|L to R: John "Gaoler" Sterry, Andy Gill and Thomas McNeice of Gang of Four (photo courtesy of Metropolis Records)|
As discussed at length in my review of their new album, What Happens Next, U.K. Post-Punk legends Gang of Four have been through some pretty heavy changes in recent times. With guitarist and sole original member Andy Gill keeping the flame burning, the current version of the band is about to start a North American tour that hits the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on March 6. I recently phoned the ever-busy Gill to chat about (among other things) the new album, the departure of longtime singer Jon King, working with Germany's biggest music superstar and the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest records you've never heard.
The last time we all saw you guys, you were touring with the Content album. Jon was involved, and then he wasn't involved. What happened?
If you look back over the decades with Gang of Four, I think it's always been a bit of a stop-start affair, hasn't it? I've always had this kind of parallel job of producing other bands, so when Gang of Four wasn't doing anything, I'd be off producing other people. I think that Jon could never make his mind up about being involved or not. We did a bunch of dates – two or three weeks in North America – when Content came out, and then we did a couple of weeks in Australia. After that, Jon signaled that he wasn't going to be doing any more, which was disappointing to the extent that we had intended to do an awful lot of live work after Content. That was a bit of a change in plan, but I was very, very committed to doing more songwriting and recording with Gang of Four. I just went straight ahead and threw myself into doing the new record. I think it was a case of reimagining the whole thing at that point.
Of course, you have the new John – John Sterry – who does a fantastic job on the new record. How did he enter the picture?
The whole thing was so weird, really. When I kind of launched into doing the new record, it was like sort of stepping out into space – not quite knowing where you're going and how you're going to do it. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to do a bunch of collaborations. Incidentally, I had thought about that for a very long time, but it wasn't an idea that flew with Jon King. I knew I wanted to do some collaborations. The other thing I thought was, 'There's no rules here. Do what the hell you want and don't look back.' That was kind of my motto at the beginning of the record.
I had been writing a few songs, and I had my weird vocals doing the tune and the lyrics. I was asking around if anybody knew a good singer who could come in and do some really good, better guide vocals for me so that I could hear what the songs really sounded like. John Sterry, or 'Gaoler' as I call him, popped in the studio one day and sang. I thought, 'That sounds great!' For months, he was coming down three times a week...He was like a session singer for me, and I was kind of paying him like a session singer. Then after a few months and we had done a few songs together, I thought, 'This guy's really good. He's a nice guy, and I get on with him and I love his voice.' So I just said to him, 'Should we do a gig together?' We did a semi-secret, little gig in London at the Lexington, a little club above a pub. It all felt very natural and felt right, so he was in. In my mind, I thought, 'I suppose I'm going to have to do hundreds of auditions in London and maybe in New York or whatever,' but it just felt right, so I got on with it. It's been quite gratifying to hear people give 'Gaoler” props for how he's done so well on this record.
Jonny [Finnegan] is now your current full-time drummer, correct?
That was an addition since the last album as well. How did that change come to be?
Mark Heaney, who was the old drummer...can be a little volatile, and he had a series of fallings out with the management - not with me. It seemed to be a personality thing as far as I could tell. He drummed on two or three tracks on the record, and then Jonny came in. [Bassist] Thomas [McNeice] is very much my right-hand man, and we checked out a bunch of drummers, and Jonny kind of won the day by a considerable margin.
In terms of some of the guests you have on the album, Alison Mosshart stands out to me because I know she's done a lot of really great work in recent times with the James Williamson album and her own projects. From your perspective, what did she bring to the proceedings that really elevated things to where they wouldn't have otherwise been? What made her contributions special?
I think it's great having women involved, and I've always felt that. When [former bassist] Sara Lee joined he band in the early '80s, it was very much like, 'Let's get a woman in; let's not have this all-male thing.' I think [Alison] brings her incredible vocal style, that powerfulness. She is quite extraordinary, I think. She's a workaholic; she really brings an incredible dynamism and energy. I think the whole record massively benefits from having these different personalities involved. I think in the early days of the record, when I started to see all the different people involved, I did slightly worry that it was going to sound disjointed or disparate. But as I continued to work on the record, I stopped worrying about that because it felt like everything was coming from the same place.
When you were going through the process of making this album, did you know all along that this would end up being Gang of Four versus another project under a different name? I would imagine with all the changes, there might have been a temptation to not use Gang of Four as a moniker.
To me, it very much felt like, 'Okay, so we got Gang of Four. We're doing Content, Jon decides to go his own way, so it's Gang of Four less Jon King.' Now, you might be of the mind to believe that means that Jon King is so integral to Gang of Four that it's no longer Gang of Four without Jon. But in my experience, nobody's really said that. I think most people feel that I've always been the producer, musical director, writer of the music and half the lyrics, so it's Gang of Four. I think the question would be, '[When] you listen to this album, do you hear the DNA of Gang of Four, or not?”
