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Q&A: Gang of Four on Losing Their Lead Singer and Working With the Kills

gang of four

Sure, Joy Division foregrounded those bass lines, and Pere Ubu added synths, but it was undoubtedly Gang of Four who put the rhythm in punk, with minimal funk fills and syncopations worthy of James Brown, buried under scratchy harmonics. Classic tantrums like “Not Great Men,” “At Home He’s a Tourist,” and “To Hell With Poverity!” put a danceable bottom under the guitar screech and clipped sneer of other U.K. punk bands, doing just as much to renovate punk’s backbeat as its consumerist analysis. Tom Morello has called the Gang the single biggest influence on his playing, and they’re the band Sleater-Kinney was pledging allegiance to when they dissed Franz Ferdinand and their suited bretheren on 2005’s pointed “Entertain” in lines like “Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore” — and Go4’s Andy Gill recently “returned the gift” by praising S-K’s reunion album in this Talkhouse review.

After a few ’80s classics (Entertainment, Solid Gold, Songs of the Free), Gill continued the band through a few permutations and reunions, including 1991’s danceable Mall, 1995’s return to gee-tar Shrinkwrapped, and 2011’s Content, which sounds honest-to-Marx like old times. In 2005, they remade some of their older stuff on Return the Gift, adding more live-sounding, muscular production to properly get in the Rapture’s and Radio 4’s faces. But before they began recording their new album, What Happens Next (out Febuary 24 via Metropolis), the band’s longtime singer Jon King finally departed, leaving the project to Gill. Vocal duties now rest in the hands of new addition John “Gaoler” Sterry, as well as the Kills’ Alison Mosshart and German luminary Herbert Grönemeyer, plus cameos from Big Pink’s Robbie Furz and Davie Bowie bandmate Gail Ann Dorsey. SPIN met up with the 59-year-old Gill to talk about what changed to make this album (very little) and what’s up next for the influential band (anything they want).

What happened with the band between [2011’s] Content and What Happens Next?
Well, after Content, Jon King, he didn’t want to do any more touring and such. I think he had other things that he wanted to get on with. So I kind of thought that was quite an exciting opportunity to kind of do some collaborations. So I got in Allison from the Kills and Herbert Grönemeyer, a German singer. Probably the highest selling German artist in my homeland. He’s just got a phenomenal voice. And I wrote that song [“Dying Rays”] with his voice in mind.

Did any of the guest singers collaborate on the writing?
No, it was all on my own.

Had you been friends with Allison and Robbie for a long time?
I didn’t really know Robbie. I had worked with the Kills on a couple things in London.

Did you consider releasing material under different name than Gang of Four?
No, I didn’t. You know, the Gang of Four has been through quite a few different lineups.

How permanent is Jon’s departure? Is it more of a hiatus or —
No, I think he’s just gone.

Did you see that coming for a while?
I think that John has always been a bit semi-detached.

Always? Or just since the band’s 1995 reunion?
I think since Shrinkwrapped in the ’90s. And he just kind of said he didn’t want to do it. So I mean, not working with him has presented some difficulties… I think you have to be all in or not. You have to desire to create songs and to write and to record them. It’s what I do. It’s what I love to do.

Did you have to get into a different frame of mind to write without King?
No, no it’s just business as usual. I wrote these songs in the same way that I wrote the songs on Content.

And you feel that it is easier to write politically now than it was back in the early ’80s? Or do you find that it’s more difficult to articulate that in song with more education and experience?
I feel like I go about things in a similar way I did then. Not so many bands have picked up on… news.

Do you wish there were more bands writing about current events and politics? Or would you not want Gang of Four’s style to be replicated?
Well, it can be replicated. You can choose not to [be political]. If someone gets their feelings hurt people don’t want to express too strongly their point of view in fear of alienating some party.

I think with the advent of social media, people are way too cautious about that.
Yeah, it’s definitely… you wonder when any small comment could generate a lot of noise.

Have fans reacted reacted positively to the band’s lineup changes?
Well, the lineup changes started in about 1981, but I think it’s been more positive.

Another somewhat taboo thing that Gang of Four has done was remake your own material on Return the Gift ten years ago. You were dissatisfied with the original albums’ production because they didn’t capture those songs’ energy live, right? I wanted to know if you do indeed prefer the newer versions now that time has passed.
Yeah, I think it does sound kind of more refined than the first couple records. When you think of jazz musicians, they recut the same material all the time, over the years, to chart their own improvements. In a lot of bands, drums are things way in the background, with the guitar and vocals working side by side. With us, the drums and the bass, they’re all kind of operating on the same level.  What do you think about the new record?

It’s definitely a Gang of Four record. It doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of changes even though there are new singers.
I’m glad you say that you know because a lot of people have said the same thing. They’ve said, “I’m surprised that it sounds so Gang of Four-ish.”

Was that something you were worried about?
I’m just not… I mean, like the track with Herbert, “The Dying Rays.” I get that that’s probably the most different. But when I say “business as usual” I don’t mean sound. I start making noises and I go about it the way I would go about it. I pick up the guitar and I’m looking for good rhythms with it. So I suppose it’s not that surprising; the way I approach building a rhythm is the way I always do it.

Do you think you’re going to make Gang of Four records more frequently without having to worry about whether someone’s in or out?
Yeah, exactly.

Do you have more guest vocalists in mind already?
I don’t particularly, but I can’t get out of the habit of writing songs at the moment.