Skip to main content

“I’m a Bit of an Awkward Bastard”: an interview with Gang Of Four's Andy Gill

2019 is the 40th anniversary of Entertainment!, Gang Of Four’s epochal first album. March also sees the release of Happy Now, the band’s new album and the second with Gill as the lone original member after the departure of Jon King, the band’s co-founder.  

2019 began badly for Gill and the band. Tour dates in the Japan, New Zealand and Australia were cancelled due to Gill’s respiratory illness and the Pledge implosion created chaos around the albums’s release.

I met Gill in Genk in Limburg, Belgium in December 2018 before those twin shitstorms hit. George H W Bush had just died and Gang of Four were about to play the Sinner’s Day festival, their final gig of 2018. They were third on the bill below John Cale and the MC50. The promoters had quartered the bands in a four-star hotel. A complimentary plate of charcuterie with truffle was brought out during the interview...

You don’t seem to be roughing it, but how do you deal with touring, aged nearly 63?

Andy Gill: Travelling can be tiresome, other than that it's fine. The touring thing, the travelling was always a bit of a drag and it doesn't get any easier. 

Gang Of Four have recently returned from dates in Brazil. The President is a militarist, a neo-fascist and a homophobe. Surely you played I Love A Man In Uniform?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. 

If anyone doubts that Gang of Four can be funny and a bit camp – and utterly serious at the same time – I would point them towards that song.

I always enjoyed the element of humour in Gang of Four. I remember when I was producing Killing Joke (their 2003 self-titled album) and Jaz the singer said, “What's that song about, I Love A Man In A Uniform? It’s crap!” I remember being quite annoyed at the time. Killing Joke are not known for their humour. They're not known for their subtlety. Or irony or sarcasm. So it went… [makes whistling noise while wafting hand over his head]. 

Although the song is from 1982, you must get a kick out of playing something so obviously relevant now?

Yes, but you know what, it is a subtle song to the extent that the US Army was thinking of using it in an advert for recruitment in the 80s, but somebody had a word with General So-and-So and that was dropped. Man In Uniform feels – and is accessible, but if you go just a little bit under the surface, there are other ideas going on. The song does have this rather nice duality between sexual macho-ness and militaristic macho-ness. 

And it gained another layer of meaning when it was a hit in gay clubs.

Very pleased about that.

So many old Gang of Four lyrics are apt now. “Some flirt with fascism/ Some lie in the arms of lovers” from We Live As We Dream, Alone, also from 1982, springs to mind. Do you take pride in that? 

I suppose I would confess to a certain element of pride, especially as I wrote all the music and 90% of the words. But what a lot of us thought 20 years ago or so was that history was on some slow but steady progress – I think a lot of people did – and that's why the last 5 or 6 years have been so disorientating and shocking. I don't think anybody thought we'd arrived, that we'd got there yet, but I do think people thought the world would become less right wing, less sexist, there would be more rights for more people and the wealth gap would shrink. And of course this is not what happened at all. It just tells you that history doesn't move in a line, it can go in a big circle.

You were very politically engaged as a young man at university in Leeds and were caught up in political violence of the late 70s. I’ve heard you had your nose broken when neo-Nazis attacked The Fenton pub…

Not true.

OK, but you did hit a neo-Nazi with your guitar at the first Gang Of Four gig in The Cellar Bars under The Corn Exchange in Leeds.

Also not true but I wish it were; I love the story. I can see where there's a grain of truth somewhere in these things. There was a right wing skinhead who turned up at quite a few of the early gigs because he liked the excitement. There were one or two fights – I wouldn't say major ones – that broke out in the audience, him knocking into someone else, that kind of thing.

Last try: what about the British Movement demo in Leeds when there was police aggro? 

I remember when the British Movement marched and there was a counter demonstration; there were tussles. The guy who was the leader of the British Movement somehow got separated from his mates – his ‘guards’ – and me and Jon King chased him down an alley. I think he was shitting himself. A couple of coppers came after us and there was this moment when the prey meets the hunter. But nobody was hurt.

