Since their inception in 1978, Gang Of Four have been widely hailed as one of the leading bands for the post-punk movement. Known for their lyrical emphasis on political and social ills in society and influencing some of the largest names in the past decade such as R.E.M, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Nirvana, this English post-punk rock band are now back with their new album Content. This album, their first for sixteen years, sees founding members Jon King and Andy Gill continue to deliver more of their stripped down mix of punk rock, whose intelligence is as liberating as it is provocative and thrilling. Here singer Jon here tells us a little more.
What were your largest early influences, things that shaped your decisions to become musicians?
JK: For me, the life-changer was Bob Dylan. I was 11 and had only before heard Pop radio. At school, the older boys were playing on the Art-room record player ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. It was like an earthquake. This voice that was singing about stuff I didn’t understand, so cool, so on it. Even though I couldn’t then, and can’t now say what the song meant – and of course the idea that songs can be pinned down like this is crazy – I knew he was on the side on the good guys against the military-industrial complex, the straights, the bores and the Fascists. I knew that I wanted to be on his side, too. Later, along with Andy, we both came to love Funk and Reggae, Dr FeelGood and the Band, The Velvets, Jimi [Hendrix] and Miles [Davis], Motown… Like everybody else’s musical journey I guess.
You’ve been considered as ‘post-punk’. How did punk shape the early produce of Gang of Four? Did you see the band as being different from the rest of the punk scene at the time? Do you think that this still has an impact on your produce now?
JK: Punk, or at least British Punk rock, didn’t shape what we did. We did think we were different; BritPunk music had a very limited palette and was, mostly, like fast Sabbath with lairy words. It’s why it hasn’t aged well. Listening to ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ now you wonder what all the fuss was about. It’s so conservative.
A lot of your songs like ‘Natural’s Not In It’ seem to breakdown song structure. This also happens with your unique playing style: the breakdown of the chorus bridge, allowing bass and drums to be elements rather than bedrock by giving instrumental solos. Was this intentional? Are we going to be seeing more of this on the new album Content?
JK: This way of writing followed into our notion that we could make music where every segment played an equally important part, but had a relentlessness that took you somewhere else, like a train falling off a cliff. It was intentional. I’m so bored by endlessly layered, over-produced commercial music. Stops and starts feature as much on Content as back in the day.
Looking at your legacy, lots of groups have praised Gang Of Four. Michael Stipe from R.E.M for instance has spoken very highly of your influence. Do you feel proud of the legacy that you’ve made? Are there bands that have surprised you by claiming Gang Of Four as influential?
JK: I’m very proud that other musicians have found something in us that has inspired them to do something. We all do it. I’m glad that whatever we’ve done has been thought of so well by people I really respect. R.E.M supported us many times when they started off and are brilliant musicians. I value Michael’s compliments highly. He’s a great bloke. I bumped into Al [Jourgensen] from Ministry a few years ago and he said he owed us a debt. But we all owe someone something.
People still refer to Entertainment! as your definitive record. Do you feel that this album overshadows other work that you’ve done?
JK: I know that for many people Entertainment! is a precious thing and I love that. We all have our favourites. But I don’t think about the past much. I also love equally many other things we’ve done. I love our albums Solid Gold and Songs of The Free for different reasons; songs like ‘To Hell With Poverty’, ‘Do As I Say’ and ‘Farm’ on the new album; ‘What We All Want’ and ‘He’d Send In The Army’.
You’ve been performing on and off again since 2004. Have any of the contemporary bands that you’ve played with/heard become influences?
JK: There’s a lot of great music being made. But we have our own thing going. I love Dizzy Rascal and Plan B, but I can’t see this affecting what we do.
There was something of a revival of interest in Gang Of Four in the early part of the last decade, both in New York and then in England. Did that have an impact on how you approached recording a new record? Knowing that you were a presence in the music that was being made for a new generation, as an oft-cited influence?
JK: Doing the new album, we wanted to play to our strengths, to make sure the songs had space to breathe. Leaving things out is usually better than putting something in; to think and argue hard about what we were writing about. Now it’s done, I think of it as a distant sister piece to Entertainment! and Solid Gold. It’s great we have a mostly younger audience who are desperate for relevant music that’s about something real.
How did the new album come about? You’ve been back together for a few years now – was it just a case of finding time to write and record, with a stable line up?
JK: We wrote like we always did: Andy and me kicking around ideas and working them up into a demo we could present to the band. Our new rhythm section is sensational; Mark’s one of the best drummers in the world and Tom can play hard funk and rock out too. It really makes a difference having such talent.
Do you feel more pressure to compete with younger bands these days? Do you consider the new releases of old contemporaries like the Wire, who have recently released their new album Red Barked Tree, help or hinder you?
JK: I don’t think in these terms at all and whatever we do is on our own terms.
In many ways, Content arrives in a similar political climate to Entertainment!, with a new (largely) Tory government in power and economic uncertainty. Are there parallels between both your political and musical outlooks then and now? Sex and consumerism in particular, and as ever in your music, seem to be recurring themes.
JK: I’m not sure about that. I’ve never actually been interested in consumerism as a subject, which is pretty boring. I like to write as clearly as I can, and describe things as they are. Our desires for people or things aren’t natural but learned; trying to dig yourself out of a hole is pretty tough without a shovel.
Do you find the lack of political engagement in the majority of contemporary bands’ music frustrating? Many bands, Arcade Fire come to mind for instance, keep politics and music separate. Is this an appropriate way to reconcile the two, or does it ultimately diminish any political message?
JK: I’m amazed at how few musicians take on modern life and that almost no one wants to write about these amazing, difficult times. Where are the songs about the Iraq war or the crimes in the City and Wall Street who’ve brought us all so low? Actually, keeping these subjects ‘separate’ tells you a lot about how the ones who are most comfortable in other people’s misery are happy for things to stay as they are.
There’s been a little bit of a debate in the music press lately about class, about how the majority of new bands seem to come from particularly well-off backgrounds. Is this something you’ve noticed, recently and throughout your career, and does it matter?
JK: Starting off as a musician you need time to fool around and experiment in your chosen field. Back in the day, proto-musos like The Clash, Kinks, Beatles etc. could easily goof off at Art Colleges. Now, it’s increasingly only the privileged who can risk wasting their time like this, comfortable that bank of Mum and Dad can bail them out. It does matter that less advantaged people are having so many opportunities taken away from them.
The Guardian recently wrote a piece that ‘Rock is Dead’ as Pop and R’n’B take a stronger hold on the charts. What is your opinion on this? Have you noticed a change in the landscape of Rock over the years?
JK: Rock music is a minority taste these days and isn’t even close to what Hip Hop is in sales terms. Maybe it’s because Hip Hop tells stories about life that, at their best, say something real.
What does the future hold for Gang Of Four?
JK: We play a one-off show in the UK at venue Heaven in London on February 2nd and then we head off to the US and Australia on a five week tour.
Gang Of Four’s new album Content is out on 24th January. New tracks ‘Who Am I?’, ‘You Don’t Have To Be Mad’, ‘I Can’t Forget Your Lonely Face’ and ‘I Party All The Time’ reveal Gang Of Four to be just as challenging and unconventional now as they were in 1978.