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Posted March 9, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

Change is Consistent for Gang of Four

Gang of Four by Leo Cackett
Gang of Four by Leo Cackett

Pitchfork called Gang of Four’s debut, Entertainment!, one of the best albums of the ’70s, proclaiming that it was “caustic and bursting with disgust for unethical capitalism, opportunist politicians and consumer society, among other things, but . . . also crafted with amazing pop sensibility — and . . . remarkably danceable.” Gang of Four has influenced acts such as Bloc Party, R.E.M., The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, The Rapture, Franz Ferdinand and LCD Soundsystem. Founding guitarist and songwriter Andy Gill spoke to us via phone from New York about the first album without singer Jon King. What Happens Next finds the British post-punk band rocking as hard as ever and features collaborations with Alison Mosshart from The Kills, Robbie Furze from The Big PinkGail Ann Dorsey, German superstar Herbert Grönemeyer and Japanese superstar Tomoyasu Hotei.

I always think of the band as having a political edge to it. Were you really well-versed in the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School?
That certainly has something to do with it. It’s very much all these kind of post-Marxist Marxists that had to do with culture and aesthetics and politics. That whole mixture was part of it. And another thread with me was Professor Tim Clark, who became head of Fine Arts at Leeds in my second year. He was enormously influential to me and I picked up on everything he was talking about. He was an original in his own right. Those things filtered in. I rarely mention this, but I minored in Shakespeare. Also in that course was Mike White from the Mekons. A Shakespeare expert taught it. That too had an influence on me and made me think that songs should be like little dramas both on record and on stage. You had different characters. You had a character and another person would provide a commentary on that character and explain what he was thinking. That to me was so powerful. It was an important thing that became unlocked with that idea. You could do it in the most simple and populist way. Everybody knows what you’re talking about. You don’t need a degree in anything. At times, I dallied with the idea of fine art and becoming a painter or conceptual artist but I was massively attracted to creating music and performing. Part of the thing that swayed me was that with the music, you don’t need a degree to understand what’s going on. That was always attractive. Even when Gang of Four is at its most left field, it has one foot in — I don’t want to say pop music — but almost. There’s always something that’s totally understandable and “gettable.” Even with [the song] “Anthrax” when there are two vocals going at the same time and screaming feedback, it’s stuff everyone can relate to. That was always important.

We didn’t want to be avant-garde. I wanted a new language I could use to express things but I didn’t want it to be purposefully difficult.

Entertainment! became hugely influential. At the time, did you have a sense that you had made a monumental album?
Personally, I did. I was much ridiculed for it as well. I clearly remember saying to [singer] Jon King, “One day they’re going to be teaching this stuff in college.” He just said, “You’re fucking mad.” I remember saying to our manager at the day, “This is like the Left Bank in Paris in 1915. This is inventing massively influential new language.” He fell to the floor in hysterics. And quite rightly so.

How’d you develop your guitar style?
I don’t really know. The thing I consciously thought about was how much I liked rhythm guitar and how much I liked rhythm and groove in general. A lot of that guitar playing from the Eric Clapton school that so many people subscribe to didn’t do very much for me. The warm tone, valve amps and the sustained guitar feel . . . I don’t know how much of that excited me or got me going. Whereas a lot of the guitar on the Stax records or the Motown stuff or Keith Richards blasting away with riffs like “Satisfaction,” got under my skin in a big way when I was 10 years old. I liked playing with odd rhythms and making riffs that involve triplets and then adopt eighth notes and it sounds like Morse code. I like that staccato thing. I liked playing one little clipped note rather than a big chord. The guitar joins in with the drum kit. It only exists in the context of drums and vocals. There’s a bit of debate about who did what. It was me trying to make some kind of Swiss watch. The guitar had to work around the drums. Elements of the drums had to be carefully positioned so when the high hat hits I was either with the guitar or there was a gap where there was a guitar. When the floor tom hit everything had to be positioned so that every construction worked and it made a whole. Listening to one thing on its own doesn’t make sense.

Talk about the new album and how you see it fitting in or not fitting in with the rest of the band’s catalog.
That thing about rhythm still pertains. The groove thing pertains as it always has. I think with this record, I very much threw caution to the wind, if there ever had been any caution. I said to myself, “Throw out any rules. Just go the way you wanna go with it. If you wanna program some fat synth sound in there, then do it. Don’t think about what Gang of Four should or should not sound like.” I think people will be queuing up to say this is not a Gang of Four album. The one thing that’s consistent is that every record is different. There are a lot of bands who think they’ve plowed a furrow and they’re going to stick to it. They have their genre and sound and that’s what they do. They don’t want to stray from that path. The point is that it’s doing things that haven’t been done before. It’s doing something afresh. It carries on with each record. You’re not going to look back and do that again. You’re looking forward. Maybe similar questions are being asked each time but perhaps you’re coming up with different answers. You can tell it’s me with any of the albums but they really sound different. The approach to rhythms and types of rhythms remain the same. But with every album, it sounds a little different. With the last album, which came out in 2011, I was using a combo amp and maybe in the back of my mind I was trying to reach back and make some connection to the first two records. This could be a false memory but I’m thinking there was maybe some kind of bridge building back then. This record is very anti-retro. No looking back. I didn’t use an amp at all. I plugged the guitar straight in the computer and put whatever digital plugins I felt like. Some weren’t even meant for guitars. Many guitarists frown on that. Guitarists can be conservative sometimes. It affects the part you want to play. It creates a dialogue and the one influences the other and the other way around. You think you have a part and you change the part to make it work. All that kind of stuff is happening. It’s quite fluid in that way. You have to try to different things to find what works. You think it’s working and then you do another song and realize something. We would start to strip things away. For example, the first track is where the nightingale sings,” I had a lot of guitar stuff going on. The more I started to delete things, the more important it was when the guitar actually did play. We wanted to leave it to basic drums and vocals so when the guitar comes in, it really makes an impression. As the record developed, there was a lot of taking things out.

With regard to the new album, you’ve said, “The focus is more on universal issues, like how individuals behave in certain ways or how our world is constructed, than local issues or current affairs. Gang of Four is anything but parochial.” Talk about that.
There’s always this notion that we’re political and it’s always something you need to define. I’m not sure that Gang of Four ever talked about local issues. We tend to look at ourselves and our friends and other people and try to figure out what makes us act like we act. Is it economic pressures or social things? Are we doing things because we’d feel uncomfortable if we did them in a different way? I suppose you could say those are personal politics. It doesn’t just pertain to people who live in Britain. It pertains to everyone.

The record sounds really cohesive despite all the adjustments that went on.
I agree. There was a moment when I wondered if it would sound like a mixture of stuff. It did for a second. I was worried about that, but as it developed it started to feel like it was coming from the same place and I stopped worrying about that.

And your new vocalist will be on tour with you.
Yes. He’s been working with me now for two-and-a-half years. We’ve been playing live. I thought I was going to have start auditioning people. I didn’t know what I would do. He turned up by accident. I wanted someone to help me out and needed someone who had a better voice than my croaky old one. Someone who would hit the correct notes properly. He was working with me like a session singer for a while. I got to like him [and decided to] give it a go. He’s been great.  We’ve been to China and Japan and Britain. All over. It’s going down very well. Quite a few of the reviews have said that Gang of Four is a band with a reputation and whoever sings had better be damn good. Someone used the phrase that he owned the record. I was very pleased to read that. He put in some great performances and he’s great live too.

Upcoming 2015 Shows

03-10

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03-14

03-15

03-17

03-18

03-23

03-24

03-25

03-28

Cleveland, OH – Grog Shop

Minneapolis, MN – Varsity Theater

Chicago, IL – Park West

Nashville, TN – Mercy Lounge

Atlanta, GA – Variety Playhouse

Houston, TX – Warehouse Live Studio

Dallas, TX – Trees

San Francisco, CA – The Independent

Los Angeles, CA – El Rey Theatre

Solana Beach, CA – Belly Up Tavern

Santa Ana, CA – Burgerama @ The Observatory


Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.