Gang of Four’s current core lineup is singer John Sterry, Andy Gill, and bassist Thomas McNeice. Sterry joined in 2012 and McNeice has been aboard since 2008. Photo by Leo Cackett
Anarchy and exactitude seem like opposites, yet Andy Gill, who’s led the post-punk band Gang of Four since he and singer Jon King formed the quartet at the University of Leeds in 1976, has developed a highly personal 6-string language that comfortably balances both. Gill’s playing on the band’s classic 1979 debut Entertainment! heralded the arrival of a new kind of rock-guitar hero: string slammers who embraced angularity and atonal bombs, crafting braying, churning waves of noise and serrated, dangerous solos.
Others were in on this new game, like David Byrne and the Voidoids’ Robert Quine. And some, with Quine and Gill at the fore, embraced blues and R&B, just as Hendrix and other guitars heroes of the previous generation had done. But they cracked those styles open like cooked lobsters and carefully selected the parts on which they wanted to feast. For Gill, it was the deep groove and rhythmic precision of classic R&B and dub, blended with the explosiveness of Hendrix, but all tailored to a new era.
That’s an aesthetic that produced the disjointed, brittle-toned guitar that Gill splattered all over the groove of “At Home He’s a Tourist,” from Entertainment!, and the seesawing siren calls and beehive rhythm he authored for “What We All Want” from the 1981 follow-up, Solid Gold—the albums that established his influence in the world of free-ranging guitar. Both of those songs also offered incisive critiques of consumer culture, reflecting Gill and Gang of Four’s interest in lyrics reflecting the zeitgeist—at a time when the U.S. and Great Britain were being flooded by a wave of right-wing leadership, even as the Cold War was coming to a supposed end.
For the next four decades, with two hiatuses along the way, Gill and Gang of Four have continued to refine that sound and that perspective. Gill’s wanton destruction of guitar tone has been aided by new developments in digital sound-processing technology, reaching a new apex onstage and in a trio of recent studio releases: the 2015 album What Happens Next, last year’s Complicit EP, and the new album Happy Now.
As Gang of Four was beginning the final leg of a U.S. tour in late February, Gill was hospitalized in New York City for a chest infection. The remainder of the tour was scrapped and, when he sufficiently improved, Gill returned to his home in England. He was there when we spoke via Skype, in improved spirits and condition, obligingly answering questions about his career as a brilliant and purposeful sonic radical who helped change the evolution of rock guitar and continues to experiment with its DNA.
Your playing is like a blend of expressionist and hyper-realist painting: explosions of sonic color blended with Jimmy Nolen-like rhythmic precision, embracing James Brown’s notion of the band as a single organism. Is that something you’ve purposefully done, or is that simply a preposterous conversation starter?
I’ve given a very similar description myself, and there are two very, very diverse ways I go about things. One is sort of, as you say, just crashing through everything else, while the drums and the bass are always a tightly functioning, rigid groove. And you could say the James Brown thing is there. And sometimes the guitar ties in a little bit, and then goes completely off-grid. It’s sort of Hendrix at his most chaotic, or the Velvet Underground, where it kind of gets a little sloppy. And then, at the other extreme, it’s tight and sits right in what the rhythm section’s doing. People that do that are—like, Steve Cropper, and Wilko Johnson at the British R&B end—just millimeter-tight with the groove.
Cropper and Johnson are both Tele guys. You’ve mostly been a Strat player.
I’ve tried Telecasters, and I always thought I should like them. If I was more the one player, it might work, but I want to be able to do both and switch back and forth pretty fast.
More recently I fell in love with the ES-335, which is quite different.It’s thick. I did a couple little solos on the 335 on the low E and A strings, down at the bottom of the neck, and you get this growling, old man kind of sound. It just sounds amazing. Guitar players traditionally go up to the dusty end of the neck when they want to be expressive. But it’s rather amazing if you do the opposite and go low. You get some extraordinary voicings. There’s one of those solos on “Obey the Ghost” [from 2015’s What Happens Next].
What primes your creativity? What do you channel back into your music that’s outside of music?
What you’re trying to do, when you make a song, is make some sort of representation of the world. And the things that provoke you to do that can come from anywhere. You might hear a politician say something on a news program. And then you’ll see it verified by a piece of advertising on the side of a bus. It’s all these kind of weird connections.And you might read a bit of fiction that somehow gives an insight into that thing that you heard earlier. Things cross-resonate, I suppose.
