LONDON – British post-punk pioneers Gang of Four didn’t come to Japan until 2005, nearly 30 years after the band formed. If guitarist Andy Gill had his way, it would have happened a lot sooner. “I clearly remember a conversation in the ’80s about going to Japan,” Gill says, sitting among an array of equipment in the basement of his home studio in central London. “The agent told us to go to Australia as well to make it pay. And Jon King (original vocalist) said, ‘I don’t want to go to Australia.’ So that was it. … Why the f—- he said that, I don’t know.”
Exasperation is pretty much par for the course when Gill talks about the past. Ambitious and tunnel-visioned, Gill has been — as he doesn’t miss an opportunity to state — the driving force behind Gang of Four’s on-and-off four-decade career that has been variously groundbreaking, frustrating, reaffirming and bitter.
As the band celebrates the 40th anniversary of its gold-plated debut, “Entertainment!,” with the release of new album “Happy Now,” Gill is the band’s sole original member, with King, Hugo Burnham (drums) and Dave Allen (bass) all having departed, come back and left again, all with fluctuating degrees of animosity. “If you go back to the early days, Dave left (1981), Jon sacked Hugo (1983), we carried on for decades, they both came back (2004 to 2008) and then Jon goes (2012). It’s a last man standing thing.” Does he prefer it this way? “I haven’t got anyone to argue with,” he says.
Formed in 1977 at a time of huge political and social upheaval in the U.K., Gang of Four took advantage of punk’s corrosion of the rules to forge a new idealized path. Everything about Gang of Four was intense and razor sharp, from the music, which used Gill’s innovative jagged guitar to create a streamlined punk sound that incorporated funk and dub, to its radical principles. School friends and former art students at Leeds University, Gill and King were post-punk’s intelligentsia, filling their interviews with Marxist and communist theory, while their songs examined the relationship between the personal and the profitable (“Damaged Goods,” arguably their best track, talks of love as a product to be traded). The 2011 album, “Content,” the band’s last with King, was packaged with samples of their own blood.
The impact of Gang of Four’s initial heyday (1977-84) far outweighs its actual success: Everyone from R.E.M. to St. Vincent has talked up the band’s influence; Frank Ocean sampled Gang of Four on his last album, “Blonde,” while “Entertainment!” is regularly cited as one of rock’s seminal works, voted as one of Rolling Stone’s best 500 albums of all time.
It’s quite a legacy to live up to, but Gill takes it upon his shoulders. When I ask what threads “Entertainment!” and “Happy Now,” he says, “Dare I say it, but I was main musical driver on ‘Entertainment!,’ as I am now.”
Despite recovering from the flu, Gill is polite and engaged, wry and low-key enthused about everything from his recently discovered early morning creative regime (“I’m a late learner”) to new(ish) singer John “Gaoler” Sterry, Gang of Four frontman since 2012, whom he compares to former collaborator Michael Hutchence of INXS. “But his worldview is not quite dark as mine, being younger,” he says. “He’ll learn.”
“Happy Now” is the first Gang of Four album on which Gaoler takes sole center stage (the previous album, 2015’s post-King “What Happens Next,” featured guest vocalists such as The Kills’ Alison Mosshart). It sounds like Gang of Four being sucked into a time warp: Influenced in part by the “wobbly bass you get in trap and grime,” Gill’s trademark riffs are engulfed by modern production, spiky electronics and fractured guitars that sometimes sound like synths, creating an awkward, disorientating, contemporary guitar-pop record. Gill is aware of how some longtime fans may react. “I’m sure there’ll be people out there, the older folks in their retirement homes, saying ‘It’s not really Gang of Four, is it?'” he says.
For the purists, the interrogative nature remains. “Happy Now” attempts to make sense of the sociocultural environment in which it was created. “It’s trying to capture the uncertainly and paranoia we’re experiencing and the overload of information and how we deal with it and how it spills over into what we call populism, the inability to trust things and institutions at all, or trust any of the information,” he says.
To this end, Ivanka Trump has become something of an anti-muse for Gill. Gang of Four used a photo of the U.S. president’s daughter on the cover of 2018 digital EP “Complicit” (causing a minor furor in the U.S. media), and the “Happy Now” track “Ivanka — My Name’s On It” quotes her hollow protestations directly. It lacks the nuance of yore — Gang of Four always interrogated the individual, not individuals — but it packs a provocative punch.
“We typically tried to steer clear of current affairs and specific political issues,” Gill says. “However, sometimes things happen that have a meta context. You could write any number of songs about what a w——- Donald Trump is, but do we need that? But then he puts his daughter in the White House, and she gets wheeled out to be the soft, explaining face of Trumpism. And then she did that amazing interview: ‘I don’t know what it means to be complicit.’ What a great line, worthy of Goebbels. And it was like, wow, Ivanka is writing my song for me.”
It’s why the album’s title — classic Gang of Four with its multiple connotations — raises more questions than answers. “It’s about where we’re heading, how we got there and that rather difficult and complex question of what happiness is anyway. And because I’m incapable of writing anything that isn’t completely miserabilist, it’s also having a laugh,” Gill says.
I had wondered if the title had anything to do with his ex-bandmates, a tacit acknowledgment that all four members have found contentment apart? “Definitely not!” he says.
“Jon King has changed his view about the band, I’m not sure he is happy,” Gill says. “I’m quite sure he doesn’t want to do Gang of Four anymore, but I think he’s irritated that I have carried on and made more records and toured.” Do the two still speak? “Er … he’s a little bit grumpy.”
Gill says he had no hesitation about continuing as Gang of Four, and that, besides, King was never fully committed (“he always had one eye on leaving”) and the idea all four members contributed equally creatively was “a myth we constructed” (he saves his ire on this subject for Dave Allen, for whom it is fair to say he has little time.) Is he not sad at how it’s turned out? “It’s a moot point,” he says. “I’m not sad about it.”
True to form, he’s more concerned with how all this impacted the band. “There’s no question we could have and should have done better. I’m not entirely blaming Jon King, but if you disappear for years at a time it’s hard. The first time in the ’80s when we packed in, we were doing really big gigs. It was a crazy time to knock it on the head.”
There’s a long pause. “But things happen and you have to roll with it,” he says. “I’m cool with where it’s at and how I’ve got here. It is what it is, as people annoyingly say.”
Gang of Four’s new album “Happy Now” is out on April 19 via Gillmusic. The band plays Duo Music Exchange and Daikanyama Unit in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo on March 12 and 13. Tickets ¥7,000. For more information, visit gangoffour.uk.