Still Confrontational After All These Years: Gang of Four Embarks on a New Era

The group returns with a brand-new singer and its latest album, What Happens Next

Music Features Gang of Four
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It is both ironic and fitting that just over a year ago, the British post-punk band Gang of Four performed for the first time ever in China, the country whose Communist political faction from the ‘70s provided the band its namesake. It was an experience that the band’s guitarist/producer Andy Gill describes as amazing—another indication of the band’s reach beyond the West.

“It was great,” Gill tells Paste during a visit to New York City back in November. “About four months before, I had been producing a Chinese band in Beijing called AV Okubo. That was brilliant, really fascinating. And also going back a bit further, when we toured Australia in 2011, we had a Chinese support band called Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, which is sort of a coded Chinese kind of political name—it’s about Tiananmen Square. They were great. They used to play ‘Damaged Goods’ in their set all the time. Gang of Four has always had an international kind of thing, which I find incredibly gratifying. The fact the people in Brazil or China or whatever will like get it and be into it. I think it’s fantastic.”

Performing in China was just another recent series of firsts for a band who had influenced artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers (whose first record from 1984 was produced by Gill), R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Today Gang of Four will release its first new album in four years, titled What Happens Next, which is particularly notable since it is the first group project without original singer Jon King, who left the band to devote more time to his role as an executive at an advertising firm.

“To be honest, I think Jon has always been a bit half-in, a bit half out,” Gill says of his now-former bandmate. “Even with Content, the last record—getting him to sing on it, it would be like trying to find time on his lunch hours. Somebody’s writing a book about Gang of Four…he said to me that Jon wished he would have bailed out earlier. And I sort of agree with that. You can’t do serious work unless you’re all in, you can’t do it.

“In certain respects, I thought exciting opportunities are opening up here, not just the idea of working with other people but getting on with the songs and giving them the very thorough reworking and attention to detail that they required.”

The absence of King now leaves Gill as the only original member of Gang of Four. Yet despite this significant personnel change, Gill never considered folding the band. “It’s a tough one to talk about because the last thing I ever want to do is to be in any way negative about Jon,” he says. “There’s too much history. At the beginnings of the band, he was really fundamentally involved. And he’s a very imaginative guy. So it’s difficult because the more I go on…it starts to sound like I’m moaning. But not for one second did I think of changing tracks.”

What Happens Next also marks the debut appearance of new lead singer John “Gaoler” Sterry on a Gang of Four album, joining Gill, bassist Thomas McNiece and drummer Jonny Finnegan. At the time, Gill was working on some new songs that he was planning to sing himself and needed someone to record vocals as demos. “I asked our management, ‘Have we got anybody who could come and do some vocals?’” Gill recalls. “Gaoler came down and he sang a couple of songs with me. It was really good. Eventually I thought he’d be great live. I just asked him if he would be up for it. Again, no grand plan. He kind of walked in. I thought, ‘He’s a bit young, but never mind, nothing wrong with that.’”

The music on What Happens Next represents another musical evolution for Gang of Four from the minimalist post-punk of the late ‘70s—the new songs carry a state-of-the-art, almost industrial sound. But they still have the unique Gang of Four sonic DNA thanks to the music’s abrasiveness, pointed lyrics and Gill’s distinct guitar playing. The origins of the new album go back to December 2011 in Italy when Gill was working on a song titled “Graven Image.”

“Some of the songs went through many, many incarnations,” Gill explains. “I did one way, I changed it, I’d do another way, I changed the beat. Sometimes I’d get the real drums down and then I go, ‘I want to change the beat.’ I’d cut up the drums literally beat by beat and shift them around to make a different beat. Pretty insane. Some of the other songs, for example, ‘Isle of Dogs’ and ‘Stranded’ pretty much came out that way from scratch.”

In addition to Sterry, the album also features guest lead vocalists, including The Big Pink’s Robbie Furze and Gill’s old friend Herbert Grönemeyer, the German actor best known for his role as Lt. Werner in the classic 1981 movie Das Boot; the latter sings on the melancholic and subdued “The Dying Rays.” “When I was talking to Herbert about this record I was making,” Gill recalls, “and he was like, [imitating German accent] ‘Oh Andy, do you want me to sing this?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, sounds good to me, mate.’ I think he’s got one of the all-time top voices…it’s so precise and expressive. ‘Dying Rays’ were specifically written for him to sing. It was hard work and took me a long time to get there, again tried many versions, and eventually I got it.”

Gill didn’t have much trouble when it came to providing material for another guest singer, Alison Mosshart of The Kills, to perform on. That relationship goes to back to when Gill worked with The Kills on a TV series about the work of music producers. “It was like, ‘I got this fantastic song’ and I knew The Kills, I’ve worked with them—’Allison, do you fancy singing it?’ ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ ‘Okay, fine.’ That was much easier.” In addition to the edgy rocker “Broken Talk,” Mosshart, who is from Vero Beach, Florida, sang on a funk/rock track titled “England’s In My Bones.” “It’s kind of cool for an American,” Gill adds, noting the irony. “I love that.”

