[Q&A] Gang Of Four's Jon King on terrorists, funk music and asking the hard questions
L-R: bassist Thomas McNeice, vocalist Jon King, drummer Mark Heaney, guitarist Andy Gill
Gang of Four get pegged as a political rock band, perhaps because they were part of a left-wing post-punk UK landscape that saw them assaulting ears with songs that could be read as anti-bourgeois, anti-war, anti-fascist. But Jon King and Andy Gill were just as comfortable analyzing the complexities and vagarities of the human heart as fighting the industrial war complex. As Gill deadpans at the end of "Anthrax", their anti-love-song classic that concludes the band's classic debut, Entertainment!, "We're not saying that there's anything wrong with love-- we just don't think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded with mystery."
We discussed the band's slash-and-burn musical alchemy and aesthetic of rigorous questioning in the feature on the band in last week's issue; but when we talked to Gang-leader King a few weeks ago (in advance of the band's current U.S. tour, in support of their first new album in 16 years, Content, which brings them to the Paradise tonight), there was just too much awesome stuff left on the cutting room floor. So, here's the transcript of the whole conversation:
Your new album is really awesome, and it’s remarkable that you were able to really return to the “classic” Gang of Four sound without sounding pandering-- especially a song like “Do As I Say”, with its vocal back and forth.
Yeah, that song was all about coming up with the big idea, which is “What if I did that?” The song came to be about, I think, the fact that we’re very happy to torture, punish, kill people for what they think and believe. It’s the same sort of principle of “Ether” [from 1979’s Entertainment!], I suppose, with the two voices talking separate ideas. I mean, we’re not journalists; you’re a journalist. And we aren’t politicians. But we are trying to do something that’s immediately interesting but also has got some different ideas. because I think one of the conundrums of different theories of music is that it sort of adopts this “political” voice. It’s like the singer is coming at you with something that is very deeply affecting or very important, or even possibly telling a story that’s very important, and you’re listening to it thinking “Ah yes, that’s right.” And I think Andy and I, when we write songs are always asking questions, and I think the big question that I always ask myself and I think a lot of us ask ourselves is “How far do we collaborate in our own situations?” As I sit here and watch TV and see terrible crimes like this terrorist assault on this politician in Tuscon, this guy. And of course it’s not reported as a terrorist assault, it’s presented as a lone gunman. And of course if the man had been of Arab extraction he’d definitely be a “terrorist”. If someone shot a politician and murdered innocent people, he’d be called a terrorist only if he has slightly brown skin. And I think that’s a very interesting thing, and I think “how far am I complicit in all this nonsense?” iI’s an important question regarding how people are told things, how information is conveyed.
You’ve been in the “music biz” for decades for now, does lend to your questioning of your complicity at this point-- and how does that find its way into your lyrics?
Well, I think we’ve always had the luxury of not being commercially successful. The music is not mainstream, it’s not on the pop charts, and I think our audience is pretty smart and therefore these are questions that I hope resonate with our audience. You know, in a way, I'm not sure that I'm the right person to ask about what the lyrics mean because I can create unreliable narratives. But you take a song like “At Home He’s A Tourist”: there’s a song that’s reverse engineered, where we came up with a sentence first and the song and lyrics later. I don’t know where they come from. That song is all about that feeling when you walk in your house and you get the peculiar feeling that “This isn’t where I live”. I remember when we put that out, about a year later David Byrne released that song, “This is not my beautiful house!” And that was kind of like another version of the same song, with the same strangeness that we get. And I’d like to think that people who like what we do get that question. Because it’s a puzzling one: you worry about how much you are a cartoon, a construct of all the things you’ve been narrated, the words that you use. the fact that the Tuscon guy’s not being called a terrorist which in any other context he quite clearly would be-- but I guess it’s not “convenient to do so”.
It’s interesting that you refer to your music as "uncommercial"; because in the punk world of the late 70s, Gang Of Four dared to be danceable! That seems like it must have seemed, at the time, a concession towards music as a utility, for dancing, to the punk police of the time.
Well, I think that commerciality is a movable thing. We want to sell records because we want to make a living. The way that we made this record was totally self-funded and with contributions from our fans, so we tried to do it in an alternative way than we used to do, traditionally. In the end, you’ve got to somehow recover that investment just to pay for guitars and strings and the like. I think when we started, and it’s still true, we loved pop music. And I still do. I've always loved Motown, always loved pop music, always loved reggae music, always loved Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. And so when we were sort of moving around originally, I'd see movies, at least 3 or 4 movies a week, I'd see gigs, at least 2 or 3 gigs a week, we used to go a lot of discos, and the legal reggae clubs. And we danced a lot. We spent our time doing this. And in the world of punk, I think it was quite transgressive to like black music, and want to play it.