Gang of Four

Andy Gill with Gang of Four at the Lyceum, London, 1981. (Image credit: David Corio/Redferns)

Leeds has the reputation of being extraordinarily violent in the late 70s.

By and large the violence in Leeds was not ideologically motivated. We went to this dodgy club in Chapeltown – it felt almost like someone's house – which was playing some pretty good reggae and there was real hostility from the males. These were white guys there who were nothing to do with the students. When someone started dancing with one of ‘their women’, there was a bit of pushing and shoving and it suddenly kicked off. We tried to get out as fast as we could. One of these people pushed Jon onto the floor and kicked him in the face and fractured his cheekbone.

There was a certain randomness to the violence. In that particular case, it was the interface of liberal student Bohemian types and local young guys who were very suspicious and antagonistic towards us. We were kind of fearless-slash-stupid about what we felt we'd could or could not or should or should not do. 

There was a famous incident when we were playing Wolverhampton. We’d done sound-check and walked into this pub, which was absolutely packed and noisy and as we walked in the noise dropped and everyone stared at us; tumbleweed was blowing across the floor. At that point we should probably have turned around and walked away, but no: “we can go where we want.” 

We sat down and the noise went up again and one of the locals sat down at our table and pretended to be friendly and after about five minutes got up and said to Andy Corrigan of The Mekons who was doing our sound, “Has anybody done this to you before?” and smashed a bottle on his head. And the pub all cheered. Apparently this guy had done it earlier that day to somebody else. I’m glad to say he did some time for that.

The Mekons had a reputation for running their band collectively and democratically, much more so than Gang of Four.

I think you’ve got a point there. Jon and I liked to say that Gang of Four were like a committee and we were all involved. That was living a bit of a fantasy and did not do us any good. “There are four people - there are no leaders here.” All bollocks. Me and Jon were running the show. We invented it, but we pretended it was all four of us. Basically Hugo [Burnham, drummer, 1977-1983] and Dave Allen [bass, 1977-81] were really lucky to be in the right place at the right time. The band was me and Jon King: we had the concept and we wrote the songs.

But Dave and Hugo sounded really good.

They were well coached by me. They have both said so themselves in print.

A lot of people have been in Gang of Four over the years. Who are you still in closest contact with?

Gail Ann Dorsey. I played a bit on an album she did a few years ago. I was steadily in contact with Steve Goulding who played the drums after Jon sacked Hugo, but I've lost touch.

And Jon King?  

There's a little bit of frostiness. Jon has always been a bit in and out: quite keen and then goes off and does some other bizarre job. And then you get a phone call, “Do you want to do an album?” whereas I literally haven't done anything beyond the creative side of music, being in Gang of Four or producing other people. It has been extremely frustrating on a couple of occasions when I have spent say, 2 years making a record and then Jon immediately leaves to join an advertising company, so I can’t even tour the thing I’ve made.

One of the other tensions seems to have been Jon King’s preference for improvisation and to be more in the moment and your inclination towards repetition and to dwell on detail.

Not sure Jon had a preference for improvisation. He didn’t like to spend very long on anything. Certainly from my side of things it was never “we’ve spent enough time on that, that'll do”. That way of thinking was not in my make-up. But you make a lot of mistakes, like spending 3 hours on the hi-hat pattern or fiddling with the EQ of the hi-hat, which I did do in the early days. 

From very early on the band was intentionally theatrical.

I was very conscious, whether it was a pub or a club or wherever it may be, that you've got this barebones stage and you're putting a performance on it and telling a story on it. He'd Send In The Army comes from the idea of it being a play: you've got a character and a narrator and maybe another character who says, “Hello boys, seen any action?” 

When we first performed it, Jon the singer was beating out the rhythm, not the drummer.  We had this piece of metalwork made that could be taken from gig to gig, but you can't fly with this kind of crap, so we ended up with an old microwave instead supplied by the venue, which added a different vibe to it and sounds much better - a big resonant whack rather than a chink. 

You personally have a stage act that’s cool, a bit intimidating but also rather funny.

That's exactly what it's supposed to be. There's also a bit of me being influenced by Dr. Feelgood and Wilko. I was always impressed by the way Wilco was always engaged with the audience. He was very upright and had this mad robot thing running about the stage.

