Andy Gill interviewed about the new Gang of Four album, "What Happens Next," and looks back on the group's long career.
By Bob Gourley | Published on February 22, 2015
The line-up of legendary UK post-punk band Gang of Four has changed quite a bit over the years, but “What Happens Next” marks their first album without vocalist Jon King. With King too busy with his advertising career, guitarist/songwiter Andy Gill brought in new vocalist John “Gaoler” Sterry and assortment of guest singers. Allison Mosshart of The Kills appears on “Broken Talk” and “England’s In My Bones,” Robbie Furze of The Big Pink handles vocals on “Graven Image,” and actor/singer Herbert Gronemeyer (“Das Boot”) brings his unique style to “Dying Rays.” Despite the variety in vocals, “What Happens Next” is a powerful and focused album that rejuvenates the Gang of Four sound in exciting ways. We had the opportunity to sit down with Gill to discuss the new album and the evolution of Gang of Four.
Could you talk about the decision to use several different vocalists for “What Happens Next”?
“Let’s start with Herbert [Grönemeyer]. I think he’s a phenomenal singer. I’m old friends with him. He’s a funny guy, a really interesting guy. I was talking about the album and stuff and he said ‘would you like me to sing something?’ So I said ‘that would be fantastic.’ He’s recently started doing some things in England. He’s conquered Germany. He’s like the #1 selling artist in Germany. He put out an album in English which I love. He does kind of rock and roll stuff, which leaves me a bit…whatever…but he also does these very angst-ridden Germanic Wagnerian pain ballads. And that is what really sort of touches me. When he said that, it got me thinking…he could do this one, or he could do that one. But then I realized, no, I’m not going to waste this opportunity; I will design something which plays to his absolute strengths. So with ‘The Dying Rays,’ I had his voice in my mind when I wrote that. It was quite a struggle; it went through quite a lot of different versions in a couple of months. I kept inviting people down to the studio to give me their opinions, other musicians who I respect. Eventually, I got it. I had tremolo guitar locked to the rhythm, which sort of unlocked the problem.
“As for Alison Mosshart, I did a bit of work with The Kills and I like her as a person.
“Obviously, Jon King was a big part of Gang of Four. What an incredible, imaginative, inventive guy he is. What you don’t want to do is go: ‘The king is dead, long live the king, here’s the new guy!’ You don’t want to do that. It’s also that I’ve done so many records over the years, working with other artists. It’s almost second nature. So it just felt very natural to work with a bunch of different people. I thought it was very appropriate.”
Did you generally have tracks ready to go when the vocalists got involved, or did you write specifically for them?
“I think the only track that was really written for the vocalist was the Herbert track, which was absolutely sculpted for him. But the Alison one, not really, no. I think that with Herbert, what I love is this kind of very Germanic, slightly melancholic thing he does. That’s why it had to be like that. But the others, no.
“Though with the track I did with Hotei, we co-wrote that. We sat in the studio and jammed with guitars. He came up with that riff on ‘Dead Souls.’”
Was there ever any question as to whether this would be a Gang of Four album, or perhaps the start of a new project?
“No. It’s hard to express this. When I start working on a song, it IS Gang of Four. At various times, Gang of Four had been me and Jon where I’ve kind of done all the music and we collaborated on the lyrics. So that approach continues.”
How did you come to work with John “Gaoler” Sterry, the new regular Gang of Four vocalist?
“It was bizarre. It’s was odd. I thought ok, I should have someone who does the vocals live. I guess I’ll have to do auditions or something like that. I wasn’t quite sure. I’d been roughing out some songs by doing vocals myself. Then I said to Aaron, the manager, ‘I need someone to come down and do some proper versions of these things I’ve been doing. I don’t care who it is, just someone with a decent voice, whoever.’ And then Gaoler came down and sang a couple of tunes. I thought, wow, he’s great, he has an amazing voice and is really really good. So I said, ‘do you fancy doing this live?’ And he said ‘yeah, I’d love to.’ So it was literally just like that, the first guy who came through the door.”
Do you ever consider what long-time Gang of Four fans will think about what you’re doing now?
“It crosses my mind, and the answer is that I don’t care. I’m very much NOT trying to keep the old fans happy. I’m grateful for people’s enthusiasm over the years, but what I like to think is that people like it not because it sounds like one specific thing, but because it has the same adventurous approach to solving the problem of what it is to make a song in the here and now. And that may sound very different than what it did in 1977. I’m not really interested in pleasing those people who want it to sound exactly like that. How boring is that? I tend to just follow my instincts and get on with it.”
With such a large catalog of material, is it difficult deciding which older songs to perform live?
