GANG OF FOUR
Q: For that first tour, what was your impression of the States at that time?
Andy Gill interview, Part Two
by Jason Gross
It left a very big impression, going around the country in the way that we did, seeing what the whole place is like. The second Gang of Four album reflected some of that with songs like "Cheeseburger." That was a result of our first experiences in America, seeing the country and different cities and seeing what people are like, and the way they thought about things. That was our little precis.
Also, to us, Britain and America have a great deal in common. A lot of things that happen in America, happen in Britain. There's many, many differences too but there are certain things in common. Sometimes, it's just what we have in Britain that's just writ large in America. Capitalism in Britain has more things obscuring the basic social and economic structures such as class and tradition. In America, you get more of the bare bones- the social relations and economic structures are more clear. Sometimes we felt like we saw visual parallels of that. For example, the straight roads- you get from A to B with no curves. When the roads get closer and closer, that means you've got a town.
It's very much not the kind of Clash "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A" vibe. That was not where we were coming from. I think we very much liked America. Gang of Four's lyrical approach was very often kind of observation in a way and not dragging the listener to a particular conclusion. Or demanding that the listener shares in some condemnation of something. It's much more of an observational position, pointing out a few interesting things.
Q: On tour, what did you see in the music scene here that was different from what you'd seen in Britain?
It was great touring America. A lot of people were very enthusiastic. I think people connected with us. That's part of the reason that we spent a lot more time touring in America, much more than in Britain. Obviously, there's much more of America to tour in for a start. But there were this kind of immediacy about the response in America. I don't know if that's the way for everybody but I definitely thought that. British audiences can watch themselves watching you. (laughs) They check themselves to make sure they're being cool and not get carried away. Whereas, in America, they don't seem to have that (problem). That was a major thing. People got it.
There is this idea that somehow, the British are good at irony and Americans don't instantly get irony. That idea does have a certain currency. Obviously, there's a fair amount of irony in the Gang of Four stuff or some it, not always. Sometimes, the Gang of Four stuff is better when it avoids irony. In our experience, Americans got the whole thing. It wasn't that they were into the guitar stuff. I very much felt that our audience in America completely got the whole picture. That was very gratifying.
Q: The second album, Solid Gold, seemed to have a different sound.
Jimmy Douglass came on board as co-producer on the second record and I think there's a certain amount of influence from him. I think it's a logical development from the first record. I see it as being NOT hugely different. We had a lot of experience in America as well with touring. That kind of crept in there with some songs. I think that's possibly one of the departures. It got more mid-tempo and it's more groove orientated, with slower grooves going on. There's kind of an America element creeping in as well due to our American experiences.
Q: What was it about the States that struck you?
It's a pretty exciting place. There's a lot of interesting things going on. With "Cheeseburger," we were thinking about the way a lot of people from Central Europe who live there and their relationship to the old country and their past. That was quite interesting. And how America somehow simplifies those kinds of things. American society somehow is simpler than Europe. Those things were sort of interesting.
Q: After all that touring and recording, did you feel that the four of you were still pretty in synch?
Yeah, I'd say so.
Q: What happened with Dave Allen leaving then?
He just got very depressed and he quit half-way through the tour. We carried on but we were going to back to London (originally). But somebody suggested carrying on with Busta Jones on bass and that's what we did. That was good 'cause he picked it all up in no time. Obviously, you're changing and developing. Then, Sara Lee came along and became a permanent member.
Q: Do you think she changed the dynamic of the band?
Yeah, I'm sure she did, to a certain extent. It's hard to say how though.
Q: By the time of the third record, Songs of the Free, it seemed that musically, things had changed a lot. There were programmed drum tracks and back-up singers.
It's hard to say why the changes were there. That's the way it just developed. I donít think we wanted to make Entertainment! or Solid Gold, Part 3. It's definitely more song-structured on the third, and fourth, album. That's just the way we were writing then. On the third album, we'd have some drum machine-type things and Hugo would play along with that.
It's a pop song but it uses that formula as a wolf in sheep's clothing which is a good thing about. "We Live As We Dream, Alone" is a stand-out track as well for me, for similar reasons. The lyrics are good and the inspiration was from (Jospeh) Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I like the way the track's got a kind of pop element with these background vocals and the melody. But it contains an interesting concept. I think "I Love A Man In Uniform" is a cool track. It's very much of its era but its one that stands out for me. I really like the lyrics, they're satisfyingly ironic.
Q: I wanted to ask you more about that since that was a hit here in the States. "I Love A Man In Uniform" seems in much different perspective than "He'd Send in the Army" from the second album.
