We chat to Gang of Four’s Andy Gill about the group’s inception, influencing other artists, new releases, touring, sync, today’s industry, and more.
Hi Andy, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a bit about how Gang of Four got started in the first place?
In the mid-70s I wasn’t really thinking that I would be a musician myself, but I liked things like Dr. Feelgood and the Stones, I saw them both live a few times, and also Bob Marley and the Wailers – reggae was a big thing for me. In 1976 Jon King and I went to New York and stayed with Mary Harron, who was a journalist back then but went on to become a director and directed I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho. We would go to CBGBs and you’d stand at the bar and there’d be John Cale on your left and Joey Ramone on your right, and you’d just be talking to these people who were well known – that was where they hung out. We got quite friendly with musicians from Patti Smith’s band and it just became sort of everyday and ordinary. We thought if they can do it, we can do it, you know?
At that point me and Jon were studying Art at Leeds University. We’d been kicking a few songs around at the time so we built on it and started taking it a bit more seriously. We looked around for a drummer and a bass player, and our first gig was in May ’77 – it was quite punkish. Over the next year and a half I worked really hard on it, and the funk element came more and more into it. I felt it was all about not taking any musical ideas for granted, not saying, “this is the genre – we’re a punk rock band and that’s our genre.” It was very much like inventing a new language from scratch.
If you think about 60s music, the vocals are the top of the pyramid and then the guitars under that, and then the keyboards. Down at the bottom you’ve got bass and drums somewhere. With Gang of Four I wanted something where each component was the equivalent in importance of the other, and everything would work together, a bit like a Swiss watch. The vocals in a way were no more important than the guitar or the drums. It was very much about having a powerful groove. So that was the beginning of the band.
What do you think it is about Gang of Four’s music that caught people’s attention, and still has such an influence on so many artists today?
I think with a lot of rock music, there may be great melodies, but stylistically it’s not particularly inventive. When someone like Bowie comes along in the late 70s and does those albums in Berlin, they’ve got a pop element to them, but they’re pushing the boundaries with what a band could sound like. That’s an example of somebody stepping outside the normal parameters. So many bands don’t bother doing that – there’s too much stuff that sounds like other stuff. I guess that the way our music was put together, and the funkiness and newness of it caught a lot of people’s imaginations. And it’s almost like it defined whatever this post-punk genre is supposed to be, and then a lot of people went on to refer to that and draw inspiration from that.
You can hear Gang of Four’s influence in so many artists, from Bloc Party to The Futureheads. Do you ever stop and think, hey that’s us?
About 10 years ago I heard that Chili Peppers song ‘Can’t Stop’ and I thought, hold on a minute, isn’t that… that’s Gang of Four isn’t it? The production was kind of raw and blunt and they kind of copied that as well. And really for a few seconds, I wasn’t sure whether it was us or not.
Well you did produce their first album, so it obviously rubbed off.
I did, exactly.
Do you think that the political and social subject matter also appealed to people?
Yeah. I keep expecting something like that to reappear, but as yet it hasn’t really. Here’s a wild theory for a second – Maybe it’s to do with the way that musicians are perhaps less prepared to go out on a limb, and want to play it a bit safer because the music economy is not what it was, to put it mildly. Everybody tries to put a brave face on it. In fact, I had a conversation with the ex bass player of Gang of Four who’s a bit of a digital guru, and he’s like, “Yeah, music should be free.” I thought, what are you talking about? That means no one can make a living from it. He said, “Well, you can always get your songs used as ringtones”, and that was his best answer. I’ve produced a lot of bands over the years and I’ve seen the budgets get smaller and smaller, and that has an effect on everybody, on the whole thing. People see the Beyoncés and the Jay-Zs and Taylor Swift who are raking in the millions, but they’re a tiny half percent of the music world.
You’re now the only existing original member of Gang of Four. What has made you continue to persevere with the band?
