Although he’s most associated with a Strat, Gill—at the back of the band’s current vocalist John Sterry—has also appeared onstage in recent years slamming a Reverend Double Agent and a Gibson ES-335.
One of the hallmarks of the band has been your social perspective. Did living in Leeds when you began writing songs somehow trigger that?
It’s complicated. We went to Leeds University to do art. When I went there in the ’70s, Leeds looked like it had been bombed. There were the remnants of old slums, back-to-back. It’s quite different now. It’s been totally renovated. I grew up in Kent, which was certainly a much, much better-off environment than some of Leeds was in the ’70s.
Sometimes there’s an element of confusion about the political thing. It would be a mistake to think that Gang of Four was always banging the drum for socialism and prescribing certain social changes to make the world a better place. I don’t think that was ever on the agenda. What was on the agenda was much more attempts to describe the world that we saw around us and, on a sort of micro level, what you might call personal politics. And on a more macro level, the things that we saw happening in our country and in our media, and the way things would be presented to us.
On Entertainment!, for example, there’s several examples of talking about Northern Ireland, but not in a generalized sort of way. More specifically, about how those of us on the mainland in England would be getting information through the BBC television, and the way that information was manipulated and presented. In the song “5.45,” the first verse is me talking, and I’m explaining that I’m watching the 5:45 news, and I’m trying to eat some food, but I can’t, because I’m looking at the TV and I can see this terrorist being shot, but there’s no blood. It’s really specific: This is me, consuming news and trying to consume food, and this is what’s being spun as an explanation of what’s going on in another part of our country. I was descriptive and observational in, perhaps, a slightly poetic way. But it wasn’t particularly trying to spell out political solutions or social solutions.
Your music was a perfect soundtrack for the age of Reagan and Thatcher.
Sometimes people think that Entertainment! was a reaction to Thatcher, but when we wrote Entertainment!, Thatcher wasn’t in power. Because it almost sounds like it is a reaction to Thatcher, but the Reagan-Thatcher love affair was a little bit later.
Well, let’s talk more about guitars! What drove you to pick up the instrument?
I had no confidence that I would have any musical talent of any kind, but, as a kid, I liked pop music. When I first saw the Beatles on TV, I was trying to figure out how they changed pitch. I couldn’t see they were pressing on frets. I thought they were maybe fiddling with their tuning heads—maybe that’s how it worked. I mean, I had no idea, but I liked the sound of it, but I didn’t think I had any ability. And then my cousin, who was a couple years older than me, could play quite a few things on the guitar. And he showed me how to play “Satisfaction” by the Stones, which I always think as Guitar Lesson Number One. If ever any kids ask me how to play guitar, I show them that. And once I got it in my head, I played it a million times … couldn’t stop playing it. So, I was addicted at that point, and I thought, okay, so it’s not so hard. Actually, they were lying! It’s easy! And then the same cousin showed me how to play “Voodoo Child.” Then I was away. If you can play that, you can pretty much go on and do anything.
At that point, I’d got hold of an acoustic guitar of some sort. I remember it was quite easy to play. It was in tune all the way up. It had decent action, which is unusual for cheap acoustic guitars. And then, a little bit after that, I actually made an electric guitar—the whole thing, including the neck, believe it or not. I bought fret wire and the parts and the pickup through the post, and I made the whole thing in the woodwork class at my school. So, obviously, the neck had no truss or anything. It was literally a lump of wood. But it was playable. Amazingly. And the strange-but-true twist to the story is that I sold it to Kevin [Lycett] in the Mekons. I think he gave me £15 pounds for it. It was painted bright orange. [Laughs.]
You may have heard that the Mekons and Gang of Four worked very, very closely together at Leeds. We were mates and we worked a little bit as a collective. We got fed up playing in pubs and clubs. They charged us a small amount for using their PA systems. This annoyed us, so we made our own out of old wardrobes and cupboards, and put speakers in them, and we’d carry them around. Hugo had a transit van, which is the main reason he got the job [laughter], but the PA would go around in his transit van.
Did you already have your first Strat when you sold the guitar you built?
I must have, yeah. Somebody made me a Strat copy, and at the very, very beginning of the band, I had an Ibanez SG-style that I really, really liked. There are photographs of me playing that at Gang of Four gigs. I think I got my first genuine Strat at a pawnshop in New York in ’76, when Jon King and I went there.
What brought you and Jon to New York in ’76?
