“One of the things that isn’t right about music at the moment is that it’s often too backward looking and referential. I think people should be looking to invent new things.”
He’s been called the post-punk Hendrix.
For like his acid-induced predecessor, the spiky, sporadic sounds that reverberated from Andy Gill’s guitar influenced a generation of guitar players. And then that generation influenced the next. Let’s call it the circle of sound.
It all started in 1977, when Gill, along with his art school friends at Leeds University, decided to start a band. They called themselves “Gang of Four”. There was Jon King on vocals, Dave Allen on bass and Hugo Burnham on drums. Together, they would help pioneer a new musical genre called “post-punk”. Their sound was jagged, spacey, groovy and built on mechanical rhythm’s with pockets of silence. Gang of Four also brought a strong political message to their music; often being labelled a neo-Marxist group.
The band gained instant notoriety. They played sold-out shows across the world and received glowing reviews from critics. Their debut album, “Entertainment!” was a force to be reckoned with. Rolling Stone named it one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Pitchfork named it the 8th best album of the 70s. With singles like “Damaged Goods” and “Not Great Men” the band launched a new season in British guitar music.
Musicians were listening very closely to this sound. Gang of Four would go on to heavily influence the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine and R.E.M. That’s a who’s who of modern music superstars. More recently, an hommage to Gill’s guitar playing can be heard in dance rock revivalists band’s such as Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand and The Rapture.
It’s so blatant in the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s music that one night at a party, Flea asked Gill, “Why haven’t you sued us yet?”
But what was it about Gang of Four’s sound and Gill’s playing that captivated their audiences?
Writing in a reissue of Gang of Four’s album Songs of the Free, U2’s Bono described the band like this: “Hard, angular, bold, [Gang of Four were] a pimple on the arse of pop, a corporation of common sense, a smart bomb of text that had me ‘at home feeling like a typist.'”
The core of the band was Gill’s guitar playing. Far from luck, it was cold calculation that allowed Gill to infuse something new into the 6 strings of his Stratocaster guitar. He orchestrated the songs note-for-note and had a strong vision for Go4’s minmalist rock operas.
Born in 1956, in the small British town of Sevenoaks, Gill grew up on the usual blend of British icons like the Stones and the Kinks. By primary school he had already developed a huge admiration for music.
Eventually the sounds of classic British rock melded with other sounds forming something altogether new. Gill became hugely inspired by the groove and bravado of Dr. Feelgood and the black rhythms of reggae. Combine that with his penchant for avant garde art and an original style was born.
Despite the acclaim and consistent quality output, the band never became a household name; not so surprising considering the frantic, politically charged music. They were always a band that’s influence far outweighed its popularity; a band’s band. It took their seminal album “Entertainment!” thirty years to sell 100,000 copies in the U.K.
Throughout the decades, Gang of Four has released 7 studio albums. The latest being 2011’s very well-received Content. Today, however, Gill is the only original member. Despite a tumultuous run, with hiatuses and numerous line up changes, Gang of Four can still draw crowds around the world.
It’s not just playing that keeps Gill busy these days, however. He’s also become an accomplished producer. Many of Gang of Four’s recordings were produced with Gill at the helm. As a result, many bands flock to him to help get a similar sound. Over the years, he’s produced albums for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Stranglers and The Futureheads. He continues to work with established and up and coming artists to this day.
As one of rock’s most influential guitarists, there is much I WANNA KNOW from Andy Gill.
I caught up with Gill while he was on vacation along the coast of France.
From his loathing of Oasis, to the early days of Gang of Four, to his aggressive guitar playing, to his days smoking cigarettes up a tree with Daniel Day Lewis, we cover it all.
Listen/Download as a podcast below or keep reading:
. . .
Ryan Kohls: I wanted to start with an easy question. Is Oasis the greatest British band of all time?
Andy Gill: (laughs) No. Not necessarily the worst. I always had a bit of a problem with them. In the first place, it’s very Beatles reliant. I’m not the first person to point that out. So, that’s a problem because a) I’m not the Beatles biggest fan, and b) It strikes me as lazy to base most of your music on someone else’s work. I’m not crazy about that production. You can’t really hear the drums, it’s just a big wall of keyboards and guitars. And, I hate the lyrics. They don’t mean anything at all. So far, just in the course of the conversation, they’re scoring about nul point, as they say in France.
