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Q&A: GANG OF FOUR’S ANDY GILL

Gang of Four_What Happens Next album cover

When Gang of Four frontman Jon King departed after 2011’s Content, that meant guitarist Andy Gill was the last original member, and he viewed it as a chance to reimagine the punk-funk band, which emerged from England in the late 1970s.

That’s exactly what he did — and the end result is the new Gang of Four album, What Happens Next, due Feb. 24 on Metropolis Records.

In addition to the current lineup, which also includes singer JohnGaolerSterry and bassist Thomas McNeice, the album features various guest voices, among them The KillsAlison Mosshart, who appears on the single “Broken Talk.”

Gill recently checked in to talk about the guest singers on What Happens Next, his approach to guitar sounds and more.

Medleyville.us: In a November 2014 interview with Diffuser, you talked about getting others involved with the content on What Happens Next and not being such a control freak. What influenced those choices — the realization that you were the last original Gang of Four member left, a high level of confidence in the other people you were working with, a little bit of both or something else entirely?

Andy Gill: “Well, the trouble is I’ve always been all too happy to come up with everything: the beats, the guitar lines, the tunes, find sounds, engineer it, produce it, mix it. Lyrics were usually, to an extent, a collaborative process between Jon King and me, though many tracks I wrote solo, and I’ve enjoyed writing on my own on this album.

“But it makes sense, from a creative standpoint, to involve other engineers and producers. The only reason I haven’t always used a co-producer is that the way I write in the studio often just seamlessly morphs into recording the final master. This time I did get a young producer/musician/programmer named Joshua Rumble, but it wasn’t till quite late on in the record. I did really want to have somebody else mix it, other than me, and I think Simon Gogerley did a fantastic job, and I’m really pleased I went with that decision to use him.

“None of this really has anything to do with me being the last original Gang of Four member. It’s just the way this particular record evolved.”

How did working with the different singers on What Happens Next influence the writing process and the arrangements?
Gill:
“Working with Herbert Grönemeyer did very much influence the writing process and arrangement, but I would say less so with Alison.  The song that Robbie Furze sings on, ‘Graven Image,’ was not exactly inspired by his hit ‘Dominoes’ that the Big Pink did a few years back, but I think it was somewhere at the back of my subconscious as I constructed ‘Graven Image’ and as I thought about Robbie singing on that song. I just got in touch with Robbie and asked him if he wanted to sing on this track I was working on, and he came down to the studio a few times and sang this wonderfully hard-edged, clear, angular vocal. 

The process of working with the other individuals seem to happen very simply; the process was quite intuitive for me. It was not thought out. I had done a little bit of work with The Kills in the studio, and Alison just sprang to mind when I was thinking about someone to sing ‘Broken Talk,’ and she had the right attitude to sing ‘England’s in My Bones.’ She was very happy to come down to the studio and sing a couple of the songs.

“Herbert is a friend: I’ve known him at least 20 years; Anton Corbijn introduced us back then. I was talking to Herbert about the new record, I guess 18 months ago, and he wondered if I would like him to sing something on it. I thought, ‘I’ve got this demo and that other song on the go, maybe he could do this, or maybe that.’ But then I stopped and went back and listened to a bunch of his recordings, and I realized that the particular thing that Herbert does that I really love is the rather angst-filled melancholy ballads. I knew I had to write a song that comes from me, and would be absolutely Gang of Four, but could also incorporate that particular aspect of his character, and could be a song that his voice, that voice, could inhabit — so, more than any other track, it really had to be tailor-made and incorporate something that was a little different for me.

“I had to work at that, and I went down a lot of blind alleys until I came up with the music of the ‘Dying Rays.’ It was quite an extraordinary experience hearing him sing it as I had heard it in my head — only better than I had heard it in my head.

Gail Ann Dorsey has of course has been in different Gang of Four lineups over the years as a bass player. She is a fantastic musician and a great, great singer and a very old friend. The song she sings on, ‘First World Citizen,’ was simply crying out for her voice.

Tomoyasu Hotei is Japan’s biggest rock guitarist; he spends quite a bit of time going ’round Japanese stadiums. Anyway, he’s always been a big fan of my guitar playing, and we got to know each other. Eventually, we decided to write something together. The opening riff of ‘Dead Souls’ is pure Hotei.”

