Gang of Four has finished a new album called Content that continues the highly influential group’s relationship between aesthetics and daily life situationism. Frontman Jon King called me up from London the other morning to discuss the band’s prolific influence, musical content, dub music and plenty more.
Hi, Jon how’s it going?
Pretty good actually, having a day of photographs and all that so it’s been fun.
A lot of artists today are happy when their music is used in a commercial. You've written songs about these sort of sell out economic and political tropes. Will you never allow your music to be put towards commercial purposes, notwithstanding musicians who sample your music to further their own art?
Yeah, I wouldn’t say that forever and ever we would say no to these things but something is taken away by the addition of visuals for other people to view them and you think about MTV when it was in, its pomp, and the YouTube thing, then you end up with illustrations of some songs after they’re made and generally they diminish the value of the sounds and when you tie down the image of something you’re telling the audience what it is and when you’re trying to mine that area of conflict and ambiguity and doubt, which is something we have always tried to do in our songs, you have, theatrically, one voice that goes, “I’m like this,” and another voice is really saying, “No your not, you’re like this.”
And I think that is one of the conundrums of the world as these songs become adopted by companies. At the moment there is a new trend in the TeleCom ads to have these little funny voices singing these ditty songs and actually when you look away from these ads of “you can save the world with your mobile phone” you take that imagery away it sounds pretty good but by location this ditzy world of talking a lot on a mobile or texting people, it takes the song into a different context that’s bad for music.
Do you think link-driven exchange spoils all for the imagination?
Yeah, it’s not so much that but the uniqueness of [the song]. But when I think about the conundrum of pinning down meaning in a song I think about something like the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”, which was used in the U.S. a year or two ago for a car tire commercial. It was strange to me when I saw it, I was like I can’t believe this, here it is, “Venus in Furs” being used in a car tire commercial, being this sort of immensely subversive and transgressive song, and it's lost all of its power, it was like cutting off all of Samson’s hair. Eric Satie, the early 20th century composer, is one of those people I have had a lifelong love for, and it’s a tragedy because so often in ads for puppy wipes, sanitary towels, air fresheners, you hear [his music], and it’s lost all of its potency.
You don’t want your music to be castrated.
How do you go from the albums Entertainment to Hard? How did that progression of your sound come about?
I have always seen myself since I was about 11 as part of the opposition and I think some of what you’re trying to do is to be involved in culture in a way that makes people pay attention and at the same time not preach and tell people, “I’m right and you’re wrong or we’re right and your wrong,” but I was writing some of what it was like, getting picked on in high school, what it’s like to lose your love, or drinking, getting laid; the incredible richness of daily life is dear to me. I’m not a politician, I’m not advocating a political position, but inevitably if you’re opposed to people talking about their families or god and all this stuff you inevitably are part of a political discourse.
Entertainment, it’s kind of hard to hear it now, it’s some kind of an artifact. The musics I hear in it, like the reggae, dub, the Funkadelic, the Jimi Hendrix, that sort of mix-up, it's what we actually were listening to. It was only later that it was dubbed as punk. There was sort of a musical apartheid between writing dance music and rock music and that tension has lead to acts that sort of mix up genres and that’s great, but moving from Entertainment, which was this spikey, broken up thing, then we worked with Jimmy Douglass for the second album Sonic Gold, which was one of my favorite records from that era with “What We All Want” “Paralyzed” and the like, Jimmy Douglass was a multimillion selling platinum producer of Slave in America. He was mystified by us, he said “I’m the producer but I have learned so much from you guys,” mixing hard funk but not trying to sound like a funk band, not trying to sound like we were copying James Brown and trying to improve on that. When we got to doing the last record Hard, we went to first doing Songs of the Free, a pop album. At the time we were both surprised and pleased with the pop tune “I Love a Man in Uniform,” a gay club hit for a while but banned in the U.K. because it was too subversive. But we were approached by the U.S. military to use “I Love a Man in Uniform” for army recruitment purposes. Really funny!
How did you respond?
Of course we would have said no, just the notion, the offer was withdrawn before a short while and I was just trying to imagine the scene of some sergeant working in a staff room and having some interaction with a corporal with the song playing. [Laughs at the thought]
Just think, us Yankees could have heard “I Love a Man in Uniform” instead of the “Be All You Can Be” recruitment song.
[Laughs] So that’s funny, but when we got to Hard we wanted the success we had originally set out with, using Nile Rogers, and at the time if you were perceived as a disco band you were a traitor and could not get work in the rock sector, so that fell apart and then we got Arthur Baker. Nile Rogers got approached by Bowie to do Let’s Dance, and Bowie’s a clever bloke – I think he got the whole rock music and the end of disco marriage down nicely. Green Gartside of the Scritti Politti, who would make his Scritti Politti record a bit later, it was the sort of record that we had set out to make, so we wanted to mix the chics and sounds but in the grand end I don’t think it was as successful as we had wanted it to have been. But that was the point of it all, to move the conversation along in an interesting way.
Those dubby bass lines are back in Content. Could you describe your relationship with dub music?
When dub music first happened we were pretty knocked out by it really. What was interesting about the music that came out of Jamaica was that they used technology in an innovative and fresh way, using tapes and the like, they always used technology like an instrument. They had drop outs and improvised sections which was kind of like jazz music except it was about dancing and then they had lyrics on top of it that were like reading the newspaper which we really loved then and then you had Big Youth that we were really into at the time and he used to write these really radical songs about the Black Star Liner and Marcus Garvey and I think that dub was not given the credit that it was due and I think rap and r n’ b owe a musical debt most certainly to dub music.
In your hiatus from ’84 till ’90 did you spend a lot of your time listening to hip-hop, dub and dancehall?
In the 80s I worked with Aswad for a long time I helped them out in the U.S. on their first ever tour. I used to do a lot of work with reggae artists, both in sort of sound engineering and production. I used to do a lot of work on reggae and dub festivals in the 80s and I also worked at a studio at G Street records that used to produce a lot of those first generation acid house records, with PM Dawn and such in the late 80s and that was quite interesting at that time.
Back then too there was also Adrian Sherwood in the UK.
Yeah, there was that album called My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, do you know that record? It’s fantastic, I think David Byrne heard the Sherwood collective type things and that sort of notion of using sampling and dub and this new lyrical approach I think that got (Byrne) quite involved into dub.
Listening to the last few albums and with your big reunion five years ago, how has it been hearing all these contemporary musicians around you who knock off your sound like the Killers and LCD Soundsystem; don’t they owe you some back royalties?
[A hardy laugh.] I think people who have a love of music more than a love of money want to do something which has got an idea in it and of it itself. We all fight hard as a community of people to organize ourselves and get ourselves together and when you find something that thrills you, you put that into your own work. I mean I saw myself with a lifelong love of Jimi Hendrix’s music. If you find someone that inspires you to want to make music that’s great and I feel really, incredibly proud about whatever it is that we’ve done that has triggered other people’s work. And I love so much of what we did.
We did a show in London two years ago at the Royal Festival Hall, it’s quite a big theatre, I think it can fit like 3,000 people or something and we did the show for the Meltdown Festival and it was curated by the two boys in Massive Attack, and their first album was just chock and block with our samples, and we met them back when they came offstage and they were very complimentary, “Oh look we think you’re so great and so grand that you haven’t sued us for using samples of your stuff!” And why would we? We think you’re great musicians! And so I think that you can come up some with sounds or that approach that seems to work for other people and I love so much of it like when Franz Ferdinand did “Take Me Out”, I thought it was a fantastic tune that reminded me what it was like to be in a starting position.
I’m sure it’s an honor having Massive Attack sample your songs next to a sample of Horace Andy’s “Money Money.”
What I like is when proper musicians use our stuff. I have never allowed our music to be used on advertising so we kept away from that and for some people it’s strange when your stuff is used [in ads], it loses its magic somehow. I think when proper musicians use samples of ours, or riffs that we really love or even the approach, it’s a compliment.
