Though down to only one original member, the legendary UK post-punk band remains as complex and powerful as ever. “We are a vibrant, dynamic, evolving project,” declares guitarist Andy Gill.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
The wildly influential post-punk band Gang of Four have been written off before. They first called it quits in the ‘80s and again in the late ‘90s. But when vocalist and co-founder Jon King decided to leave the band recently, it seemed like the final chapter. The group was beginning work on the follow up to 2011’s Content at the time.
But Andy Gill, guitarist/vocalist and King’s partner since day one, simply saw the departure as an opportunity to reinvent the band’s sound. Soldiering on, he called in a handful of musicians to help take turns on the mic, including Alison Mosshart from The Kills, Robbie Furze from The Big Pink, Gail Ann Dorsey and Herbert Gronemeyer. Japanese guitarist Hotei put his mark on a song as well.
The result can be heard on the new What Happens Next (Metropolis), a complex and powerful entry to Gang of Four’s already storied musical canon. Gill, preparing for the band’s U.S. tour, spoke recently about the record, opening Gang of Four up to others and the group’s future.
BLURT: This is your first record without Jon on vocals. Did you consider singing all of these songs yourself or auditioning full-time singers as a replacement?
GILL: Well I always sing on a number of songs on any Gang of Four album and one of the favorite Gang of Four formats is where there is a back-and-forth between different voices; so there are different voices, sometimes a narrator who have a dialogue or one comments on what the other is saying. But at no point did think I would do all the singing.
I had wanted to do a record for some time that involved collaborations but that didn’t fly with Jon King, so with this record it seem natural to do the collaboration thing. And yes, it did cross my mind that I might have to do a bunch of auditions for the main singing role.
As I worked on the early songs on this record, I wanted someone who would come and sing them, initially I thought as demos, and I asked my manager for ideas. Gaoler [John Sterry] just popped down to the studio one day, I had never met him, to give me a hand singing my vocals in a better way – for quite a long time he was a session singer for me. As I got to know him better, I liked him more and more, and I really liked his voice and it seemed to be a natural thought to maybe try doing a gig with him. We did a little semi-secret gig in London at the Lexington and it went very well; we’ve now been all over the world with him.
It was a pretty novel idea to use an array of different voices – and it worked out very well. How difficult was it to find the right people and lineup everyone’s schedules?
I’m glad you feel it worked out well. The process of working with the other individuals seem to happen very simply; the process was quite intuitive for me. It was not thought out. I had done a little bit of work with the Kills in the studio and Alison (Mosshart) just sprang to mind when I was thinking about someone to sing “Broken Talk.” She was very happy to come down to the studio and sing a couple of the songs.
I loved that song “Dominoes” that the Big Pink did a few years back. I got in touch with Robbie Furze and asked him if he wanted to sing on this track I was working on and he came down to the studio a few times and sang this wonderfully hard edged, “geometric” vocal
Gail Ann Dorsey is a very old friend and she of course has been in different Gang of Four lineups over the years as a bass player. She is a fantastic musician and a great, great singer. The song she sings on, “First World Citizen,” was simply crying out for her voice.
Herbert’s [Gronemeyer] a friend – I’ve known him at least 20 years – Anton Corbijn introduced us back then. I was talking to Herbert about the new record, I guess 18 months ago, and he wondered if I would like him to sing something on it. The particular thing that he does that I really love are the rather ‘angst’ melancholy ballads. I knew I had to write a song which could incorporate that particular aspect of his character so, more than any other track, it really had to be tailor-made and I can tell you it was difficult. I had to work at that and I went down a lot of blind alleys until I came up with the music of the dying rays. It was quite an extraordinary experience hearing him sing it as I had heard it in my head – only, better than I had heard it in my head.
Tomoyasu Hotei is Japan’s biggest rock guitarist; he spends quite a bit of time going round Japanese stadiums. Anyway, he’s always been a big fan of my guitar playing and we got to know each other. Eventually, we decided to write something together. The opening riff of “Dead Souls” is pure Hotei.
Was it odd to be working on a Gang of Four album without Jon?
Jon can be an absolute genius when it comes to lyrics, but I didn’t feel he had been bringing a whole lot to the records for some time. After Content was released, we had only done a few gigs at the point when Jon signaled it was over for him; he wanted to focus on his advertising career. As I began working on this new record, I felt reinvigorated and seized the opportunity to reimagine Gang of Four from the ground up. To an outsider, the writing process would have looked little different: I’ve always written and produced all the music, with Jon coming in with some of the lyrics, and I always wrote Gang of Four lyrics too, about half of them. But right from the first song I began to interrogate everything I was doing more rigorously and take creative inspiration more widely. What Happens Next is very obviously a Gang of Four record but I found myself approaching it with the energy and daring of a first album
I read somewhere where you also let go of the reins a bit on this one and rather than handling everything yourself – from writing to mixing – you worked with others. What brought about that decision?
I think it makes so much sense to have some kind of producer or co-producer helping with the process, that’s why everybody does it! When I am songwriting in the studio it often just seamlessly morphs into recording the final master, which I think is the main reason that in recent years I’ve not worked with a co-producer; at what point do you bring someone in? This time I did get someone in to have, in a way that kind of role; Joshua Rumble, but it wasn’t till quite late on in the record. I did really want to have somebody else mix it and I think Simon Gogerley did a fantastic job and I’m really pleased I went with that decision to use him
Gang of Four has been cited by many, many musicians over the years as a major influence. What is your reaction when a band calls out your guitar style or songwriting as inspiration?
I’m grateful for the good things that other artists that I respect enormously say about me and the band, it’s kind of them. Gang of Four is a vibrant, dynamic, evolving project, and the band is continuously picking up new and younger audiences. I think it’s partly to do with the bands that have been influenced by Gang of Four in the first place – it was bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s like Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M. and Rage Against the Machine and Kurt Cobain. But then there was a new and younger set of bands like Bloc Party, Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand that were always name checking Gang of Four – and that draws a younger audience towards the band which I’m glad about. Over the last year I’ve been really interested in what St Vincent is getting up to and so I was completely surprised, and delighted, when she recently named me as her favorite guitarist.
Have you ever been surprised by some of the bands who cite you and Gang of Four as an influence?
No not really. I tend to like, to a greater or lesser extent, the bands that have been influenced to whatever extent by Gang of Four or in particular by me as a guitarist and songwriter. There are plenty of bands that I really don’t like at all and none of those have even the tiniest bit of tasty Gang of Four influence in there
Do you see Gang of Four continuing to make music after this record?
Absolutely. There are one or two collaborations which are in the works now and the next record already has five or six fairly advanced songs done.
Are you working on any other projects?
What has happened with this record and the previous record, Content, is that I get to a point where it becomes obvious that unless I work 100% full on at the record it just won’t get finished. But once that process is over I become a little more open to working with other artists who interest me.
Gill photo by Tom Sheehan; band photo by Leo Cackett. Below: vintage GoF from 1983.