When Gang of Four reunited in 2004 for a concert tour, they never expected they'd make another album. But bands never do, do they? So they say.
The band -- whose clangy, political post-punk, beginning with 1979's scorching "Entertainment!" album, proved to be highly influential in defining the braver frontier of '70s and '80s New Wave -- had been silent for a decade by then. One set of shows led to more, and the band inevitably tinkered with new songs. Thus the new album, "Content," the band's first in 16 years. Now comes another tour to support that.
A lot has happened in those intervening years. A new generation of bands has stepped up, citing Gang of Four as a primary inspiration, from Franz Ferdinand and the Futureheads to the Rapture and Radio 4. In a recent interview, founding Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill forgave the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who he said "have obviously based their career on Gang of Four." The world also has developed new perspectives on the Marxist philosophies behind singer Jon King's barked lyrics. And despite that, Gang of Four began licensing its songs to films ("Marie Antoinette") and even a TV commercial (for Microsoft's Xbox Kinect gaming system).
We caught up with Gill last week from his London home, and he spoke about the band's enduring legacy, the creation of new "content" and the challenge of applying socially relevant lyrics to something that's definitely not folk music.
GANG OF FOUR
♦ 8 p.m. Feb. 11
♦ Metro, 3730 N. Clark
♦ Tickets, $28.50, (773) 549-4140, metrochicago.com
Question: Did you have new material in mind when the band regrouped in 2004?
Andy Gill: Not then. It was a leap of faith. Jon and I very much enjoyed working together and doing shows, the European festivals, and after a couple of years of it, Jon said to me, "It might be interesting to do some new stuff, wouldn't it? Something to stick in the live sets to spice things up a bit?" That was the impetus. It was always about, "Let's make playing live more interesting."
Q: Am I allowed to write an article about Gang of Four without using the word "angular" to describe your guitar playing?
Gill: [Laughs] Yes, we laugh about that word. It is the word most often used. It's like, if you met me I have a pointy head with sharp sides.
Q: What do you think critics mean when they use it so pervasively?
Gill: That it's not smooth, that it's got sharp punctuation and is kind of abrasive. The rhythms are funky, but they catch you the wrong way.
Q: The title of the new record is a wink at that new-media word, right?
Gill: Yes, "content." We are content producers. Awful, isn't it? It's a wonderfully dismissive term for all culture -- music, writing, photography -- and the culture suffers because of it.
Q: The use of the word to describe non-advertising material in the media might be new, but the concept surely isn't. Is it really an invention of the Internet?
Gill: I think it is. Jon says no, but I think it is. I think the Web has encouraged that usage. It's very much a word in the language of people providing hardware and software and media. (a) They're selling phones and hardware, and (b) they're selling advertising. It's glorious if they can then get content in there and liven up the package so that people would actually want what they're selling. But it devalues the thing the people actually want, which isn't really the gadget or the commercials on it.
Q: But you're not anti-advertising, I see. Tell me how the Microsoft commercial came about.
Gill: We just got an e-mail saying they were interested in the Xbox game using it. We thought it was brilliant. Me and Jon were delighted. In fact, he'd said to me a year or two ago, "What would be the best scenario for a Gang of Four song to be used in an ad? Advertising a game." It fits how we think, and how our music presents itself, really. The song ["Natural's Not in It"] is sort of apt. It starts off, "The problem of leisure / What to do for pleasure / The body is good business." [The lyrics are not heard in the ad, just Gill's scraping, rhythmic riff.] We've always been interested in exploring the anxiety of consumerism, rather than manning the barricades, if you like. We've made observations and dramas about how our culture is kind of obsessed with acquiring things, and how this has helped us to reduce personal events to a transactional experience. We're not saying, "Smash the capitalist machine!" We recognize our own complicity in it.
Q: It's interesting you say that, that you're not "manning the barricades." I've always had the impression your songs were far more observational than calls to arms. You make harsh commentaries, but you don't consider yourselves protest singers, right?
Gill: We're making it up as we go along. Still. I'll say this, though: I don't know any other band like Gang of Four. I know bands who overtly take a kind of leftist position and in some way or other want to be perceived red flag in hand. In a sense, we're trying to define ourselves. In many ways, we are protest singers. We're pissed off with certain aspects of the world and certain things done for us by our rulers in Europe and the West, but we also decline to always beat the same drum and to be rabble rousers for a particular cause. For us, the answer is not always the same answer. It's not always carved in stone. The answers are not always supplied by Marxism or capitalism or anything else. There are myriad options. That in itself is a sort of radical stance.
Q: How do find the sweet spot between making a pointed lyrical statement balance with a great musical groove?
Gill: The music comes first, and the words are applied to it. For me, that's the thing that always got me going, still does -- the groove that will not be denied. One of my favorite R&B/rap songs is that -- I'm not sure -- "Work It"? By Missy Elliott? The one that starts with that stolen riff. It's a massive groove, thrills me to bits. When I was 10 years old, I heard "Satisfaction" by the Stones and I couldn't get it out of my head. That's the kind of thing I'm always trying to get to when we're working on songs. We then build the slogans and sentences into those rhythms. It's quite easy to hook a cool sentence onto that beat, that's the fun of it. Often it twists the meaning a bit, which is central to how Gang of Four operates. The meaning changes when you put the words in. Look at us in the sleeve for "Content," the photos of the four of us, each labeled with a different emotion. They don't really fit the photos, or maybe they do. You add the words, the context shifts.