How did you develop the idea of Gang of Four as a precise rhythmic organism?
Well, it wasn’t right out of the box. I was kicking around song ideas in the sense of guitar strumming, guitar picking, with Jon King. We’d throw some lyric ideas around. And then eventually we got in Hugo [Burnham] to play some drums. And, in the early days, a bass player named Dave Wolfson. We found a room that we could borrow, in the [University of Leeds] Student Union.
At that point, that interlocking-ness wasn’t there. And I think I got more and more precise about it, sometimes to Hugo’s frustration, because if you had something that interesting rhythmically on guitar … if that was going to lock in with the drum, with the bass, those parts had better be really well worked out. Otherwise, it’s just not going to work. It’s not that the guitar and the drums are doing the same thing, but they are doing things which hit the same notes at some points, and sometimes they don’t hit the same notes, and that’s kind of what makes the whole thing funky and interesting. We had fights. Hugo would throw his drum sticks at me and say, “Why should I do what you’re telling me to do?” And I would go, “Because it’s important, and I think it’s going to be really good.” And we’d get there in the end.
You certainly did. Entertainment! was such a blast of fresh air: so different and thought-provoking, lyrically and musically. You mentioned Hendrix as an inspiring agent of chaos. I hear that in your playing. But where Hendrix might lay into whammy bar feedback for 30 seconds, you drop these shorter bombs and move on. They’re almost like exclamation points in the songs.
TIDBIT: Gill’s post-recording and plug-in-based signal processing are increasingly devoted to the destruction of conventional guitar tones—an outgrowth of his ongoing interest in the options provided by digital technology.
I remember the Buzzcocks’ manager, Richard Boon, said to me about our songs a long time ago, “Oh, yeah, they’re amazing, they’re really, really good. They go on a bit long, though, don’t they?” [Laughter.] I thought about that. But you know, Buzzcocks’ songs never really went beyond three, three-and-a-half minutes. Anyway, it just stuck in my head. I listen back to things very carefully and think, “Do we need this part? Is this bit necessary?” And I suppose there is something to be said for brevity.
Over the last few albums, you’ve become interested in destroying sound. I know you’re accomplishing some of this through DAWs, but, listening to the guitar and the bass on some tracks, it sounds like you’re purposely eroding and abrading and fragmenting them. What’s the appeal in that?
“Abrading.” Good word, yeah. That’s right. For What Happens Next, what would often happen is I’d just DI the guitar straight into the computer and drop different apps on it, whether they were designed for the guitar or designed for something completely different. I wasn’t interested in all the lovely, beautiful tone of the Celestion speaker and the 12 AX valve. You put that and this on it, and suddenly it was almost like the guitar was fighting for its life. And that can be a quite extraordinary sort of sound. I suppose it’s the same spirit as people in the ’60s, cutting slits in the speakers to fuck them up.
I remember in the early ’80s getting to know synthesizers. “God, you must have to have a degree in electronics to know how to use that thing.” And today, with the digital stuff, you don’t, really. You need a five-minute lesson and then you can get on with it. Of course, nobody had YouTube back then, so a lot of these things, you go see a video and then you play with it, and suddenly the sound comes out, and you use it. Why wouldn’t you?
My favorite bits of sound destruction are done with Dubstation and Replicant by Audio Damage, CamelPhat by Camel Audio, FabFilter stuff, Trash from iZotope, and the Movement delay by Output. They’re all familiar—nothing particularly new.
Having said all of that, there’s still some pedals I find it hard to give up, and they’re fiddly to use, like, for example, the Electro-Harmonix MicroSynth. I love that thing. The trouble is, you can’t play it and move the faders at the same time, and that’s kind of what you need to do. You can set it in one position, and it does some pretty great stuff, but when you start moving it around when it’s being played, it goes to another level.
So you either record your guitar straight and then put it back through the pedal and fiddle with it, and you might have to do that a few times to rehearse whatever it is you’re trying to get, or you get someone else to do that for you while you play. An example of that is “Alpha Male,” on the new record, which is essentially two guitar parts, and they answer each other. It’s like a bar of one, followed by a bar of another, a bar of number one again, a bar of the other. One of them is going through the MicroSynth and the other is just going through the most basic of Logic guitar amps, which is the one that looks like a combo.
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