When the original members of Gang of Four reunited in 2004 for a world tour, no one expected them to make a new album. But the Leeds-bred post-punks, whose 1979 debut "Entertainment!" put its stamp on bands from R.E.M. to Franz Ferdinand, have a grand tradition of defying expectations. Gang of Four headed back to the studio and is now preparing to release "Content," its first album of new material in 15 years, on Jan. 25.
Led by original members Andy Gill (guitar) and Jon King (vocals), along with bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Mark Heaney, who replaced founders Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham in 2006, the Gang of Four on "Content" is fiery in a way that's more contained than on the band's flaring early incarnation. (Three more albums followed "Entertainment!" before the group's first mid-'80s split; Gill and King put out two more sets in the early '90s with a different lineup.)
"It took a while to get back into it and figure out what we were trying to say. Also, my day job is record producer," Gill says. "We'd get two or three songs demoed up, and then I'd go spend two or three months working with [Irish rock act] Therapy?. By the time I came back to the project, I'd scratch my head, thinking, 'Where am I going with this?' " Gill spent 2009 concentrating on the project, then set out to find a deal.
"For about a week we considered a major label -- I think EMI came in with some kind of offer," Gill says. "The whole major-label process is sort of deeply flawed, really, from a band's point of view. You get pretty small royalties; they kind of want to take a share of your merchandising, your live income. It's not really an intelligent way to go about it."
Nevertheless, Gill says the band liked Yep Roc right away and eventually signed with the North Carolina-based indie for the United States.
It's a good fit: During the past decade, Yep Roc has signed a number of similarly acclaimed, midsize rock acts tied historically to college radio: The Fleshtones, Apples in Stereo, Nick Lowe, Robyn Hitchcock and Paul Weller are among Gill and King's new labelmates. "A band we work with called Midlake suggested to Gang of Four's manager that they get in touch," Yep Roc GM Billy Maupin says. "Andy had most of [the album] done."
Maupin is betting that the band's history will speak for itself when it comes to selling "Content." "This is the first album of new material the band has released in over 15 years -- an incredibly important, influential group -- and we wanted to build on anticipation for that," Maupin says. "[We're doing] a boxed set with the new record, bonus music and a book. We went out and had preorders for retail. That went really well. We did a big press campaign, and they are rolling right into the release, then the North American tour in February."
Given the leftist sentiments espoused by the band's early songs, longtime Gang of Four fans have been surprised to hear the group's material in movies and, recently, a Microsoft ad. Gill says he and King take a realistic approach to licensing offers.
"With films, we often say 'yes,' [but] not always -- you don't want your songs to be overused," Gill says. "You want them to be used in good things. For example, the [Sofia] Coppola film 'Marie Antoinette,' they wanted to use 'Natural's Not in It' at the beginning. We were delighted.
"We've been asked to use a song of ours in a computer gaming thing -- we were happy to allow that to occur," Gill adds. "Me and Jon spend probably more time than we should playing games like that. It's brilliant, because you reach a wider, younger audience through that, which is what we want to do."