It’s impossible to talk about post-punk without talking about Gang of Four. In 1979, the Leeds-based rockers released Entertainment!, which would later come to define the genre. The exclamation point at the end of the title says it all—in its twelve tracks, the band gets fired up about a wide assortment of topics, from bloodshed on the news to crippling lust to the debut of the bikini (which they dub “the worst thing in 1954”). Underscoring this clever commentary are Frankfurt School of Philosophy influences, guitar riffs well suited for flailing around at concerts, and basslines that are surely featured on a few “Best Of” lists somewhere on the Internet.
Gang of Four has gone through a few lineup switches over the years; guitarist Andy Gill, the only original member remaining, is now joined by vocalist John “Gaoler” Sterry rather than Jon King. The group’s still going strong, though. HAPPY NOW, Gang of Four’s tenth studio album, is on its way—and if the cover art and single “Ivanka (Things You Can’t Have)” are any indication, it’ll take on political injustice with the same fiery ethos the guys demonstrated 40 years ago.
Recently, we had the chance to chat with Gill before he played the Space Ballroom in Hamden. We talked about everything from new single “Paper Thin” to classics like “5:45” and “Natural’s Not in It”; then we got some snapshots of the show.
TYF: You’re on tour right now.
Andy Gill: Yeah. We got in last Saturday night. Long, long trip from London. We’ve done a few gigs—San Diego, LA last night—and they’ve all been good.
TYF: Do you have any notable stories from the road so far? Anything particularly memorable happen?
Gill: Coming into LA. It feels like it’s getting a little bit harder and definitely a lot more expensive to go through the whole process [with] visas and all of that stuff… But after a long journey, we got to immigration at LAX. There were 700 people in all, and about three guys stamping passports. So I thought it was going to take forever—and when I got there, the guy said, “Oh, you haven’t filled out the customs form right,” ‘cause my tour manager had done it for me and he kind of got it wrong. And then he said, “Hold on, you’re in Gang of Four! I’ve seen you three times. Don’t worry!” (Laughs) Sometimes, you think maybe there is a God.
TYFl That’s fantastic. Your most recent album comes out in March; what can we expect from that?
Gill: Well, as always, it’s kind of rhythm heavy. I guess you could call it funky. I’m always careful about where I put the beats. Right from the first Gang of Four records—especially back then—one of the things that set the band apart was how carefully the rhythm side of things was put together. I’m very careful about… You know, the bass does something on this place, this riff works around that drum beat, the vocals work around both of them. The instruments and vocals are designed to work side by side, and that continues to be the approach. But I think with this particular record, [there’s been a change]. See, in the past, I produced a lot of other bands, and for a while, that’s all I did. Lately, instead of working with another producer, I’ve been saying, I should produce it myself. Now I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s the wrong approach and it’s much better to bring in another creative producer and work together with him. On this record, HAPPY NOW, there’s like, three other co-producers I’m working with, and they each did three or four tracks. I found that a really great way to go about it. I think [we got] a really good momentum. I would start really early in the morning, like, 6:00, and they would come along by 10:30 or something. And then we’d do masses of masses of work every day. And you can see the results happening in front of you. The whole momentum thing is something that I think is quite important.
TYF: I saw a poster for an upcoming show, and it featured a sticker that said “I was brave today,” an image of a bird wing, and an image of Donald Trump’s face. Is this the cover art for HAPPY NOW?
Gill: (Laughs) Yeah, it is. I was walking around in the park in London, and [I saw] this rather sad bird wing there. Almost perfect, just the bird wing; it rather hit me. And yeah, Mr. Trump is on top of a Cappuccino, where the chocolate would be, and the little bear is a little sticker they give you at the doctor’s for kids: “I’ve been brave today.” In my sick and twisted mind, I put those images together with HAPPY NOW.
TYF: That’s a great graphic. Your new single, “Paper Thin,” just came out. What was the inspiration behind that song?