You’ll be playing an Entertainment! 40th Anniversary Tour in 2019 …

Yeah, we’ll be playing most of Entertainment! at certain gigs, but not all. We supposedly played Entertainment! at The Barbican with that rather misguided ‘original reunion’ [the “Don't Look Back” series of concerts] with Hugo and Dave in 2005. Even then there were a couple of songs we didn't play.

Glass?

Glass I like very much. I like the lyrics. They are pretty much all Jon. He thinks they're embarrassingly gormless. I’ve just done a new version of it, more stripped-down. The version on Entertainment! is slightly nicked from Daytripper. My more recent version gets rid of all that and the words chime a bit more.

Does the emphasis on Entertainment! devalue the other albums?

There are a few songs on Entertainment! that are as good as anything we ever did. Shrinkwrapped [from 1995] is I think a more complete record. 

There have been four years between What Happens Next and the new album Happy Now. What’s changed?

 What Happens Next was bit of a hybrid record. There were collaborations with different people [such as Alison Mosshart, Tomoyasu Hotei and Herbert Grönemeyer] and then some with Gaoler [John “Gaoler” Sterry, Gang of Four’s singer]. Also I was sort of doing everything myself in terms of production. The thought process was “Well, I'm a great producer, I produced all these other people, might as well produce it myself”. I think there's a flaw in that: you want and need other people's opinions, otherwise it's a bit like a film director who decides to write the script and star in it and edit it and produce.

So when I came into Happy Now, I was determined to have other people involved, as co-producers and even co-writers. That was a fundamental difference. I enjoyed that process. It definitely makes things move along. It's possible to spend infinite hours navel-gazing, tweaking and then thinking, “Oh God, it's not very good is it? I'm going to watch the news for half an hour.” When you've got other people there, you can't do any of that. Things which have a bit of speed about them and are usually better. Momentum is often underrated.

Also musically, Gang of Four has always been very much about rhythm. If you like, you can call it funkiness, but I've taken it a bit of a step further with this record.

Ben Hillier and Ross Orton co-produced with me. For the music, Gaolor’s done a complete co-write with me on Don’t Ask Me and he contributed to Lucky. Another couple of guys who go under the name Decoy worked with me and they co-wrote or partly co-wrote two or three songs, including White Lies

Three of the Four, the Lyceum, 1981.

Three of the Four, the Lyceum, 1981. (Image credit: David Corio/Redferns)

Would you find it strange that my favourite track is White Lies – it’s the odd one out on the album?

No, it's a lot of people's favourite song on the record. It's very much reflecting on life and where one is at.

Live, the band has a fantastic bass player, Andy Gill on guitar and Ghostpoet’s drummer – but none of you are at the forefront on the record. Why not play to the strength of the live band?

Thomas [McNeice] is playing bass on pretty much everything but, you're right, it involves some synthesised bass as well. I confess I'm a fan of certain types of dance music and rap, which involve that. I don't just want to be a rock band. That's where all the programming and the dance elements come into it, no question. Whether the drums are in your face enough is a moot point. 

Gaolor sings differently on the record than he does live.

I think now and then I could have made him sing a bit harder on the record because live it’s full on and he's great for that. It's my fault as a producer, if now and then I let him sing too gently.

Happy Now has even less guitar and is even less rock than What Happens Next. It’s hard to imagine much of it on Content (the last album with Jon King, 2010)?

That's a fair comment. Content was quite backwards-looking, quite referential to early Gang of Four. 

If Happy Now gets called an electronic pop dance record, you wouldn’t find that insulting?

Not in the slightest. Like the previous record, I'm fine with synthesisers coming in.   

Were those elements stymied when Jon was in the band?

What would happen with Jon is I would work on some music and I would present it to him and say, “Sing on this.” I honestly can't remember a single instance of him saying, “I don't like that; I don't want to sing on that.” Occasionally he’d write all the lyrics, often we’d collaborate, sometimes I wrote the majority, but musically it would be generated by me.

All Gang of Four albums since 1981 have had mixed reviews – Hard and Mall were savaged. What are your expectations for Happy Now?

