Four decades, nine studio albums, various line-ups and an unwavering ability to remain urgently relevant have secured Gang Of Four’s standing as one of the most significant post-punk bands of all time. Under the direction of founding member Andy Gill and with John "Gaoler" Sterry on vocals and long-time collaborator Thomas McNeice on bass, the band is preparing for the release of a brand new album Happy Now, due in March 2019. This 10th album also marks their third PledgeMusic campaign, once again with signed formats, a Studio Playback, exclusive Scrapbooks and more. We caught up with Andy to get his take on the music industry, how the band's processes have changed over the years and what to expect from Gang Of Four.
Happy Now is your third PledgeMusic campaign. What is it about the platform that works for Gang Of Four and keeps bringing you back?
Traditional ways of signing to record companies, where they take most of the income, have become more and more problematic. It’s difficult for most artists to make that kind of situation sustainable. It probably works for mega-outfits such as Coldplay, for example, but for most acts, Pledgemusic is an attractive alternative. The main benefit of it is that you can maintain contact with genuine fans. In conjunction with Pledge, you can figure out what you want to offer, and this can include one-off experiences. This time around, for example, there are options to meet up with Gang of Four at a range of venues or to come to my studio to listen to the record; these are possibilities that other platforms don’t offer. We played Nottingham Rock City on Saturday night and the support band were setting up, I went over to say hello and one of the women in the band looked really familiar and she said “do you remember me?” and I said “I recognise you but I don’t know where from”, and it turns out she had come to the studio playback three years ago. So great things like that happen. We have kicked off this campaign with the set of options you see and we will be adding new opportunities as we go along.
Guest vocalists on your last album What Happens Next included Alison Mosshart and Herbert Grönemeyer. Will we see more collaborations on this album?
In terms of artists, this is a collaboration-free record.
When I began working on the last album, What Happens Next, I was on my own in the studio and figuring things out about Gang of Four. I thought it would be good to have guests singing on the record—and this was a first. I didn’t really have a firm plan. Everyone was asking “okay so what happens next?”, quite literally. Herbert approached me to sing on the album – he’s got an incredible voice, and Alison is a big Gang Of Four fan.
Then I started working with Gaoler. The majority of songs from What Happens Next actually feature Gaoler singing; it’s a hybrid between Gaoler on vocals and the guest artists. I started on songs for the new album Happy Now about a year ago, and whilst I say there are no collaborations with artists on the record, in another respect, there are—with producers.
Again, this was a new departure. I’ve worked with so many different artists in the past, but I usually thought: “you’re a producer Andy, you produce it”. What that has meant is that I’m writing the songs, recording them and performing them. It's like a filmmaker writing the script, directing, producing and acting all at the same time. This time I wanted people bringing different opinions to a project. Ben Hillier (Blur) and Ross Orton (MIA and Arctic Monkeys) have got their techniques and ways of doing things and I found that exciting. You think to yourself: "that’s not quite how I would have done it, but I like it". Ben Hillier has various bits of old analogue synthesiser, so he put the bass drum through that and all sorts of bizarre sounds would come out of it, which is right up my street. In a way, it was a little bit more from the dance world and Gang Of Four has from the beginning had some kind of crossover with strong elements of funkiness, very strong rhythmically. The way the songs on the record fit together, you’d have to listen really carefully to know which one is Ben Hillier and which is Ross Orton [or the mysterious ‘Decoy’] because they all live in the same world. They all come from the same place.
Your last release, the Complicit EP, was only released 6 months ago. How does Happy Now relate to the material on Complicit?
There were a couple of Ben’s tracks and a Ross Orton on the EP. I started writing and recording last November/December so by the time we got to February I had five songs completed and I wanted people to get a taste of what was going on in the Gang Of Four world. ‘Ivanka’ was the lead track and we thought over the summer that it would be good to have a video for it, so I was working with a video director, Pete Cannon. We found an Ivanka Trump lookalike, and I thought if we're going to do this then let's rework the song. It's not a remix exactly, but it has different verses in it and it’s faster and I changed the baseline and the beat, so the version that will be on the album is pretty different.
Your debut LP Entertainment! was famously influenced by the specific time in history and covered themes such as politics, feminism and commodification. How much did the current state of global politics and the social landscape influence this album?
The way I approach these things is actually quite similar now to then. There are a lot of stylistic differences, but the core is consistent. It is frequently noted that the observations and perspectives of the debut album feel like observations and perspectives on today’s world. I suppose that's a testament to the prescience of Entertainment! and to the ways in which the songs reflect and analyse their context. Of course, the last thing you want to do is just bang on about Trump, but he’s impossible to ignore. He tells his own story, and you’ve got the Fox News-Breitbart right-wing media that goes along with him and amplifies him. But most people can see what he’s like – they don’t need me to tell them. So I suppose the kind of backwash of recent activities has some sort of analysis in some of the songs. It actually gets specific in the song 'Ivanka'; it's more interesting getting her point of view and the things she says; "I don’t know what it means to be complicit" is such a fascinating line, [the Trumps] tell their own story, they wrote the song for me. I want to let the characters speak for themselves. I don’t need to say whether its good or bad or voice my approval or disapproval. That's the power of it.