We loved dub reggae too. And what was interesting about that whole world was those bands, those artists were like singing the newspapers, stories about things that mattered to them, and they used technology in such an interesting way. And they didn’t get hardly any of the credit that they deserved. That’s why hip hop is so interesting; hip hop, at it’s best, not when it’s all about bragging and getting laid and stuff, it tells stories about modern life that mean something, it’s not just some generic alt-world where no one works and no one suffers and it’s just platitudes about love.
Was Gang Of Four planned out ahead of time-- was the aesthetic figured out, or did it grow organically?
Hmm... Well, what happened, thinking back to the beginning, Andy and I were sitting around drinking and playing guitar and playing along to the cassette machine. And the initial stuff we wrote was, like most creative people, when you start doing you start in a genre, so we wrote really old style verse-bridge-chorus cerse-bridge-chorus key-change double-chorus out kind of toff. And we bumped into Hugo [Burnham, original GoF drummer], who because a great friend, and he said he could play the drums so he played the drums. And we had a bass player, this guy who hung around with us, Dave Allen, and no one would give us a show of course. And we’d written very very fast R&B songs, kind of like Dr. Feelgood, some of the lyrics were kind of jokey and silly, but almost immediately, within two or three of our self-promoted shows-- we did everything, we built our own p.a. out of army surplus parts and bits of wood we found on skits and recycling plants and stuff, the whole thing was a strange DIY project-- eventually we found that’s it’s more interesting than that, and I think that both Andy and I approached it like an art project because we were very interesting with what things meant. and so we started arguing about it, and the things we argued about, debated about, became sort of quite fruitful.
I found that I'd walk down the street and see something and think “that’s ridiculous” and that would be an inspiration. Like a song like “I Found That Essence Rare”: I remember seeing an advert, a poster, for some sort of perfume with that slogan and I thought “That’s ridiculous, that’s about ontology!” and of course it wasn’t about ontology but it used the language of essences, and I thought “what is this all about?” The song is quite orthodox, it’s quite straight forward in it’s structure, but it instigated questions and we became quite rigorous with our questioning, and then the more questions we’d ask the more rigorous our questioning became. For a time, we had these sort of rules, banned words we wouldn’t use, or things like we wouldn’t use metaphors or adjectives. One time someone asked me if I ever had any lyrics that I regret and I thought “Yeah, that line where I said ‘I’m so restless, I’m bored as a cat’ [from Entertainment!’s “Glass]. How could I have done that? “I’m bored as a cat”, what a ridiculous metaphor!
Gang Of Four have a lot of songs with economic themes, songs like “Guns Before Butter” and “Cheeseburger” and a number of others. How did this become such a frequent motif, lyrically?
Well that song, “Guns Before Butter”, like a lot of our songs came from pictures. In this case, the montage of the anti-fascist artist, John Heartfield, had this speech by Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist, where he was asked about the priorities of the state and talked about guns before butter. And John Heartfield did this montage of someone literally eating tanks and all this kind of stuff, and it was an amazing picture! And again, the question that is a hard one to answer is "How would I have been had I chose to be a good person in a society like that?" It's very easy to assume that we'd be on the side of the angels. And a lot of things come from that thinking, like “What would it be like to be a human being in this extremely repressive situation.” And you know, “All this blood and iron it’s the cause of all my shaking”, you know, there’s a book that’s been very successful in Britain this year, this German book called Alone In Berlin by an author named Hans Fallada. It came out in 1946 and it’s this imaginative story of these two people, a working class couple in the war years. He worked in some machine plant and she was a cook or something, and their son was killed on the Eastern Front, and they because strangely extremely anti-Nazi, and their way of protesting against the regime was to write on the back of postcards things like “Hitler is leading you down the wrong path, don’t let him do it”, and they would put these in post offices. And all over Germany they were writing on post cards. And after a while, huge resources of the Berlin police force were trying to track down these people, who were eventually found and executed. It’s this sort of idea that you can find a voice for resistance to oppression, somehow or another. It’s interesting, that question of “Would I be an oppressor, or not?”
One thing that is really fascinating about Gang Of Four is that after the relative success of Entertainment!, you guys went really out on a limb, sonically, with your second album, Solid Gold. The whole album is almost an existential crisis put to music, and I guess it makes sense that it would be the result of this questioning that you describe.
Yeah, on Solid Gold, I think what we wanted to do was make a more strongly funky record. We hired Jimmy Douglas, who had produced the multi-platinum Slave albums in the U.S. and Jimmy-- we were really psyched about it because he was this great funk producer, and we thought “God, it would be so great to get that real hardcore funk sound, like Slave!” It didn’t quite work out that way.