And while he doesn’t officially appear on the album, hip-hop star Kanye West somewhat played an influence on Gill. “I love that song ‘I Am a God’—it’s cool, isn’t it?” Gill says. “The other song that I really loved was ‘Hold My Liquor’—wow, great song. Thinking of the current music climate, nothing much tickle my fancy except those two tracks. I thought ‘This is good shit.’ On ‘When the Nightingale Sings,’ which is the first track on [What Happens Next] is a basic ‘boom-boom-boom,’ like on the beat—I think Kanye West’s got a song that does the same exact thing. Sometimes doing the very simple and obvious thing is the way to go.”

Lyrically, What Happens Next reflects the group’s modus operandi of documenting the current political and social climate of the world; for example, a few of the lines on the very heavy “Obey the Colony of Ghost” seem to take aim at Internet culture: “They make black and white of complexity/With Facebook friends and celebrities/Hold my hand in the community/And irony is a luxury.” The new album’s theme partly has to do with the idea of identity, according to Gill, as he cites recent political events in Europe.

“People don’t know where things are going anymore. There’s this new party called UKIP [UK Independence Party]—it’s an anti-EU, it’s like, ‘Get out of Europe.’ But all of the European countries have similar parties—some of them left-wing like Spain; in Greece, it’s an extreme right-wing party. In France, [it’s] the National Front—extreme right—who are hugely popular and may win the elections there. And also in Britain, we’ve had the Scottish [referendum] thing. A lot of things that nobody really saw coming. In Europe at the moment, there’s a lot of thought about what are we, where do our allegiances lie in the modern age. It’s not only about that, but the idea of identity and what we think of ourselves, and what we think constitutes ourselves is something which I think all over the world—it’s really interesting.”

That sense of expressing political and social views through music had been the foundation of Gang of Four going back to the group’s origins in 1977, when the members—Gill, King, bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham—were students at Leeds University. As writer Simon Reynolds explained in his excellent post-punk music history book Rip It Up and Start Again, Britain in the ‘70s experienced problems such as unemployment, race riots and fascism that complemented the punk rock revolution. He described Gang of Four as “definitely products of the left-wing university culture of the ‘70s, which even more than the previous decade was characterized by student militancy.”

“I think the thing that changed was the subject matters were overtly blown open,” Gill says. “The conversation could now be about anything you like. Whereas before it’s always been this thing that music had a certain few categories that it talked about, like cars, girls, guitars. Going back to the punk thing, I loved Dr. Feelgood. In early ‘73, ‘74 when I saw them, I was [like], ‘Wow, they’re so snappy, so mechanical, very tight and very theatrical, almost to the point of being a joke almost. I was very influenced by that, how amazing [Dr. Feelgood guitarist] Wilko Johnson was. For me it was always all of this stuff that’s got really cool beats and is funky, but I also want that noise thing like Jimi Hendrix or the Velvet Underground, that feedback noise. That was kind of in my head when Gang of Four started.

“And lyrically, we had a fantastic lecturer in art, a guy called T.J. Clark, who’s based in Berkeley these days. He was described as a Marxist art critic, and he came along to Leeds. I loved him—I thought he was amazing. I got a lot from him, approach to culture and the way art communication works and that was honestly very influential on Gang of Four.”

Though the group recorded nine studio albums in total and experienced personnel changes and shifting sounds in the last 35 years, Gang of Four will ultimately be remembered for its remarkable 1979 post-punk debut album Entertainment! Containing beloved agit-rock such as “Damaged Goods,” “At Home He’s a Tourist” and “Not Great Men,” Entertainment! remains an influential record. Even then, Gill knew there was something was special about it—although his colleagues probably thought he was nuts for thinking that way.

“At the time I remember talking to the other people in the band and our manager and saying, ‘This record is gonna be really influential.’ Everyone [was like], ‘Ha, ha, ha! Fuck off Andy, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I knew, and everybody else laughed at me. I couldn’t have predicted that, the way that generations just keep picking that up again.”

Flash forward to the present, and with a new record under its belt, Gang of Four will embark on a U.S. tour for the month of March. As for how What Happens Next stacks up against the previous albums in the band’s catalog, Gill replies: “It’s like whatever I say, someone’s gonna say, ‘Well, he would say that, would he?’ But I’m gonna say it anyway: I think it’s every bit up there with Solid Gold and Entertainment!. It pushes the boundaries a bit. It does stuff that other people are not doing. It’s a bit like a new language and that’s the idea.”