Gang of Four: ‘There’s a certain kind of anxiety spreading amongst us like a virus’

As Leeds-formed band Gang of Four release their latest album Happy Now, guitarist Andy Gill talks to Duncan Seaman.

Gang of Four.

Andy Gill is gearing up for the release of Gang of Four’s ninth studio album, Happy Now, but preparations have been beset by ill-luck.

In February the band were forced to cut short a North American tour after the guitarist, 63, contracted pneumonia. “We did a three-and-a-half-week American tour and in the last week of it, it just got really difficult,” he says. “I could hardly breathe. It seemed to be two different chest problems meeting in the middle with unfortunate results. It seemed the only thing they could treat me with was masses of steroids, which have got their own side-effects.”

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To compound their problems, Pledge Music, whose services the band were using to crowdfund their new record, ran into serious financial difficulties. “It hasn’t been my year so far,” Gill sighs, recounting how “said record company...owes me a load of money from a previous campaign” which is still outstanding.

Gang of Four

“I think the release date of this album was put back twice. I started to think last year everything was not well, then it became pretty clear in January this year when there was a storm of artists saying, ‘they owe me really large amounts and they haven’t paid’ and people understandably getting extremely upset.

“In a way it’s a kind of business that’s in a perilous state that creative workers in the music industry are in, at a time when royalties and income in general is reduced anyway for well-known reasons, then stuff like this happens. It’s bizarre because Pledge clearly had a good business model, it was doing very well, and nobody has had any explanation from them.”

Thankfully, he says, “the situation has moved on” and the band have found a new label and have offered fans who had originally placed orders “a generous discount, just as a gesture of goodwill”.

Happy Now finds Gang of Four some distance from their post-punk roots. Gill is the only lasting member of their original line-up, that formed in Leeds in 1977. Fellow University of Leeds graduates Jon King, Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham have all departed over the years, with others such as Sara Lee, Mark Heaney and Gail Ann Dorsey also passing through. Alongside Gill now are singer John ‘Gaoler’ Sterry, bass player Thomas McNeice and drummer Tobias Humble.

While the blurb for the new record suggests it’s ‘a body of anthemic songs of modern confusion’, the guitarist says he’s mindful of “having been a little verbose and overexplaining” what previous records have been about – “one of the problems of that is you reduce the possibilities [of others’ interpretation]”, he says, “however, I can’t leave it at that”.

“I think people might be tempted to go, ‘it’s all inspired by Brexit and Trump and right-wing movements in Europe, populism etc’, but I think what it’s to do with is now there’s a certain kind of anxiety spreading amongst us like a virus, and it’s not just limited to things to do with the state and presidents who precisely govern you and all the rest of that, although that feeds into the narrative. There’s now a globally widespread dissatisfaction with politics.

“But also people are asking ‘Am I happy? Am I fulfilled?’, which I think is quite close to the surface in a lot of people’s thinking. Modern confusion? Yes, I think slash anxiety, that’s what behind the thinking. As usual, it’s a slightly dystopian backdrop and I’m often accused of being a miserablist, but, you know, I do it well.”

Questioning institutions has long been a theme in Gang of Four’s work. Gill denies making any conscious links with previous songs – “When I’m coming up with this stuff I don’t think about it very much, I get stuck into the nitty-gritty. I do make loads of notes, just stuff you hear on the bus or some line from an advert that jumps out and laughs in your face, then when I’m putting things together something might come out that seems to have a context, then you start taking things apart and rebuilding. At no point do I think ‘this relates to a theme’.

“I suppose subconsciously I think ‘this is the right way to go about it’, but it’s not conscious. Maybe it’s a rule that got constructed at some point in the past but I’m not really aware of it. I often think lyrically and musically I go about the making of one of these things in a very similar way to how I did back at the beginning. Obviously the technology is different and you’re playing around with things on computers but the thing about Gang of Four stuff was that everything was done in real time in a room with instruments. The technology might have changed but the way of going about it hasn’t.”

Gill feels the band’s current line-up has really bedded in with Happy Now. “I think the Gang of Four audience, whoever that is, is different,” he says. “When I started the last record [What Happens Next] I blithely went into it without a clue of who was going to sing what. I had these songs on the go which I had done fairly rough vocals for and then I thought ‘Someone’s got to sing this’. At some point I thought ‘Maybe I’ll just do collaborations’, so I did a couple with Alison Mosshart form The Kills, Herbert Gronemeyer, who’s a German mega-star, came along and did something, and Robbie Furze from The Big Pink.

“A third of the way through Gaoler came down to the studio – because at the same time as that I was producing a band from Berlin and I needed some decent backing vocals and someone recommended Gaoler. He came down, sang on that and I really liked him and his voice and it wasn’t long before I had him singing what I thought could be rough versions of some Gang of Four songs but then one thing led to another and he ended up singing more than half of the record, but it was definitely a record that was in transition.

“Tom’s been around for ages, he’s done several records, but Gaoler I feel he owns this record, the whole vocal thing has come on in leaps and bounds. I didn’t for one second think of getting any other vocalist involved.

“The one thing where there is involvement, where there hasn’t in the past, was I decided I was definitely going to use co-producers on this record and not do the whole thing myself. In the past there’s been a temptation to go ‘Andy, you’re a good producer, you should produce it yourself’. But there’s the whole thing of being the artist and the producer. I realised I needed to have co-producers and it was one of my best decisions in quite some time because when you’ve got somebody else in the room you can’t wander off and have a coffee or watch the news for half an hour because you’ve lost track.

“I also discovered that for some reason I was getting up and starting really early in the morning, so I’d get four hours solid work done before anybody else turned up, and we were also getting some momentum and you can see what you’re achieving and that momentum feeds on momentum. At this late stage in my creative career finally the penny dropped about how momentum was really a useful tool for not only getting things done but getting things done well.”

Happy Now is out on Friday April 19.