The Collapse Board Interview: Andy Gill (Gang of Four)
Ahead of their rearranged Australian tour dates, featuring Entertainment being played in full, we spoke to Gang of Four’s legendary Andy Gill about his song-writing processes, what motivates him to keep touring and why he thinks the band’s 2005 original line-up reunion was misguided.
Hi Andy, what are you up to today?
I’m unfortunately dealing with just tonnes of email and things that need doing. I’m trying to get into the studio this afternoon. I’ve got about four or five songs on the go and I’m really keen to push them along. It’s tough when you’ve got so much other stuff you’ve got to deal with but I’ll see how I go.
Are you always looking to write songs, you don’t wait for a block of time between tours to think about a new album, it’s always on the go?
I think there’s a background. The least activity is when I’m just doing everyday stuff but I’m always kind of thinking. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m thinking songs and that might be lyrics or I might hear a commercial on the TV and there’s something about the beat that suggests an idea to me. Then there’s periods when I’m a bit more actively finding time to get in the studio and to put some ideas down and to actually work on stuff. And then there’s the most active time when I’m actually trying to make a record.
I quite like to get in a co-producer or an assist so there’s someone there to keep me from wandering off and doing stupid emails. There’s things that always need doing but sometimes you just have to really put them on the back burner and just get on with making a record. I try and get up pretty early because I think I get a lot of good stuff done early, before you start worrying about the rest of life. So it’s almost like there’s three different phases, levels of intensity, when it comes to song construction, but it’s never completely absent.
You cancelled your original Australian dates due to illness. Is everything ok now?
Yeah, I am. I’ve always kind of got a bit of a chest thing but got very nasty in the States. It was like two or three things all happening at the same time. I was in quite bad way and sort of had to go into hospital in the States a couple of times and be on oxygen and all of that kind of stuff. But that was then and I’m way, way fitter now at this point.
Was that your first experience of US medical care?
Not exactly. In the 80s I had something that I had to go to hospital for. The last day of the tour was New York and we had to cancel and then I came back and I immediately had to have hospital treatment in London. And so as a direct comparison, it’s very similar, as you would expect. In terms of competence and what they do, it’s the same kind of stuff. They look at the same things, they have the same equipment, et cetera. The big, big difference is that they charge an unbelievable amount of money in America, whereas it’s free in the UK. So let’s hear it for the National Health Service.
Is it like in the movies, where they give you a massive itemised bill so you get to see how much it costs?
Yeah, they give you the bill. And I’m in the process of a long communication with the insurers, shall we say. Let’s not talk about it, it’s depressing.
You’ve obviously re-arranged the Australians tour dates that you had to postpone back in March, did you arrange the other shows that you had planned for Asia?
Yeah. What we were going to do back in March was a couple of days of Japan, tour of Australia, New Zealand, and then China and that whole chunk just got moved back to whatever it is, October, November. So it’s the same thing but just kind of six months later.
You’re still keen to go out and tour with Gang Of Four in 2019 because you need to tour, because you need to get out of the studio, because you like playing live? What motivates you to keep touring and playing live shows?
I feel in many ways like the same person I was when Gang of Four started. Obviously, hopefully I’ve grown up in certain respects but the thing I do is write songs and I like to perform them live. So that situation pertains. I suppose right at the beginning it was a bit of a thrill to go around to all these places that you hadn’t been to before. Obviously that side of things diminishes a little bit, you’re not a wide-eyed, innocent like I was then, it’s subtly different, the long flights don’t get any more interesting than they ever were but that’s the way it goes for all of us.
There was a period in the second half of the eighties and again from the mid nineties where there wasn’t a Gang Of Four. Did you miss being in a band?
Well basically Jon King, the original vocalist, I think it’s fair to say that he often changed his mind, very often, and one month he’d be very enthusiastic about the band and then next month he’d be teetering on thinking about doing something else. So there’s been one or two periods when he said “Oh, I think I’m going to go and do something else now Andy, see you!” and it’s like “Oh, okay”. You can’t make people do things if they’re just not going to do it.
I’m a record producer as well as the other stuff I do. So I’ve always produced Gang of Four, sometimes with the help of inverted commas outside proper producers, such as Jimmy Douglas on the second record, who really made an impact on the sound I think. So “Okay, well I’m going to have to do something else and what I’ll do is producing.” In the first time in the 80s, I did a lot of production in LA and New York and then towards the end of the eighties, Jon rang me up and said, “Oh, I really fancy doing some Gang of Four, do you want to do it?” So we’re doing Gang of Four again, suddenly, and then he doesn’t want it. So it’s always been a bit on and off with Jon.
You’re coming out to tour Entertainment and celebrating 40 years of your first album but is that frustrating for you when you’ve just released a new album that presumably you want to showcase and promote?
It’s a funny one because we’re not coming out to try and sell more copies of Entertainment, that would slightly daft. We’re coming out and just reminding people that Gang of Four, especially in its current incarnation, is an incredibly exciting dynamic experience. And we will be playing songs from Happy Now as well.