Obviously, we were on similar territory but I think with "He'd Send In the Army," it was fantastic live. We'd written this song so different people in the band had different voices and characters. It was quite theatrical, a kind of drama unfolding.
With "Man in Uniform," it's approaching a similar subject but it was much tongue-in-check. Also, we were using a much more pop-orientated type of vehicle that time, with backing singers and that stuff. It was interesting in Britain because when we recorded that song, the whole thing about the Falklands and Thatcher sending the troops there to kill the Argentineans, nobody knew anything about that. Then our single came out, a couple of weeks before that, this whole Falklands thing became an issue. The record was released as a single in Britain and was all over the radio. Then when the Falklands task force started actually fighting, they took it off the radio. There was a BBC memo to every DJ- "do not play this song." It was amazing. They weren't allowed to play it 'cause it was an anti-war song.
Q: With that context, were you surprised that the single caught on in the States as well?
No, I wasn't surprised. I think it didn't have that particular poignancy. Also, at that time, there was just one or two radio station in Britain- it was a terrible state of affairs. American radio was much less hide-bound.
Q: Do you think that song wasn't necessarily about war though?
Yeah, exactly. It's not an "anti-war" song. It's really about male role-playing.
Q: You were singing some of the songs yourself, like "We Live As We Dream, Alone" instead of Jon. How did you decide which songs you'd be singing?
Also on a number of the tracks though, we'd do some (singing) each- Jon would do a few lines and then I would, switching backwards and forwards. Then there's some songs where I do the 'lead' vocal. I think it's usually to do with the genesis of a song. If I've done most of the lyrics and done it in on the demo or at rehearsal and it seems to work, that's the kind of reasoning.
Q: The last album of the original group was Hard. What had changed for the group by the time you did that record?
It was supposed to be produced by Nile Rodgers but our respective managers had some kind of problem. (laughs) The intention was to make a kind ofÖ a slightly disco-tinged, funky pop record. A lot of it is about context. It's a certain amount of irony involved and some elements of tongue-in-cheek. It was obviously a much smoother production with the strings and so on. To me, the whole point of it was having Gang of Four doing this thing with strings and all that- that was the experiment we were involved in.
Q: How was the band trying to be ironic there?
I think it's a contextual thing with Gang of Four doing this stuff with strings. Part of the point of that would be the edge of surrealism about that, involving strings in that set-up. There's elements of it which were successful and quite interesting. I think it's a mixed record.
I think "Woman Town" is a fantastic track. It's just a really interesting kind of narrative, this kind of five minutes into the future kind of vibe with it, the sounds and the whole feel of the track. This slow groove with this mumbling over it. I really like that song a lot.
Q: What happened to the group that led to the first break-up of the band?
Both Jon and I wanted to do some other things for a while. You spend quite a few years doing the same thing and you find you can do something else. Jon very much did at the same time and had another band for a while.
Q: So you didn't see any other ideas to explore with Gang of Four at that time?
We got to where ever we got and just felt like doing something else. We enjoyed making the last record but we just simply felt it was time to do something else.
Q: Could you talk about in more detail about the work you were doing after that?
I produced various bands like the Balancing Act. I did a solo EP called Dispossesion. I produced an EP for Busta Jones. I'd always kind of produced a lot with Gang of Four. Of course, I produced Red Hot Chilli Peppers in '84. I found it very straight-forward, just really a continuation of what I'd be doing there.
Q: The Peppers seemed to have gotten a lot from Gang of Four.
They were very up-front about that. When they said would I come and produce their album, they told me "We're totally into Gang of Four. That's why we want you to come along." Obviously, there's a very big connection there. That kind of guitar-orientated thing obviously owes a fair bit to Gang of Four.
Q: What led you to reunite with Jon and start up Gang of Four again?
I think it was just a natural thing. We were very much in touch. We were just talking about it and I can't remember who suggested it. We suddenly thought it makes sense and why not? We talked about it and got together and did some more songs and it seemed to work.
Q: How was Gang of Four different then?
By that point, it was strictly the two of us. On Mall, we got in a variety of drummers and bass players. That had its advantages and disadvantages. I sometimes missed doing all the songs and getting into a rehearsal room and kicking them around. That's not the way it was done though. We'd kind of write the song and then just record it. That can be good in getting a kind of purity, a transition from the writing to going directly on tape. There's a kind of freshness about it but it has less of a BAND feel. That would be definitely the case with Mall. There's lots of stuff on it that I really like, particularly "Motel" and "Cadillac."
Q: Did you think Mall was a good statement to come back with?
Mixed, really. I think it could have been played more, like I was saying, in a more band sort of way. I was involved in a lot of programs and adding a lot of electronic elements to it. Which is fine, but on Mall, it kind of fell between two schools in a way. It wasn't a band and it wasn't pure programmed. But there's some great successes. Some of the songs are really strong on there.
