Andy Gill, best known as the founding member and guitarist for Gang of Four, is also a highly respected producer who has worked with Michael Hutchence (INXS), The Futureheads and The Jesus Lizard, among others. PKM spoke to Andy about the past and future of Gang of Four, the Complicit EP, and his distinguished musical career.
The legendary UK post-punk band Gang of Four has had a complicated history, but founding member/guitarist Andy Gill is keeping the legacy alive without dwelling on the past. After the departure of vocalist Jon King in 2010, Gill chose to work with a variety of singers for the 2015 Gang of Four album What Happens Next. The result was unmistakably Gang of Four, without attempting to replicate their seminal early sound. With John “Gaoler” Sterry cemented as lead singer, the group released a new EP, Complicit, this past April and will be putting out a full new album in early 2019.
Gang of Four was formed in 1977 by Gill, King and fellow Leeds University students Dave Allen (bass), and Hugo Burnham (drums). Their first single, “Damaged Goods,” came out in 1978 and their highly influential debut album, Entertainment!, was released the following year.
Allen left the band to form Shriekback in 1982, briefly replaced by Busta “Cherry” Jones before Sarah Lee (Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen) took over on bass. The following year, Burnham left to form Illustrated Man.
The group was on hiatus from 1984 until 1991, when Gill and King reunited without their original former bandmates to release Mall. A notable member of the touring line-up from this era was future David Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey. Allen and Burnham re-joined to tour in 2004-2005, but did not participate in the next album, 2011’s Content.
Gill is also highly respected as a producer, having worked with such artists as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Michael Hutchence (INXS), The Futureheads and The Jesus Lizard.
PKM: What was your initial inspiration for getting into music and forming Gang of Four?
Andy Gill: When I was a kid, around the age of 14, I thought it was a great idea and something that would be really interesting and creative. But I thought, ‘That’s impossible; music is for people who are amazingly talented, and that doesn’t include me.’ I was certainly lacking a fair amount of confidence. Jon King and myself were at the same school, and we had a band that was called the Bourgeoise Brothers. We used to play a few songs at the local village hall. I also did little gigs with various people who were probably better musicians than me. I started experimenting and finding my way, starting to realize that it’s not that difficult and it is a lot of fun. I think a lot of the stuff Jon King and I did to begin with was semi-humorous, not particularly serious. He and I both did fine arts at Leads University, which is where we began Gang of Four. We used to sit about with a bottle of gin and play games of chess that would last about four hours and, simultaneously, we’d make up songs. Again, not always entirely serious. That’s kind of how it started, and I think you gain a sort of confidence about things as you go on, and you figure out simple stuff, like what chords work with each other.
PKM: Do you think the lack of formal training and that initial lack of confidence shaped what you ended up doing with Gang of Four?
Andy Gill: That’s a really good question. There’s that peculiar old saying that you have to know the rules before you can break them. But you can take the shortcut and just break them without knowing them. I was always fascinated by the sound the guitar makes, just the physical sound of it, how you can make scratchy noises, clicky noises, and amazing harmonics that don’t really sound like a guitar. Those things always fascinated me. There was a kid a school who was genuinely really good at the guitar and could play classical stuff. I used to ask him how songs went because I was too lazy to figure it out for myself, and he’d show me. I remember him playing some little classical piece and saying, ‘That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it is pretty amazing, but what about this?’ And I just scratched my finger nail down the E string and said, ‘What about that?’ It was kind of a stand-off between two different aesthetic positions, you could say. But all the accidental sounds that guitar makes, and the feedback and all those things fascinated me more than anything.
And for me, the guitar is kind of a lead instrument, but I was also fixated with it fitting in around drums. When I was a kid, my brother had a drum kit, so we were both beating the hell out of this drum kit after school. For a long time, I thought the drum was kind of my thing. I was always very rhythm-orientated, and the guitar had to fit around the drums, and the drums had to fit around the guitar. That is very much the Gang of Four style. The instruments and our voices all sit next to each other; there isn’t a kind of hierarchy. People talk about the vocal line being the ‘top line’ as if it is on the top of the pyramid with the other stuff just there to support it. That is very much not what I thought, and that was one of the almost futuristic modern things about Gang of Four. Things were designed to sit next to each other and weave between each other, rather than laying on top of each other.
PKM: You’ve done quite a bit of work as a producer. Do you feel that is an extension of what you do with Gang of Four, or do you seek out things that are different?
Andy Gill: Not always but usually, the people who approached me felt they had something in common with what I’d done with Gang of Four. So, I suppose my Gang of Four thinking would be helpful in those circumstances. But there were bands that weren’t particularly like Gang of Four or only very tenuously. I’ve always liked a lot of different types of music. I like pop music and electronic dance music; I’m very not genre specific. So, when I’m working with another band, I try to see things from their perspective. I learned early on not to try to impose myself on bands and not to say, ‘This is how you’ve got to do it,’ but to let them take the lead a bit, throwing in things to help move things along. Band politics is always a slightly complicated thing, and sometimes, people can feel that producers get in the way or ask them to change too much. I’m forever fiddling with drum patterns, so occasionally, drummers give me a stern look. I remember with producing the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was their first album, and they were not used to the studio at all. We had a few arguments about things. I think the thing I learned from that was don’t argue; if there is some disagreement about something, just find a different way of doing it. There is always a different way of doing it. That’s something I learned from the Chili Peppers experience.
