“This is exciting stuff,” remarked Gang Of Four guitarist Andy Gill, as an array of appetizers hit the table.
In New York City to do press for the band’s new record, What Happens Next, released on February 24, Gill arranged to meet me for a lunch chat at a Korean restaurant in Midtown.
As a wave of kimchi and spicy pork dishes appeared and I fumbled with my chopsticks, Gill recounted how he first grew to love Asian food while on tour in New York City in the early 1980s.
In addition to awakening Gill’s inner gourmand, years earlier NYC had played an essential role in the evolution of Gang Of Four, before the British quartet would go on to become one of the seminal post-punk acts and influence a legion of artists including Nirvana, R.E.M., and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the Big Apple, the band might never have existed.
In 1976, while studying at Leeds University, Gill and original Gang Of Four vocalist Jon King visited the city and became enamored with its gritty rock and roll culture.
They went to CBGB’s during their first night in town, and the fuse was lit.
“It was such an interesting feeling,” recalled Gill. “You’d be standing at the bar, and you’d see Joey Ramone on one side of you, John Cale on another side, along with Patti Smith and her band and people like that. And we’d all just be talking.”
Prior to that, Gill and his university pals had toyed with music just for fun and didn’t view it as a future career.
“We were arts students, with quite a lot of free time on our hands,” Gill said. “We would hang out, play chess, drink gin, I would play something on the guitar. We’d put together joke songs just to amuse ourselves, goofing around and making up silly songs about somebody we knew.”
With a slight change of circumstance, might Gang Of Four have gone in a different direction, ultimately becoming a post-punk version of “Weird Al” Yankovic?
Perhaps not, but it’s certain that immersion in the creative waters of 1970s Manhattan left an imprint on Gill and King.
When the pair returned to Leeds, they were committed to starting a proper band.
“Coming here, talking to people that I respected, sharing ideas—it lit the light bulb, so to speak. We went back home with much more serious intent,” said Gill.
Gang Of Four’s 1979 debut record Entertainment! forged a new sonic blueprint—fusing punk and dub while flirting with disco beats, as Gill’s stuttering stabs and King’s staccato barks grabbed listeners by the collar and demanded attention.
With biting lyrics that skewered capitalism and consumerism, the group was overtly political, adding intellect to aural arrangements that boasted tight interaction between players.
Gill knew at the time that his band was creating something special.
“It felt like inventing a new musical language,” he stated.
“The music was simple, but also sophisticated because everything was put together in a very precise way,” said Gill. “It was a bit like a Swiss watch, with each part depending on everything else.”
Gang Of Four’s guitar, bass and drum parts were so carefully constructed around each other, said Gill, that hearing them played separately would be pointless. “If someone says to me, play one of those tunes from Entertainment! on the guitar, it doesn’t work,” remarked Gill. “In isolation, it sounds stupid. The instrument is the band.”
In Gang Of Four’s early days, Gill was unimpressed by the musical stereotypes of the era.
“I remember thinking about the ‘musical apartheid’ that seemed to exist,” he said. “The white bands had to do the straight-ahead rock thing, and black bands had to make music that was rhythmic and funky.”
As a teen, Gill was influenced by Bob Marley & The Wailers, The Velvet Underground, and American funk music, and failed to see why the genres couldn’t be merged successfully.
“I somehow wanted to strip those things down, so you’d have the noise and cacophony of The Velvet Underground, but with the grooves of reggae,” he recalled. “It was like starting from scratch, and building something from the ground up.”
To the band members, Gang Of Four’s lyrical content remained as essential as the music. “Our idea was to make the song like a little drama, with a narrator or characters,” explained Gill. “The subject matter was talking about what makes people tick.”
Gill also developed a signature style of guitar playing, a cerebral and structured approach that stood apart from other six-string specialists.
“It’s almost like Morse code or something,” commented Gill on his technique.
“It’s like staccato notes in odd patterns, and deliberately thin sounding,” he added. “Rather than big, chunky chords, it’s always skinny and very precise.”
At this point during my interview with Gill, a waitress sauntered over and subtly handed me a device designed to help novices hold chopsticks, after she witnessed me struggling with them.
“The suggestion is that you’re not adept enough,” laughed Gill, who needed no such intervention.
“He seems like an expert,” the waitress remarked. (Let the truth be known—not only is Gill a whiz at guitar, the man can wield chopsticks like a pro.)
Gang Of Four was largely silent after the mid-’90s, but the original lineup reunited for a 2004 tour. In 2011, the band released Content, its first album of all-new material since 1995. While Gill became infused with newfound energy to keep Gang Of Four going, when attention turned to writing a follow-up to Content, King announced that he was out.
However, Gill was resolute in forging ahead, even without his longtime creative partner.
“I really wanted to continue and make a record,” said Gill. “I didn’t have a moment’s doubt about that.”
Gill embraced the opportunity to reengineer the band’s sound in dramatic fashion; for What Happens Next, he also handled all the lyric writing for the first time, and assumed production duties as well.
While early Gang Of Four material was laced with reggae touches and funk-influenced beats, What Happens Next dials down the danceability in favor of a moodier, electronic sheen. The album is a bold departure and decidedly modern in tone, the record’s title a statement about the current state of the band, as well as the world at large.
“I feel that this record is not retro,” commented Gill. “I feel it’s similar to our first record in the sense that it pushes ahead.”
Leadoff track “Where The Nightingale Sings” opens with an ominous computerized pulse before morphing into an industrial drone, with current vocalist John “Goaler” Sterry brooding sentiments like, “Turn your back on London’s bitter pride/Force feed yourself sentimentality.”
Sterry, a former session man, was brought on board by King to sing on roughly half the tracks, and has performed concerts with Gang Of Four for about a year. Yet What Happens Next relies heavily on collaborations with guest singers including Alison Mosshart of The Kills, Big Pink’s Robbie Furze, German superstar Herbert Gronemeyer and Japanese artist Hotei.
Mosshart in particular gets a chance to shine on the catchy, big-riffed “Broken Talk” and the snarling “England’s In My Bones.”
While some fans will naturally compare the new release to Gang Of Four’s most classic output, Gill isn’t interested doing the same.
“These songs stand or fall on their own merits,” he remarked. “Simple as that, really.”
Employing a variety of guest vocalists effectively shields Sherry from King’s ample shadow—the newcomer isn’t tossed to the wolves and presented as the “new Gang Of Four vocalist,” a tactic that Gill felt made sense.
“It takes a bit of pressure off and it would feel a bit fake otherwise,” said Gill.
Preparing for a full tour with Sterry as frontman, Gill acknowledged that longtime fans might feel reluctant to accept the band with only one remaining original member.
“In a way, it’s going to be asking a lot of older Gang Of Four fans,” remarked Gill.
But he insisted that the current touring lineup—which includes bassist Thomas McNeice, a band member since 2008, and new drummer Jonny Finnegan—is intent on proving any doubters wrong.
“There seems to be a preconception of ‘is this going to be any good?’ but when people see the shows, they think it’s great,” explained Gill. “So, you win that battle.”
For Gill, it’s all about looking to the future and inventing something unique, which is what made Gang Of Four so special in the first place. In that sense, the sounds on What Happens Next are completely in sync with the band’s legacy.
“I just wasn’t interested in doing the same old thing,” Gill said. “I wanted the excitement of starting from scratch, so it sounded fresh to people.”
Gang Of Four will perform March 4 at the Theatre Of Living Arts in Philadelphia, and on March 7 at Irving Plaza in New York City. What Happens Next is available now on Metropolis Records. For more information, go to gangoffour.co.uk.