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GANG OF FOUR: ANDY GILL The X-Press Interview

Andy Gill is a founding member and songwriter of legendary Leeds post-punk act Gang of Four. His guitar work, blending funky grooves with a slashing punk attack, defined the band’s sound and it’s fair to say Gang of Four’s debut LP, 1979’s Entertainment!, is one of the most lauded and influential rock albums of all time. No Bloc Party without them, for one. For the album’s 40th anniversary, Gang of Four have hit the road and are playing the album live in its entirety, front to back, touching down at the Rosemount on Wednesday, March 20. Rounding out their live set will be other favourites from their extensive back catalogue, as well as tracks from their upcoming album Happy Now, out March 1. MATIJA ZIVKOVIC discusses the formation of Gang of Four, the formulation of Entertainment!, and what the band has in store for their latest release.

A pleasure to chat to with you Andy. Gang of Four is a legendary band, an inspiration to countless acts after your 1979 debut Entertainment! You’ll be touring this album this year for its 40th anniversary, and will be hitting up Perth in March. Are you excited to come to Australia and New Zealand, and is there anywhere you’re looking forward to visiting on tour?

I’ve worked in Australia, and with Australians, quite a lot over the years, and there’s a lot of people I know there. Great band – the Mark of Cain – are based in Adelaide, so we’ll be getting in touch while I’m there. Regurgitator, for whom I mixed an album, they and their manager live in Brisbane. And there’s quite a few people in Sydney that I’m in touch with. So it’ll be nice to see some old friends. In the past when we’ve played in Australia I’ve hugely enjoyed it, so I’m looking forward to the whole experience. And also of course New Zealand, which is such a beautiful place.

What do you enjoy most about the experience of playing live?

When you get a relationship with an audience and you get that feedback – obviously it’s something I’ve done a lot of over the years, but every time you walk on the stage it’s a new thing. Also what makes it exciting is doing new material, doing different songs. There’s a few songs on Entertainment! that we never play, but we’ll be playing them now. So it’ll be fun to meet those old friends. It’s quite a funny year for us – brand new album coming out in March [Happy Now] – so we’re telescoping from brand new to 40 years old. We’ll be playing current single Paper Thin.

I have heard it – it’s very good. And I really enjoyed your Complicit EP from last year – very angular, great instrumentation, and a very scathing indictment of the Trump administration…

Thank you very much! We’ll be doing some of those songs. We’ll be playing Entertainment! first, and then onto the new stuff. And also songs from the intervening period – songs like Love a Man In Uniform, To Hell With Poverty, and stuff like that.

Let’s wind back to Entertainment!. Since its release it has become legendary. You meshed punk energy with angular funk grooves and dub. You influenced many artists, bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, REM whom you toured with in the early days, and the whole indie-dance movement like Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party who wouldn’t exist in their current form without the groundwork you guys laid. But even before Entertainment! – what were some of your musical influences growing up, and what got you into music in the first place?

I’ve always loved music, especially American music. But I didn’t think I could do it myself. Then one day my cousin showed me how to play Satisfaction by The Stones, which is the simplest thing you could play. That got right under my skin and kicked me off into getting really interested in the guitar. Then as a young teenager I was listening to Hendrix all the time. But I would also get into Motown and Stax. Steve Cropper, who was the in-house guitarist for Stax – I think of him as being the antecedent for Nile Rodgers in a way. Very tight, funky, chord-based approach, which is pretty much the exact opposite of Hendrix. Those were the two polarities that I was getting into. Anything from The Velvet Underground art-noise approach through to Jamaican reggae, James Brown.

I can definitely hear James Brown in your guitar with those skittering fragmented chords. So you guys formed in 1977… that’s such a seminal year in music – the punk explosion in England with The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Buzzcocks… and then the whole New York scene. What was the spark for forming the band at that time?

What happened was that (former singer) Jon King and myself, through a friend of ours, we got introduced to Mary Harron. She was a journalist living in Manhattan downtown – I think she worked for New York’s Punk magazine off the top of my head. She very generously let Jon King and myself sleep on the floor of her apartment in the summer of ‘76. We were there for a few weeks. Of course she knew everybody – she’d take us down to CBGBs and we’d be standing there drinking with the members of the Patti Smith Band, John Cale, Joey Ramone. It all seemed normal. You had this idea that well known musicians would be unapproachable, but it was far from it. They wanted to chat, to hear about Britain, you could talk about anything. The penny dropped with me and Jon – we can do this. There’s nothing special about this. So we came back to Leeds and carried on working on songs. Eventually we got in a drummer and bass player, and did our first gig on May 1977, in Leeds.