RK: You mentioned the Beatles. There’s always been this divide between the Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I know you side with the Stones. What drew you to their sound?
AG: I’m not going to try and back out of that statement now that I’ve said it. But, whisper it quietly, there are one or two Beatles tracks that I think are quite good. I clearly remember that question: Beatles or Stones? It’s like, “Stones, innit?” Because the Stones had drums that were so awesome. The minimal, unbelievably cool, funky guitar. It was this beautiful rhythm. Every Keith Richards chord is on the four-and, it’s coming on the upbeat before the one. Otherwise known as pushed. It was desperately funky, but in a not-trying-very-hard kind of way.
RK: These days you see the Stones bringing the likes of Taylor Swift on stage. What do you make of the Stones now? Do you think they’ve played on too long?
AG: I’ve seen them a couple times. My favourite was in the mid-70s, which I guess was their peak. I was at the front and it was spectacular. I know it’s not going to be as good as that was. I probably wouldn’t want to go and see them now. When should people stop? There’s arguments for and against. A lot of people say, why is Dylan still bothering? But then he comes out with some amazing track. If you’re really enjoying it and do a good job, I can’t see any reason why not. I’ve talked to a few people about the Stones show at Glastonbury. Some said they’re kind of knowingly performing the role that is expected of them and smirking at each other. Somebody else said they’re a pretty good Stones tribute band. But, I don’t know. Maybe they do a show and they look like they really mean it. I doubt it, but they might do. You don’t want to mess around having too many guests stars. Just play some great songs like you mean it and it will be worth it.
RK: Gang of Four, like the Stones, have continued to play for a long time. Is being on stage still the same thrill as when you started?
AG: Remembering what it was like from the early shows, a lot of it was really rough and ready and just carried itself on sheer drive and excitement. I would definitely concede that quite a few things that are measured come into it now. It doesn’t run simply on velocity. When I listen to some of the early live things of Gang of Four, for example Not Great Men, it’s a textbook example of how to do a funky guitar song. But, we always played it too fast back then. These days we play it a little bit slower and it does its job much better. There’s not that kind of huge overwhelming excitement because I’ve done it so many times. I don’t want to get on there and do whatever, I want to do something well. To do that well, several compromises have to take place. You have to be in the spirit of having a good time but you also have to be clinical and measured about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it.
RK: The nature of your guitar parts leads to some highly energetic performances. What’s going through your head when you’re playing on stage?
AG: You are going to a place you’ve been many times before, but I think you want on that night, in that moment, to connect with that audience. You want to communicate with the audience the stuff you’ve got to say. The stuff you’ve got to say often remains similar, but it does mutate slowly and does have slight nuances. You rely on certain tactics and skills and hope it works.
RK: In March, you released a new Gang of Four song “Broken Talk,” and you’ve been playing a few shows. You’re the only original member left. What’s it been like playing without Jon King?
AG: It’s been good. We miss having Jon King around but, I’m finding it very great to be working with some new singers. Gaoler, as we call him, has been doing a lot of the live singing in the last 6 or 7 shows. In China, some of the songs were done with singers from some of the Chinese bands I’ve been working with, which has been quite interesting. The wheel turns and history moves on I suppose.
RK: In Gang of Four’s biography, “Damaged Gods“, it describes your early shows as very intense. When you think back, what are some of the craziest things you’ve experience on stage?
AG: I think there would sometimes be an intensity where you all felt it and the audience felt it. It had gone on to a level above and beyond any kind of normal thing. It has to do with the audience and the band communicating and being on the same level.
That “Damaged Gods” book is deeply flawed. Paul Lester, God bless him, had to do a few books because he had some alimony payments to make. There’s currently three more books being written about Gang of Four as we speak. I’m hoping they’ll be a bit better. Paul Lester just kind of switched the tape machine on and then printed what everyone said and that was it. There was a bit of bad tempered stuff going around at that time, as there often is with Gang of Four.
RK: What about fighting between the band members. How often did things escalate?
