Interview by Graham Chalmers
After all these years it’s Andy Gill who is keeping the torch burning for Gang of Four – he is the only original member of this seminal post-punk still in the band, afterall, and he’s still committed to taking their sound forward, as a brand new track Broken Talk shows.
A collaboration with vocalist Alison Mosshart of The Kills and Dead Weather fame, it’s an impressively modern-sounding taster from the Gang of Four’s forthcoming album What Happens Next.
Fans can hear that – and classic numbers off ground-breaking albums such as Entertainment! And Solid Gold – when founder member Andy and the band’s current UK tour rolls into Holmforth Picturedome on November 27.
Andy said: “Although it got great reviews, I may have had one eye on the past when I recorded our last album. I think I wanted to make sure it was connected to that old Gang of Four sound. I completely controlled everything.
“On the new album I felt like I was just following my nose, letting it go where it wanted. I let other people get involved for once. I just wanted to make the best songs I could.”
Having influenced a whole generation of American bands such as Red Hot Chilli Peppers, REM and Nirvana in the early 1990s, things went a bit quiet for these jaggedy-sounding punk-funk pioneers as Grunge turned into Britpop.
I tell Andy that one of my friends, James, had suggested our next project in 2001 after the demise of our Charm music mag in Leeds should be a history of Gang of Four and the city’s music scene.
To my shame, I’d let the idea quietly drop through fear of the sheer amount of work involved and an unspoken fear of never finding a publisher or an audience.
Andy interjects to tell me there are three books about the Gang of Four in the pipeline currently.
One of them which is nearly ready for publication is an encyclopedic history of the band by someone in Canada, he says, a “big fat thing,” he adds before reassuring me he means the book not the author.
Where once there was Andy plus singer Jon King, bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham, who’d all met at Leeds University, now there was just one, well, four if you include lead singer John Gaoler, long-time bassist Thomas McNiece and drummer Mark Heaney.
I jokingly ask him now that’s he the sole original member, whether he’s happy to have finally got the Gang of Four he wanted?
I hear a slight laugh down the line.
Timing is everything and ever since the twin forces of Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up book and the revival of Rough Trade Shops emerged around 2002-03, the stock of post punk, in general, and Gang of Four, in particular, has continued to rise.
It’s not stretching the point to say that the band Andy helped form is now universally regarded as one of the most important in rock history.
Andy said: “It’s kinda flattering that people should cite us as influences. I did enjoy working with The Futureheads but I don’t that bands such as Bloc Party sounded quite as much like us as you’d think.
“There was an angular, spiky sound and a certain dryness and obliqueness of lyrics. I noticed that a lot of our beats and guitar sounds get borrowed but no one seemed to pick up on our lyrics our the meaning of anything.”
Thanks to the political edge in the lyrics of key early Gang of Four songs such as At Home He’s A Tourist, Armalite Rifle and and I Love a Man in a Uniform, the band found themselves banned by the broadcasters at regular intervals.
Andy, who’s developed a successful sideline as a producer over the years, said: “It’s not that you want people to have a message all the time. My feeling is that it’s too easy to write about being anti-militarist.
“What I liked about our early albums is the way we looked at things in a different way, from a different angle. We linked the macro to the personal and showed how it was inter-related.”
The grandfather of all serious rock critics, Greil Marcus still reveres Gang of Four as musical revolutionaries who completely deconstructed the meaning and structure of traditional rock n roll.
There’s clearly a side of Andy which feels comfortable with that level of appreciation.
“Around the time of Entertainment! a wave of pretentiousness came over me. I remember telling our manager then, Rob Warr, that what we were trying to do was like being in the Left Bank in Paris in the 1920s. We were inventing a new culture, I told them.”
Being passionate does not exclude having a sense of humour and it probably still comes as a surprise to some folks that Andy is quite capable of laughing.
When I, perhaps, foolishly reveal I had always thought he and the music critic Andy Gill were one and the same person, he tells me it was a mistake his late father also made occasionally.
“He sort of knew I wasn’t him but he did ring me up once to tell what a fantastic article I’d done in The Independent.”
The alternative to not being ‘precious’ about making music is simple, he thinks, settling for a compromise.
But, as anyone who tries to do anything creatively significant will tell you, from Picasso to Kate Bush, compromise in art may make life easier but it doesn’t make the results better.
“I’ve sometimes been called a control freak and I’ll happily accept that. I don’t think arguments in a band are necessarily good for creativity, they’re a bit of a waste of time – and the original line-up of the band was famously argumentative.
“But anytime I end up unhappy with records I’ve been involved with the reason is usually because I was to make compromises along the way.”
“I remember recording the Hard album in America and wanting to use synths a lot. But the people involved with the band then all thought real instruments were the true way to go. I was kind of over-ruled.”
It had all been so much simpler when the band had been starting on their road to creating the future of rock music just a few, short years earlier.
“The traditional thing was to have the drums way down in the mix, the bass a bit higher up, all gradually leading to the vocals at the apex.
“I wanted to sounds to be side by side, to be of equal balance. But I never wanted what we did to be difficult to listen to. I wanted it to have some connection to the pop world.
“It was incredibly exciting at the time. You’d play live in Keighley or Huddersfield and see the reaction of people to what you were doing.”
Egos and ideas, a combustible mix at all times. It make me wonder how the Leeds scene which swirled round the epicentre of the Gang of Four in their late 1970s heyday could coexist in the same spot.
I mention that I was in The Fenton in 2005 enjoying a pre-gig drink when his good self and the rest of the original line-up brushed past me on their way to their big reunion show at Leeds University.
The older, wiser Gang of Four had returned to this small, wooden floored pub to remember their early days in bar at the back and to the right, days which Andy tells me saw members of the Mekons in one corner, the Gang of Four in the other along with bits of Soft Cell and Scritti Politti.
“Imagine it. All of us in this one, same bar.”
Gang of Four play Holmfirth Picturedome on Thursday, November 27.