I don’t want to say it’s my band, but I came up with all of the music, and I was also the producer and the arranger. Essentially, there were two people that made the band what it was, Jonathan King and me, and then Jon wanted to pack it in. So it just feels like my vehicle, that’s what it feels like to me.
You released a new album last year, ‘What Happens Next’, with several guest appearances. Can you tell us about that?
This is the first Gang of Four album where I was the sole writer. I’d always wanted to do some collaborations, I think it’s a great idea to work with other people and bring things in from their world, so this was an opportunity for me to do that. When I started the record I didn’t even know Gaoler, or John Sterry (who sang vocals on the album), as he’s otherwise known. I’d got a few songs written and I asked Alison Mosshart if she wanted to sing on ‘England’s In My Bones’, because I’d produced a couple of things with The Kills, and she was delighted to do that. I also got Robbie Furze from The Big Pink down to do something, and Tomoyasu Hotei, who’s kind of Japan’s biggest rock star.
Herbert Grönemeyer is Germany’s biggest pop star, and he’s an old friend actually. Anton Corbijn introduced him to me 20 plus years ago, and I didn’t know anything about his music for quite a long time. When he heard I was doing this, he said, “Do you want me to do something?” And so I thought, that’d be brilliant and again a kind of unexpected collaboration. Lots of people in Germany thought it was interesting and odd.
Diversifying your income streams as a musician is obviously more important now than ever before. Has sync been a useful source of revenue for Gang of Four?
Absolutely. I think people tend to go for earlier Gang of Four, but there’s so many films that Gang of Four tracks have been in. I also like writing for film and TV. I did a bunch of tracks for Extreme Music back in 2001/2002, and they are really good earners. It’s bizarre – you can work on producing a record and put a lot of love and hard work into it, and not get that much from it. And then other things that you didn’t think that much about end up being used a lot. It can be surprising in that way.
What’s been your favourite use of Gang of Four’s music in film?
The film Marie Antoinette starts with the Gang of Four song ‘Natural’s not in it’, which is very clever because obviously the film is set hundreds of years ago. The contrast of having this hard-edged, funky song against the elegant, courtly visuals is quite brave and clever.
That song was also used on a worldwide advert for Xbox which obviously, being Xbox, generated a lot of money. I got a certain amount of stick from a couple of journalists saying, “Surely that’s not quite Gang of Four, dirtying your hands with capitalism and all of that.” And I said, “Well, look, the first line of that song is, ‘The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure’. And what could be better for the context, the meaning of that song.” Most income streams have been removed from artists, and now even when you’re lucky enough to get a song used in an advert, you’re not even allowed to do that, you know. What’s going on?
It’s like you’ve just got to be a starving artist.
Yeah. You’ve just got to starve.
You’ve also been touring quite extensively with the new album?
Last year there was a lot of playing. We did two tours in North America, which totalled about 10 weeks of solid touring. I definitely feel like I aged a bit after that. We do gigs all over the place – all over the UK and a few festivals here and there in Europe. We’ve got a couple of gigs coming up at the end of this week, one’s in Sheffield at OUTLINES Festival on the 27th, and one’s in Salford on the 28th, just outside Manchester at a venue called the Islington Mill. So we’ve got those coming up and then we’re going to Australia in April.
And last year you played with Yoko Ono in Central Park?
Yeah. There’s a Chinese music company called Modern Sky, and they put on a lot of festivals in China and put out records. I produced a band in Beijing in December 2012, and I got to know a lot of people there including those at Modern Sky and another label Maybe Mars – those are the two big independent alternative music labels. Modern Sky has been trying to get into doing American festivals, and last year they put on a gig in Central Park, and also in Seattle. It was quite a lot of Chinese bands with Gang of Four and Yoko Ono headlining, and it was great, a lot of fun.
Gang of Four have always been notorious for playing great live shows. Is that something you still love?
It is something that I love to do. Touring can be a mixture of gruelling and boring with the travelling, and so for that couple of hours when you play, that’s the fun bit. That’s the payback for the boring-ness and the gruelling-ness.