Gill: Well, I think we’re going into a bit of a phase where… I mean, everybody talks about this, but people are not knowing exactly where they’re getting their information from and whether they’re confident that it has any veracity. If you go back 15 years, there were lots of newspapers and journalists who actually went out and did special stories, and the editorial team had a fact checker and all of those things. I’m not saying that then, you could rely on the news being truthful, but you could be confident that a lot of the information was substantially authentic. And now, people are just getting stuff from Facebook that their friends posted or whatever, so we’re in this weird echo chamber [where] you don’t really know what’s real and what’s not real. So the chorus of that song is, “Once it was solid, but now it’s all paper thin.” And I think that sort of creates a sort of general anxiety. I think people are more anxious these days, and I think it has to do with not knowing who to trust.
TYF: This year is the 40th anniversary of Entertainment!, which is your most memorable album to many critics. Are there certain songs that seem especially relevant to the modern age when you listen to the album and then you look around at the world?
Gill: Yeah. I mean, some people have said it’s more relevant now than it was then. I don’t know about that, [but] I think there are songs on that record that feel very relevant to now. “Not Great Men,” “Love Like Anthrax,” “Natural’s Not in It…” I guess those sort of jump out. A lot of themes on that record are, Why do we think this particular thing? Is it because we’ve been taught to think this? Let’s say somebody’s saying, “Women should stay at home and have babies,” full stop. Some people have argued that’s a natural state of affairs, and I would say it’s not natural. It’s something that’s been invented. This gender imbalance is kind of an invention. We as humans have invented it, especially the males… although, funnily enough, there’s a lot of women who agree with it as well. It’s the idea that there are things are not natural; that there’s bits of ideology that we’ve invented to keep this sort of power structure. That was a big deal when that record was released, and I think is as relevant now as it was then.
TYF: For sure. I remember when I heard “5:45” for the first time, in particular; I thought that it seemed very relevant to the 21st century.
Gill: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a song that we don’t play that often, but we’ve gotten it out of the closet and given it a dust down. And Gaoler, who’s now been lead singer for seven years—he loves playing the melodica, so it’s his favorite thing. He’s like, “Yes, let’s go, let’s do it.”
TYF: That’s so great. I recently picked up the melodica. It’s a great instrument.
Gill: It’s a great instrument! It’s got such a cool sound. We first got into the melodica through reggae records. In early reggae, it was used a lot. It’s such a cool sound, and they were kind of designed for kids to learn music on—you know, like a recorder, but with a keyboard—but it got used really, really well. I don’t know if you know this reggae guy, Dr. Alimantado; he’s kind of big time in Santa Monica. But that’s where we got it from. That’s where we first thought of using it.
TYF: Was there any particular broadcast or political event that inspired “5:45,” or was it just looking around at the general climate?
Gill: Back then, when it was written, there were only about three channels in the UK. It was the BBC, BBC 2, maybe, and ITV. And the news always would come on at 5:45 in the evening, the Early Evening News… I can’t remember whether it was the BBC or the ITV that had that particular news slot. So that was what it was about. And back then, there was this background in the UK, the fighting in Northern Ireland, and the British forces who were there who were occupying Northern Ireland… It was very different times from today. So [in “5:45”], I’m getting this stuff through the TV; I’m in my house, eating something and watching the TV. It’s like, How much of this is basically propaganda and cleaning up the truth and making it more permissible?Because, you know, there’s no two ways about it. Some of what the British government was doing in Northern Ireland wasn’t that wholesome.
TYF: “Natural’s Not in It” was used in Marie Antoinette. How do you feel about the song in the film?
Gill: I thought it was so clever! I thought that was really brave. It’s like, you’ve gone to great lengths to get this beautiful period drama. Everybody looks great in their French period clothes… and [Sofia Coppola] slams “Natural’s Not in It” over it. A round of applause! That’s really cool. And it’s clever. I like the idea of looking at history like that and crashing things against each other. Taking things from way back and things from right now and pushing them together, because you learn things from that.
TYF: I thought it was very cool, as well. On the note of movies, what kind of movies do you like to watch in general?
Gill: I find myself looking at a lot of really old, old movies. I think one of my favorite films is a film from the ’40s called with David Niven in it. It’s called A Matter of Life and Death. Do you know the film?
TYF: I do not.
