kind of thing. And then it turned into me and Jon carrying on, playing a lot of the European and U.K. festivals — Glastonbury and what have you. At one point Jon said, “it would be fun to have one or two new songs for these shows we’re playing.” And so we started writing together.

In terms of how far we plan ahead… we made this record, which was a lot of work, and there has been a lot of work since then. We’re involved with Yep Roc as a label in the US and Groenland for the rest of the world, and we’re delighted with both of those situations. Jon has already been talking to me about the next record, how he’d like it to sound, which is pretty lo-fi (laughs), from what I get from him.

I noticed someone summed up the band’s sound as a “collision of black rhythm and white noise.”

“Black rhythm and white noise.” Yeah, that’s not too bad. I wouldn’t take much issue with that. I love groove. Whether it’s reggae, or funk, or Motown or whatever… things being rhythmically strong is what I find most exciting in music.

What I would say is this: when Gang of Four got started, it was Jon and I kind of amusing ourselves. The songs were a bit jokey. But then we started asking more of ourselves, got a bit more serious about it. That’s when we started writing songs like “Anthrax”, and “Not Great Men”, and “Nature’s Not In It.” We were trying to invent a language for ourselves, both a musical and lyrical language, to express these ideas that we had buzzing around.

Don’t forget to catch Gang of Four at Showbox at the Market on February 16 (tickets available here) and live that day on the Afternoon Show with Kevin Cole on KEXP at 3PM.

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One Comment

  1. Michael Wells
    Posted February 9, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the interview, really looking forward to the show next week… and hoping they’ll have some Content for sale… wanna buy the music directly from the band!

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