Jimmy kept saying “Man, you guys are so weird”. And I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, although in hindsight I totally know what he meant! One of the songs on there is one of my all time favorites of ours, this song called “He’d Send In The Army”. And I felt like we’d climbed Everest when we wrote that track, with the swapping vocals, everybody participated: it was basically like we were standing side by side all the way through the track, rather than on most commercial music, it’s stacked. Like most commercial music is a layer cake, you take one layer off and there’s another, and there’s tracks and tracks and tracks like a layer cake. But “He’d Send In The Army” had it’s own logic, and the logic was “This man’s a tyrant at home, a bully, and he’d send in the army to sort things out, the strong figurehead”, and basically he’s a fascist. And there’s this funk thing. Jimmy was utterly mystified by this thing, we kept saying “It’s so funky” and he’d say to us “What are you talking about?”
What was your attitude going into Content?
when we were working on Content we thought “Let’s play to our strengths”. So with, for instance, “Never Pay For The Farm”, when that line emerged, somehow or other, it’s a line, like when soldiers are killed in combat the saying is “they’ve bought the farm”, and we’d written it about a month before the collapse of 2008 when all these criminal gambling bankers, the crows came home to roost and we bailed them all out, and we wrote this song about one thing and then it seemed later to be about something else altogether. This whole idea that we spend our lives trying to keep our heads above water to pay for the farm, and after you’ve done that, that might be your bread and butter, but of course the irony is that now that we’ve all been taken to the cleaners by these zillionaires, is that you spend the whole time trying to pay for the farm, but you’ll never pay for the farm until you’ve bought the farm.
Do you ever feel that Gang of Four is misunderstood as a political band? Because it seems like you guys are interested in ideas but I’m not sure I’d say that you guys are political in the way that so many other political bands are political.
The thing is I find politics, with a capital P, quite boring. I’m not a member of a political party, and I don’t advocate the point of view of an organized movement. I mean, obviously I'm left wing and proud of it, I'm a Socialist and proud of that, I believe in a fair society and all that. But I don’t put that into songs, I think it would be boring to write songs that advocate, for example, higher minimum wages or better care for the elderly. that’s not something that I'd find, artistically, very interesting at all. Although that said, some of the finest songs are political. Like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”. There are great things that come out of that political tradition, but I don’t think that that’s something that Andy and I ever set out to do. I think that once you look at the way things are, and you try to ask questions about the way things are, you inevitably end up seeing that there’s something not right about the way things are.
For instance, in the last year, in Britain for example, in the middle of this misery brought on by the gambling billionaires of the world-- all bailed out by your and my taxes-- the wealth of the top 100 richest people in Britain went up by 70 billion pounds, like 130 billion dollars! That’s gigantic and there’s something really really wrong with that. On the other hand, writing a song about really really filthy rich people getting even richer would be really boring. Back in the day, a band like Crass, the anarchist punk band, would have written a song like that, you know, “these terrible people/they have too much money!” And I don’t want to knock that in the sense that it’s a good exercise, but I'm not interested in writing stuff like that. Like I'm not interested in writing about consumerism or advertising.
But the way people become the critics of their own inheritance or naturalize their own oppression, that’s different. Like we were in France the other week to do some big debate with a spokesperson for the Socialist party in France. It’s like the equivalent of the democratic party in the States, but of course being French he’s like off the chart leftist and I'm like extremely right wing according to this guy because I don’t believe in state intervention. And there are a few songs on A Brief History of the 20th Century that were inspired by when I found a french franc coin from the French fascist collaborationist Vichy government from 1942. At that time, France ran itself, it wasn’t run by German soldiers at all, it was run by the French who were very enthusiastic about fascism. And they changed the slogan on the french coin. it used to say liberty equality fraternity, a very good definition of christian politics. and they changed it to work family country, travail, famille, patrie. And it seemed to me that you can just whiff a Hitler salute with that phrase. And over here, with our current government elected on a platform that was “work family government”. I think that anyone that uses those words in their stuff are likely to be reactionary and not working in the interest of ordinary people.
It seems like for you, then, Gang of Four has been a process of finding the music that you are willing to stand up there and sing without feeling like you are doing something wrong. Would you say that this is a fair assessment of your creative process?
Yeah! I mean, I think that, to me, the most important thing is that you mean what you say. I like to, I have to. I mean, if you’re going to be a musician and and you are gonna try and move people, move their feet, move their hearts, move their minds, you have to mean it and you have to care. and I'd sit there and I could never-- I mean, I've never come close to the great masters like Jimi Hendrix or Miles Davis or Bob Dylan. But at least one can try!