"World Falls Apart" is one of my favorite Gang of Four songs. It's a fantastic kind of apocalyptic kind of ramble. Musically, just the way the elements come and go, it's not as rigid a take on that as on Entertainment! but it's got a broader brush stroke.
Q: Do you think that the new sound that the band adopted came from anything you were hearing from the States?
I'd been spending a bit of time in L.A. and there was a rap station there called KDAY. I used to love to listen that station. That was great. It was when there was a lot of rap stuff that was on small labels that was done in somebody's bedroom. There was some really exciting stuff coming out. I used to love that. I always loved West Indian dub-reggae. I always felt that that was the roots of rap. It was similar but instead of being the reggae beat, it was funky. Lyrically, it was going off on any kind of thing. It was exciting.
Q: At that time, there was a compilation of older material, History of the Twentieth Century, that came out. Did you feel that you were competing against your own past?
Yeah, I think that's true. By that point, it's been going for more than ten years and a lot of people have gotten opinions about it and written stuff about it. Especially given that there'd been a gap where we hadn't been doing Gang of Four stuff. That's definitely true that what you're doing stands in relation to the other stuff you've done.
Q: Was it a burden that perhaps some people expected to hear that early sound again?
I think it shouldn't be and needn't be a burden. I think you can let it be if you get things out of perspective.
Q: After Mall, how were the live shows that you and Jon doing?
We played a quite a few gigs in Europe and America. We did a tour with Public Enemy and Sister of Mercy, which was kind of weird. (laughs) It was a kind of Lollapalooza type of concept. I think Public Enemy are great. It was a weird mixture of people. Andrew Eldritch (Sisters) was having problems with his record company at the time. There was a very strange atmosphere but it was interesting. We were playing all of these huge places all over the country.
It was kind of mixed with the crowd. (laughs) There were some people who were into Gang of Four and then there'd be some people looking at you "Who the fuck are you?" The cross-over between Sisters of Mercy fan base and Gang of Four fan base isn't that great.
Q: Public Enemy seemed to be have some common elements with Gang of Four- you had another group with loud, harsh music with shouted slogan over it. Did you see a connection there at all?
Yeah, kind of. I think it goes as far as you just said. Probably no more than that though.
Q: Did you see this new Gang of Four as being part of the music scene at the time (early '90's)?
I think it did and it didn't. We'd never really been in the business of following trends. It's just a record (Mall) which had some very great moments on it as far as I'm concerned.
Q: What about the last Gang of Four record, Shrinkwrapped? Was that a big departure from Mall?
I don't think there's a huge change but I think I learned something from Mall. A lot of that stuff had been played as a band. Half of the songs, we played for a bit and then recorded it. Shrinkwrapped, to me, is an aesthetically successful record. It's really imaginative and original. I hate blowing my own trumpet! It's got a sound to it and succeeded over Mall in certain respects because it's more played and a little bit more organic. That's why it works.
Q: Why did you and Jon part company again after that and put an end to Gang of Four?
I'd been doing more and more production stuff in recent years. Shrinkwrapped had been done in '95 and I'd been producing people all the time then. We either had to do one or the other. It was becoming impossible to run things so that we could synchronize our lives and get together and do it in a way that would work for both of us.
Q: Are there plans to release a live album or live videos from Gang of Four?
I've got some tapes and I want to get something out. There's no concrete plans to sort it out at the moment. If anybody wants to be of assistance! (laughs) There's that old live album called At the Palace from 1984, which didn't get released in America. I've also got a lot of really good sounding stuff from the 1995 tour that we did in America with new songs and old songs- it's a really good recording. A very high-quality recording.
Q: What projects were you working on after the band broke up again?
The second I stopped working with Jon, I went straight off and did the Michael Hutchence stuff. It was one of those weird timing things. I finished recording Shrinkwrapped in the summer and then the following week, Michael rang me up. He said "I wonder if you want to come and play guitar on this solo record I'm doing." I told him I'd love to. He rang back about ten minutes later and said "What I actually meant is if you fancy writing some songs with me." Which is typical in a way 'cause he was kind of a self-effacing guy in certain respects, didn't like to assume that I would want to go and do this. He asked me to come down to the South of France to have a go at it. I went down there and a few days later, we wrote a couple of songs and it went really well. I ended up spending most of the next six months on that. I went on tour in America with Jon for basically all of October but the rest of that time, I was writing songs with Michael and demoing them.
Michael and I went into the studio in '96 and recorded at various places in England. Later that year, he went off to record an INXS record- he did it fairly quickly, in about six weeks. After that, he did some more writing and more singing (for the solo album). By that point, we pretty much had a finished record. When he died, everything was obviously just put on the shelf.
