THE GANG'S ALL HERE Gang of Four

Frontman Jon King talks Xbox commercials, the evils of iTunes, Tea Party and politics, and his band’s first
album of new material in 16 years…

 

BY RON
HART

 

For
nearly 35 years, Gang of Four from Leeds, England, have pressed on – albeit in
a fit of stops and starts (much like their music) – as one of the true
purveyors of the sound commonly known as post-punk. Alongside the likes of
Wire, Liliput and The Fall, they helped create a unique strain of eardrum buzz
that piggybacked off the momentum of the success of fellow Brits The Clash and
The Sex Pistols.

 

However,
in the case of the Four, the group pole-vaulted the genre to such dizzying
heights of Trotskyist confrontation that they simultaneously challenged their
audience to dig a little deeper within the premises of their politics and
social standings in the world. And in a modern age where governments have been
diluted to just another commodity to be traded on the global financial market,
blind consumerism and detached social networking are usurping the life’s blood
from the soul of the human race and people are forming united fronts to rise up
against the tyranny of their longtime oppressors across the Middle East, the
quartet’s incendiary strain of funk-informed guitar polemics is as timely as
ever.

 

It’s a
notion that had made Gang of Four’s latest album, their first collection of new
material in 16 years, one of the most anticipated releases of the still-young
year of 2011. Content (Yep Roc), a
record that was funded
through online donations via Pledge Music
, is the follow-up to Return The Gift,  their 2004 re-recording by the original lineup
of their greatest hits as a calculated strategy to divert money away from the
group’s original label EMI. It finds the foursome of vocalist Jon King,
guitarist Andy Gill and new members Thomas McNeice and drummer Mark Heaney
(replacing classic members Hugo Burnham and Dave Allen, respectively) taking
aim at the personal and economic struggles of maintaining a functional way of
life in the Internet era and stands tall as their strongest set of songs since
1981’s Solid Gold (still in dire,
dire need of a reissue).

 

BLURT
recently caught up via electronic mail with Mr. King to talk about the new
album, politics, the MP3 revolution and the group’s questionable decision to go
against their anti-advertising ethos to have one of their songs appear in an Xbox
commercial, among other topics.

 

***

 

BLURT: In hindsight, how do you feel
the PledgeMusic campaign went for the funding of Content?

JON KING: It’s been an interesting exercise and raised a useful amount of money
to help fund the album. We’ve always said that musicians should get reasonably
paid for what we do.  But the new model – where music is shared and
downloaded for nothing, where traditional record
companies are doomed but where technology based intermediaries – like Apple, who don’t invest a cent in talent [yet] are
making almost all the money – means that it’s no longer  possible to earn
any money from recorded music. So everyone’s been trying to find an alternative
way to do things.  This almost always ends up embracing advertising or
sponsorship, which is weird for musicians to want to do so wholeheartedly. It’s
a collective act of desperation.  

        If you want to know how a society is
going, follow the money.  And the money
doesn’t go to creative talent or their support networks but to advertising. This
is what filesharing has led us to. I’m with Jaron Lanier
on this, whose recent book, You Are Not A
Gadget
, makes the case very persuasively.
 
Did skirting the whole record industry machine in the creation of Content inspire a desire to record more?
We didn’t want to waste our energies looking for a patron or a record company.
We wanted to concentrate on the music.  The record
industry’s a busted flush and boring to engage with; we wanted to do
things on our own.  Musicians have to think differently about their craft
if they want to make a living or publish our recorded music now that music has
become effectively worthless due to illegal file sharing. The fans who do this
are killing the bands and their support networks.

 

Why did you choose to go with Yep
Roc to release the new album?

It’s a great label who loves what we do and knows how to get non-commercial
music like ours out there in a professional and commercially sound way. I trust
them. This is very important to us . Yep Roc’s passion is what we wanted, not their money.

 

In the actual recording of Content, what were some of the different
approaches you took in contrast to your last set of all-new material [1995’s Shrinkwrapped]?

We wanted to make music where every segment plays an equally  important
part, but has a relentlessness that took you somewhere else, like a train
falling off a cliff. It was intentional. I’m so bored by endlessly layered,
over-produced commercial music. Stops and starts feature as much on Content as back in the day. It’s much sparser
and raw than our last set of new records, like Shrinkwrapped, which had grown as
a project from soundtrack music we’d written for an indie film directed by Peter Hall called Delinquent;
the songs had an atmospheric feel that were quite worked up to as a result.

Was there anything you were listening to
casually as a fan that had a creative effect on the outcome of Content?

Sometimes you hear a tune that mixes up rock guitar, pop and hip-hop in an
interesting way. I like PLAN B for example. But a big reason to make Content, as for Entertainment!, was that we couldn’t hear things out there that hit
the spot. This is when you have to do it yourself.
 
Where do you stand in the argument of
digital music vs. physical product (CDs, vinyl)? How do you keep your own
collection these days?

I hate the sound of MP3’s. It’s shit. But, like everyone else, I can’t live
without portable music so I put up with it. It’s a shame there’s nowhere to buy
a 20-20 recording online that’s as good as on a CD. But my iPod would explode
with the noughts and ones.  I have a superb old Linn record deck that
makes every piece of vinyl feel like a luxurious and erotic sonic massage
that’s superior to CDs. We live through times when every audio technology
advance makes the music sound technically and emotionally worse.
       Physical things allow us to play
with words and imagery (and smells).  It’s obvious we really value
artwork, which can make an album richer; we spend a lot of time on this, as you
can see in the special edition metal box and on the early
records. It adds to the music.  
 
How does the integration of Thomas
McNeice and Mark Heaney as permanent members of Gang of Four affect the dynamic of your sound, in your
opinion? What do you feel this new rhythm section
you have brings to the table that sets them apart from original members Dave
Allen and Hugo Burnham?

There’ve been many versions of the band. The first founder members were Hugo,
Andy and me, and our first bass player was a guy called Dave Woolfson. He’s the
bloke referenced by an audience member (“Who’s the hippy on the bass?”) on
the cassette tape of our first ever show in Leeds.  Hugo, a good friend, was a magnificent
drummer and had his own style.  Dave Allen was great, too. But after he
quit very early on, we hired Busta Jones (ex-Remain in Light Talking Heads), my personal early days favourite;
then we hired the wonderful Sara Lee (ex-Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen,  later in The B-52’s and Indigo Girls). Sara
was great, too. And after her, Gail Anne Dorsey, who left us to play with the
Stones and Bowie.
Mark Heaney is currently one of the world’s top five drummers. He’s a genius:
solid, talented and inventive. It’s wonderful to play with him. Thomas combines
elements of Dave Allen and Busta Jones’ style and brings an intensity and
attack to it. The guys are world class.
 
What were your initial thoughts when the
Xbox people approached you to use “Natural’s
Not In It” for a TV commercial?

We thought it was fantastic.  Ten out of ten! If we’d ever been asked to
define a dream scenario for this song, the first lines of which are “The
problem of leisure/ What to do for pleasure”, this would be it. Superb. Just
like, back in the day, when we decided to sign to EMI, the ugly, corporate
beast of a record company. Some people were outraged, saying we should be with
an indie, but our music really made sense with a major at that time.
 
Are there any plans to reissue the rest
of your catalog following the great re-release of Entertainment! from Rhino in 2005? What album of yours would you
most like to see revisited and why?

There aren’t any plans to do this. I do love Solid Gold and Songs of the
Free
, however. 
 

The title of your new album is Content. What meaning of the word were
you thinking of when you chose it?

Well, the album is full of content. So the title’s good as a descriptor. And
creative people are all “content providers”. Journalists, writers, musicians,
artists, filmmakers etc. We collectively grovel to the technology
intermediaries who suck us dry, like the evil Apple
Corporation, who don’t invest a cent in music but charge a massive percentage
for every track sold on iTunes, worse than the worst record company. Worse,
even, than EMI, I might add. Another meaning is to be content, which is hard.
 
What do you think of the idea that some
people believe Barack Obama to be a Communist?

They’re crazy. He’s not even left wing. In Europe
he’d be seen as a centre-right politician. The people who say this know nothing
of ideas or of history, especially U.S. history. It was President
Eisenhower, the war hero who helped win World War II who warned us all to be
wary of the military-industrial complex, and the conspiracies in the right.
 
What are your thoughts on David Cameron as Prime Minister of England?
He’s a millionaire aristocrat who has 22 millionaires in a 30 man cabinet. He
represents the interest of the rich against working families and the poor.
 
What do you think about WikiLeaks and
its place in the world?

Our rulers depend on silence for compliance and that their secrets are never
revealed.  
 
Since Gang of Four has been a band, you have seen six American presidents sit
in office, from Jimmy Carter to Obama. Who do you
feel was the best president of those six and why?

I liked Bill [Clinton].
America had a balanced
budget, the rest of the world thought highly of the USA, a country I profoundly love.
 
What are your thoughts on the American Tea Party?
They should read some more books and get out more!

 

 

Go here to read our review of Gang
of Four’s Feb. 9 concert in Washington D.C.

 

 

[Photo
Credit: Mike Gullic]

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