"It's never been about espousing a particular political viewpoint, a lot of it is more personal..." hmv.com talks to Gang of Four's Andy Gill
When Gang of Four first burst onto the scene in 1979 with their debut album Entertainment!, they sounded like no other band on the planet. A blend of spiky, angular guitars, funky basslines and barberous, snarling lyrics, the band earned themselves a reputation as one of the most singular acts around and their influence over the years has been cited by everyone from Red Hot Chilli Peppers to The Futureheads.
The line-up has changed a lot since then and since singer Jon King departed in 2011 the only remaining member is the band's guitarist and co-founder Andy Gill. Having recruited a new line-up, they release their latest LP What Happens Next in the UK March 2nd, so we caught up with Andy to chat about the new record...
When did you start work on the What Happens Next?
“Well, it's been a while, it goes back to just after the last album, Content, which came out in 2011, we did a bit of touring with that and Jon (King, former vocalist) exited fairly early on, but the first work on this started in December that year.”
The line-up is quite different these days, why did Jon King decide to leave?
“I think he just wanted to concentrate on his own thing. For quite a long time he's been involved in an advertising company and he just wanted to focus on that. I think it's fair to say that, over the years, Jon has sort of dipped in and out of Gang of Four when he felt like doing it!”
How did you meet John Sterry? Is he a full-time member now, or is it just that he's done the most tracks on the record?
“When I started writing songs for it around early 2012 I had no idea quite who was going to do what. I had a vague idea about involving other people and doing some collaborative things, but at the beginning I was just writing lyrics and trying to nail down the melody, so the early versions would have my voice on them, with a fair bit of autotune! I was talking to my manager and said that I needed someone to come down and do the vocals 'properly' if you like, so down came John Sterry - otherwise known as 'Gaoler', as we call him – and for months he was just working as a session singer basically. He'd come in, I'd say 'sing this', he'd sing it, I'd pay him, and that was it. Then I'd rework or change something so he'd come back in and do it again, and over time I got know him and liked his voice, liked his attitude, then one day I asked him if he fancied doing this little semi-secret gig down at the Lexington. I just thought it worked really well, so it sort of happened quite organically.”
You've got some other collaborators on there too, including a couple with Alison Mosshart – how did that come about?
“Well, I was sort of nodding acquaintances with The Kills anyway and then there was a TV programme, Channel 4 I think, about what happens between bands or artists and a producer in the studio, so I went in the studio with Cage The Elephant, Hard-Fi and The Kills – this was on separate days by the way – and they filmed us recording some of the songs. That was the first time I'd spent a day with them in the studio, so not long after that I needed a female voice to sing on a couple of things and Alison was like “I'll be right down!” But yeah, I'm a big admirer so that was really good.”
Can you talk us through some of the other collaborations? Herbert Gronemeyer is an interesting one...
“Yeah, I think most people probably know him as an actor over here, you know, everybody goes 'oh, the guy from Das Boot, amazing!' But in Germany he's much better known as a musician, I mean he's Germany's biggest rock star, basically, let's put it like that.
“I've known him for a very long time, basically Anton Corbijn, who is a very old friend of mine, introduced me to Herbert about 20 years ago and we've been friends ever since. He used to live in England back then, so I'd known him for a long time and we got talking about what I was doing with the new record, with collaborators and so on, and he said 'would you like me to sing on it?'
“If you're not familiar with Herbert's music let me explain a little bit. He does a variety of things, but the thing which I think is his most powerful is these kind of 'angst-filled pain ballads' – I'm trying to use the German phrase in English, it's one of those compound nouns that's made up of lots of words, but that's what it roughly translates as! Anyway, he did a record in English a few years ago and there's this one particular track with Anthony from Anthony and the Johnsons guesting on there. The way their voices work together is absolutely brilliant, it's worth checking out. I think it's called 'Hurt Me'.”
That fits nicely with the whole 'pain ballad' thing...
So are you writing alone these days, or is it quite a collaborative process with all the different people you're working with?
“Well, I've been writing totally alone, but having said that there's a song on there called 'Baby Ghost' which Gaoler wrote the chorus melody for, as well as some of the lyrics. But I've been looking at collaborating more with other writers and hopefully that theme will continue and I there's a few people that I've already spoken to about working with, maybe for the next record or whatever it is.”
Your lyrics have often focussed on social and political themes, are there any lyrical themes running through the new album?
“Yeah, there are. I mean, it can be confusing to describe Gang of Four as political or whatever because it's never been about espousing a particular political viewpoint and, you know, a lot of it is more personal. If you go back to the first album, Entertainment, to a song like 'Natural's Not In It', what that song is about – and it's done in this sort of stream of consciousness, slideshow of imagery kind of way – but what it's essentially saying is that when we say something's 'natural', we're talking bollocks, because all of these things are man-made ideas. So take the idea that was popular in the 1970s – and in some areas of life it still is popular, sadly – that women should stay at home and breed children, because it's 'natural'. But actually, these ideas come from religion, or they're part of a political agenda. Like in Russia now, Putin says that anything that is not 'normal family life' is basically considered as criminal. So these political or religious ideas are all constructs, they're not things that come from nature.
“So in a sense that is a political statement isn't it? But it's not one that's in any way connected with party politics, or with Left and Right. It's a kind of meta-politics if you like, to be pretentious! But yeah, that approach continues on What Happens Next I think.”
It feels a bit more experimental than Content, a couple of tracks sound quite industrial, was there a conscious effort to change your sound or your approach with this record?
“I don't think it was conscious. As with every record, I do follow my inclination in a way. Some of the things on the record have this fat, heavy synth bass, it's not always a four-string bass guitar, or if there is it's working against a synth bass or something. There's a smattering of electronic drums on there too.
“I don't think there's anything wrong with having self-imposed rules like 'we will not use this instrument on this record' or something, but on this record I've followed my instinct on where the sound should go. I mean, I've always been the musical director or the producer, but on this record I decided not to be involved in the mixing, I wanted other people to come in with a different perspective and I'm really glad I did that. I think next time I'll look at working with a co-producer or something, definitely.”
You've done a lot of production work over the years, are you still producing or is that taking a back seat at the moment?
“It's taking a back seat for now, when it comes to working on something I'm not the quickest on the planet and there comes a point where I have to go 'well, if don't just concentrate on this I'm never going to get it finished', so to keep the momentum going the production stuff is taking a back seat for a while.”
What are your touring plans for the new album? You're doings some dates in America aren't you?
"Yeah, basically we're playing at Oslo in east London to coincide with the album launch, then from there we're pretty much straight off to North America for a month, but we're putting in some European club shows in April and we're doing a Croatian festival in April too. But yeah, we'll be booking some shows in Europe, including the UK, and then we're looking at South America and Australia.”
What Happens Next is available to pre-order in hmv stores now, or via our download store using the link at the top right-hand side of this page