Michael had basically paid for this whole process out of his own money. There wasn't a record company involved. He would make the record and get it finished the way he wanted it and then take it to whichever record company was appropriate. If a record company had been funding this, you could have been sure they would have it come out two weeks after his death. In certain respects, it's probably a good thing that there was a period of time which allowed for a certain amount of reflection. I don't think I would have been in the mood to get in there and finish it off (so soon). There wasn't that much left to do actually.
Q: Do you think the final release (Michael Hutchence) was pretty close to what he had in mind?
I do. It's not as if he had some kind of finished album in mind. He did want to make something that was artistically ambitious and wasn't just a set of very polished pop songs. He wanted which went beyond peoples' normal perception of him. That definitely happened. He'd done the international pop-star bit very well, better than most in a way. But he was also interested in doing something quite different, which is why he funded it himself. He knew that there'd be pressures from record companies (otherwise).
There's a couple of tracks that are very different from the way they would have been if Michael was finishing it. Obviously, "Slide Away," which is the duo with Bono, would have not come out in that way. That's something very definitely that was my response to his death. It was just this strange thing, coming across this last thing that I'd done with him. It was not finished though- there was this chorus and this 'slide away' lyric. It was strange to come back to this and hear him say "I just want to slide away and come alive again." I just wanted to somehow have it finished and be on the record. The way I figured out how to do it was to get Bono to come on and do the vocal. It was an opportunity for me and Bono to say goodbye as well. It was a finishing off process.
Q: What other projects have you been working on?
I had an album with the Stranglers recently and the Jesus Lizard. I did quite an interesting record with this Japanese band called Hal from Apollo '69 last year. I also did a Boss Hog record which was me doing half the tracks and Tore Johansson, the Cardigans' producer, doing the rest. He's quite a good producer. Christina from Boss Hog had this idea of each of us to work on half the tracks. I think it's a great record.
Q: What about right now? What are working on at the moment?
I'm working with this British dance band called Mucho Macho. It's two DJ's and they're musicologists. They're actually teaching me quite a lot about all kinds of stuff which I didn't know about, like people who did music for TV and films that we would very loosely group under 'easy listening.' There's an awful lot of interesting stuff there that gets completely overlooked. It's a combination of this stuff with dance beats.
Then I'm working with this Australian band called Mark of Cain. I think this'll be their fourth album. I've been in contact with them for about a year and a half. They've done a lot of backing tracks already in Sydney. John Scott, who's the main man, came out to London and we've been spending time doing arrangements on the tracks and vocals and overdubs and mixes. They've been working with the drummer from Helmut on it. He's done a really good job from what I've heard so far. I imagine that they'll be shooting for August or September to put this out.
Q: Do you listen to techno at all?
Yeah I do like that. This dance stuff I'm doing is no way techno but a lot of it is samples and different kind of song structures, kind of in a way like Gang of Four. It's like that with a lot of dance-orientated stuff. I did Bis' last album and that also involves a lot of samples and programming. It's all cut-up, sampled and re-arranged.
Q: Do you think that you'd want to work with Jon again as Gang of Four?
I think it's unlikely but I wouldn't rule anything out. I think he feels that it's something that's behind him now. I think I'm certainly ambivalent about it. I'll be doing some of my own music but I don't know whether it'll be under the umbrella of Gang of Four.
Q: Looking at the legacy of Gang of Four, lots of groups have praised the band. Michael Stipe has spoken very highly of Gang of Four. Did you see any connection there with R.E.M. and Gang of Four?
Yeah, definitely. You wouldn't just point to things and say "that song's borrowed from that." In many ways, it's like the ethos that's there. There's something about the way the songs are put together and the spirit of the songs, the position of the songwriter. There's a lot of shared territory there. They used to do a couple of Gang of Four songs in their set. There's a few things that they borrowed.
Q: How about Nirvana?
Yeah, there was the grunge thing too. Nirvana always talked about Gang of Four. I saw the connection there a little bit. Again, it's something to do with the space. It's not the quiet-verse/loud-chorus kind of thing they were doing. But it was some of the things going on if you listen to the verses.I think we had a certain influence in Seattle. We did a couple of big gigs there. For some reason, they took to us in a big way there.
Q: In general, why do you think people are still interested in Gang of Four?
I don't know. (laughs) I think Gang of Four did do a lot of new things and I think was influential on groups like the Peppers, R.E.M. and U2, bands that have become huge and global. People see the connection with those things so maybe that's part of it.
See some of Andy's favorite music
Also see Andy Gill's web site
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