There's a lot of derision directed at "punks in suits," and I'll admit to feeling some of that myself when meeting Andy Gill, founder, guitarist and vocalist of legendary Leeds post-punk outfit Gang of Four
. The man I'd heard on Entertainment!
and Solid Gold
had delivered his analytic, perfectly structured critiques of consumer culture and rampant commercialization in the merciless dead-pan of a professor tearing apart your most dearly held and most flimsily supported beliefs; the guitarist I'd heard had come at me with staccato riffs that sliced in jerky stops and starts. Here was a man who'd made, along with Jon King and a rotating roster of talents, music that sounded as sterile and shaky and dissonant as alienation felt in a world where everything, even emotions and personalities, had been commoditized.
After a listen to their newest album, What Happens Next
(due for release on February 25th), I found the sound is much heavier than the Gang of Four that I'd been weaned on; it wasn't history's Gang of Four, it wasn't my Gang of Four. It was a foggier and fuzzier thing with a very industrial air about it. This is not the sparkle-clean and sanitized designer's world that Gill sang about thirty years ago, but a darker one, a polluted and overtly ugly one. It is also, notably, a much noisier one. That, as Gill revealed, was by designer. "I'm definitely in the pro-noise camp," he said with a grin, slumped across from me in his black blazer and blue shirt and looking not at all like the lean, young and keen-eyed youth I'd pictured every time I'd heard his old albums. There was a messiness about him, yes, but it was the messiness of someone who's spent the last few days on and off of planes, not the anarchic disarray of someone who was too busy worrying about the world to groom themselves.
"I think you want there to be a lot of noise...but you also want something that's a very clear idea or very clear melody or very clear feeling to emerge out of the noise," he said. You want a kind of juxtaposition because the clarity makes the noise feel more chaotic and the noise and the chaos makes the clarity more clear."
When asked if, in pursuing this noise, he'd been going for an industrial rock sound -- there are moments on the album that bear a touch of the toxic smell of Nine Inch Nails and Rammstein and that milieu -- he denied it. "To be honest I'm not even exactly sure what 'industrial' means," he admitted. "I think that guitar-wise I just followed my instincts and made the sounds that I wanted to make. I'm interested in the kinds of noises that guitars make. I kind of quite like to abuse (them) in a way, to kind of make (them) do things (they're) not really supposed to do."
But there's more to it than that, obviously, I figured. Or at least I had to believe there was more to it than that. After all, this was the same Andy Gill who'd once said in an interview, "If someone is enjoying or watching or absorbing what we're doing you can't really split up what it is they're absorbing." In short, the sound, Gill once claimed, was as integral to the political message of a piece as the much-more obvious words. Why then the change to this heavier, more cluttered sound? Did it, I asked, reflect a critique of a noisier, more cluttered culture or something less literal than all of that?
What he offered was intriguing and worthwhile but also frustrating in its brevity. "I can't help but agree with this point of view (that we're living in a frivolous age)," he said, recalling a time his nephew had been bugging him for the better part of a train ride about the newest iPhone operating system. " 'Look! Look at it! They're flatter! The new icons! They're flatter!' he kept saying," Gill recalled with a laugh. "Kids perpetuate this, they really focus in on their phones and shit like that. It is sort of an enormous distraction, isn't it? I wouldn't say that our songs are a response to that but you take the time and you travel and you put the blood, sweat and tears into it and it's right and you can stand by it." The point seemed to be that the music, as carefully crafted as it was, stood as an answer to all of this frivolity. It was a nice answer, yes, but one he would not elaborate upon.