AG: We didn’t get in fights. There were arguments, absolutely. There can’t be that many bands that haven’t had serious arguments after shows because it hasn’t gone exactly how you wanted it to go and someone played the wrong thing at the wrong time. It is off putting when people forget to come in at the right time because you lose your concentration and confidence. One of the things about being in a band is that it’s like walking on a tightrope. When everything is going well and you get the tricky parts in songs and you do it really well, your confidence builds. You stop worrying whether someone’s going to fuck up. You can just concentrate on the nuances of the performance. When the mistakes are happening you withdraw into yourself and concentrate on getting through the song. I’m painting a rather extreme picture, but you get it.
RK: You saw Bob Marley back in the ’70s. How influential was that moment on your musical career?
AG: I think it was a huge moment. At that point in my life I loved reggae so much and the Wailers very much. If I hadn’t gone to that concert and been at that live show in ’74, I’m not sure if I would have done things differently though. I think a show that may have had that effect would have been Dr. Feelgood. Their live show and the way they approached the audience and achieved the intensity that they did was influential on the way Gang of Four was. No question about that.
RK: Your style of guitar playing evolved out of a blending of “black rhythm and white noise.” Tom Morello once said that when he first heard you it was as if you were playing a different song than the rest of the band. What motivated that style of guitar work?
AG: I was doing fine art at Leeds University and I did these black paintings that had a rigid structure. I think that kind of idea was going on for me in the construction of those songs. What I wanted very much was something that was very tight and machine like, something that was like the diagonal iron crossings of a bridge that held everything together in a format that could not be denied. The guitar is sometimes re-inforced as that and sometimes against that. More often than not, it re-inforces it, but there are times it does the opposite, in order for you to sense the structure. You build the structure and they were built very, very carefully. Hugo and I would have ideas about how the drum rhythms would be put together. We would go back and forth and argue. I had specific ideas of how everything should go. I’d be very instrumental in creating these tight bass and drum rhythms, which I could work with or against. Another way to look at it is that the traditional, older structure of music is like a triangle. You have the vocals, the melody and lyrics at the apex. Further down you have guitars and keyboards and shit and then at the bottom is drums and bass. It’s a hierarchal structure. The idea of Gang of Four was to totally remove that structure and have everything working side by side. Each drum was as important as every guitar note. It created a web.
RK: The way you’re describing that is very scientific. Did you think that songs had a scientific structure that could be figured out and mastered?
AG: Well, that’s an interesting way of putting it. That’s why the character is the way it is. It’s precise and defined and spiky. It doesn’t wander. It’s the opposite of a jam. I remember The Raincoats, an all girl band who were contemporaries of ours. They also had an ideological, political angle going on. I remember them critiquing us and saying, “The way you go about things is so male, so masculine.” The way they went about things was really loose. They didn’t go for super tight, energetic, funky loops. I thought about that, “Is this some kind of oppressive male music that I’m coming up with?” It made me think. But, in the end, I thought not.
RK: I’ve always appreciated the silences and musical pockets in Gang of Four’s songs. Were you conscientiously thinking that adding those silences would add power to the music?
AG: Absolutely conscience. To a certain extent it was like dub reggae which was just happening at the same time as us, or a little before, where the drums and bass drop out and there’s just a rhythm guitar and maybe some little vocal. There’s a chasm of space that opens up. And then, the thrill of when the bass and drums kick back in and that stuff was hugely influential on me. Some of those early songs like “Damaged Goods” at some point everything drops out. It’s kind of making holes in the music, it’s part of the dynamic of the song. Although “Damaged Goods” is two chords. But then you kind of make the structure by doing other things.
RK: What made you fall in love with the Stratocaster guitar?
AG: When I very first started, I had a really good SG copy. I think it was an Ibanez. It was much heavier in weight. When I picked up a real SG is was much lighter. Those kind of guitars generate a lot of warm, fat, sounds, which is beloved of certain kind of guitarists. I guess the thing about Strats and Tele’s, Fender’s in general, is that they’re a little sharper and a bit more focused. So, I liked the topyness and I got rid of those low-mids between 300 and 500 hertz. It scoops out the lower mid where that fatness lies.
RK: The sounds you’ve made on that guitar are widely influential. When I read about Gang of Four you get that sense that you created something new. It’s hard to use the word unique about anything these days. Do you sense the days of new musical movements are over?