It’s been 40 years since Entertainment! and the Gang Of Four line-up has evolved over that time. How has the writing and recording process changed as a result?
Back then there were no computers. When we started out it was Jon King and myself, both art students in Leeds. We'd sit around in his bedsit and have a game of chess that went on all afternoon, I'd have a guitar and we'd have half a bottle of gin and knock ideas around in a very unselfconscious, slightly jokey kind of way. I think at a certain point we said: "this is really good, we should find someone that can play the drums". We’d go into some dingy rooms and knock some songs around. I would tell the drummer [Hugo] to play this kind of beat and when he should hit the hi-hat or the kick drum. He’d argue with me. We spent a lot of time arguing
Nowadays, if you take the technical side away from the conversation, it's really not that different. It looks different because back then it was physical drums and physical guitar and you were in the room knocking things back and forth. Now it looks a bit more high tech and you're probably programming the drums, to start with, on the computer. But essentially it's not that different.
And how has the releasing side of things changed?
We’re kicking off with Pledge at the moment and other forms of mass production will probably come into play. The idea of quote-unquote self-releasing has become much more popular. As streaming has become more crucial in the way that music gets distributed, anyone can put anything up you don’t have to go through Warners, for example, to stream your music. You can do it yourself. The corollary to that is that the income is much less than it used to be; streaming doesn’t pay a fortune.
Having been in the industry for four decades now, did you see it going that way? Does it make sense to you?
I understand why it has. What happened was with the digital revolution, people started pinching music and distributing it peer-to-peer, so record companies were literally just going bust and everyone was really struggling because there were sites like LimeWire that took music and gave it away for nothing. The industry contracted very rapidly with companies going bust and studios closing down every week. The whole model underpinning the music economy was broken and then streaming services came along: "well, we’ll pay you a bit, we’re not going to take it for nothing and we're not going to pay you a fortune. But we’ll pay you a bit". The problem for musicians and songwriters is how to get a bigger, liveable share from Spotify or whoever it may be.
You’re currently in the midst of touring. What can we expect from your live shows? How has the dynamic and approach to a live show changed for you over the years?
Gang Of Four started out as a live band, a really strong live band, it’s what we do. We’ve just had tours in the UK/Europe, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil and an American tour is coming up in February. Then Japan and China and Australia and New Zealand. Beyond that the future is unknown.
Back in the day we played what we had, a lot of Entertainment! and Solid Gold, but there's been an awful lot of records since then. Now we play the favourites from the different records but we still play the favourites from Entertainment! and Solid Gold. We might play just one track from Songs Of The Free, we might play one or two from Shrinkwrapped, a couple of songs from What Happens Next and we’ll play a few songs from the new record. It's interesting how the new output and the old works together, about how well the songs actually sit next to each other.
Read more about what to expect from Gang Of Four's current live shows in the brilliant Louder Than War review of recent Manchester Ruby Lounge gig. John Robb cheekily asks, with the new young line up, if they are the best young band in Britain, reporting that they are "sounding better than ever…. Full of energy and intensity and zig zag darting runs across the stage they are exploding with the vim and vigour of ideas, energy and action".
You posted on Facebook that “the artwork will feature a mosaic/montage of images: some feel-good, some neutral, some disturbing.” Very gnomic, can you tell us any more?
The more I do this music creation thing, the less I’m inclined to explain it. Gang of Four perhaps did a little too much explaining in the past. I feel that’s the job of critics. So all I really want to say about the imagery is that it has a number of meanings and references, not all of them immediately obvious. I collected some photos that I took myself. Different images inform each other, give context to the other, and sometimes contradict the other. It's the different ways that you can see the world, the different streams of information that come to you. Some things are genuinely bland, and I want that to be reflected in the artwork. Some things are bland, some things aren’t meaningful. Like real life. It’s supposed to be playful, a little game. The world can be savage and it can hurt. We take the knocks and we try and get on with it.
Gang of Four has attempted to be truthful. Now we’re trying to be truthful in an age where nobody believes anything, not even the truth. Happiness is always an odd one; so difficult to pin down. Our personal lives are always a mixture – sad parts, sometimes outright tragedy or joy. But in our youngest years we were invested in the idea of linear progress, the idea that whatever happened to us, things were getting better: the world would be less sexist, less racist. It seems that history is quite capable of twists and U-turns.
Among the offerings in your PledgeMusic store is a studio playback with yourself, where fans can join you in your London studio for an exclusive playback of the new studio album, a drink and an informal Q&A. This is something you’ve offered before on your previous campaigns; obviously the experience is hugely rewarding for your fans but do you get something out of it as a musician and producer too?
I enjoy talking about the music and getting questions, interacting with people who are clearly really interested to know why things are the way they are and why they’ve been done, and I should also say that Gaoler has been co-writing on several of these songs as well and I expect that he’ll be at the playback as well.