Questions about the music he was listening to (Kanye West, apparently; he's a rather large fan of Yeezus
. Upon hearing that I'd never given it a listen he lit up: "It's AWESOME! You must listen to it!"), the theme of the newest album, ("It's about London," he noted, and about internationalism, with quite a bit of water-centric imagery influenced by Conrad's Heart of Darkness
, particularly the prologue and epilogue), about former-band-leader Jon King's turn from running a punk rock band to running an advertisement agency and the idea that this might be a kind of selling out, ("It's quite appropriate for a Gang of Four-er," he noted. "So it's a kind of 'poacher turned gamekeeper' thing. It's looking at the same thing from different angles. I wouldn't call him a sell-out.") were addressed with a similar flippancy, dismissed easily and competently but also with a kind of frustrating finality. I wanted to dig into these ideas, damn it, to really sink my teeth into a big theoretical debate about anything but Mr. Gill wasn't biting; he was not living up to the same Gill I'd read about in old Greil Marcus write-ups, the Andy Gill I'd envisioned from a hundred thousand listens of "Anthrax." What I was getting instead was a genteel, good-humored, but obviously tired "punk in a suit" and it was making me slightly furious. Here I was, full of piss and vinegar and vim finally getting to talk to somebody I thought could put me in my place but he was barely acknowledging anything I threw at him: when, in the middle of a question about the marketing of the newest album ("Can we expect any kind of promo like you released with Content?") he stopped his answer to stare at a robin that had landed in front of us, I felt myself close to losing it. I breathed deep, collected my focus, and asked him the only thing I felt I could manage. "Are you a bird watcher?" I asked him.
"No," he said with a laugh, "I never know the name of them. It's weird, because my parents know the name of the bird, exactly what it is. If there's a plant they know exactly the name for it. I'm not exactly a nature boy."
And with that something changed; I took a second, looked at the bird myself, and found that suddenly I wasn't so furious about this deflection. Not because the bird was particularly beautiful, it was because for the first time in the conversation the mood suddenly took on a natural tone; what had until then been a fairly mechanical series of questions and answers took a livelier turn. Mr. Gill suddenly sounded engaged, excited even, despite his admitted ignorance on the subject. He might still call his band the Gang of Four, he might still be named Andy Gill, but it struck me suddenly how absurd it was to hold him to the kind of person I felt he must have been in the past. Similarly with his music: my annoyance with the new album revealed its self as less of a distaste for the sound of it and as a distaste for the change in the sound, in the identity.
So though I did ask a few questions about that particular subject -- I've always wondered why bands don't change their names when they change their style or when their line-up undergoes monumental shifts -- I asked them only glancingly. Instead I let him pursue that discussion about birds, about London's parakeet problem, about his hatred of pigeons ("I fucking hate pigeons," he snarled), his love of starlets (the birds, not the celebrities), his love of walking and his obsession with food: it's a tad unfair that many of the restaurants he built up for me closed or have been closed for years.
Finally, with the interview running to an end, I remembered a question I'd forgotten to ask, one that might have generated only a short, easy dismissal beforehand, but which seemed promising now that he'd opened up so much. There was a lyric in "The Ghost of the Colony," one of the standout tracks on the new album, wherein the singer bemoans the fact that "irony's a luxury." I wanted to know, I explained, what exactly this meant.
"I think it sprang to my mind because there was something about how Facebook wanted you to write 'joke' if what you wrote could be taken the wrong way. It's just...it's like some type of political correctness, this kind of dumbing down. In the same song, it says, 'they make black and white out of complexity.' Which is, again, a dumbing down. It's as if you have to watch what you say because it might be too complicated for someone, which is kind of an insult to everyone concerned. Politics, religion and everything going on around us is not black and white, it's full of complexity, it's shades of grey, and to understand it, to talk about it, involves so much ambiguity and to try and reduce it to very simple statements is not going to progress the situation at all."
It seemed a perfect note to close the interview on, an accidental response to the kind of dumbing down I'd been doing the entire time, so I prepared to stop it there. Leave it to an old punk rocker to remind me that the best of everything comes from the kind of noise that arises from dissonance, that in life as in sound nothing sounds as good as the kind of noise that comes from contrast and complexity.
Though I'm still not certain I can agree with Gill that noisy or not, What Happens Next? Is, "one of the better things Gang of Four's done in quite a long time. I don't think there's a dud on it." (He was self-aware enough to note, "I would say that, though, wouldn't I?"). I'm gonna have to give it another chance, first.