“It is hard, and in preparing for shows I keep putting it off, thinking ‘what the hell am I going to play?’ there are certain songs that I feel have to be played, like ‘I Parade Myself’ from the mid-90s. I can’t imagine a set without that…I guess ‘To Hell With Poverty,’ as well. But they sit very well next to the things now. The song “Isle of Dogs’ is one we’ve been playing live a lot. I want to play ‘Obey the Ghost” pretty soon. It sounds very big on the record, but it’s quite simple.”
Have you done any shows using the guest vocalists from the album?
“Not yet, but we will. There’s a plan to do a show in London and see if we can get everyone who’s on it to come along. That song ‘Broken Torch’–there’s a Portuguese version of it with Legiao Urbana. They’re like Brazil’s biggest band, and sadly the singer died a few years ago. But they were very influenced by Gang of Four. They did a couple of big shows in São Paulo with Wagner Moura singing, and they got me out to play on a few songs. The main guy in it is a guy called Dado, and he sang on a Portuguese version of ‘Broken Torch.’ We also have a Chinese version. When I was in China last year, we played in Beijing and Shanghai and we had Chinese guest singers come on. There’s a band called Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, which is very coded Chinese political commentary. They are big Gang of Four fans. So Huadong, who is their singer, sings a Chinese version of ‘Broken Torch,’ which is awesome. That won’t be on the American version, but there will be other versions. People have started to wake up to the idea that there is a big audience in China.”
Gang of Four has had many incarnations over the years, but the original line-up came back together for a while starting in 2004. How did that come about? Was the intention just to play live together again?
“At the time, there had been no Gang of Four for quite a few years, since the mid-90’s. Hugo and Dave kept phoning, saying we should do it. And I said that I wasn’t sure if Jon King would be into it. They kept saying, ‘oh, we don’t need Jon King.’ There was some singer from Seattle they suggested working with. It was to play live, really. We did a bunch of dates in the States. And then, I said ‘let’s do a new album.’ There were all kinds of thoughts about who was going to be involved and who wasn’t. Mark King had become involved on drums at that point, and Dave said he wanted to be involved in a new album but didn’t have any ideas for what he wanted. It basically went back to me and Jon again, and I think Jon appeared to be very into the idea. But we did ‘Content’ during Jon’s lunch breaks, basically. It wasn’t a very satisfactory way of going about things. It was hard to get him to fully commit; it became a case of finding the odd five minutes for him to come in and do a vocal. That’s not the way to do things.”
Did you consider asking Jon to do guest vocals on the “What Happens Next”?
“I did think about it for a minute or two. But he very much said ‘I’m not interested in writing anything or any kind of recording.’ I think it’s probably for the best.”
Has there been any point where you felt that Gang of Four was actually over?
“I think in the late 90’s I was just really concentrating on record production and working with other artists. That’s what I did, and it [Gang of Four] never crossed my mind. But when I turned to it again, I do feel like it’s my favorite thing to do. I love working with other artists, especially when I’m involved with writing, but I think doing your own thing is where it’s at.”
The music industry is quite different now than what it was when Gang of Four started. What changes do you think have affected you most?
“To make things work, you need some financing. People need to be paid, and all that stuff. It’s not as easy as it used to be. You have to find different ways of doing things. But does that change the way you go about making songs? I don’t think it does. People spend a lot of time talking about being very pissed off about people not paying for music and piracy, and it is a massive hassle that makes things very difficult for artists. But at the end of the day, I don’t think it really changes the songs you make, the way you write them or the way you perform them.”
You haven’t been on a major label for a while. Is it different working with indie labels?
“It’s funny what people say about that. The first label we were on was Fast Product, which obviously was independent. Then we went to EMI. A lot of the talk was ‘oh, EMI will make them change their music!’ We’ve never had less involvement from the label than when we worked with EMI, or Warners. You do what you do in the studio, and then say ‘there you go, there’s the tape’ and they put it out. Chris Briggs, who was the A&R man at EMI, would come down to the studio to listen and then say ‘right, let’s go to the pub now.’ Nobody ever said anything about anything. We’d just hand in the music and the artwork. Over the years, having worked with all these other bands both on majors and independents, the ones who are most involved and want you to change things are from the independents! They feel it’s more their baby, and the guys at the majors just say ‘yeah, great, whatever.’”
You’re about to kick off a tour. Do you plan on working on new music immediately after that?
“I’ve got a load more songs on the go at the moment, so it would be great to not wait two years to put out another record. It would be fantastic to put it out in a year or so.”
“What Happens Next” is out February 24th on Metropolis Records. For more info, visit the official Gang of Four website.See all interviews →