Andy Gill of Gang Of Four
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Last spring, influential post-punk band Gang Of Four announced it would release its first album of new material in 16 years. Not only that, but the band—which now consists of original members Jon King (vocals) and Andy Gill (guitar), and new members Thomas McNeice (bass) and Mark Heaney (drums)—would fund it pay-what-you-want style, with incentives such as a ride to Glastonbury with the band in a helicopter, vials of King and Gill’s blood, and so on. That album, Content, was released on Jan. 25 via Yep Roc Records. The week before its release, Gill rang up The A.V. Club from his house in central London to discuss what got the band creating new material again, how we can expect more of it, and why such a politically minded group decided it was all right to allow Microsoft to use its music in an Xbox Kinect commercial.
The A.V. Club: I’m guessing Gang Of Four’s 2004 reunion probably got you guys thinking about writing again, but do you remember the moment where you thought it was time to make new music with this band again?
Andy Gill: Yeah. I mean, I think what happened was Jon and I had a conversation—and it wasn’t straightaway from the album of Return The Gift, which was our rerecording of all the songs. We had a conversation, like, we were enjoying playing gigs, and it just seemed odd that we weren’t playing anything recent. It was weird. We thought it would be more fun, more interesting, to try out some new things. I also think it’s quite hard for me not to write songs. It’s a lot of what I do, so I think that’s got a lot to do with it. Also, I think in 2005, when we all got in a room and started playing music, things we hadn’t played in such a long time, it was quite a strange experience. It was like, “God, these things are great,” like playing “Not Great Men” and thinking, “This sounds like we were here yesterday.” But after even playing for a year or two, we felt, “Come on then, let’s do something new.” So we did.
AVC: When did you guys actually start writing—2006 or 2007?
AG: Somewhere around then. I have to say that some of the early efforts only got so far and maybe got put on the shelf and maybe stayed on the shelf. What happened was that we’d kind of come up with two or three things, and then I’d go off and produce an album or something with someone else, and you know, God knows it’s gonna be two or three months, and then when we came back to it, it felt a bit like scratching your head, wondering exactly what it was you were aiming at, what it was you were driving at, which is a very destructifying thing. There’s a certain point when you write an album where it seems to gain its own momentum, it seems to take on a life of its own, and that’s the point you need to get to. Then it’s really fun because you’re not struggling; you’re not pushing it. It’s as if it’s pulling you, you know? It’s got its own momentum, and that’s the point that you need to get to. And to get to that point, you just need to put in the hours, put in the weeks, you know?
AVC: Some of the packaging and lyrics of the different songs give the sense that you guys are a little disillusioned with modernity and the way people use technology. How have the changes that have occurred in the record-making process over the past 16 years affected the band?
AG: Do you mean like the record production side, or the current distribution of records? Which one?
AVC: More like the distribution.
AG: I mean, I think when you come to this as an artist—you can come to it as a songwriter, you can come to it as a performing artist—and you wanna make recordings of your performances, that’s your mission statement, because there’s no point in doing stuff if no one’s gonna hear it. You know, putting out some CDs and not actually going anywhere because nobody knows about it, it’d be a total waste of your time. There’s no point in making records that nobody will hear, so you’re forced into a situation where you have to maybe become a bit of an expert in the modern-day record-distribution models. We don’t particularly have a great urge to do that, but it’s just necessary. In the kind of distant past, you’d make your record and hand it over to the big label, and they’d kind of do everything, and the manager would go and bang on some desks and make sure they were doing what they said they were gonna do, and that was basically it. Now, because of the finances involved, you don’t want to sign up with a label or anything like that, so you need to not necessarily self-release, but you need to be on top of the entire process. You need great management that are prepared to give you absolute, 100 percent attention on a day-to-day basis. Getting the whole thing set up is a pretty hard task. I’m not disillusioned about it, you know—you accept the circumstances as you find them and you do the best job you can. You wanna get your record the exposure it requires, and that’s it.
AVC: On the Gang Of Four website, there’s a statement that’s kind of along these lines. Talking about the title, Content, you define the word as “the obligatory filling for the advertising sandwich.” An Xbox commercial used your song “Natural’s Not In It” late last year, and while most of us are past the point where “selling out” is something that really matters anymore, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect there between your words and your actions.
AG: I mean, I’m not quite sure what the disconnect is. Advertising, is that what you mean?
AVC: Well, it seems like you’re poking fun at that but also playing the game as well.
AG: I think Gang Of Four has always been throughout the years and continues to be observational, critical of everything that we’re all involved in, and I think one of the things about Gang Of Four is that we’re aware that all of us are complicit in various ways in this age of Western capitalism. You, me, we’re all involved to one extent or another. We’re all cogs in the wheel of Western capitalism. And that’s something we’ve noted on many occasions and continue to note. I remember when Gang Of Four chose to sign to EMI, which in the late ’70s was one of the biggest companies in the world. It kind of defined the term “multinational.” It was a huge, multinational company which reached absolutely every territory in the world, and we signed to that company in order to release our first album, Entertainment!, and I had quite a few people saying, “What have you done now? Why haven’t you signed to Rough Trade?” You know, an ideologically pure indie label, in some people’s eyes. We said, “Well, the reason we’ve done that is we are very interested in—you know, Gang Of Four’s always been about pop culture.” It’s not about being artistically pure. It’s about being a success of pop culture with several radical ideas. That’s all we’re about, musically and lyrically. We always wanted to reach as many people as we could. We always wanted to be rubbing shoulders with, like, Kate Bush, and whoever else the huge stars were. Our music is not easily consumable, commercial music. It’s very adventurous, very authentic music. We need any help we can get in terms of reaching the public. Apart from anything else, me and Jon love those computer games, video games, you know? We love that stuff. We play it ourselves, so we’re very happy, delighted, to have our music used in that context and to reach a worldwide audience there.
