With a new album on its way in Autumn, Gang of Four singer / co-songwriter Jon King gets all academic with DIY, and discusses his views on songwriting, ‘subject-matter’, and the secret to selling records but not selling out.
Hi Jon. Welcome back. Gang of Four have a new album coming out soon. What can you tell us about it?
The album will be called ‘Content’ and will be released in the Autumn. There’ll be 11 new songs written by Andy and me, as with all other Gang of Four albums. Andy Gill has produced it.
How are the themes (and styles) different to what you’ve tackled before? Is this Gang of Four 2.0?
The tracks have a simple orchestration: vocals, guitar, bass, and drums. We’ve gone for a tough sound with live-feel drums and loud guitar. A number of the tracks have dual vocals where we swap the lead to tell different parts of a story. We write about daily life but where your point of view is often contradictory or conflicted. I’m still amazed at how little, in general, musicians write about what it’s like to be alive today and only write about love, or getting laid or getting down on the dance floor. These are all excellent subjects, but there are so many other things to write about. The subjects people talk about - war, home, objects, culture, the things people use, are massively wider than this. There’s been a mass self-imposed silence from musicians on the worst episode in our recent history, the Iraq war.
You apparently were ‘inspired’ to form a band by a university trip to New York where you watched the Ramones and Television play at CBGBs. What was it about those bands that struck a chord with you? How did that affect your own musical ethos?
Going to New York in 1976 was a blast. We’d both blagged a grant from Leeds University to do some primary research; me to study Jasper Johns, the US Pop artist, and Andy to undertake “A photographic study of Gothic Architecture in Northern France”. So obviously this involved staying in St Mark’s Place, New York City, which was only a few blocks from the scuzzy CBGBs. We stayed with a friend of ours, Mary Harron, who was then an aspiring hack with NY Punk magazine. She later became famous as the director of American Psycho and Bettie Blue. Mary knew all the grubby and more or less unknown bands that played the club- like Blondie, the Ramones, Television etc and we got in for free. This was an inspiration not to form a band- Andy and I had already decided to do this and had written some songs – but to pull our finger out, stop being dilettantes and actually do it. So we did when we went back to Leeds. Hugo Burnham was a mate who had a drum kit and was good at filtching music gear. Our first bass player was a guy called Dave (“Wolfman”) Woolfson, because he had a bass and knew how to play, kind of. So he got the gig but got fired soon as he played too many notes and wouldn’t stop when we asked him to.
I like that I read that you used to write songs in between bursts of dissertation writing and they would cross-influence each other. What is your songwriting process like now?
As before, the germs of songs often come from either a single line that you see around which accidentally describes the world in an unintended way (“I found that essence rare” was a strapline on a luxury perfume ad), a phrase that bubbles up and inspires everything else (“I love a man in a Uniform”, “ At Home he feels like a Tourist”), or a drama or dialogue that can describe how we are. Sometimes when we do this, we describe an imagined situation or pitch up different voices that says contradictory things or as if there’s some kind of commentator (Like “He’d send in the Army” ” or, on the new album, “ Do As I say”, where there’s a quasi conversation between a religious inquisitor and someone burning at the stake, where they both agree they’re two sides of the same coin. Like we see in the outsourced torture of extreme rendition). Or something else.
I wanted to share with you that I recently used a lyric from Gang of Four in my thesis on protection of musical works in the European Union (‘He fills his head with culture. He gives himself an ulcer’). It discussed how we should legally define a musical work – and whether there should be a distinction between lyrics and music. As a songwriter, how do you view a “song”?
In the most fulfilling music, the tune and the text should be indivisible, like the melody and words on “Good Vibrations” or in Mozart’s “Requiem Mass”, or Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows”, the most perfect love song ever written, where it would be madness to try to carve up the words and the melody; an unimaginably perfect union. Of course, in the old Tin-Pan-Alley days, songs were defined by the carrying tune and the words; which suited the era of printed music sales and essentially piano based compositions. When groove came along, things changed and the voice became promoted to making noises, as well as telling stories. But even ostensible gobbledygook like “a wop bop a loo bob a bop bam boom “ carry meaning, which can’t ever really be driven out of the picture. At their best, pop songs, which promise nothing in particular, like Kylie’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” or “One Nation Under A Groove” - give us oblivion and a beautiful emptiness. There’s always room for this. But it shouldn’t be everything. For us, I always try to open the words up so that we can tell a story and also make a sound that fulfills some rhythmic or melodic task . Not so much melody, in our case, but more punctuated notation, if that means anything. Which it might or might not.
Here’s another essay-like question: The Rapture and Bloc Party – post-punk rehash or post-punk re-birth? Discuss.
All artists creatively lift stuff from acts they admire, living or dead. The reach of Robert Johnson is long. We all do it. What we all hope happens is that when there’s a jewel heist, that the stones are re-cut before they’re sold on. Sometimes this happens. I’m proud we’ve inspired other musicians and I wish them all uncomplicated applause for what they do. It’s hard enough as it is to make a living as a musician without your peers getting picky.
Moving from young bands to young fans, Joe Strummer once said: “I want to grow up with my audience. I don’t expect to be getting through to the younger pop crowd.’ What is the live experience like for you today?
We have an incredibly young new audience that has joined longer-term fans. I think they all like it that they’re part of a refusenik crew.
But does that bother you? It’s been said that, ‘if you got paid for good reviews, I’d be lying on a beach in Hawaii.’ Do you resent or relish your status as a cult-band?
The fact that we’re still being asked to play and that over half our audience these days is under 25 is great. What we do still turns people on, and maybe, the fact that 2 of our singles were banned back in the day when they charted was a good thing. We never set out to be a commercial band, just to make radical music that pushed the culture. We’ve ended up with a fantastically loyal audience, both old and new fans who love it that we’re not funded by advertising or sponsorship or cowtowing to Apple’s evil I-Tunes conspiracy.
You are a band known for putting musical integrity before censorship and you never did Top of The Pops after your refused to change the lyrics of At Home He’s A Tourist? In retrospect, would you still do that today? If you had any advice to give ‘indie bands’ about pitching their music, where should one draw the parameters?
Yes, we’d do the same again today. My only advice is to do what you feel is right, musically and personally. Don’t do things only for the money. But try to get paid for what you do! Don’t give it away! It’s a messed up world where only technology intermediaries make money and creative people are embarrassed to ask to get paid for what they do. If you want to know how a society is going, follow the money: it all ends up in advertising. Musicians don’t have to join in. Just say no!
And on that call to arms, DIY say thank you to Jon King for his insights, and ask if we can expect the politically conscious band to do some sniping at ‘David Clegg’ and ‘Nick Cameron’ on the new record. He doesn’t say either way, but admits he has ‘no hopes’ for the new government: “They’ll pursue the interests of the privileged.” We wouldn’t expect it any other way. ‘Content’ from Gang of Four is released in autumn.
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