As regular readers of this website know, the past 18 months or so have seen a slew of releases honoring the many innovations and talents of late Gang of Four guitarist/producer Andy Gill, who passed away in February 2020 at the age of 64. Now, after years of preparation (including considerable work done by Gill himself prior to his death), fans, admirers and fellow musicians are finally able to experience The Problem of Leisure: A Celebration of Andy Gill and Gang of Four.
Released last month, The Problem of Leisure collects 20 artists from around the globe (some legendary, some new to most listeners) who offer their unique spins on hand-picked Gang of Four compositions. Considering Gill’s widespread influence on the world of music, it’s no surprise that the end results are eclectic and intriguing. From the faithful (Helmet’s “In A Ditch;” Hotei’s “To Hell With Poverty”) and ferocious (IDLES’ “Damaged Goods,” Tom Morello & Serj Tankian’s “Natural’s Not In It”) to the wildly inventive (Warpaint’s “Paralyzed;” Flea and John Frusciante’s “Not Great Men,” complete with vocals by the Silverlake Conservatory Youth Chorale) and idiosyncratic (Youth of Killing Joke’s dancey Dub reinvention of “Forever Starts Now,” Sekar Melati’s live gamelan version of “Not Great Men”), the album serves a suitable celebration of a man who spent his life stretching sound beyond convention.
The Problem of Leisure was initially conceived as a multi-act tribute release commemorating the 40th anniversary of Gang of Four’s legendary 1979 debut album, Entertainment! However, Gill’s widow, Catherine Mayer, explains that those plans – and the project’s initial timetable – soon changed.
“It always would have been a bit of a tight schedule. This sort of album, where you have multiple artists involved, is going to take a long time. Some of them will turn around and deliver a track right away, and others will say that they’re going to and then they’ll disappear. Also, Andy was always deeply involved in every aspect of what the band was doing and busy in all sorts of other respects. At various times, he sort of co-managed the band, but he was also always writing new stuff. He also had a funny relationship with time; he always hoped things would be quicker than they were. I don’t know that he would have ever necessarily hit the deadline for it being launched on the 40th anniversary of Entertainment! But even before he was tested in that way, it changed course because he started approaching musicians he really admired and who he thought might do something interesting. Several of them came back and were really enthusiastic, but they wanted to do tracks that weren’t on Entertainment! So, it had already moved away from being just Entertainment! Once that happened, he then started being more interested in what the creative process was. He was really very, very excited by that. He was getting feedback from all these musicians he really cared about who were talking to him about the songs themselves and what could be done with them.”
With the artists afforded a free hand in selecting their tracks, it soon became clear that the album would end up featuring more than one cover of a particular number – something that wasn’t an issue for Gill.
“He was actually curious to see what different people would do with the same track. It didn’t matter to him which album people chose things from; he just wanted to see what they’d come up with. He got very far down that track at the point where he became ill.”
Gill continued to work on the album (as well as Gang of Four material that would later comprise the posthumous EPs This Heaven Gives Me Migraine and Anti Hero) from his hospital bed.
“I was not involved in the project in any formal way at all, but when Andy was in hospital, I was actually helping him with his computers and communications. But really, this was totally his project. He was excited about it literally until the moment he couldn’t be excited about anything. So, that’s why when he died, there was no question in my mind that it needed to be finished. In the hospital, I had made – at his request – a list of people he still felt he wanted to get involved with the project. There was also a rudimentary track list, which I followed to a very large extent.”
Very much to its credit, The Problem Of Leisure doesn’t pretend that Gang of Four’s relevance ceased once the original lineup splintered following 1981’s Solid Gold. Instead, the collection provides a fairly far-reaching representation of the band’s work, even touching on later tracks ( “Broken Talk” [reimagined in Mandarin by Hardcore Raver in Tears as “Last Mile”], “Where The Nightingale Sings” and “Forever Starts Now”) released during the time Gill stood as Gang of Four’s sole remaining original member. This part of the album’s focus was due in part to Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja (appearing on the album under his remix name, 3D, alongside British duo Nova Twins), who suggested having a go at the 2015 track “Where The Nightingale Sings.”
“Robert was one of the first people to come back and say, ‘I actually want to do something much later.’ ‘Nightingale’ was already in before Andy died. In fact, it was being mixed while he was in hospital.”
The final track received for the album – former Gang of Four/David Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey’s fantastic rendition of 1982’s “We Live As We Dream, Alone” – holds a special place in Mayer’s heart.
“That just felt like a commentary on what we were all going through. It also meant so much, because Gail and Andy really loved each other. She had been in the band, but they had also been friends for so many years. I’m so happy she was able to deliver that. I’m sad that he didn’t hear it.”
Fortunately, Gill was alive long enough to be blown away by several of the recordings.
“He took so much pleasure in the bits of this album he heard. He really did love the IDLES track; he loved the Gary Numan cover [“Love Like Anthrax,” with Ade Fenton], and he loved The Dandy Warhols [“What We All Want”] and talked about Everything Everything [“Natural’s Not In it,” produced by Gill]. The Flea and John Frusciante track came in when Andy was still not only able to hear it but able to both laugh himself silly and say, ‘This is absolutely brilliant!’ There was so much on that album that excited him.”
Artwork for The Problem of Leisure (which is available in a plethora of formats and editions) comes courtesy of Damien Hirst.