PKM: On the last Gang of Four album, you used a variety of different singers. Is Gaoler the full-time vocalist now?
Andy Gill: I think with the first album after Jon King was gone, I thought, ‘It will be interesting to work with XYZ.’ Sometimes, you can make something that is possibly slightly confusing to the audience. I think that I’ve done enough work with Gaoler now and I know him so well as a vocalist, and I really admire his approach. I love all the vocals I’ve got on this new record. I think we’re now at 13 songs at this point.
There’s that peculiar old saying that you have to know the rules before you can break them. But you can take the shortcut and just break them without knowing them.
PKM: Having worked as a producer yourself, why do you choose to work with other producers for Gang of Four?
Andy Gill: Quite a few people have said to me, ‘Yeah, but you are a producer; you should just produce yourself.’ But there are all kinds of things a producer brings to the table if they are not the artist. They bring a different way of looking at things, and they bring ideas you definitely wouldn’t have thought of, usually some kind of sound thing or possibly a different way of looking at the arrangement. I don’t know if this is the right word, but they also bring a discipline to it. It’s that thing of getting up and going to work. There’s no time for sitting about, so you get on with it. I’ve worked with Ben Hillier, Ross Autumn, who is I suppose best known for Artic Monkeys and MIA, and Mark Taylor who’s done shitloads of other stuff. All those different people bring that other aesthetic into the room and other ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of. And it brings that discipline: you get into the room at a certain time and you stay there and keep working.
PKM: Could you talk about the motivations behind the Complicit EP, which features Ivanka Trump on the cover?
Andy Gill: The song that involved Ivanka [ “Ivanka (Things You Can’t Have)”] —I loved that groove and the effects on the guitar, again creating a sound. There’s a little synth note that goes through a delay, and that, working with the guitar, makes something that is so very appealing to me. I guess a lot of people have opinions about Trump, and I wasn’t particularly interested in just doing something that was just having a go at Donald Trump. But what was fascinating was that Ivanka immediately gets an office in the White House and some journalist shouts at Trump, ‘Isn’t this just nepotism?’ And Trump smiles and goes, ‘Yeah, nepotism’s great.’ He’s always entertaining; you’ve got to give him that. And then she made a few speeches and gave a few interviews. There was that famous one when she said, ‘I don’t know what it means to be complicit.’ So, it was sort of like this very pleasant young lady pushed into this kind of weird position and trying to be the apologist or the explainer for the Trump philosophy. That’s the way I approached it, and it seemed very natural to have a great picture of her on the cover. There are four songs on the EP, and the others are very loosely connected, and I think they all work very well together.
PKM: The original Gang of Four lineup got back together in 2004. Was that meant to be a one-off, or were you planning on continuing?
Andy Gill: I was getting calls from Hugo and Dave Allen saying we should do a reunion thing, and everyone kept talking about it. And I said at the time, ‘In all honesty, whatever I think, I don’t think Jon King would be that interested in it.’ Dave and Hugo said we could get someone else, but then I mentioned this to my then manager Jazz Summers, who said, ‘That’s a great idea. Brilliant.’ He got in touch with Jon King, and Jon King was up for it. So, we did a tour and then there was always talk of doing an album. But there were arguments. So, John and I did an album called Content in 2010 without the involvement of anybody else. And that was that. It’s fair to say Jon King blows hot and cold on Gang of Four activity. He didn’t want to do any more after we did Content, but at that point, I was firing on all cylinders and was very keen to get on with doing another album.
PKM: How did the current lineup come together? To what extent were you looking for people who fit in with your existing sound, versus perhaps taking it in new directions?
Andy Gill: Thomas has been with us for ten years, so he overlapped with Jon King. The first time I met Gaoler was doing a bit of production work for a German band from Berlin, and I needed some backing vocals. Someone suggested Gaoler, and he popped down to the studio. That was the first time I’d met him. He sang on that, and I was kind of demoing some Gang of Four stuff, and I asked him if he wanted to do that. Bit by bit, we talked about the idea that he might be the vocalist. It was a prerequisite that anybody would need to be able to do some of the old Gang of Four classics as well.
PKM: What can we expect from the upcoming album?
Andy Gill: The EP is a pretty good guide to the way the record as a whole sounds. That kind of combination of real drums, electronic drums, and a little bit of synth used in a way to combine with the guitar to make funky patterns and stuff. Amy Love is doing quite a lot of backing vocals; she’s got her own band called the Nova Twins who are great. They’re somewhere between punk and hip hop. I wanted someone with a bit of attitude, and Amy definitely fits that bill.
PKM: With another new album from this incarnation of Gang of Four, have you thought about how much of your live shows will be comprised of this newer material?
Andy Gill: Not yet, but I know it’s not going to be easy. People want to hear tracks from the past, which I love playing, but I also want to play new stuff. So maybe, we’ll just play for a bit longer than normal, so we can fit everything in. But, it is a bit of a challenge.
PKM: Does your recent work ever lead you to re-interpret the older material?
Andy Gill: That does cross my mind a bit sometimes. For example, ‘At Home He’s a Tourist,’ from the first album Entertainment!. We play that slightly differently. I certainly don’t feel the early stuff is sacrosanct and you have to do it exactly the same way.