Was that angular, groove-based sound something you had from the beginning?

It develops. When you first start writing songs, some of them you’re just mucking about, some of them not that serious… but when you start to take it more seriously, you start to work on a new song, you drop an old one, then another new song, then dropping another. You develop like that, and you adjust your aim as you go. You think, what’s the most successful thing here?. It’s this energetic but funky groove thing. And so you drop some of the things that are less in that pocket.

And so that’s how Entertainment! came about?

Yes. A month or two later, and I think it would’ve been different still. We were writing songs right up until the last minute. At one point somebody had the idea of us going off to Wales to this ramshackle rehearsal space somewhere, and we wrote Not Great Men which is one of the last things we wrote and probably my favourite track on the record.

Yes I love that track. A very simple but powerful message…

The Chili Peppers told me that that song is what made them want to start the Chili Peppers.

Wow! For me – Damaged Goods is one of my faves – not an unpopular opinion. And I Found That Essence Rare – such a cynical track. For this tour you you’ll be going to some of the deep cuts. Do have any ones that you’ll be returning to, that you quite enjoy?

Yes. For example Guns Before Butter and 5:45 are not songs that we usually play. And Glass – don’t often play that. Quite a few years ago, Glass was not one of my favourite tracks on the record. But I revisited it and worked out a slightly more simple arrangement, without the arpeggiating chords – which I figured out is what makes it a little bit fussy. The way I play it now is a little bit straighter, and it’s become a song I love playing now. It’s really two chords, and the second chord I do a variation – if I was a cleverer guitarist I’d probably know what it is – some diminished thing (laughs). I really like it because it’s subtle and simple.

Lyrically Gang of Four have always been quite political. Entertainment! touches on themes of materialism, capitalism, segregation and inequality. One theme of the album I took away was that of commodification – commodification of experiences in order to sell products, commodification of relationships in the way that social interactions are transactional. What do you think of the state of the world today – do you think much has changed since the 70s?

It’s one of those funny things where, yes of course things have changed, yet so much is essentially the same. It looks like a different world because everybody has smart phones and Facebook, but really it’s all the same. The commodification of things is as true today as it was then. In the 70s a lot of people thought, including myself, that things were going to improve. That society was going to make progress, that racism would disappear, that gender inequality would be less and less until that disappeared. But of course, that hasn’t happened at all, and history has got a funny way of looping back on itself. Now we’re in this situation where there’s a backlash against what a lot of people would consider to be progressive values. We’re finding that all over the world – whether it’s Brazil, America, or Russia where homosexuals get tortured and killed and all the rest of it. So people will sometimes say to me – the words of Entertainment! are as relevant now, if not more so, than ever.

Was that some of the inspiration behind the Complicit EP? What’s your opinion of the current political climate in America?

Generally speaking, Gang of Four has tried to avoid being current affairs specific. Most of the songs are not about particular issues at the second. However, it was such an extraordinary moment when Trump (came) into power, and one of the first things he did is install his daughter in The White House. And tells the world that nepotism is great.

Yep. Your song Lucky summed it up. “The lucky get the luck” – it’s all money, influence and nepotism in the end…

That’s right. And Ivanka kinda wrote the track Ivanka for me. I don’t add much to the track, it’s just what she said. Just quoting from her speeches. I don’t particularly want to have a go at Donald Trump – I’ll leave that to other people – but I think in this particular instance, when she was wheeled out as the explainer of the Trump ideology, it was just too good an opportunity to let go.

So your new album Happy Now is out in the first week of March. What can we expect and what’s the musical and lyrical approach?

There’s pretty heavy grooves. It is largely funky, no surprise from Gang of Four. And there’s an industrial side to it – the guitars are quite processed. There’s some surprising things on it – there’s a song called White Lies on it, which some people have said is almost a ballad, and I’m happy to call it that, if that’s what it is (laughs). The way it was made was that I was determined to work with other people in the studio and not to produce everything myself as I’ve done in the past. It adds a certain external discipline – their imaginations brought to play on what I’m doing, that was important. And Gaoler (John “Gaoler” Sterry, singer since 2012) is very accomplished in the studio – in the last five years he’s really grown into the task. Live he’s fantastic, but also on this record. Also it should be mentioned – we have a fantastic singer from The Nova Twins, Amy Love, doing backing vocals on quite a few tracks, which really adds to the album.

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