People will always complain that it's not Entertainment! There will be great reviews, mediocre reviews and there will be people who don't like it. That's the way it goes. 

Are you inured to the sniping about the name of the group since you became the only original member?

Initially, there were comments on the Gang of Four Facebook page for a year, or two even. That's pretty much disappeared, although people will occasionally pop up with “Gang of One, don't you mean?” In the biog in the press release, which I have authorised, it describes me as “Gang of One.” My attitude is to embrace it.

I think of Gang of Four now as a kind of post punk AC/DC – the flash guitarist as the star and sole survivor of the band.

When I first became aware of AC/DC - various crew people or the sound guy were talking about how AC/DC were great. “No, they're fucking not!” I then developed a sneaking respect for them. And actually if you sit and listen to one of those tracks: really well put together, the production was amazing.

Actually, I think there is a slight connection between Entertainment! and AC/DC: that crunchy, dry guitar sound, the space, the groove…

Actually, one the bands that I loved was Free. Massive space. It's almost funky. This huge beat and ridiculous lyrics. That sound really influenced me. I don't like multi-layered; Frank Zappa is a bit of a nightmare for me. 

Gang of Four were on the ill-fated The Sisters of Mercy/Public Enemy US tour in 1991.

It was fairly bizarre that – a fairly bizarre mixture of bands in what they call ‘sheds’, semi-open/semi-covered venues. The Sisters of Mercy were supposed to close the show and Public Enemy would deliberately turn up late very often to force the situation where they’d be closing the show. Public Enemy were hitting on Gail (Ann Dorsey). She’d get in a lift and on one or two occasions Public Enemy would be getting slightly too friendly with her. 

What do you think of this Andrew Eldritch quote about Gang of Four? “I think their heart was never really in it and they thought rock’n’roll was a bit too silly. They were too post-modern and cynical. They couldn’t fully commit to the glorious stupidity which is being in a rock’n’roll band.”

I think that's very well put. I would say that's 100% true about Jon. I am prepared to commit to the glorious stupidity and that's what I've been doing my whole life. 

There do seem to be certain similarities between you and Eldritch: bloody-minded, academic, nor averse to rock’n’roll decadence, obsessive with detail.

I've never thought about that but on the occasions I've hung out with him or talked to him, I’ve always rather liked him. Always thought he was an interesting guy.

Apparently, he stole his first pair aviator shades from you at a Gang of Four gig.

What a bastard! Have you got an address for him? I'm going to send him a bill.

Tell me about giving Nile Rodgers a lift in your Robin Reliant in the 80s.

That's classic Jon King. It never happened, it never happened at all. Completely made up. Brilliant imagination. Full marks for invention. Specifically, I had a Reliant Regal - khaki green. 

I tell you what he's thinking of: we worked with Jimmy Douglass [producer of Solid Gold] I gave Jimmy a lift in it. That was it. Nothing happened. I took him to his hotel. Somehow Jon turned it into that Nile Rodgers story. 

So the car isn’t why Nile Rodgers didn’t produce Hard?

What happened with Nile Rodgers was that he was supposed to produce the fourth album. David Bowie's Let's Dance had come out. Nile Rodgers wanted an extra half a percent or something and our then manager Bennett Glotzer said we couldn’t use him. Which was all very disappointing. I'd been regularly on the phone to Nile talking about it. 

The Red Hot Chili Peppers famously gave you a pizza box of their own shit when you were producing their first album. What have been some of your better experiences as a producer.

Well I think that may have been my best experience. Flea and Anthony said, ‘We’re going for a shit’ – a band so tight they can even synchronise their bowel movements. I said, ‘Bring me one back’. So I totally knew what was coming. The engineer did not. He was last seen running, screaming down Sunset Boulevard, never to return.

Boss Hog were immense fun. Really liked all of them.

Creatively working with Michael Hutchence was fantastic for me. It was strange synchronicity. I just finishing Shrinkwrapped and Jon said, “I'm off to work in the advertising business” literally as I was mixing. “That's ridiculous! We spent all this time and energy on this record. Are you serious?” 