AVC: Sure, and as far as hilarious irony goes, it doesn’t get much better than a video game being sold with a song like that, with its lyrics about leisure and economics.
AG: Yeah, yeah. It’s fantastic. If I could have designed the scenario, it’d be my perfect scenario. That would be it. My only regret is that we don’t get those words, we don’t get them as far as I’m aware. I’ve seen it once, but I don’t think you get any of the words on it. It would be so cool if we got to “the problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure.” That would be superb. But it comes close.
AVC: Right. It’s still a nice in-joke for certain people.
AG: Yeah, I mean, there was a time when we released “I Love A Man In Uniform,” and the U.S. Army wanted to use that for a cheesy commercial, as a recruiting thing in adverts. Jon says he wouldn’t have been happy about them using it. I would have been delighted. I would have been absolutely delighted, and we would have had an argument, and I would have won. [Laughs.]
AVC: Speaking of Jon, he was quoted in an interview a while back as saying, “People are talking on their Android smartphone, and I can’t even imagine what the world will be like in 10 years… What a bad place to live in.” Do you share his view, and how did that view inform Content?
AG: I’m surprised he said that, if he said that. Well, I don’t share that point of view. I think the world continues to be a fascinating place, you know? I’m fond of it still. I’m delighted with the new sort of technology, whether it’s smartphones or whatever it is you can do on your computer. All that stuff, great. The thing is that people can get nostalgic about the past. I don’t think Jon does, and I absolutely don’t, but you recognize the past as a series of events, for what it was. The future is currently unknown, but one can guess where it’s going. And so it ever was. That’s the continuum of time, you know? So I look to the future with interest.
AVC: As much as there are certain moments on Content that have that Gang Of Four sound, the departures are even more striking, songs like “It Was Never Gonna Turn Out Too Good.” Can you talk about how the vocoder came about on that track?
AG: That’s a song I did on my own, and I had this rather ethereal guitar line that the song opens and closes with, and that’s where I started. I didn’t know quite what I was doing, and then the words started slowly to come together, the idea of silence and space slowly started to appear, and I think it’s kind of like that moment where a record starts to get its own momentum and—without sounding too Zen-like—it’s almost as if a record is telling you where it wants you to go, you know? The song is sort of about how life can be very hard and difficult for everybody, and how we’re all heroes for getting through the struggles of life, but it’s also about this character from the north of England, which is kind of the old, industrial part of England and the United Kingdom. That’s where the economic downturns hit the hardest, and some people will complain and some people will think about it, think about the idea originally involved and about people taking their jobs and try to blame people—there’s a great tendency right now to blame the Chinese and the exchange rate and all of that sort of stuff. In Europe in general—I’m thinking more about Europe in this song—there’s a vocal minority who are kind of anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner. This song kind of touches on that, so it’s a complex song about a lot of things. It’s also about how one has to deal with stuff on one’s own, really. The idea of the vocoder was because of the sort of emptiness of that. I thought the vocoder would make it slightly stranger and more arresting, and also it would give a distance. It would keep any kind of sentimentality at arm’s length. I like the idea of the slightly robotic thing.
AVC: Were there things you were surprised by, getting back into the studio to work on new music for the first time in 16 years? Any kind of initial weirdness or things that were different, things that you remember?
AG: No, not particularly. Not that I remember. It was kind of how it always is. A lot of it is just hard work. A lot of it is coming up with tunes and trying to see where they’re going, and a lot of the time you work on something and it doesn’t say anything back to you. You come back to it, and you don’t know where it’s going or what it’s saying, and you abandon it or you just keep doing it, keep pushing it and keep pushing it, and if you do that, you usually can make something happen. Nothing really comes easy.
AVC: Do you expect to continue making new albums?
AG: Yeah, I think so. We’ve had a long and complicated history, lots of hiatuses, you know, but I would expect yeah. I think Jon and I are immensely pleased with what we’ve done on this record, and I think we’d pursue it again. The beginning of the record was super slow, and when it finally picked up got going, it was quite fast. At this point, everybody’s sort of drumming their fingers on the table and saying, “Have you finished this thing yet?” so you sort of have to stop. You kind of feel like you wouldn’t mind going and writing another 10 songs straightaway, and that feeling is still a little bit with me. If I had the time and wasn’t doing anything else right now, I wouldn’t mind going in the studio and sort of being stuck in again. But I’m sure we will. I’m sure we will.
AVC: At the very least, you’ve proven that you can sell helicopter rides and vials of your own blood to finance it, so it seems like anything is possible at this point.
AG: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s right. Stranger things will probably happen.