Named by friends in The Mekons after a faction in China’s Cultural Revolution of the late ’60s, Gang of Four is perhaps most widely known as the post-punk provocateurs responsible for songs like “Anthrax,” “I Love a Man in a Uniform,” and “To Hell with Poverty.” Seemingly fueled by punk’s lasting anger-derived energy when they formed in Leeds in 1977, on seminal records like their debut, Entertainment, and the subsequent Solid Gold, the band meshed Marxist ideology with a backing of guitar riffs honed razor sharp and funk-laden basslines paired back to their sparsest essentials. Like the line-up of the band, that formula mutated over time, eventually even taking on pop sensibilities, but the band has remained consistent in challenging the norms.
Over the decades, the songwriting core of guitarist Andy Gill and vocalist Jon King would separate for years at a time only to reconvene once again, but the two parted ways before the making of Gang of Four’s new album, What Happens Next. The only remaining original member, Gill assembled a new band for this new venture, with bassist Thomas McNeise the only holdover from 2011’s Content. He also brought in some guests to help out, including The Kills’ Alison Mosshart and The Big Pink’s Robbie Furze, and the resulting album is as much a Gang of Four record as it isn’t, meaning it’s as ambitious as ever and, like past records, isn’t just a repetition of what’s come before. With the new record due out on Metropolis Records next month and a tour of the States to follow, I caught up with Gill on the phone to discuss Gang of Four’s past and present.
You’re obviously the one remaining original member in the band. When you started Gang of Four did you have any understanding amongst yourselves of what constitutes the band?
Andy Gill: No, I don’t think so. It was something that Jon and I started. We had been kicking around some ideas for songs. He and I came up with the lyrical approach, and I basically came up with the music. Hugh (drummer Hugo Burnham) got involved and he brought to it an enthusiasm and an entrepreneurial spirit. Then we put up little handwritten adverts looking for a bass player and in walked Dave Allen. So that’s how it started. Then Dave quit after a couple years. He’d do weird things like disappear after soundcheck so we couldn’t do the gig, which happened a couple times. Then we were on tour in America and he wanted out. Halfway through the tour, he demanded his passport and left. At that point, it returned to being mine and Jon’s project. To give you the whole list of troublesome bass players would take quite a long time, but there were quite a few people, including Busta Jones, who finished off that tour that Dave walked out on. Sara Lee was with us a lot longer in the ’80s. It’s always been a relatively fluid thing. It’s something that I want to continue doing, so I do.
Did you feel, though, like you were starting from scratch with this record?
AG: No, not at all. It felt like a continuum, like business as usual. I have ideas all the time that I sing into my phone or lyrics that I write down. Then I get into the studio and start building up the ideas, as I always have done. It really didn’t feel any different, but there’s a certain kind of freedom in not feeling you need to run anything by anyone. There was also a very subtle difference in the sense of responsibility. When it’s entirely you, you feel a slightly enhanced responsibility for the song.
In that sense, working with the singers you brought in, did you have everything spelled out for them?
AG: Yeah. With Hotei, who’s a guitarist not a singer, that was a collaboration. We got into the studio and played some stuff and saw what happened. But with Herbert (Grönemeyer) and Alison, it was like, “This is how it goes.”
With Alison, did you have any second thoughts about having an American singing “England’s in My Bones?”
AG: No, I really enjoyed that aspect of it, that it was an American. It added an extra layer of meaning to it for me because it’s a sort of a complicated song as far as what it means. There’s a kind of duality of meaning.
With “Obey the Ghost,” it’s interesting that you sing about Facebook. I find it striking that you sing about this artifice within the song, when many people shy away from writing about things that are very much of the present in order to be timeless.
AG: I’ve always thought that you want to be specific about things that are around you, but you don’t want to make it about current affairs. Coincidentally, someone was just Facebooking with me and asking me about the song “5:45” on Entertainment. I start the song off with my vocals and I describe trying to eat an egg while watching the BBC news in the ’70s as they talk about Northern Ireland. And I sing very specifically about the egg that I’m eating and how it has a little red spot in it that reminds me of the blood that I’m not seeing on the television in this description of Northern Ireland. So it’s kind of an incredibly microscopic description of an exact point in time. I don’t think it actually happened to me, but I imagined it could happen. It’s talking about a macro subject, like what was sometimes described as the British occupation of Northern Ireland, but through the prism of how you consume the news flow. It was about the 5:45 news, and it was very specific about the time and why you might be having an early meal. I quite enjoy the way you can zoom in and out on subjects and make them more true and more real by expressing a personal experience.
You’ve always had something to say in your songs, whereas some bands are simply concerned with the music and the groove or whatever. Would it be possible for you to write a song with lyrics of little consequence?
AG: It probably would be quite difficult. Sometimes I’m tempted to do a bunch of love songs and see what happens—and I’ll probably do that at some point soon. You don’t want to keep repeating yourself.
In an interview linked on your site, you say that rule number one is not to think just about music. So what else was on your mind when making this record and how was that different from what you were thinking about when making other records, like Content?
AG: I’ve always gotten ideas from other people’s ideas and always tried to be part of the conversation. I’ve pinched ideas from films and from reading books. For some reason, I’m fixated on late 19th century novels. I find those to be stimulating, and also just stuff around you. When music becomes the only inspiration for music, it becomes by necessity very self-referential and not very fresh. Sometimes, I think the point of all this is to be able to see things differently and in a new light, and to do that, you can’t always be music referential.
Speaking of doing things differently, obviously Jon isn’t on this record. I think it only natural that one of the things people most closely identify with a band are the vocals so what were your concerns with him not being around for this record?
AG: I knew for some people there would be some kind of debate—either internal or external—of whether or not it’s still Gang of Four when it’s just Andy. I think everybody knows that we did a lot of the lyrics together and just because Jon was the so-called lead singer didn’t mean he wrote all the lyrics. I know there will still be a debate, but I am also pretty confident that people will take things at face value and choose to have an open mind and listen to it. I also think that even people only tangentially interested in Gang of Four will be curious what is going on with this record. In my experience so far, that’s what I’m getting.
Wouldn’t you say being open-minded is a prerequisite to being a Gang of Four fan?
AG: Yeah, it should be. I do think there all those people who are nostalgic about the band because it reminds them of the good old post-punk days or something, but I think that’s a small minority. When we do gigs now, wherever we might be—China, Brazil, Japan, or wherever—the audiences are pretty young and open-minded.
When you did those shows with the original line-up some years back, was there any thought that it was going to continue past those shows?
AG: No, even though there was a bit of chit-chat about it. Jon wanted to do another record, and we did Content. I think it’s fair to say that all through the different periods, Jon King has always been quite changeable in his desire to be involved with the band. One year he very strongly wants to be involved, and the next year, it’s the opposite. I think the short answer to that question is “no, not really.” That particular line-up was considered a temporary arrangement.
Given all the different gaps in the band’s activity, was there a period when you thought Gang of Four was over or did you just always think it was on the back burner during the lulls?
AG: In the late ’80s, I didn’t think we’d be doing Gang of Four again. But then Jon called me up and wanted to do another record and that’s when we did the album called Mall.
Beyond promoting the album when it comes out, are you working on new music or do you have anything else in the pipeline?
AG: I’ve been looking forward to working on the next record and already have some ideas for that. When you’re in the mode of songwriting and recording, you do quite a lot of it and there comes a certain point where you have to stop and finish off the record so you can put it out. But there’s a lot of leftover things halfway worked out, so there’s stuff like that I’ve been kicking around.
In terms of going forward, do you worry about living up to the band’s legacy?
AG: No, not really. My personal feeling is that this new record is better than most of the records. I think it’s really strong so I don’t have any worries.