Photo by Leo Cackett
Interview with guitarist Andy Gill | By Morgan Y. Evans
Waking dreams surround us. Hyper media, street noise, and flashing lights abound. Gang Of Four’s post-punk dissection of the perils of the modern age has, in some ways sadly, only gotten more relevant since the band was founded in the late ‘70s. Guitar legend Andy Gill tells us What Happens Next.
Songs Of The Free came out in 1982. “I Love A Man In A Uniform” was this Trojan horse of a song: dancy and poppy to reel you in, but then satirical of macho patriarchy. When writing, is the message in service to your song or vice versa?
“I Love A Man In A Uniform” was exactly a Trojan horse of a song. When I wrote the music for that, I wanted something that married spiky guitar with cool rhythms and pop sensibility. The first thing I came up with was the drum beat—a beat I notice Madonna and her producers have put to good use in more recent years—and then I just found a way to play the guitar that was just moving with the chords. Then [former vocalist] Jon [King] and I set about the lyrics, amusing each other with double entendres. Again, a subject that we had worked on many times: finding parallels in military power structures—who gives the orders—and sexual relations, feminism, and why people act the way they do, out of necessity, greed, lust. So the short answer is the music came first, and then, we found ways to talk about a well-trodden subject, but in a way that entertained and amused ourselves.
It was, of course, banned in the U.K. because of the Falklands Crisis. A memo went round the BBC 24 hours before the British troops landed on the Falklands, saying, “Do not play this song at all. We are expecting military casualties.”
We learned shortly after that the American military wanted to use the song as part of their TV advertising for the army. I would have been so very, very happy. At the last minute, someone pointed out to the General in charge that there might possibly be a satirical element to the tune.
Did you know Content would be the end of an era while you were making it? King left big shoes to fill…
I didn’t know what would happen with Content or after Content. We had only done a few gigs at the point where Jon signaled it was over for him. I had become tired of his “I’m in. Oh, hold on a second, maybe I’m not” approach, and I knew I could make a higher standard of record on my own, which is what I have done with What Happens Next.
How did you end up working with new vocalist John “Gaoler” Sterry?
Gaoler just popped down the studio one day to give me a hand singing my vocals in a better way for the sake of making demos. For quite a long time, he was like a session singer for me. As I got to know him better, I liked him more and more. I really liked his voice, and it seemed to be a natural thought to maybe try doing a gig with him. We’ve now been all over the world with him.
How was it having session musician Gail Ann Dorsey on What Happens Next?
Gail Ann Dorsey is a very old friend and she, of course, had been in different Gang Of Four lineups over the years. She is a fantastic musician and a great, great singer. The song she sings on, “First World Citizen,” was simply crying out for her voice.
Is What Happens Next a personal statement or a question about society?
What Happens Next is, in a way, kind of a London record, but because London is the capital of the world—certainly the epicenter of international capitalism—it is a record about what happens all across the world.
As always with Gang Of Four, it is not about current affairs and it is not about big politics. It is about things that affect us all as individuals and, I guess, also about these identity crises that we are having everywhere. I think America is trying to identify what it is: is it still that racist society from the ‘50s or can it modernize itself? All across Europe, there are arguments about identity: who we are, who’s allowed in, who’s not.
In many ways, these things come into the songs, even if, perhaps, obliquely.
Whether you are a socialist or a total free market capitalist, it’s clearly in everyone’s interest that society is in some way at peace with itself.
If you think you can just pull up the drawbridge, you will find that someone else will come and knock your castle walls down.
Is influence an albatross? Your guitar playing is still shockingly innovative…
I just don’t see the point of repeating myself. Who needs another Entertainment? Every time I start with the song, I start from first principles. And I am trying not to bring the baggage from earlier songs with me. And, because we are now in a different time and place—history has moved on—it inevitably sounds different. You can tell I’m the same person. You can tell it’s the same guitar player, even though the sound I’m making—even the type of sound—is completely different with every record. You can tell it’s the same person.
Alison Mossheart is a very versatile singer. How did you know she would fit on the record?
Alison Mosshart is a wonderful singer and performer, and I have always greatly liked The Kills. There is a distinct crossover between them and Gang Of Four. I worked with them a little bit in the studio, and I knew she would be great on the tracks she did.
So, singer Herbert Grönemeyer starred in “Das Boot,” a great film about insanity and disconnect. How did it feel to have him contribute?
Herbert’s is an old friend of mine. I’ve known him at least 20 years. [Dutch director] 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. The particular thing that Herbert does that I really love is the rather pain-filled, angst, melancholy ballads. I knew I had to write a song that could incorporate that particular aspect of his character, so more than any other track, it really had to be really tailor-made and, I can tell you, it was really difficult. I really had to work at that, and I went down a lot of blind alleys until I came up with the music for “The Dying Rays.”
The album features lyrics about “fake history” and “golden age mythology.” What happens next? Does society have a future?
If we live our lives in a lie, we are doomed to live anti-lives: meaningless, parodic. That song “Where The Nightingale Sings” is about the creation of comfortable myths of the way society used to be. Political parties and entire ideologies are often built on these fictitious notions. The world will muddle through.