Gill: It’s this weird, surreal sort of fantasy. David Niven plays a British fighter pilot during the war, and he’s flying, and he’s been hit by enemy aircraft stuff. And the plane he’s in, it’s catching fire and it’s coming down, and he’s talking to the radio operator on the ground, and they fall in love in the last minutes. And then he crashes. And suddenly, this guy who’s dressed in a 17th century French outfit appears and says to David Niven, who’s lying on the beach, “Excuse me, but you have to come with me to heaven.” And he goes, “What are you talking about?” And he says, “You are dead. Come with me to heaven.” And they go off to heaven and everybody who’s ever died is here in this court room. And they have to judge whether he can live or die, ’cause he’s borderline. And somehow the radio operator gets involved, and they are operating on his body in real life. And then there’s a staircase, which is the “Stairway to Heaven,” which Led Zeppelin wrote about. That’s from that film as well. It’s just crazy.
TYF: That sounds really good. Kind of like a strange, twisted It’s A Wonderful Life, in a way.
Gill: That’s in my top three, probably.
TYF: What kind of music do you listen to?
Gill: Lately, I’ve been going back to Run the Jewels, which I like. All kinds of stuff. I’ll say one thing for Spotify: it’s kind of useful for jumping around stuff and listening to things that you haven’t heard for a while and new things that you haven’t heard at all.
TYF: When you look around at today’s rock music, do you think that bands are as political or as controversial as they should be?
Gill: I think sometimes they play it too safe. Although Tom Morello [of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave] came to the show last night, and he was talking to me, and some of his new stuff is great, and he’s a bit of a Gang of Four fan. I like his attitude, you know?
TYF: You and Jon King met at art school. Do you think that your art school years influenced the way you approached music?
Gill: Yeah. Leeds University, Fine Art department… There was a brilliant professor called Tim Clarke, who I think is at Berkeley now; he certainly was [an influence on our music]. I think his approach [regarding] the way it works and the way it interacts with the context of the time was definitely influential for me, anyway. And the way I thought about a lot of the things that Gang of Four did was definitely influenced by what I took away from what he was talking about.
TYF: A lot of Gang of Four lyrics are grounded in Situationism and the Frankfurt School.
Gill: I mean, the Frankfurt School bit I totally get, and I agree with that; the Situationist thing, I think is less [true]. I know Jon King has said a couple of times that the cover artwork for Entertainment!is influenced by Situationism, and I don’t really agree with that. To me, there’s a strong political element, but I really just liked putting pictures and words next to each other and playing with the meaning, and making it funny or ironic in a way And I don’t think that’s necessarily Situationism. To me, it’s a strand of pop art in a way. Yeah. But I totally go along with the Frankfurt School thing.
TYF: And when were you first introduced to the Frankfurt School? How did you stumble upon it?
Gill: I would probably put it in the category of Leeds Fine Art, as well. I didn’t know anything about it until I was at Leeds doing that stuff.
TYF: One last question: in a recent interview, you said that 50% of Gang of Four audiences are under 25. How do you think that came to be?
Gill: Well, every place you go, it varies. We did a tour of Europe in the autumn just gone, and that was really true. It was definitely something like that. And then you’ll do a gig somewhere else and it will be an older audience. It changes wherever you go. We’re going to China quite soon, and Japan, and when we’ve played there before, it’s definitely [been] a younger audience. I think part of the reason is because a lot of younger bands have kind of referenced Gang of Four.
TYF: Yeah. Bloc Party…
Gill: …And Franz Ferdinand, or more recently, St. Vincent. She talks about Gang of Four. Even Pharrell has brought up Gang of Four as something that’s politically influencing. I think with N.E.R.D., Pharrell’s thing, he’s kind of picked up on Gang of Four stuff. And Frank Ocean, I saw him playing Gang of Four… It’s interesting stuff, not who you’d instantly think of, you know? It sort of keeps it lively. It’s not just from the distant past, you know?
TYF: For sure. All right; is there anything else that you would like to say to the readers and the fans before we wrap up?
Gill: We’re really excited to be back. It’s been a little while since we’ve played in America, and the shows have been fantastic so far. We’ve kind of sold out everywhere. So we’re looking forward to seeing them when they come to shows.