I was sitting around in my place in London wondering what I was going to do and the phone went and it was Michael Hutchence. Initially he said, “Would you be interested in playing some guitar on my record?” I said, “Yeah.” He rang back 10 minutes later: “What I meant to say was, ‘Would you be interested in co-writing?’” I said, “Yeah.” “Are you free next week?” “Yeah, as it happens.” 

So it was down to Michael’s house in the south of France for the whole summer. I was basically doing all the music. Michael would sit on the bed and sing. 

There was a lot of partying with U2 who lived around the corner from Michael’s, about three quarters of an hour away. But we did work hard. In fact I was surprised by how hard Michael worked.

Those were the days when you were a celebrity via your friendship with Michael Hutchence and Paula Yates, as well as a musician. Did you take it all in your stride?

Yeah. It was purely through association, I suppose. But that's the sort of stuff that happens when you're doing music and you’re part performer, part producer. You end up working with people who get not particularly desired attention.

But you still qualify as a star for a lot of people?

There a whole bunch of Dubliners in the hotel last night. They were very excited we were in here. Then John Cale came in and they got even more excited.

Didn’t you know Cale from CBGBs way back in 1976?

We used to hang out there a lot, at the bar for a beer or two. John Cale would be there and Joey Ramone, not being particularly bothered by anyone. This was as Gang Of Four was forming and it gave us impetus. We were students and had gone off to New York and we’d be hanging out with the Patti Smith band. It all felt rather normal. Certainly for me it was: “This is easy, we could do this; we've already got some songs, Jon. Come on.” It reinforced the idea that this wasn't for special people. You didn't actually have to know all your scales, or know anything about music at all. 

CBGBs at that time was the epicentre of one of the greatest musical eras. You must have seen some legendary gigs?

I member watching The Jam, that's basically all I can remember. It was mainly hanging out rather than seeing bands. 

A few years later, I remember Paul Weller coming to see us when we played a Rock Against Racism gig at The Rainbow. I remember him coming into the dressing room and talking: “How come you're doing so well in America then? What's the secret?”

What was it?

Gang of Four’s music is not really rooted in British music. It's rooted in American music and Jamaican. I'm a big fan of The Stones, The Kinks, Dr. Feelgood, so there's a bit of that in there, but the stuff I was really listening to was Jimi Hendrix, Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, all of Motown, James Brown, Stax. So it was a whole mixture of American music. And I think The Jam are very, very English.

Which shows have made an impact on you?

The Stones at Earls Court when I was 16 or 17. We were in the 4th row from the front – really cool.

Seeing The Band at Wembley. I love The Band so much, hearing them play was pretty spectacular. 

The best of all was Bob Marley at The Lyceum - very special. I jumped over the barrier at the front of the stage and was on my own dancing and Bob Marley put his hand down and we shook hands. That was something else. 

Not to mention Captain Beefheart at The Albert Hall. 

Those are some of my top concerts - my teenage years. 

So it is possible for you to be starstruck. I thought you might mention dancing on stage with Tony Wilson at a Funkadelic gig in York.

That may never have happened. It could just be fiction.

You boycotted The Anarchy Tour when it came to Leeds in December 1976.

I went to see the David Hockney film, A Bigger Splash.

Do you stand by your claim that The Pistols sounded like “speeded-up heavy metal”?

Musically, yeah. Although I really like their version of No Fun, which I think is one of their finest moments. 

You seem to have a very positive experience at private school as a teenager.

Sevenoaks were obliged to keep a third of their places for Direct Grant pupils. We had such a good education but my family didn't have to pay for it. Jon King’s family didn't have to pay for it; and they were proper working class. I’m pretty grateful for it. I got the best art education anyone could possibly have. When I got to Leeds, I couldn't believe the first year: it was like being surrounded by a bunch of 12 year olds. They didn't have a clue, but in the mid-70s we were all talking about Frank Stella and Richard Long’s concept art, but we might as well have been talking in Flemish to them. 

Jon King and Andy Gill of Gang of Four at the Coachella Festival, 2005

Jon King and Andy Gill of Gang of Four at the Coachella Festival, 2005 (Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Jon King cites the Situationists as a major influence on the band. 

