Andy Gill Opens Up About Gang of Four’s Lasting Impact, New LP + More
Gang of Four will forever be considered one of the greatest post-punk outfits of all time. Founded by guitarist Andy Gill, Gang of Four have released seven full-length studio albums since their debut in 1979 -- and are gearing up for their latest effort, ‘What Happens Next,’ set to drop on Feb. 24, 2015.
‘What Happens Next’ marks Gang of Four’s first record without vocalist Jon King, but that shouldn't concern fans; the situation only pushed Gill to make the LP better than ever, taking the opportunity to re-imagine the band he founded -- and he decided to include some very special friends in the recording process.
Gill was recently in New York City and we had the distinct honor to chat with him for a bit. Covering both Gang of Four’s history and future, he fills us in on everything happening in his world -- including one of the proudest moments of his career. Check out our exclusive interview below:
How often do you make it to New York?
Not that often, actually. It's been a few years since I was here last. It was three years ago with the release of the last album -- haven't been here since then.
What's going on with Gang of Four’s new record?
Well, I'm immensely pleased with it. It's been really hard work but that's what I like doing. This time I was determined to get some other people involved with content, in the past I just did everything myself. I think that's wrong. I think number one, stop being such a control freak and number two -- for example, Simon Gogerly who mixed this is someone I’ve known for a while, I've always loved his mixing. I thought, why would I mix this when there are people out there and all they do is mix? Every day they get up and they mix records. They live and breathe mixing. Let's, for a start, let's give that to someone else. It's great working with him because he's very -- he does aversion and sometimes he lives in the middle of nowhere, miles and miles out. Sometimes I'd go there, but usually we go into the thing -- he'd email me something asking me what I thought. We'd tweak it and stuff. I kind of wanted someone to come in and co-produce with me for similar reasons.
But, that’s sort of what I did with this guy Josh Rumble who came in and kind of helped me out with stuff. A lot of the time, you think a song is finished and to actually push it over the finishing line, there's a hell of a lot of things to do. I got him in for the last six months, just to kind of help me with all of that stuff. Slightly different process of what the last record was anyway.
So, where you're at today, you look back on the process fondly, kind of of like a freeing experience.
During it though, was it tough to give up some of that control?
No. I knew it was the right thing to do. No, it wasn't tough. It was all kinds of enjoyable, just because getting those things done and hearing them actually come together at the end, it's all kinds of fine tuning. It's like -- all those things which are a bit rough and then maybe you weren't 100% satisfied with the words said on the second verse or something. Go back and change it a bit, and all of that finishing off is great because you know you've got something good and all you need to do is get it right.
And inside the studio, you brought in some special guests, too. Alison Mosshart, what was it like working with her? You've worked with her in the past, right?
Yeah, I produced some for her. I don't know, I always like having some women involved. It sort of changes the perspective a bit, it changes the feel of it. She was great, she came and actually did -- sang two songs in a day. We did ‘Broken Talk’ in the morning and then ‘England's In My Bones’ in the afternoon. She was fun to work with.
You've been doing this music thing for awhile now. How do things like Spotify, iTunes, Pandora -- how does that affect how you approach an album?
It doesn't. The truth is, the way most people get records is they'll get one or two tracks or whatever. But, I still really like the way on a record the songs work together and somehow kind of inform each other. You can pull one out and just listen to that one but they work together as a piece and I still really like that. There are still some people who just want to listen to an album and not just one track, believe it or not. [Laughs]
Instead of letting digital services dictate anything, you’re more influenced by the idea of Side A has these tracks, Side B has those tracks.
So is vinyl something that's still important to you?
Do you still collect?
Me, I don't know. Not really. I can't remember the last time I went out and bought a vinyl record. But, a lot of the stuff I actually listen to is on vinyl.
What do you think of the state of the music industry today? There has been a lot of discussion this year specifically about Platinum albums in the U.S. Things like Spotify are obviously taking over a lot of people's attention, and so is what U2 did with ‘Songs of Innocence.’ But, vinyl sales are skyrocketing, relative to years ago. What's your take on the last 10, 20, 30 years?
Compared to -- on that timescale, 10, 20 years ago, it feels like a bit of a disaster. But compared to three years ago, or something -- I don't know. I was talking to somebody I know who is the boss of the PPL [Phonographic Performance Limited], know what that is? I don't know what it would be called in America. It's the performing rights society that pays musicians for their performances as opposed to their songwriting. So if you play on an album, as a session musician or something or in any capacity, you get a little bit of money from global sales of that record, or that performance.
It wasn't always that way, it's a relatively new thing -- well, at least 15 years. She was trying to convince me that Spotify is not the devil. You get your publishing statement and you get paid for the downloads, CD sales. The Spotify thing is always pennies. 250,000 plays, that's eight cents. Hmm, OK. But she's trying to convince me that actually they are trying to improve things for the artist, but I don't know. The jury is out on that one.
What do you think it is about Gang of Four that has such a lasting impact? You released your debut in 1979 and here we are in 2014 talking about your next record.
I think in part it's because the live shows are really good. It's not just that they're good -- they're kind of authentic. I think that's true of the music too, it's a little bit about truth and authenticity. God knows it's never been about making a quick buck. So, people kind of know that and they know that there's not going to be run-of-the-mill stuff and they know it's going to be interesting points of view about the world they inhabit. A lot of music isn't, the majority of music isn't. The majority of music is often a vacuum and the same old take on love songs and stuff. I think some people really don't want to have the world reflected back at them, some people do. Some people are interested in having some reality. Some modernity in the stuff that they listen to, that it's not just pop, just nice tunes or whatever. I think there's a role for that and so much music is just not interested in that sort of thing unfortunately.