The song on the new album that struck me the most was “The Dying Rays.” That really is an achievement - a brilliant piece of music. Lyrically, where were you coming from and what inspired you to create those words? Was it a personal experience or was it something you had seen elsewhere?
I think it's both. It's very much written from the heart...It's not a young man's song, let's put it that way. I think with a little bit of experience and a certain amount of looking in the rearview mirror, you have some ideas about time, wasted time and things like that. I hesitate to over-explain because I think Gang of Four, over the decades, has sometimes been guilty of trying to be our own reviewers and trying to really spell out what we think it's supposed to say. I think sometimes, you can take away some of the magic in things by over-talking them. But the crucial thing about that song was Herbert Grönemeyer talking to me and saying, 'How's it going, Andy?' I explained that Alison had sung on a couple of tracks, and I was excited about it. He said, 'Do you want me to sing on something?' I thought, 'Yeah!' It was an interesting idea, and a lot of people in Germany have recently expressed quite a lot of surprise at that collaboration. I thought, 'I've got a few songs kicking around here; I've got some demos. Maybe Herbert can do this one or maybe that one.' Then I thought, 'Hold on a second. Let's not waste this opportunity.' I went and kind of really listened to Herbert's work and the things he's done. The thing that he does that most affects me and most moves me are the mid-tempo, angst-filled ballads. He has a very emotional and moving voice. He did a great track with Antony of Antony and the Johnsons guesting on it. It's quite a sad song, and Herbert really inhabits the track with his voice and his emotions; he seems to be in the track. So I thought, 'I'm not just going to give him any old thing; I'm going to have to really try to make a track for Herbert to sing.' It was hard work; I went down a lot of blind alleys and went in circles. I was really kind of getting getting frustrated; I was getting in different musicians I knew to come in to try to help me co-write this thing.
I didn't know where I was going, but eventually something clicked. I was just playing around with a little drum loop, and then the guitar seemed to work and then it started to fall into place. It took a long time. And then the words...I was in this Elizabethan house, [a] hotel in England. The sun was going down, and I was sitting in the chair and doing nothing, staring off in the middle distance. I just saw this speck of dust coming down in front of my eyes. It mesmerized me; I was hypnotized like a cat. [Those were] the first words...the 'speck of dust' thing. Everything came from that.
It's been 20 years since one of my all-time favorite records, Shrinkwrapped, came out -
It's not 20 years, is it surely? My God! I thought that was like last week!
Looking at the album now, what are your thoughts on the end product and its place in the history of Gang of Four?
It's one of my favorites. I'm very pleased with Shrinkwrapped, and I'm proud of it. I think at the time, nobody paid much attention. I think that the label...We didn't do any interviews; we didn't do anything. It kind of came out unnoticed. I've noticed that more and more people mention Shrinkwrapped these days, but at the time nobody seemed to notice it was there. But I am proud of it.
I saw the reunion of the original Gang of Four at Coachella [in 2005]. We're almost 10 years away from that event now. Clearly, there were a lot of expectations when the original band got back together, but the band didn't last and go the distance. Ultimately, why didn't the original band continue the second time around?
From the other three's position, I think they were looking at basically a quick-buck opportunity. I think for them, it was never intended to be more than doing a couple of tours and getting some money. I don't want to sound too cynical, but I think that's basically what it was about. I don't think [original bassist] Dave Allen ever really belonged in the band. He seemed to be causing a lot of problems; he kept trying to stir things up between [original drummer] Hugo [Burnham] and myself, which is a shame, really. Hugo and I are very, very different people, but we've always got on with each other, and we do to this day. But during that brief period, Hugo seemed to have been turned very much against me by Dave. You just don't need that kind of backstabbing going on in your life...You just don't need it. I think that was part of it.
Actually, now that you mention [the reunion], I think for Jon King, he thought this was a temporary thing. So maybe in the light of that, it makes more sense of why he bowed out after Content. Despite it being slightly inconvenient timing, it does kind of have some logic to it.
You're 38 years into this with Gang of Four, on and off, and you have a body of work that represents that period of time. When Gang of Four does cease, what would you like to see the band remembered for? What do you think will be Gang of Four's greatest legacy?
I think there will be songs that stick out to people. Obviously, they'll probably be the better-known ones. It would be nice if some of the songs on Shrinkwrapped were remembered, but it never quite captured the public's imagination at that point in time. I think the guitar stuff will be remembered. It seems that many musicians have been influenced by Gang of Four, and I think that's how the band kind of lives on in a way.
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