Since the late ’70s, Gang of Four has been making music that’s not only thought-provoking — it’ll get you on the dance floor. From its landmark 1979 debut album, Entertainment!, through the 1982 club hit “I Love a Man in a Uniform,” Gang of Four was one of the leading lights of the British post-punk movement.
The group’s original lineup reunited in 2004 and re-record some of its classics for the 2005 album, Return the Gift, but it didn’t end there. Surviving a series of lineup changes, the Gang continues as an active entity with co-founder/guitarist Andy Gill, 62, leading the way. And, it’s continuing that tradition of provocative yet danceable material with its recently released EP, Complicit, which features a photo of Ivanka Trump on the cover and a song named after the controversial first daughter. A full album is in the works for release this summer.
We caught up with Gill in his London home by Skype to talk about the EP, the future and the band’s storied past.
What inspired you to write “Ivanka (Things You Can’t Have)” and use her photo on the cover of the EP?
I thought it was a nice picture. I think it would be easy for people to do songs about [Donald] Trump. There’s a whole industry of late-night comics doing a very good job pointing out the humor, if not the hypocrisy. Obviously in America there a lot of people who approve of Trump and there are many people who very much disapprove of Trump, but I think the one thing that unites everybody is no one knew he was going to be this entertaining… I think it would be boring and kind of pointless to call Trump names. The thing that got me fascinated was when they pushed Ivanka to the forefront and she was in a way a spokesperson whom was in her own naïve way trying to explain what [her father] is all about.
Is there a vinyl release of the EP? The cover art is so great. It’s a shame it’s just a thumbnail on your phone or computer.
There isn’t at the moment, but we are talking about a special release, where there will be those tracks, plus one or two others, maybe a remix or something. I would like to do that, but with vinyl these days, it takes two months to get anything pressed. But I think that would be a good thing to do.
The lyrics are pretty interesting. From what I understand they’re inspired by things Ivanka has actually said.
They are primarily inspired by things she said and observations of my own, but I wanted it to be primarily from the horse’s mouth as they say.
Did you give her a co-writing credit?
That’s a really good point. I wonder what the rules are about that when you actually quote someone in a song.
There’s that one line about “stormy weather.” Is that a reference to Stormy Daniels or just a coincidence? I don’t know how long ago you wrote and recorded it.
It was a late addition to the song. It was just too hard to go and pass that one by. The thing is, it’s a wonder I even got that finished, because every single day there is news that has your jaw on the floor, but you’ve got to stop somewhere.
According to her mother’s memoir, Ivanka went through punk-rock phase when she was into Nirvana and dyed her hair blue, but he mom made her dye it back. Maybe she’s a fan of Gang of Four.
Well, Nirvana… Gang of Four is like number nine of Kurt Cobain’s list of favorite bands. Isn’t that right?
I wouldn’t be surprised. That would be right up his alley.
He was also a fan of the Raincoats, who were very much a feminist band and I was great friends with them and still see them. Whose memoir was it, Melania’s?
No, it was Ivana’s. It’s called Raising Trump.
God, that’s such a funny title. I think Stormy knows a lot about raising Trump. Some part of him any way.
It’s strange to me that the rock n’ roll community has been largely silent about Trump. Back in the ’80s, even the Ramones called out Reagan with “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg.” What’s your take on it?
I think there was a point where people thought they might be [damaged] if they do something “political.” I think it became something to stay away from…but come on rock. You’re powerful. You’re brilliant. Write something about it. I get a bit confused that people are avoiding the massive elephant in the room.
Did you ever think of retiring the Gang of Four name after [original vocalist] Jon King left or is it kind of Mark E. Smith said with The Fall, “As long as it’s me and yer granny playing bongos it’s The Fall”?
I suppose it is. When Jon King and I started this band together, we were in what you call high school. We were in a band called the Bourgeois Brothers and we did some funny songs, some more serious. We needed a drummer and bass player and we got whoever we could find. This was before the Internet, so it was who you met or were recommended. There’s been a million bass player and drummers. Thomas McNeice, who plays bass now, has been with me for 10 years. He’s a great friend and a great bass player. I think the only other bass player that can stand up to Thomas would be Gail Ann Dorsey, who is phenomenal and she played with Gang of Four in the ’90s until [David] Bowie got his hands on her. I think the question really comes down to if it’s me and Jon or just me. Jon is phenomenally imaginative. We wrote many lyrics together, but some he wrote on his own are astoundingly insightful, but he’s always been a bit in and out. Sometimes he wanted to be in the band and sometimes he wanted to go and be an advertising executive. When he said, “I don’t think I want to do it anymore,” I said, “I get a kick out of writing songs and performing them, so I’m going to carry on,” and he said, “Yeah, OK, that would be fine.” So Gaoler, which is nickname I gave him, is the singer and has been around for a long time now. The first tour he did with Gang of Four was in China in 2013. I think he’s a fabulous singer. Now we’re writing some songs together. It takes time to get in each other’s heads.
In 2004, the original lineup reunited for a tour and to re-record some of your early material. How do you feel about that now?
I’ve got mixed feelings about it. There was a little bit of back-biting with [bassist] Dave [Allen]. And again, I wasn’t really sure if Jon wanted to be there. There was a fair bit of money involved. You were never really sure if people thought it was a good idea or not. Live, by and large, it was good, but there’s just one thing you can’t get away from – Gang of Four is probably the most argumentative band ever in the history of bands. Sometimes that can be OK, but sometimes it’s not OK. [Drummer] Hugo [Burnham] used to say that was one of our great strengths, but you could also say it’s a fucking waste of time and you should spend your time writing fantastic material.
Do you feel like the band has gotten its proper due over the years? Should Gang of Four be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Are the Velvet Underground in the American Hall of Fame?
Good. Usually you have to sell enormous amount of records to be considered for that sort of thing, which Gang of Four certainly hasn’t done. But the truth is, you listen to stuff these days and it’s hard to find a band that hasn’t got a little Gang of Four guitar style and some of that approach to rhythm. And it goes from generation to generation. In the ’80s it was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M. and Rage Against the Machine. Then there was all these bands like Franz Ferdinand, the Rapture and now Pharrell is talking about Gang of Four and Frank Ocean is sampling Gang of Four and the wonderful St. Vincent is saying I’m a great guitarist, so in terms of recognition, there is some.
Looking back at your career, what would you consider the high point?
There’s a certain excitement at the very beginning when you come up with these songs, some of which are pretty so-so, and you start to come up with some great songs and you know they’re good. You play Leeds, where we were, or play one of the neighboring towns and it’s just a pub with 80 people and you can see that they’re all just fascinated. They’ve never seen anything like it and they know they haven’t and they know they’re witnessing something radical. You may be somewhere in the middle of nowhere and people turn up word of mouth. Those were exciting times when you started to realize that you were on to something and people were connecting to what you were doing.
How about the future? How long do you see Gang of Four continuing?
I have no idea. I sort of do what I do and I get a kick out of it. These days I get up early at 6:30, I get a cup of tea and I go straight down the studio and start working…I get a buzz out of it. I’m not in any hurry to stop.