AG: One of the things that isn’t right about music at the moment is that it’s often too backward looking and referential. I think maybe people should be looking to invent new things. A lot of stuff is just tweeking that blend between dance music and guitar music. Part of the problem is that the music industry got so hard to make a living in. People are playing it a bit safer than they used to. They want to get on that festival circuit so they don’t want to take many risks. That’s just conjecture.
RK: You mentioned a lack of originality in today’s music. There’s this amazing story where you met Flea and he asked you, “Why haven’t you sued us yet?” Have you ever considered filing any lawsuits against bands stealing your riffs? Or is it just flattering?
AG: I suppose in a way it’s flattering. Flea said that to me jokingly, but it was sort of serious. He was basically saying they copied a lot from Gang of Four. It was the basis from which they began. That’s fair enough. The way copyright rules work, you’re allowed a certain number of notes. Now, it’s changed, they just ask people if it sounds similar. I’ve never seriously thought about that for more than two seconds.
RK: Not many bands are in your position and I think you would have a lot of strong cases if you did try. There could be a lot of income there.
AG: Well, maybe you should email me a little short list of the ones that have the best chances and I’ll take a look.
RK: Alright, well if we can split the profits 50/50.
AG: (laughs) Not 50/50. I’m prepared to give you a finder’s fee.
RK: So much of your guitar work is angular and sparse. Do you ever just sit down with an acoustic guitar and strum a song like Wonderwall?
AG: Well, it wouldn’t be Wonderwall. But, absolutely. It’s very often that I strum just to think about chords and different places you could go with stuff. Even if you don’t use it in that way, it gets you thinking sometimes unconsciously about certain chords shapes and sounds. In the earliest couple of albums, where there’s not a huge amount of chord playing, the chords are there which I played around with and ended up using.
RK: What makes Entertainment! so great is its raw and sloppy production. Working as a producer now, do you think the direction recording has gone has stifled creativity and the passion in some of the music?
AG: It’s funny you say that. That very point is a conversation which comes up quite a lot. In fact, I was talking yesterday with someone worrying about the new stuff I’m doing right now. The computer has become part of the process and part of the way you put songs together. So, things are tighter and you wonder whether people just listen to music everyday that has been recorded on computers. You wonder if things should be done differently or whether it’s sensible to use all these tools at your disposal. Or, should one be turning one’s back on those tools? It makes things sound like everything else because producers know the same tricks and computer programs come with the same plugins. It’s a question that I don’t really know the answer to but it’s central to one’s thinking about what music should sound like now.
RK: You attended Sevenoaks school in 1968. Did you ever cross paths with Daniel Day Lewis?
AG: (laughs) Yes, I did funnily enough. We were in the same year and he was only there for two or three years. He came from somewhere else and then went off somewhere else. I remember him extremely well. We were friends. There was a place at school called Park Range, it was just over the other side of the road from the main part of the school. We’d go there and climb this particular tree and smoke cigarettes. I remember he had very black hair and was gangly. He was cool and we got on well. But I’ve never seen him since.
RK: Have you followed his movie career?
AG: Yeah, not especially, but he’s popped up in some great films.
RK: Gang of Four has a song called “To Hell With Poverty.” What else do you think can go to hell these days?
AG: (laughs) Where do I start? Most things really. Um. People going on about changing to low energy lightbulbs when the population is exploding massively and we haven’t got a chance of doing anything about it and people are still talking about low energy lightbulbs as if that’s going to save us.
RK: A lot of people stole your riffs. Can you name five riff’s you wish you’d written?
AG: Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones would be very high up there.The Fun Lovin’ Criminals stripped down version of Smoke on the Water called Bombin’ the L. Depending on how you define a riff; strictly speaking not a sequence of full chords but something done on one or two strings, but if allowed, I suppose the guitar part in Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” Free’s “Woman”. The lyrics are a masterclass in sexist, reactionary old claptrap, but the guitar is just superb. And, Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes.
RK: You were born on New Year’s Day. How has that affected your life?
AG: It just, you know, reaffirmed my sense of specialness. Around that time of year, I look up into the winter sky, if I see Orion I know I’ve got a good year coming up. It’s the one bit of superstition I go along with.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ANDY
GILL AND GANG OF FOUR:
1) Andy’s personal website: www.gillmusic.com
2) Gang of Four’s official website: www.gangoffour.co.uk