A lot of this comes from the artwork to do with Entertainment! and also for the  Damaged Goods single, those early pieces of artwork. Damaged Goods is even better than Entertainment! To me, they are Pop Art more than they are Situationism. With the Fast Product EP Jon and I typed a note to Bob Last about how the bull and the matador would say something with speech bubbles and then I had a brainwave: ‘Jon, this letter has to be the cover!’ Brilliant, if I say so myself.

I was a bit obsessed with A Matter of Life and Death with David Niven. I knew it was coming on TV and I went to my mum's house with my camera, taking pictures of the film on the TV. I took another bunch of pictures of the TV that afternoon as well. God knows what was on, but there was also a picture of a close-up of a kidney and we put the words, “The diseased organ is removed” by it.

Jon used to like to explain this by saying it was inspired by Situationism and I can honestly say from my point of view, it was not inspired by Situationism. The combination of image and text just seemed an obvious thing to me. My Fine Art degree show was having pictures with words with them. 

I had my final show in May 1979 at the end of the course and the second it was up I got in the van and went to record Entertainment! Then we went directly to America and did a tour. By the time I got back, there was no trace: everything had been nicked or reused or gone. 

I like the Songs Of The Free cover too.

Yes, another of mine, a classic picture of Venice with gondolas and a tourist description of it. I just loved Venice as a tourist. I think there are elements of that cover that don't work, there's something weird about the font that doesn't quite sit right whereas the cover of Entertainment! works pretty much 100%. 

Why is there a Conrad reference on the Songs Of The Free album?

We Live As We Dream Alone is my direct lift from Heart Of Darkness. That line just jumped out and smacked me round the face. The book begins on the Thames at Tilbury, just four men in a boat and they begin telling stories as the sun goes down and one of the stories is Heart Of Darkness. There's an idea in it that I've used several times: of the water of The Thames flowing out into the world, Empire flowing out into the world, wealth going out and coming back up the Thames, this conduit with the rest of the world; commerce and wealth, Good and Evil.  

What do you think has made Gang Of Four distinctive and long-lived?

I'm a bit of an awkward bastard. I wanted to do things a certain way and I think that's why Gang Of Four has quite a specific identity and a musical language that it talks. It has been worked on and carefully crafted. The way that the music and the lyrical content, the way all those things are put together, I'm quite pleased with that. 

Also, I look back and think: what are the rocks in the cave that the pieces of string are attached to? And one of the things is that Gang Of Four set out to be not difficult, not hard to understand. If it had clever ideas and if there were interesting new ideas they wouldn't be rammed down your throat, they would be accessible. I like pop music and I know how hard it is to write great pop music. Because it sounds simple doesn't mean it's easy to do.  

In Red Set, Jim Dooley’s book on Gang of Four Jon King reflects on his younger self and observes: “Who was this bloke? I was pleased to meet him.” Is that how you feel?

No. I'm the same person. I'm not calling him schizophrenic or anything like that but he is more than one person. The Jon you meet one day can be different from the Jon you meet another. That's not in any way a criticism. 

As a young man, did you ever imagine that Gang Of Four would become such an important band?

When we were finishing the songs for Entertainment! I am on record as saying to Rob Warr – who was by that point looking after us – and possibly Jon, “ We are cutting edge.” And then very pretentiously, “We are like the Left Bank in Paris at the beginning of the 20th Century. We are rewriting the rules and people will study this in the future.” And they pissed themselves laughing. They just said, “Are you off your fucking head?” But that's what I said and I believed it.

For more than 40 years, your day job has been playing guitar player in one of the great bands. Surely, you must be pretty happy with that?

Yeah. I think I should have spent a little more time reflecting on that and less time worrying about the minutiae. 

Happy Now is out on 19 April and can be ordered via Townsend Music https://gangoffour.tmstor.es

Gang of Four play the BBC Radio 6 Music Festival on 31 March and The Borderline on 12 April.

Mark Andrews’ book on Leeds and the rise of The Sisters of Mercy – Paint My Name In Black and Gold – is currently crowdfunding with Unbound