As you mentioned earlier, you’ve produced records for artists such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Stranglers, The Futureheads, Michael Hutchence. What are some of the highlights from those projects?
I think the Killing Joke record that I did, which I also co-wrote. That was a long project, it took forever, but as it came together I started to see what we had created. It got more exciting as it went on, as you saw all the hard work starting to crystallise into something that was really good. I’d programmed all the drums all the way along, in the knowledge that we would replace them with real drums at the end. So the last thing was Dave Grohl playing the drums on the album, and he’s such a brilliant drummer – really, really brilliant. Definitely the best drummer I’ve ever worked with. You don’t need to mess around with him, it’s easy, you just drop it in and it’s bang on. So that was a high point.
And also working with Michael Hutchence, which I have mixed emotions about obviously. I became very friendly with him because I wrote that album with him over a long period of time. And you know, he died when the record was nearly finished, so Bono came in to finish the vocals – he was a friend of Michael’s as well. It was a kind of way of saying goodbye. I’m very proud of the songs on that record. There’s been lots of good things. The Young Knives record was very entertaining to make because they’re such brilliant comedians. You’d spend half the day falling about on the floor with their jokes.
And the Chili Peppers, that was a very long time ago and was quite a whacky experience. I think one of the funniest bits was a song called ‘True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes’. We decided we wanted an acoustic guitar on it, and at this point Anthony had disappeared for two or three days, and we were in the studio. Jack, the guitarist, got hold of an acoustic guitar and when it was being recorded Anthony came in, stood there and said, “What’s that sound? Is that an acoustic guitar?” And I went, “Yeah.” So he just ran into the room while it was still recording, took the guitar from Jack and smashed it on the floor, and then came out and said, “No, fucking acoustic guitar on my records.” And then he disappeared again, so we went out and found another one and recorded it. When you hear that track you can’t imagine it without the acoustic guitar. It makes it.
What plans do you have for the future? We heard that you’re releasing a live album.
Yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing since New Year. What I’m doing today, and every day basically, is mixing the live album. There’s little bits that need patching up here and there, but basically it’s a live album. I’ve also got quite a lot of the next studio album on the go – there’s a whole bunch of things that are kind of in various states of finish-ness. And I think we’re going back to America in late summer, so again another busy year…
What would your advice be for artists getting started today? What are your thoughts on the current state of the industry?
It’s a tricky one. One is tempted to say hone up on your plumbing skills or make sure you finish your law degree or whatever. I think a lot of younger musicians want to try it, partly for the adventure. It is an adventure, even if financially it’s not that brilliant. You can have a lot of fun, and it’s great working with people and coming up with imaginative and new things. I’m not sure if I trust anybody who says, “I’ve got the answer here and this is how the music business is going to be saved.” There are one or two people that say things like that, and then when you ask them they say it’s ringtones.
I remember Mick Jagger saying how lucky the Stones were because in the 50s and the early 60s, musicians got paid very little, but as you got into the late 60s and 70s, suddenly musicians started getting paid a much larger share of the income. And then you got into the noughties and the industry started dramatically declining. Mick Jagger was pointing out that the Stones had that golden window, from the mid 60s to the early noughties, where they were doing their business, and that’s why they’re very, very rich.
What artists and songs are you excited about at the moment?
There’s a few things on that Kanye West record Yeezus. Some of it is kind of juvenile, you know, the sex stuff and the bitches this and bitches that, and endlessly going on about shagging. But there’s a song on that album called ‘Can’t Hold my Liquor’ which I think is a work of genius, it’s brilliant. Jack Garratt has done a few things that I think are very, very cool and funky, and I really like how dynamic the stuff he does is. I was actually writing a list of things because there’s a French radio station that wanted me to do playlist for them, so I’ll give you that.
Thank you so much for giving us your time Andy, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you.
Follow Andy / Gang of Four:
Check out Andy’s playlist: