NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jon King and Andy Gill, who founded pioneering postpunk band Gang of Four, are sipping espressos in a Manhattan hotel and explaining how they conceived “Content,” their first album of new music in more than 15 years.
King, 55, whips out his digital camera and displays a photo of a female bartender. “We’re doing a series of photographs of women posing as the woman in ‘A Bar at the Folies Bergeres’ in bars around America,” he said with a mischievous grin.”
“We’ve only got one so far,” Gill, also 55, chimed in. “The next woman is probably going to say, ‘Go (screw) yourself!’”
As the two men chuckle at the notion of modeling New York bartenders after Edouard Manet’s 1882 painting, one can’t help but wonder if Franz Ferdinand crosses the country discussing French impressionist painters.
Five years ago, a music fan, particularly one in Britain, couldn’t spit without hitting a band citing Gang Of Four as an influence. Franz Ferdinand, The Bloc Party and The Futureheads, whose debut album was produced by Gill, all managed to take quirky, punk-funk hybrid music to the Top 10 in Britain.
Bands as varied as R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers (whose debut album was also produced by Gill) and Nirvana have cited Gang of Four as an important progenitor of U.S. indie rock.
The band, which begins the U.S. West Coast swing of their tour this week, careened out of the highly politicized art department at the University of Leeds in 1977. They were the first of several Leeds bands, including the Mekons and Delta 5, that formed in the wake of the Sex Pistols’ storm on Britain.
Gill, a devout Jimi Hendrix and Funkadelic fan, was seeking ways to subvert how typical rock bands operated at the time.
“The traditional way to construct music was a sort of triangle of importance,” Gill explained. “At the top are the lead vocal and the melody. Below that are guitars and pianos, which are important in supporting the top line. And then down at the bottom, you’ve got the bass and drums.
“To me, it was of great importance to put these things side by side, rather than in a hierarchical structure,” he added.
At the same time, King was deep in thought over the roles people play in society, how society determines people’s roles and how that determination is inherently political.
The original lineup, which included Hugo Burnham on drums and Dave Allen on bass, yielded “Entertainment!” in 1979 and “Solid Gold” in 1981, which are often cited as two of the most important albums to influence postpunk bands.
While the band’s initial members gradually broke apart in the early ‘80s, King and Gill continued working together sporadically in the 1990s under the Gang Of Four name.
After a successful reunion of the original lineup in 2005 and 2006, the band split again. But King and Gill still kicked around ideas and about three years ago, enlisted drummer Mark Heaney and bassist Thomas McNiece to round out a new lineup.
“We were trying to define the essential bits of Gang Of Four,” Gill said. “It’s tempting when you have the tools to create sonic landscapes and atmospheres. But it’s much better to achieve that result with limited tools and as few effects as possible and yet still create that emotion and atmosphere.”
Paring down elements on “Content” led them back to where Gang of Four started: chunka-chunka guitars with a healthy dose of noise and feedback; call-and-response vocals; provocations about sex and relationships, alienation and authority.
King and Gill are fascinated with the way context changes the meaning of their songs. Written in August 2008, “Never Pay For The Farm” appears to be about advancing a set of political policies without considering the consequences.
“A month later, there was the financial meltdown,” King said. “Suddenly, we were writing about what’s going on.”
The music (not the words) from “Natural’s Not In It,” an anthem about the commodification of leisure, sex, emotional impulses, was used in a recent commercial for Microsoft’s Kinect controller for the Xbox video game console, prompting some purists to cry “sellout!”
“It’s added a special layer of meaning to that song,” Gill said. “It’s extraordinarily narrow minded (to accuse the band of selling out). Surely even the thickest among us can spot how every day is a set of compromises.”