Tearing up the blueprint has always been a part of the Gang Of Four aesthetic.
So when their upcoming new album, What happens Next, was announced with the knowledge that the band was now reduced to the core of key creative force Andy Gill after the departure of his musical partner Jon King it actually felt like an advantage. This is not to run King’s crucial contribution to the band’s aesthetic and music down -or any member of the band in their long history- but change is what has kept the band fresh and with his hand forced Gill has created what is arguably, the group’s best work for decades.
The second album released since their ‘comeback’ sees the band exploring new areas and sounding contemporary but with the stripped down intensity of what made them great in the first place. A plethora of special guests keeps the album moving along and the ideas are on overload in a sinewy and powerful release.
There is some history.
They were born in Leeds in the revolutionary fervour of punk and post punk inspired by the fervour of one and creating the template of the other.
Their initial guitar shrapnel slashing with warped funk undertow music was a thrilling example of the musical collisions of the time. The band dealt in a political and social commentary that reflected the arguments and intensity of the time when nothing was taken for granted and everything was up for grabs.
They were also an incendiary act live, as your author can testify having seen them many times.
Their mix of guitar noise and dislocated funk were a great escape route from the punk wars and their questioning, non-conventional attitude soundtracked the creative rush of the period.
Caught in the conundrums of believing in the higher purpose of music and the nitty gritty of trying to survive the band landed in the frontline of being highly influential and a prime example of that dreaded word cult. Whilst they were still very popular they had to watch as their former disciples gate crashed the mainstream with their ideas whilst they survived with an impeccable critical reputation.
After several years at the idea frontline they collapsed before retuning on the crest of a wave of being recognised as the prime DNA from a fertile creative period. The return was built around the core of guitar player Andy Gill and singer Jon King and produced one album, Content, before King left to set up his advertising business and Andy became the gang of one.
Always the main creative force in the band it actually gave him an opportunity to deconstruct the group and using guest singers and new musicians he has somehow pulled together the best Gang Of Four album for a long time. An urgent and taut work, it somehow combines their agit frustration and musical imagination with a range of different sources and sounds that still sound somehow authentic and modern at the same time whilst running an imaginative and thrilling commentary on the way things are.
Andy Gill is not your typical rock n roll type- a thoughtful and quietly intense and intelligent man he discusses music with a passion and intellect that is rare amongst many of his contemporaries without every losing site of the key adrenalin rush that makes this kind of music truly electric.
The album has a great sound – perhaps your best for years – really linear, sparse and yet inventive.
And yet it was made under what must have been quite difficult circumstances with the line up change. What happened to Jon?
‘It’s hard to explain the workings of Jon over the years! He’s sometimes been very keen to be involved in the Gang Of Four and at other times a bit semi detached. For quite a while he was in 2 minds about it and not putting that much time in. I was sort of aware of that I was starting to do a lot of everything to do with the band. Then he wanted to put more time into his advertising business and he finally left to do that. With the band, from my perspective, I thought a lot of doors had been opened at this point after we had reformed and after the first album we had done so we started again so it was interesting to continue. Then I thought that before we could not do any collaborations and this would be an interesting opportunity to move forward. I’m not sure they would have worked under the previous regime- these were things that we might have been hesitant about before. It has given us an urgency and it’s interesting to compare Content with What Happens Next- looking back, Content is, maybe, a little bit conservative in a way by our standards.’
Creatively and emotionally is this album just you then?
‘In a way but I also did all the music and some of the lyrics before on Content and Jon would come in and do some lyrics and sing stuff. So I don’t think we had put together a record in band way for a long time. With this album I clearly do all the music, the lyrics and melodies and not necessarily in that order. So I’m doing all of it and then we would have various sessions with everyone together and try and and muck around a bit playing it live and try and avoid that thing where your write a track and there was not a clear distinction between writing and recording. One seamlessly moves into the other. I sometimes think when you play songs live a lot of times it changes the song and when you don’t you can see everyone thinking I wish I had got that bit in there! I suppose that’s an argument for the old school way of recording where you would write and then the band would play a lot of times and then start recording versions of it.’
The theme of the album seems to be a question of identity in the modern world— is this an identity both for you as a person in this world and also with the band as well – a dual thing?
‘Yes, exactly! in a sense it reflects What Happens Next with both Gang Of Four and for me. This is reflected both in the title and the album content. In a way the no question mark after the title makes it more definitive – as in, this is what happens next…
At the beginning of the process of making the album it was not clear where things were going and it was an exciting prospect. I knew it would be a good record. I was just not sure where it would go and it turned it into a series of happy accidents. Things happen that can change your route.