And some people don't even know they want to hear it. You've always been a socially, politically motivated band and artist. What's your take on politics today compared to when Gang of Four started? Obviously you have a unique perspective on traveling to the U.S. and living in Europe.
In a weird way, it's sort of similar. Gang of Four have never been into proselytizing, telling people what they should do or, you know, let's all sing the internationality together. There's never been that. It's been a bit more of, well this is what i think it's like to live in this world now. I'm not suggesting a set of changes that are going to make it better for people. It's observational about what's going on around us and that works on a lot of different levels. I think its just pointing out some truths, but in a way that is poetic and in a way that resonates to people. I think in a sense it's kind of boring to say well, this is what’s wrong with society. It's not going to get you anywhere, but I think in order to put things in front of people that resonate in a way and elegantly summarize certain aspects of things -- I think that's kind of what I'm trying to do.
And you do you feel like you do that that with ‘What Happens Next’?
Yeah, I do.
Someone —- it may have came from the album’s description -- called ‘What Happens Next’ your boldest record ever. What goes through you head when you hear something like that?
I think it’s good. When you've been around awhile, I think some people want to hear you do what they consider classic Gang of Four, whatever that is. Some sort of retake on entertainment. But with what was happening then, the sort of sounds I was making in 1979 were a response to what the environment was then musically and lyrically. That's what I’m doing now, but the world has moved on. I don’t want to do something that sounded like then, which belongs to the here and now. I don't spend much time thinking about that, I just get on with it.
When you start making a record you're not quite sure where exactly it's going to go. You keep pushing it and trying to make it into a bit of a sculpture, chipping things off and trying to make it go a certain way. But at a certain point you have a hard moment and you sort of see -- oh, that's what I'm trying to do. Eventually something starts to click. Then you see where the thing is going and you try and facilitate it going in that direction. There's a great moment where it becomes a two-way thing. I think it’s like writing. Sometimes when you start you're not quite sure where you're going. But there's a point where you do start to see where it's going and you just go with it.
Are you the type of artist who, even while in the middle of promoting a new record, is already looking at the next album?
I kind of am, yeah. I sat on the plane coming over and there's a bunch of tracks that were kind of half finished when the record was done. At a certain point we had to stop. I'm starting to think about those things -- then people go, “Oh, well we need a bonus track for iTunes.” OK. So you really start working on that. I was writing some lyrics on the plane coming over, and they are quite good. The thing is, it's fun. You don't really -- once you open the tap it's quite hard to turn it off. You gotta keep going.
You've done a lot of producing over the years. What's one of the proudest moments of your career?
Here's a weird one. Working on the Michael Hutchence [self-titled] record -- obviously Michael died, inconveniently. There was a song that was absolutely gorgeous that was only half finished and sort of the standout track. It was called 'Slide Away.' When we made that record there was no record company involved. Michael just wanted to make the record at his expense and when it was finished and great, sell it. Give it to the highest bidder or whatever. So when he died there was nobody involved. You can imagine the fighting over the estate and, [groans], it was just a nightmare. He had this accountant who had put a lot of his money hidden away and this guy just made out like it was his money, all kinds of sh-t.
So the record kind of sat around a bit until Virgin stepped in and [Richard] Branson said, "This is amazing. Yeah we want this." They listened to all the finished and semi-finished things that we had and there's this song, 'Slide Away,' that was clearly unfinished and he had some singing on it, and they thought it was fantastic; we've got to finish this! Problem is, Michael is dead and he can't finish these words. We only have half a verse here and a chorus. So, I said if we get Bono in to kind of sing so it'd be like a bizarre duet. So Bono came in and I wrote a bunch of words and Bono came in and sang it. Finishing that off, that song, it's kind of the best song on the record and even though Michael wasn't around to hear it, I was very pleased with the way that turned out. He was a great friend of mine and Bono's -- it was good to finish it off. And the current record I feel immensely proud of -- it's been hard work and it hasn't been easy the last few years. You get this done with these fantastic people that are involved, we haven't mentioned Herbert [Grönemeyer]. He's not known over here so much.
Right, he's not.
He's not. But in Germany he can't walk down the street, it's insane. And because he's kind of conquered Germany and now he's very into playing America and Britain and stuff and doing things in English. Of course, the problem is, I went to see him in this great venue called the Roundhouse in London. He did a gig there, but 90% of the people who turned up were Germans and they wanted to hear it in German, no English. So they literally shouted, "Sing it in German!" No, he sang in English.
But he's an old friend and what a voice. His voice, it's quite uncanny. Sitting in the studio with him, we've got our vocals on the track to kind of give the melody and the whole vibe, but his singing, the precision of the -- it's quite thrilling with somebody of that caliber. The way he just hits a bit of vibrato half way through a note and then knows exactly when to make it straight again. That precision and that kind of -- of the work he does I'm not very keen on the more rock and roll tracks. But there's something he does, which is almost a ballad but angst ridden, very German about the pain of love and stuff. That's where I find he's at his absolute best and where his voice is emotional -- and it really hits you. So, when he said would you like me to sing something on your record, I thought, well I've got this track, I've got that track -- yeah, fantastic. Then I thought, I'm not going to waste his voice on something. It has to be in that area, that moving area -- so I spent a lot of time working on that song 'The Dying Rays' really for him. I kind of sculpted it exactly for him and I like the German version as much as the English version, although it's funny. I think in German it's -- his voice is even more effective in German than it is in English.
Gang of Four’s ‘What Happens Next’ hits the streets on Feb. 24, 2015 via Metropolis Records, and features collaborations with a number of stars including Alison Mosshart, Robbie Furze and Herbert Grönemeyer. Get details on the new LP -- and everything happening with Gang of Four -- at their official website.