At what point did Jon King leave this project and the band, and what were his reasons?
Gill:
“He first announced his intentions in March of 2011, just a few weeks after the last album, Content, came out. We had only done a few gigs at the point when Jon signaled it was over for him; he wanted to focus on his advertising career. We had intended for Content to launch a new phase of gigs around the world, so it was not exactly welcome news. It also wasn’t entirely surprising. He can of course be an absolute genius when it comes to lyrics, but his detachment had been clear.

“So for me, it was a case of rethinking Gang of Four. As I began working on this new record, I felt reinvigorated and seized the opportunity to reimagine Gang of Four. To an outsider, the writing process would have looked little different: I’ve always written and produced all the music, with Jon coming in with some of the lyrics, and I always wrote Gang of Four lyrics, too — sometimes half of them, sometimes less. But right from the first song, I began to interrogate everything I was doing more rigorously and take creative inspiration more widely. What Happens Next is very obviously a Gang of Four record, but I found myself approaching it with the energy and daring of a first album.

Guitar-wise, there are lots of interesting things going on in “Broken Talk,” the album’s first single. Talk about some of the gear that was used to get those sounds — there’s a heaviness there, but it’s certainly not metal.
Gill:
“As normal, it’s not particularly thought through, the guitar approach. As I write a song, as I start to put it together, I may try various different guitar approaches. Often when I do one thing, and I think it works, it will suggest to me some kind of complementary sound that happens at a different part in the song.

“I think with Content I had some idea that I would use an amp, a combo, like I had often done  in the past, but with What Happens Next, I had no preconceptions really about how I should make the sounds. I completely abandoned any idea of ‘classic’ guitar amping, and what I found myself doing most of the time was direct-injecting the guitar straight into the computer and then just putting any number of plug-ins on it within the software. I’m quite sure that a lot of purists would be completely horrified; guitarists can often be quite a conservative, conventional lot. I remember in the ’70s, when I was starting to create my Gang of Four sound, everybody used to go on and on about a ‘warm tone’ and everybody venerated valves as practically sacred relics. So I went for a transistor solid-state combo, which was considered by most people to be rubbish. It gave me not a warm tone at all but quite a brittle one, which suited me.

“Guitarists and producers today still have this reverence for warm valve tones: People see it as being somehow more authentic; everybody is worried about digital, everyone is worried about computers. ‘Warm up your horrible cold digital sounds,’ the [advertisements] in the music tech magazines keep telling you, with some sort of valve gear. I’m not worried about any of that; I just want sounds that are exciting. I embrace the digital, the computer.”

What are your plans following Gang of Four’s U.S. tour? Do you have any production jobs lined up?
Gill:
“What has happened with this record and the previous record, Content, is that I get to a point where it becomes obvious that unless I work 100 percent full-on at the record, it just won’t get finished. But once that process is over, I become a little more open to working with other artists who interest me.

“I think in general terms, what I look for in artists that I might be producing is a degree of originality and a fresh approach to the business of making sounds and creating songs. I also look for someone whose creative ideas would mesh with my own; that’s another way of saying I would only work on acts that I felt I could really bring something to. It doesn’t matter about the genre — it certainly doesn’t have to be guitar music necessarily at all. I’m just as happy working on, shall we say, pop-based songwriting as I am on industrial grooves, or guitar rock for example.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Gang of Four on tour (schedule subject to change):

* March 3: 9:30 Club — Washington, D.C.

* March 4: Theatre of the Living Arts — Philadelphia

* March 6: Paradise — Boston

* March 7: Irving Plaza — New York

* March 9: Lee’s Palace — Toronto

* March 10: Grog Shop — Cleveland

* March 12: Varsity Theater — Minneapolis

* March 13: Park West — Chicago

* March 14: Mercy Lounge — Nashville, Tenn.

* March 15: Variety Playhouse — Atlanta

* March 17: Warehouse Live Studio — Houston

* March 18: Trees — Dallas

* March 23: The Independent — San Francisco

* March 24: El Rey Theatre — Los Angeles

* March 25: Belly Up Tavern — Solana Beach, Calif.

* March 28: Burgerama — Santa Ana, Calif.

Left to right: John “Gaoler” Sterry , Andy Gill and Thomas McNeice (Photo by Leo Cackett)

Left to right: John “Gaoler” Sterry, Andy Gill and Thomas McNeice (Photo by Leo Cackett)

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