I like it when the creative process is unpredictable – that’s the fun of it. For example, in my head I thought there would be lot of collaborations and I would sing some vocals and other people would do vocals as well. I sort of vaguely imagined that I would have to audition people to sing live. I was working on songs at the beginning of the record and doing the vocals myself to nail down the melody and I would do my vocals with an auto tune and a bit of piano to work out those melodies. I said to my manager that I need to get a singer to help to get some demos finished and he found John “Gaoler” Sterry who was my session singer for a while.
For 6 months I would play the Gaoler stuff and after a lot of time working together we really got on and I really liked his voice and I was thinking he’s great and I said do you fancy stepping up to the mic and we decided to do a semi secret gig at the Lexington and got people to film it with their phones- that video is on youtube somewhere and after watching it, it was clear that he really worked as part of the band. It wasn’t what I planned but that’s how it turned out.”
To sing about identity and the world is interesting- especially with different vocalists and I imagine it’s in a very different context now. When you started in the late 70s, political and social lyrics were set to a very different backdrop. How much simpler the world was then and how much more complex it is now!
‘You think back now to when Gang Of Four started and it was the pre Thatcher era. People forget that we were pre Thatcher and it was a different world then, a world that was defined by the cold war of the west v USSR. A lot of the lines were very clear then. Since then the world has become so much more complex. I think the way Britain thinks about its identity is much more confused. There are all kinds of stresses and fractures going on here- like the UK’s position in Europe or the Scottish issue or the way that people think about people from the EU and East Europe. It’s almost like the dialogue has completely moved on and it’s interesting trying to relate to this…’
The album, from the cover picture of the Shard to the lyrics is a very London record- reflecting the city’s unique status in the world and using the city as a spine to tell a story with the Shard as some kind of motif…
`London is this megalopolis now. It’s like a different country. It’s a vast thing. All the culture of the world meets here and that makes it a vibrant place to live. There is also all the money floating through it from all over the world which reminds me of the Joseph Conrad Heart Of Darkness book. Especially the way that starts on the Thames with three guys in a boat talking to eachother on the at the mouth of the Thames and they are talking about London in the then late 19th century which, in some ways, is like it is now when it was this heart of empire whereas now it is maybe the heart of capitalism- it’s an interesting scene and that is really reflected in the song Isle Of Dogs on the album.
That song seems to me to be one of the key tracks on the album.
‘I was thinking about the Shard and how it was both impressive and vaguely sinister looking. I was trying to imagine a character living at the top of the Shard looking down on the empire with his binoculars and watching the Thames flow past the Isle of Dogs, like a modern day Colonel Kurtz. In a kind of way that song is central to the record and that this really is a London record and by that definition an international record.’
But it is also, in some ways also an autobiographical record?
‘I think that when me when Jon wrote lyrics in the past he would be less autobiographical whilst I have a tendency to be a little more autobiographical. I often kind of write in first person whether or not it’s about me or not. Even years back I was assuming the character of the song in Paralysed back when we started. That was a song which I sang in first person even though it is not directly about me but there are certain things that resonate with me in the song. I Will To be A Good Boy from 1982’s Songs Of The Free is first person but it’s not actually about me.
There are certain things that resonate with me on this record as well I suppose like on The Dying Rays which I don’t sing – the german actor and singer Herbert Grönemeyer sings that but I wrote the song in first person. They are the same thoughts that I have so in a sense the character is not speaking with my voice but they are the same thoughts that cross my mind.
In this much changed world where the personal is political but the world is in a rush what role does music have nowadays?
‘Music is still so important to people in their lives. People keep telling me that more music is consumed than ever was. It seems to be incredible the staying power and the power of pop music. Obviously, at the same time, we are all trying to find a way through the lack of money in the industry with everything completely fallen on its arse and that affects everybody and everybody is trying to figure out how to produce music and survive.’
The album touches on the avalanche of modern media…the way that there is now almost too much information.
‘I think the uncritical part acceptance of this tsunami of stuff that comes at all angles at us all the time. Pretty soon we will all be wearing glasses with computer stuff projected inside the lenses and the next step will be chips inside your head so we can be advertised at 24 hours a day in our sleep and everything else…’
With the changed line up it must have been interesting to think about what Gang Of Four actually is- is it more of an idea/concept than a band?
‘In a sense yes but it’s not like the Ramones which was such an easy to understand concept and you get it in 3 minutes kind of concept. The Gang Of Four is much more complex than that. There are a lot of things going on like we have a complicated relationship to proper pop music.
It’s interesting that Anthrax was only a couple of years away from I Love A Man In Uniform which was the song that got closest to pure pop music and was the closest to a hit in America. Anthrax was trying to invent a new language and to not steal from funk and reggae but draw inspiration from the contortion of funk and rhythmic beats combined with a loud electric guitar.
