More about: Gang of Four
When I ring Gang of Four’s Andy Gill he confesses he’d completely forgotten we were due to talk. Seeing as it’s a rather unsociable (for a post-punk pioneer at least) 9.30 on a Tuesday morning, I start to worry this could end up being a very short interview.
But thankfully after a few opening formalities, discussing how Gill has been going through emails and admin for the upcoming release ‘Live…In the Moment’ (‘the mundane side of the music industry these days’) we both start to relax and warm to our respective subjects.
He is full of enthusiasm for the record, showcasing as it does the power of Gang of Four’s most recent incarnation.
“I think it’s one the best things I’ve ever mixed, it’s sounding strong,” he says. “I love mixing the live albums. It’s an interesting balance of finessing things, taking out certain bits that don’t sound quite right and putting other bits higher in the mix, and keeping that raw energy. Sometimes I’ll leave some of the mistakes in (not that there’s many, he laughs) if they lead to something that sounds interesting or different. That’s what makes it live.”
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And although it’s not uncommon for musicians to make this claim when promoting material, in this case he’s not wrong. The record itself, recorded across two shows in New York and London in 2015, is the first live album the band has released since 1984’s At The Palace.
And listening to both back-to-back, they sound hugely different. But the essence of Gang of Four, what makes the band the band, comes through on both. This is more remarkable when you realise Gill is the only musician to play on both recordings. But he doesn’t see this as a big deal.
“I don’t feel like Mark E Smith, with this sort of revolving door policy,” he laughs. “But I’ve just always played with musicians who I’ve met or heard somewhere and I respect. The current line-up sounds incredible and that’s why I wanted to put out the live album now; to capture that.”
But Gill hasn’t always been as satisfied with his output. In 2004, in the middle of the mini-indie revival, Gang of Four reformed after a lengthy hiatus. Many of the bands of that era (Block Party, Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand) cited Gill and his band as one of their primary influences – and subsequently a new generation became aware of them. But this wasn’t a factor in their return, according to Gill. In fact, he doesn’t even sound sure now why it happened.
“It was just a few phone calls and then before we knew it we were playing shows,” he explains. “It was a bit of a strange reunion really. I’m not sure what it achieved. To be honest I don’t think it was the best version of Gang of Four there’s ever been.”
Having seen the band during that period, I’m tempted to agree. But I don’t want out fragile entente cordial (I feel we’re getting on pretty well at this point) to be broken. So we move on to the origins of the band. Formed in Leeds in 1977, their first album Entertainment (1979) is now hailed as a classic of its time. But Gill still harbours frustrations around its creation.
“There’s a lot of talk about the roughness of the songs, especially some of the guitar parts, but in truth a lot of that is a combination of being under time pressure in the studio and not being sophisticated enough musicians yet to do anything else,” he says.
I ask if they also felt under pressure to conform to the DIY sound, the album coming at the tail end of punk’s golden age.
“I think there’s a bit of that,” he says. “But really the scratchier stuff is just born out of the fact that’s all we knew.”
Gill accepts that most people see the band’s first three albums (Entertainment, Solid Gold and Songs of the Free) as “the classics”. But he struggles to see why they’re so easily lumped together.
“All three albums sound completely different to me,” he says. “The songs, but mainly the production, mean they all stand out independently from each other.”
And production has always been a big part of Gill’s career. He's produced almost all of Gang of Four’s output as well a whole raft of other bands. Some of this came in the mid-2000s indie revival, when bands who saw him as something of a musical deity started to call upon his services.
“Yeah so I did The Young Knives and Futureheads. It was interesting because I could hear bits of my own stuff in what they were doing. But it never really felt like they were ripping me off,” he says.
“They were quick to tell me how much Gang of Four meant to them and how much of their output they owe to our influence. So that was flattering.”
But Gill’s highest profile producing assignment wasn’t always such a love-in. When Gill produced The Red Hot Chilli Peppers' eponymous debut, things reportedly got so bad members of the band defecated on his desk. He recalls the origins of some of the frustrations.
“They were these kids who’d never been in the studio before so had no idea how anything worked,” he says. “So there was one time I tried to put compression on Anthony (Kiedis’s) vocals and he couldn’t understand what I was trying to do. He’d say ‘I was it to sound bigger, not smaller!’. And I had to try and explain to him that it would make it sound bigger. So it was tough trying to explain the process.”
A large source of friction came from the young Californians’ insistence that everything had to be “real and organic”, according to Gill.
“Another time I tried to get the drummer (Cliff Martinez) to play along to the click track and they wouldn’t have it because they say it was playing with a machine and not a human’” he says.
“So we reached a compromise where they drummer played a cowbell along to the click track and they’d play along to that.”
This absurd agreement perhaps explains why the marriage of Gang of Four, a band whose aesthetic couldn’t have less to do with protecting the man against machine, and Red Hot Chilli Peppers was not always a happy one.
But the band’s more industrial approach has inspired other younger bands. And this has come full circle with most recent Gang of Four studio album What Happens Next (2015). I point out to Gill that comparisons have been made with Nine Inch Nails. As so often happens, this is a case of the master’s late art being compared with the student’s.
“Trent (Reznor) has often told me how much of NIN was influenced by Gang of Four so it’s funny people are saying that,” he says.
This may forever be Gang of Four an Gill’s fate; appreciated more through that which they have influenced than their own art.
But as long as enough trickle though from the newer generations’ post-punk pioneers to songs like ‘At Home He Feels like a Tourist’ and ‘I love a Man in Uniform’ their own place in music history is assured. And as ‘Live…In the Moment’ shows, for now they’re more than capable of attractive new fans themselves.
More about: Gang of Four