Gang of Four and the art of tension 

click to enlarge John "Gaoler" Sterry, Andy Gill, Thomas McNeice - LEO CACKET
  • Leo Cacket
  • John "Gaoler" Sterry, Andy Gill, Thomas McNeice

If Andy Gill has smiled even once during a live performance, it would surely have been with his back to the audience. Gang of Four's co-founding guitarist, songwriter and sometimes-vocalist instead prowls the stage with a perpetually glaring countenance — one part post-punk rock star, one part political provocateur — while coaxing staccato funk riffs, stripped-down power chords, and waves of feedback from whatever guitar he happens to be punishing at the moment. Like his band's music and lyrics, Gill's playing is somehow both cerebral and blunt at the same time.

Gang of Four's history is also a study in contrasts. The British band's angular agit-pop is revered by artists like Nirvana, St. Vincent and the Red Hot Chili Peppers — whose debut album Gill produced — and, for reasons we'll get to in just a moment, likely loathed by Ivanka Trump. Meanwhile, their anti-materialist anthem "Natural's Not in It," which opens with the line "The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure," was used in both an Xbox commercial and the opening credits of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette.

The band's origins go back to the late '70s, when Gill first met Jon King, soon to become Gang of Four's primary lead vocalist, while attending Leeds University. It was there that their shared worldview first came into focus while taking theory-heavy classes with Marxist-feminist scholar Griselda Pollock and art historian T.J. Clark, the latter a prominent figure in the avant-gardist Situationist International political movement.

Fast forward to 2019, which finds Gill as sole proprietor of the Gang of Four name and legacy. The band is currently out on tour promoting the soon to be released album Happy Now — their second since King's somewhat contentious 2012 departure — while celebrating the 40th anniversary of Gang of Four's debut album Entertainment!

The new collection's standout tracks include the heavily electronic "Ivanka (Things You Can't Have)," which previously appeared on the band's 2017 EP, the one with Ivanka Trump on the cover. The lyrics are very specific and surprisingly vicious, even by Gill's standards: "In the morning daddy wants me in his room, it's where we get together / It's not true that daddy calls my name in stormy weather."

When it comes to live performances, current singer John "Gaoler" Sterry does an admirable job of evoking King's urgent vocal style, which has always served as a stark contrast to Gill's more deadpan delivery. Bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Tobias Humble are no less impressive when it comes to recreating the band's angular funk style.

We recently caught up with Gill to discuss Gang of Four's life and legacy, as well as the prospects for a future reunion.

Indy: There's obviously never been a shortage of political references in Gang of Four's lyrics, but there's also a very dry sense of humor, ranging from a line like "Show me a ditch and I'll dive in it" on the Solid Gold album to that "Girls will love to see you shoot" refrain on "I Love a Man in a Uniform." Did people tend to overlook that part of the band's approach, back before irony and cynicism became the norm?

Andy Gill: Yeah, it's caught on. But when Jon King and I were writing lyrics back in the day, people didn't used to get the humor. They were like, what? The third album is called Songs of the Free, and obviously that's ironic. And of course, a song like "I Love a Man in a Uniform" is just one dirty joke after another.

I've always gotten the sense that you're not telling people what to think, so much as encouraging them to just think, period. Would you say that's true?

Yes. I never want to tell anybody what they should think at all. Sometimes you get a vibe from a song, you get drawn into it. And, speaking from my own experience, you'll listen a little bit more carefully to what the words are. And then, you'll perhaps consider what that song's all about. I don't know, that sounds a bit school-teachery, doesn't it? "Sit down, class, and think."

With this latest album, you're incorporating a lot of electronics into the Gang of Four sound, including some electronic drum parts and that wobbly bass and synth on "Paper Thin." Would you say your production values have changed through the years?

I mean, yeah, I'm the opposite of one of these bands that has a sound they keep doing exactly the same way. I suppose you could say I make things difficult for myself. I'm not some guy stuck in 1980, I'm here now, and I'm responding to the world around me, both in the words that I write and the music that I come up with. And with this record, I was really into a lot of these kind of wobbly bass sounds and tortuous effects. A lot of what sounds like electronic stuff is actually my guitar going through some kind of weird effect.

You're asked a lot about artists who've been influenced by Gang of Four, but less so about your own influences. Can you talk a bit about Wilko Johnson's influence on your guitar playing, and — I'm just guessing here — your stage presence, as well?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The intensity of [Johnson's band] Dr Feelgood was something which completely impressed me. I mean, it impressed a lot of other people, too, Joe Strummer talked about it. There was this great way in which Wilko used to, frankly, look a bit mad. So definitely. And I think "Damaged Goods" displays an obvious Wilko influence.

There was also Steve Cropper, the Stax guitarist, who I always thought was amazing, and in a not dissimilar way, actually. It wasn't as aggressive, but it had that sort of funky guitar style. And obviously Hendrix. When I was 13, that was all I could listen to, it just had to be Hendrix. And those things seem to feed into what you do later on, somehow, in a subconscious kind of way.

But in terms of the guitar, I could never be bothered to just sit there and work out songs. For me, I was always interested in just picking up the guitar and seeing what happens when you put your fingers here and do it this way. Like when I'd run my thumbnail down the string and it would just go... [Gill makes a sound like aluminum foil in a trash compactor.]

click to enlarge Schooled in Marxist feminism and Situationist politics, Gang of Four's wry post-punk won the devotion of artists ranging from Kurt Cobain to St. Vincent. - IVICA DRUSANY
  • Ivica Drusany
  • Schooled in Marxist feminism and Situationist politics, Gang of Four's wry post-punk won the devotion of artists ranging from Kurt Cobain to St. Vincent.

You've actually never stopped doing that.

Yeah, those basic sounds that come out when your fingers touch the strings, that's enough for me. I don't need to play Bach.

Which brings up my next question. Western music has always been built around the concept of tension and release. But listening to Gang of Four, it seems that there was a kind of refusal to allow any sense of resolution. Was that a conscious decision early on, or did it just kind of happen that way?

So you think there's not a resolution in the music?

Not really. At your shows, I'll see people dancing like crazy, which is a kind of release. But that tension in the music itself never really lets up.

Yeah, I think that's right. I wouldn't say it was conscious, but I think it's part of the methodology. Safe music gives you a release. And less safe music, where it's a little bit more on the edge, maybe it doesn't give you a resolution. So that's about it.

You've written a number of songs about gender inequality and patriarchy and just men being assholes. And I know your wife [Catherine Mayer] is the co-founder of the Women's Equality Party, which seems like it's starting to make some inroads. But it's clearly still an uphill battle. Did you expect that we would have made more progress by now?

Yes I think so. I think most people assumed that the progress we've seen would somehow continue, and there would be more gender equality, there'd be more racial equality, there'd be more fairness. But there's a very strong backlash against all that. And sometimes you look at what's going on in the States, in terms of the police and racial behavior, and it's a little bit alarming. You think, "God, I thought we were past this stuff." And we clearly are not. So those things are disturbing.

But at the same time, Gang of Four was never — in any of its manifestations — about trying to put forward solutions, or promoting party politics, or telling people what they should be doing, And I love the way you put that earlier — about men, assholes, whatever — but that's not really part of what I put forward. I'm really hesitant to turn on any particular section of society and say, "You're the problem." I don't see it that way at all.

So you're not a self-loathing white male like me.

Well, I've had my dark hours in the night, when strangely you can't sleep and you just look at yourself and you think, "Oh, Christ." I wouldn't go as far as to say I'm self-loathing, but I'm very cognizant of my faults. I'll go as far as that.

I remember seeing a show where, at the end of your set, you threw your guitar at Jon. He ducked, then picked it up and hurled it back at you. To what degree was that a sort of theatrical gesture, and to what degree were you trying to inflict traumatic brain injuries on each other?

No, no, no, no. If back in the day I threw my guitar in the general direction of Jon King, I was careful to never hit him.

It was well done, it was very convincing.

Yeah. Good, good, good. And he would sometimes pick it up and throw it in my general direction, and I don't believe he ever hit me either. I guess you could say it was a circus act.

The two of you keep getting back together, and I've heard rumors that will happen again this summer. Is that true?

No it's not true.

What about the following year?

No. No, that will never happen.

Really? What happened between the two of you?

[Pauses.] Well, okay, in a nutshell, when Jon quit about seven years ago, I said "Well, I hope you don't mind if I work with another singer." And he said, "No, of course, that's fine." He subsequently got irritated and suggested that, no, I shouldn't work with anybody at all. And I think that's not a reasonable position. So it's a little tiresome working with someone who then quits, and then you work with them again, and then they quit again. It's like 'Okay, are you in or are you out?' And he was like, "I am definitely out."

I'm really, really happy with the band that I'm working with. You know, Gaoler is a brilliant stage man. Thomas is a great friend — he's been playing bass for longer than any other person that has ever played bass in Gang of Four — and he's superb. And damn good-looking, as well.

I think you said that once about yourself on Twitter.

I probably did. That was a while ago. Age is catching up with me, mate.


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