Interview

Gang of Four

Gang of Four

Wednesday 9th February, 2011 11:03AM

Seminal post punkers Gang of Four have released a new album, Content, harking back to the minimal, aggressively political roots of debut Entertainment! They are coming to New Zealand for the first time in their thirty-plus year career and UTR caught up with front man Andy Gill to discuss their latest effort, the new industry platform on which they find themselves operating and what was going down in the seventies that allowed them to create such an important, progressive sound.

So tell me what prompted the Gang of Four reformation?

Well, we hadn’t been doing much but we talked about the possibility of having some sort of reformation. I think I’d always been resistant to it, because usually we would ask someone from the outside to join which can push you in a weird way. But I mentioned it to my then manager and no sooner had I said ‘What do you think about this GO4 reformation idea?’ than he was on the phone, booking flights and generally arranging everything.

So we started by recording an album of older songs from the first three or four albums, plus a couple of new ones, and me and John (King) just enjoyed having the band . We played some festivals and after a while John said to me that it would be more interesting if we had some new things to play, so we slowly started writing some songs together. It took a while because as you probably know my day job is producing other bands. What would happen is we would get three or four songs into a GO4 album and then I’d go off and produce someone else and two months later I’d come back to it and we’d be like ‘What were we doing again?’ It was very difficult to get back into the mindset again so in 2008 I said I’m just going to take all of 2009 off and not take any other jobs. The album was finished in the Spring of 2010 and then we came up against the problem of ‘How do we release this thing?’ Of course the world in terms of what makes sense about how you can release things ideally without losing money has irrevocably changed.

You guys came up with a unique way to raise cash and release the album though. Tell me about that:

We released a record in 2004 called Return The Gift that was more of a traditional kind of release - V2 was a major record label and they gave us an advance and we gave them the record. It’s interesting how much things have changed in the last few years, and now, because of file sharing the number of CD’s that can be sold is incredibly limited for everybody. So nobody really has a budget and major labels are collapsing and seeking alternative revenue sources. They now want to take money off your performance, your publishing and from your merchandising. They call these things 360 degree deals, which are a total waste of time for the band.

So you have to think of a new way to do it. We wanted to get a single out in a unique way and we didn’t want to spend all that time making a record and releasing it without any press or PR or radio - no-one’s going to notice it – it’s like doing the greatest performance of your life in the forest with no-one watching. So you think ‘How can we go about releasing a record in a unique way that generates press?’ John found this cassette of our first ever gig, which was in 1977, and although some people had copies of it, it’s a pretty rare recording. Anyway, he still had his and we thought ‘Why don’t we buy some eighties-style Walkman and I still had a Walkman kicking around at home that I’d painted on and messed around with. So we personalized twenty Walkman with the cassette with the first gig ever on one side and the new album on the other. It was a great way to interact with GO4 supporters and fans, and created some revenue for us.

Tell me about the new album, Content.

It’s supposed to be very direct and simple. It’s guitar bass, drums and vocals and it’s pretty energetic with a couple more mysterious tracks. There’s one called ‘A Fruit Fly in the Beehive’ which is quite slow and sort of funky and moody, and there’s another one called ‘It was Never Going to Turn out Too Good’ which is also pretty slow and melancholic. The other songs are more energy driven and it’s a lot about the guitar. In a way it’s kind of quite like Entertainment! in the sense that each of the instruments are very very clear – everything sits next to everything else. That’s the kind of sound and it’s exciting.

Was the direction purposeful? Did you know what you wanted to do going into the recording process?

It was more organic than that. This has happened a couple of time when we’ve made records, you think you have an idea of where it should all go but you’re not really sure. You have an idea where the song you’re working on will go, so you start small and you get bigger and then you push that one song in a particular direction. After you’ve got three or four done you start to explore other places and ideas.

I think there’s a couple of really key songs on Content. I genuinely like all the songs on this record – they inform each other like a real record should. Everybody talks about how the album is dead in favour of a three minute download, but that’s just not true. There’s something magical about listening to a bunch of songs in one go that have something to say. It’s not a long record so you can put it on and listen to it in one go.

A couple of songs are key to the overall album and those are, firstly ‘She Said ‘You Made a Thing of Me’’ and ‘Do As I Say’. ‘She Said ‘You Made a Thing of Me’’ is an account of a relationship; the woman and man get involved and the man has certain preconceptions and idealized ideas of what the woman should and could be. As they get into the relationship further they start to realize that perhaps they weren’t realistic ideals and they were fantasy ideas. She points this out to him and it’s left ambiguous from there. The other song ‘Do As I Say’ is classic GO4. I had this idea that it would be funny if we set the song in the Seventeenth Century and spoke a bit like they did then with thee and thou. The serious point was that we all like to thing that we’re very modern and well behaved and civilized, but I think that’s kind of nonsensical. I came up with two characters, one of them was The Executioner and the other was the Person Being Executed. The song switches from the Seventeenth Century to modern times and it’s about Guantanamo. It’s a fairly simple point; a lot of killing and torture was done in the name of extreme ideologies 1000 years ago and the same thing is happening again. That’s the heart of the song and the heart of the album.

So that’s the overall theme of Content?

There’s no overall idea. It’s like a bunch of short stories - they’re all very different. I think what John and I try and do with lyrics is to find something that we want to talk about in a truthful way. Hopefully we get to see something in a new way and the listener gets to see something in a new way.

G04 have been synonymous of political and social honesty, and it’s fair to say that you’re interested in exploring those ideas with your new work?

Yeah, yeah, we’re definitely interested in truth, but we’ve never been interested in waving the red flag or being cheerleaders for a political agenda. I think sometimes if, rather than sticking to the rules and regulations of pop music, you wander off the path and start describing various ideas and wondering where ideas come from, people sometimes seem to think you’re political by default.

When GO4 formed did you have any idea that what you were creating music that was ‘important’ and would influence bands for decades?

Definitely not. What I can tell you is when we were doing the first album Entertainment! I did think it was truly radical. I’m not sure about the others but I felt that I was doing something that was really inspired, but no, I had no idea that it would influence so many bands over the decades to come.

What do you think allowed you to create unique and radical music at that time?

I think it’s a combination of factors. Britain in the late seventies was going through a bit of a crisis - an economic and political upheaval - and that created a backdrop that was quite interesting. Also, we were studying art at Leeds University and a couple of very interesting people came along at that point in time. Professor Tim Clarke and Griselda Pollock had what you would call a broadly leftish approach to Art History and Art Theory, and that was very interesting. Also, although our music didn’t have much to do with punk rock itself, the atmosphere of punk rock being around created this idea of ‘anything goes’. It allowed people to break away from the old forms of music and do new things. Punk rock in many ways didn’t actually break away from old music but it created an atmosphere that did. I’d grown up on a mixture of music, one of them being ska, which was turning into dub music. Dub music was deeply fascinating too. So all those things came together when we started rehearsing and writing the songs. Also, I think John and I had pushed each other with adventurous ideas, and we would have great conversations about where things could go, which was absolutely integral.

Courtney Sanders




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