I know the traditional concept is that you put out an album and then you do a touring cycle to promote it. We were supposed to be coming out in March and then it got put back. Sometimes there are things that are slightly beyond your absolute control and they don’t go quite the way that you wanted them to or how they were planned. We had that disaster with Pledge Music who were supposed to be initially releasing Happy Now and went bust like three weeks before the release day. The first half of this year hasn’t been the luckiest time for me but, you know, it could be worse! So I’m hoping the second half is going to be quite fun and exciting for everybody involved and I’m really looking forward to these dates coming up. We also have several things in the pipeline as well that we haven’t announced yet, but it’s been the timing of these things, you know.
Was that the first time you’d used crowd funding for an album?
No, we’d worked with Pledge before. I think this was the fourth campaign, but they went bust owing me money from the previous campaign and completely messing up the release of Happy Now. So we had to delay it and delay it and we had to really scramble around trying to find a different means of getting it out there. It’s not easy and not exactly what you expect. It wasn’t the London office, who are the people that I know and trusted, it was the American end of things who, in a nutshell, were really getting too big for their boots. They thought they were going to have a multimillion dollar industry and they were getting Wall Street backers and then they started sharing the Pledge internal money with the money that’s for artists, which is a great big no no, but that’s what they did. So, anyway, that’s that.
You first played Entertainment in full back in 2005 with Gang of Four’s original line-up and you said that in hindsight, it was misguided. What did you mean by that?
Well, Dave [Allen, bassist] was there right at the beginning but he quit very early on. He was doing weird things like when we were supposed to be going on stage, he’d hide in a cupboard somewhere. Frankly, we should have moved on from Dave at that point but we kept going and then he quit halfway through an American tour without any kind of explanation. We shouldn’t have revisited that, we shouldn’t have worked with Dave again and Jon King fired Hugo [Burnham], the original drummer, just after the third album. Sometimes the past is the past and it’s not a great idea to revisit it. So there were all kinds of strange goings on on that so-called reunion, so that was that.
I don’t get impression from reading interviews that you’re a nostalgic person and that you’re more forwards-looking.
There were many great moments in the distant past. I’m not pretending it was all the nightmare, not at all, there were many, many great moments which were enormously enjoyable. But I really don’t live in the past at all, I’m not particularly nostalgic and also I’m not particularly sentimental. Funnily enough, it’s one of the things Hugo used to complain about back in the day, to say that I was just a hard-hearted person and he was a softie and I was just a dictator and all of this stuff.
The thing is that I knew what I wanted Gang of Four to do. I knew how the drums should go and I’d tell Hugo “They should go like this” and he would fight me over it. Then I would tell Dave that the bass should go around the guitar in this way. Jon completely accepted that, he totally accepted that I did the music but Hugo used to struggle with what he thought was being told what to do. I would just encourage him to do things in a certain way.
Happy Now sounded a lot more politically direct to me but in all the interviews I’ve seen you say that it’s not. You’ve said it’s not based on current affairs, whereas I was thinking that it was. Is it hard to ignore current affairs in what you do and the music you write?
Obviously I’m hugely aware of everything that’s going on around us at the moment, both in Britain and America and in other parts of the world and it’s pretty worrisome. But I think when you say Happy Now is more politically direct, there’s two songs. There’s ‘Ivanka [(My Name’s on It)]’, which clearly couldn’t be more obviously about the president’s daughter and her role in putting a pretty face on this extreme right wing ideology.
Trump is mentioned very briefly in ‘Alpha Male’. You could take the whole song as being about the misogynist, rich, racist upper echelons of power in not just America. So on many levels you can say “Well that’s as it ever was”. It’s not current affairs, it’s just the way the is world is and has been for decades. So do you see what I mean in terms of the difference between talking about current affairs and just describing the way power works?
You also did the artwork for Happy Now. You studied art at university, have you kept up with creating art as well as making music?
AG: I’m not really creating art particularly, except when it comes to doing artwork for records. I’ve always been involved in doing the Gang of Four artwork. I think on Entertainment, Jon King and I shared the work and you could actually look at the sleeve and point to one bit and gone “That was my idea,” point to another bit and gone “That was Jon’s idea.” It was like that really and that’s true with a lot of the lyrics too, “Well that line came from me, those lines came from Jon, pretty much most of that song came from Jon, this song was 50:50.” You can kind of pick who did what, but on subsequent albums I was mainly responsible for the artwork.
GANG OF FOUR Australian and New Zealand November 2019 Tour Dates
Saturday November 2nd PERTH Rosemount
Tuesday 5th November ADELAIDE Lion Arts Factory
Thursday 7th November BRISBANE The Zoo
Friday 8th November SYDNEY Manning Bar
Saturday 9th November MELBOURNE Croxton
Tuesday 12th November AUCKLAND Tuning Fork
Wednesday 13th November WELLINGTON San Fran
Tickets: On sale now:
NZ Tickets: https://metropolistouring.com/tours/gang-of-four-nz-2019/