With that sort of loud, sometimes rhythmic, sometimes textural sound it was trying to make this new language and turn it into an identifiable sound. From the lyrical point of view it was trying to talk about complex things in a not complicated way and to present interesting ideas in ways not overly complex. In that sense the lyrics were trying to do the same as the music in trying to present ideas in an attractive consumereable way.
For example the song Nature’s Not In It would say that those things that people say are natural- like a woman staying at home and having kids is actually a manmade construct and that people make rules for religious reasons or they come from political institutions like the state and other power structures. These things that we are told are natural- they come from there, those institutions. The song is a stream of images like a slide show which kind of reinforces that point to try and make it in a simple and enjoyable way…’
Do you still feel you have the pressure to be original or do you have a natural sound you work to now or do you feel that you have to reinvent what you do?
‘Yes, every time I work on something new I kind of think of it as a new experience and I don’t think this song is a bit like that song from the paCorbijnst so I have to do it in a similar way. I feel that I am starting from a fresh slate every time which I suppose makes it a bit more difficult and challenging to do. The interesting thing is that when people listen to these things they still hear the DNA of the Gang Of Four even when it’s quite different. I suppose this is maybe because I have certain rhythms that always appeal to me and a certain palate of guitar sounds and certain off beat rhythmic constructions that just come out in a positive way, I think people say that it sounds like the Gang Of Four but the new album, to me, doesn’t actually sound much like any other Gang Of Four records in reality.
How much does working with the guests change the creative flavour?
‘With Alison Mossart and Robertson “Robbie” Furze from the Big Pink – they just came in and sat down and I would explain things to them and then they would sing it. We would normally do it until it sounded right but then with Herbert Grönemeyer it was a different process again.
He came down to the studio and sang what he heard on the guide vocal tracks. The thing with him was that I was very conscious of his voice – a lot of people knew him as the guy in Das Boot and he is Germany’s biggest rock star. I’ve known him as a friend for 20 years actually. It was Anton Corbijn who introduced me to him.
To write the track I was listening to his music and thinking what was so special about what he does. He does this very German, very Wagnerian, kind of pain filled, angst ballads that are quite moving and his voice is spectacular so I thought to use this opportunity properly I would have to write for him . It was a tall order writing a Gang Of Four song for me that incorporates him and his style of music into ours. I had lots of false starts doing it. I was really struggling then I had a breakthrough and got the music together for The Dying Rays. When I was writing lyrics I had his voice in mind and when he got in the studio it was quite a thrill when it all came together.
Basically it was different approaches for different people and I think in his case and in my mind it was something so specialised that he does so well that I had to reach out and do something special to make it work.’
Another very different guest was Japanese guitar Tomoyasu Hotei who has a very different style of playing than you.
‘Tomoyasu Hotei has lived in London for the last couple of years. He’s married to a huge Japanese pop star and they couldn’t work down street in Japan because everyone knew who they both were. He has moved to Barnes in West London where they definitely don’t get mobbed! I met him because I knew he was into what I did because a few years ago I was meant to involved with something with him and a couple of years before that a Japanese guitar magazine did an edition about him where he did things about guitar players he liked and one was about me and the other about Reeves Gabriel in the Tin Machine and who now plays in the Cure.
The magazine and Tomoyasu Hotei came to my house with a camera crew to film the piece and that is how we met. He is different kind of player to me – a more rock player with the thrills and frills but we basically sat down to work on the song for the album and he came out with a riff that I thought was really cool and that is how we came up with Heart Of Dead Souls- which is his guitar riff – also we had a guitar solo because you can’t do a song with him and not have guitar solo in there as well!’
I remember once meeting you when you had that studio flat by Tower Bridge- a great place – are you still there?
‘Aaaah the old studio. I really liked it there but people got fed up with the noise. I was using the living room as a studio and living there as well and it just got too difficult, unfortunately. I have found somewhere in Holborn now and built something inside that is the same kind of set up – a studio and living all in one place. The new studio is a lot bigger. It has to be. It has a wacking great 72 input Neive desk and a big separate live in space and it’s pretty full on.’
I know you work with many bands producing there but did you use it yourself?
‘The new album was done from scratch there, from the writing and editing and mixing to finishing it off. The process was very different this time, especially because the line up of the band changed. From quite early on I was keen to get other people involved and put their own input into the record from singing on some of the tracks to mixing. I was very aware of the benefits of getting others in for input and to get some perspective on things. I then got Simon Goldey in to mix it which is very good discipline when someone insists on having bunch of WAV files and midi effects and just gets on with it and I can’t say this is the sound it’s done get on with it. I would hand the songs over to him to mix and I quite like that.’
Collaboration in an isolated digital world has been the key. What happened next was that gang Of Four deconstructed rock n roll, the world and then, ultimately, themselves to find themselves and in the range of voices and ideas have done just that.