About nine years back when I moved to the city, the electro-clash scene was in full effect and everyone was talking about Gang of Four and the Human League and I think on Hard you guys almost become the Human League! By that I mean that super-produced sound versus the more LiLiPUT like Dadaism featured on Entertainment.
The Human League was a signed pop band and I think pop music has a great charm to it if you have a strong melody line and a hook and a successful bit of orchestration. But we have not really wanted to be a part of pop music and for the most part we have been mostly successful. I set out to be a musician, not to make money. Honestly, you want to make a living and get paid for you what you do, but the point of the exercise is that you want to make something that’s stimulating that turns everybody on. And something that turns music fans on, and when I say fan, me being a fan myself of course, people who take on grooves and synths and riffs, it’s like, shit, that’s it, I get it now. You get a window into the different way of thinking of the world, listening to someone like MGMT, where that cut-up way of doing things is ok, or dance music, or that battle between the disruption of the cut up school and the disco school, and the features goes on and on. I think it’s interesting when people look at the subject a little differently. It’s like with electronic music, the subject is a little more arbitrary, a bit more broken up and I would assume that’s because there’s many ways of telling a story.
In a similar way, you can look at your early single “To Hell with Poverty”, set to an apocalyptic Britain of union strikes, Thatcherism, a Michel Foucault depiction of class struggle, to the new song “Never Pay for the Farm”, which mentions the conflict between the Kurds and the Shiites. How is that the narrative has stayed alive for you from the beginning to now?
There is so much fantastic music being produced at the moment but strangely so little of it talks about everyday life. I am a huge fan of Lady Gaga, I think she writes good dance music and I like Plan B, the Killers and Kanye West and all this kind of thing. But what surprises me is what they actually talk about, you know, they don’t talk about what’s actually happening what’s filling the skies or those Wikileaks which have revealed things about the world that are really, heavy bad things – democracies that believe in freedom have been allowing atrocities to take place. But I’m not a journalist or anything, so when I wrote that song “Never Pay for the Farm,” it's like “At Home He’s a Tourist”, where we see a total collapse of all the expectations in life, where you're a blue collar worker and you can’t afford to bring up your kids and send them to college, or your healthcare isn't going to look after you when you’re sick and all those sort of things. Then you have the gamblers, the Wall Street types in London who are these reckless dangerous men, and it would be boring has hell to write about this but “Never Pay for the Farm” is all about this. There’s that phrase you do something because they paid for the farm, like you do something to earn some money, to keep yourself alive – it's all wrapped up into a big thing you can hardly begin to control, like the line “world war third between the Shiites and the Kurds,” as if it all would stop there, but a lot of it is these simple conflicted people like the Tea Party in America where they wish everything would just go away and it would be alright. Like when you’re a kid and you wish you had three wishes, where you wish you had a million dollars, or you can play the piano or speak twenty-languages, it’s infantile. But it’s interesting you know, not just something that’s crap funny but it’s playing with all that. I still think “At Home He’s a Tourist” is a funny song.
The song is almost an update of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.”
I’m flattered, it’s an honor to be compared to Dylan but I think it takes on a character with the this self-centered guy and still thinking about the album Content and the other word content like are we “contented?” It’s like in the same way you, me, writers and musicians and others are becoming software that people can plug into the great technology conspiracy, the Googles, the Facebooks, the YouTubes of the world and they’re the ones making the money and we’re the crazy people plugging in.
[Laughs] Yeah, the aggregating content. But what it is that they aren’t doing is aggregating contentment. We all live in interesting times, I always think that the second part of that Chinese curse is the more interesting thing, may you live in interesting times and come to the attention to those in authority. And that’s the second half of the curse…
Which all comes back to the band’s namesake inception from Mao’s wake.
Yeah, exactly, yes.
Jon, Thanks for your time, I know your busy with promotions but thanks for the call.
Thank you very much, we’re touring the U.S. in February and we’re doing a major city tour so if you’re in San Francisco, come along!
Gang of Four’s new album Content comes out January 25, 2011.