I’d been given a small grant from the University. You had to present something that you were going to write about to get this grant, and I said I was looking into the art of [minimalist and abstract painter] Frank Stella, and so I had to go to the Museum of Modern Art. My professor at Leeds, Tim Clark, who was a well-known art historian, wrote me a letter for someone he knew at the museum in New York that said Andy Gill here wants to come and look in your basement at all the various Frank Stellas. And that’s what happened.
But that’s what I did by day, and by night, we were staying with Mary Harron [film director and cofounder of Punk magazine], who neither of us knew. She was a friend of my friend, Adam Curtis, who makes films in the U.K. He said to Mary, “Is it okay if these two guys turn up and sleep on your floor?” So, we turn up at her apartment in downtown. She was writing for Punk magazine. And she would take us around at night. Pretty much every evening we’d go out to clubs. At CBGB, I remember standing between Joey Ramone and John Cale, having beers with them, and chatting about stuff, and, you know, feeling “this is all very normal.” Then the Jam turned up at CBGB and we watched them, and we’d have a chat with Paul Weller and Paul Weller’s dad, who was managing them then. And we got to be friends with the Patti Smith group. And Jay Dee Daugherty, the drummer, he was particularly a very nice guy. That was a great time—fantastic! It was like: This is normal, anyone can do this, I can do this. Okay, when we go back to Leeds, we’ll do some gigs. So it was, literally, the beginning of Gang of Four.
Zooming ahead a few decades, you were an early adopter of MIDI and really enjoy recording with a DAW and plug-ins. What was the lure of digital music tech for you?
Pretty much as soon as samplers appeared, I was a very early adopter of the Akai sampler from, like, day one. And I’d heard talk about the Atari having a MIDI port on it. So, you could plug straight in, and it just was so simple. And next came Performer software or something. So, the idea of using computers with bands that I produced or music that I was making…. I was involved pretty much from the word go.
Initially, recording was pretty rubbish, but you could do it. And it became slightly better quality and a little bit less expensive. It all struck me as exciting and opening up frontiers.
In the digital recording versus tape debate, I’m a digital fan, but the argument’s made that guitars sound better on tape—with a richer midrange.
Tape does have a sound, yeah, but lots of other things have a sound, too. The sound of my Massenburg EQ is pretty awesome, but I wouldn’t always take that in preference to the Massive Passive. Do you know what I mean? That’s not the only sound available in your toolbox.
Andy Gill, with an Ibanez double-cutaway guitar, singer Jon King, and bassist Dave Allen bring their churn ’n’ burn to New York City’s Irving Plaza on one of their first American tours, supporting their debut album, Entertainment!.
Photo by Ebet Roberts
Are you always working on new songs, or is it, “It’s album time! Go!”
It does tend to be “It’s album time! Go.” On Happy Now, that was very much the way I felt about it. I wanted to completely, totally immerse myself in it, and not pay attention to emails or anything, really, except for the most important stuff. And also, the thing that I decided about this record was to work with co-producers. In the past, people have said to me, or I’ve said to myself, “Ah, well, Andy, you’re a producer. You’ve produced all these other people, so you should do it.”
But when you stand back and think about it, when I’m in the studio, I want someone to give me feedback on a lot of different levels: audio approaches, arrangements. If necessary, argue with me, or whatever. So that’s what I did with this last record. And several different people worked with me on different songs.
I found I was starting very, very early. I’d often be up at 6 a.m. and get a cup of tea and go straight into the studio and be working on lyrics, melodies. And then, by the time the other people that I was working with turned up, like 10:30 or 11:00, I’d already got a whole bunch of stuff done, and then we’d work the rest of the day until 7 p.m. For one of the first times doing music, I realized the power of momentum and how that’s a self-feeding engine that gets things done.
I’ve got a lot of songs left over. Some of them are mixed, some aren’t, and some are still in a demo phase. So, I’ll be back on the album thing later this year.
One last thing: What makes you happy and keeps you going?
Friends and relatives, and just going through and doing a good job. Regularly albatrosses fly in, dropping grenades, and to survive and to achieve a few things is a great source of satisfaction.
It makes you feel like life has balance.I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that. [Laughter.]
Join the Gang of Four—Andy Gill, singer Jon King, original drummer Hugo Burnham, and bassist Sara Lee—onstage for this fire-breathing rendition of “What We All Want,” from their classic debut album Entertainment! Gill alternates between rhythmic scratching, like a post-punk Jimmy Nolen, and fragmented-bell-toned whale calls of lead guitar. This year, 1982, the band opened for the Police while touring behind their own Songs of the Free album.