“It was a bit of a mutual appreciation society,” Mayer says of her late husband’s relationship with the British artist. “They both really liked what the other one did and saw echoes of what they were trying to do in each other’s work as well. Andy and I had gone to the huge exhibition that Damien did in Venice, ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.’ We had been to a lot of his stuff, but that had been while this project was gestating. Andy had seen the artwork by Damien and loved the kind of playfulness in it – the way in which it sort of plays with your expectations and the sort of deceptive, often childlike simplicity of the imagery. If you think about the artwork, which Andy did himself, for [Gang of Four’s 2019 album] Happy Now, there’s an awful lot of the same impulse in there – something that is a bit joyous and silly but also, in that case, a bit dark. You can take those images and make something that’s multilayered out of it.
“Damien sent all these different possibilities,” she adds. “There was a whole different set of imagery, but Andy instantly went for the dog. He just loved it.”
The cover’s googly-eyed charm reflects a side to Gill that few detected amidst a body of work full of political observations and melancholic introspection. On stage, the man was all business – very often well dressed and regularly delivering the penetrating, steely-eyed glare of a disapproving headmaster. However, as this writer experienced firsthand in 2016, backstage was a decidedly different affair. Once the seriousness of the Gang of Four experience was stripped away for the evening, Gill was jovial and extremely good company – something Mayer knows better than anyone.
“His stage persona was so austere, [but] he was such a bloody nice person. He was lovely, and he was very, very funny. I don’t think that those sides come across in the public persona. That was, for me, the thing I wanted to get across. I’ve posted some pictures [on social media] that he’d probably kill me for posting! (laughs) Instead of it being all cheekbones and scowls, it’s him doing very silly stuff. I just wanted people to be able to see that.”
Above all, The Problem of Leisure showcases the legacy of a deeply creative force who never stopped working. While most musicians are a notoriously lazy lot, Gill was very much a moving target – always on his way to conceptualizing and achieving the next thing. Considering she spent years alongside a man of such drive, what does Mayer credit as the engine for a work ethic that enabled her partner to maintain his focus even as his sun began to fade?
“I don’t think he had a choice. It’s funny; I’m a writer, and sometimes I actually feel there’s something wrong with me if I’m not writing. He was like that, but even more so. Back in the pre-digital era, he was forever tormented by getting whole songs coming into his head that he wanted to find a way of recording or writing down. He wouldn’t know how to do it. They would come at inopportune moments – when we were in the middle of dinner or on a walk in the middle of nowhere. He would ring our old-style answer phone that had a cassette tape in it. He would sing things or do rhythms down the phone or whatever into those tapes.”
Not surprisingly, Gill’s mind worked overtime while traveling as well.
“[With] the no-frills airlines that we used quite a lot, you really wanted as little luggage as possible. Andy would nevertheless pack an entire keyboard and a computer in his luggage! He was never not writing music.”
Naturally, Gill left behind an extensive – and chaotic – personal archive of his adventures both as a member of Gang of Four and as an in-demand producer for the likes of Michael Hutchence, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and host of others. Mayer is in the process of making sense of it all.
“Sorting through what there is has been astonishing, and I’m nowhere near the end of it. I’ve found music that has never been out there […] I also have funny things. I’ve got not one but two battered microwaves, with the implements used to beat them to death [on the Gang of Four track “He’d Send In The Army”]. I have things that people wore on stage and lot and lots of personal letters. It would take me forever to go through this!”
Although there is a mountain of Gill-related material that has yet to be heard or seen by the world, Mayer cautions that it’s likely that much of it will remain that way.
“I’m kind of exhausted with doing all of this stuff myself. There’s a whole thing that happens with widows being the keeper of the flame. He was and is the love of my life, and I don’t want to cloud that with stuff. I only want to do stuff that’s good for him; he’s not here to represent himself. I would only ever put something out there if I thought it was of value to Andy’s legacy. I don’t know what’s on these tapes I’ve found, but I’m not going to rush half-finished songs out there. That would be a disservice to him.
“There’s a thing about people saying [about the dead], ‘Oh, this is what he’d have wanted,’ and you know that’s not necessarily true,” she continues. “But in my case, there’s a ton of stuff that I know that he would have actually wanted, and it’s not all about him. Gail Ann Dorsey and I have been joking about it – and it’s not entirely joking – but Andy was pushing her and pushing her to do more solo work. I want part of his legacy to be to turn around to Gail and say, ‘Do that bloody solo work!’ He wanted her to do a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper.’ She and I have been talking about her finally doing that. John Sterry – JJ Sterry, who was the last singer in the [Gang of Four] lineup – and Andy became very close. Andy so wanted him to have a solo career. So, again, that is to me another part of his legacy.”
When the world heard the devastating news of Gill’s passing, social media feeds and media reports were instantly flooded with tributes and remembrances (including a piece by yours truly). These expressions of appreciation were very much in line with the reverence shown to Gang of Four in recent years – a well-earned (if decades-late) acknowledgement of the genius of a band that unjustly struggled to achieve mainstream success for the majority of its career. This posthumous praise, and the release of The Problem of Leisure and other recent Gang of Four-related projects, begs an important question: Did Gill have a sense of how much people loved him and how meaningful his work was to them?
“No, and that’s one of the things that’s the most difficult for me,” Mayer replies. “He was such a funny person. He knew how good he was; he used to periodically tell me that he was a genius and I was very lucky to be with him! (laughs) And I would agree, obviously. But he also was incredibly modest [...] You have no idea how many of our close friends were utterly shocked by the outpouring about Andy after he died. They really had no idea he was a prominent musician. I’ve worked in very different fields to him, so we have lots of friends who are in politics, other areas of the arts and other areas of life. They didn’t know much about music. They’d go to his gigs and they’d like the music, but they had no idea – and he wouldn’t have thought to tell them. He saved the ‘I’m a genius’ stuff for me!”