Rick Moody

An Interview with Dave Allen

Dave Allen was the fero­cious bass play­er in one of the most fero­cious and mov­ing English rock and roll bands of the late sev­en­ties, Gang of Four. Allen appeared on the band’s first two albums, their best, before going on to found Shriekback with Barry Andrews of XTC. There, in a more funk-ori­ent­ed envi­ron­ment, his bass was even more cen­tral to the band’s son­ic iden­ti­ty. After leav­ing Shriekback in the mid­dle eight­ies and found­ing an inde­pen­dent record label, Allen went on to have an unde­ni­able sec­ond act in the United States (where we are reput­ed to have no sec­ond acts), first at eMusic.com and then Intel, where he was a Director in the Consumer Digital Audio Services depart­ment, and lat­er as an exec­u­tive (and founder) of var­i­ous mar­ket­ing and brand­ing agen­cies, among them the agen­cies Nemo and Overland. He is cur­rent­ly Director, Insights & Digital Media at NORTH. Now in his mid-fifties he blogs reg­u­lar­ly and is a gen­er­al cul­tur­al crit­ic of the inspir­ing sort both online and off. He speaks reg­u­lar­ly at nation­al con­fer­ences and at cam­pus­es in the Pacific Northwest, where he lives. In January 2011 he will join the University of Oregon as an adjunct pro­fes­sor work­ing with Deborah Morrison, Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising, teach­ing a class on Digital Strategy in Brand Marketing at the School of Journalism & Communication.

I was intro­duced to the­se more recent man­i­fes­ta­tions of his work by Courtney Eldridge, who sug­gest­ed I inter­view Allen. I con­fess that my preconceptions—that he might be some­what fierce, opin­ion­at­ed, and dis­in­clined to con­duct a nice, enter­tain­ing inter­view just for the sake of it—were most­ly borne out. As befits a man who knows a lot about the Web, this inter­view was con­duct­ed entire­ly in that ethe­re­al topog­ra­phy, with­out a sin­gle moment of face to face con­tact. We shipped the results back and forth for about four weeks in November 2010. This is a com­plete­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive sequence of ones and zeroes, there­fore, and one that is marked thor­ough­ly by Allen’s inten­si­ty, his inquis­i­tive­ness, his ener­gy, his pas­sion, his enthu­si­asm. As some­one who lis­tened fer­vent­ly to Gang of Four at the time of its great­est accom­plish­ments, I am hap­py to say that I found this man and this inter­view expe­ri­ence very sat­is­fy­ing. It is pos­si­ble to age grace­ful­ly with­out giv­ing up an inch.

Q: Can you talk a lit­tle bit about the musi­cal envi­ron­ment in Leeds when Gang of Four was first formed? What were you lis­ten­ing to? And how rev­o­lu­tion­ary was punk for you at the time you were first made aware of it?

A: I had been lis­ten­ing to John Peel’s BBC radio show for a few years pri­or to land­ing at Leeds. Peel’s unpar­al­leled taste in music and his extra­or­di­nary tal­ent at fil­ter­ing a playlist for each night’s radio show (he alleged­ly lis­tened to all sub­mis­sions to his show), exposed my young ears to a broad swathe of music, some con­tem­po­rary some not, and as the era of punk arrived he would of course add punk bands to his ever-expand­ing playlist. And yet he didn’t play it at the expense of his usu­al faire at the time, such as Robert Wyatt, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, and David Bowie. Or “prog” bands like Soft Machine and Matching Mole as well as many under­ground bands of the time includ­ing Welsh out­fit Man, and pre-punk bands such as Blurt.

I land­ed at Leeds in ear­ly 1976 just as punk was peak­ing as an under­ground move­ment and mov­ing into the main­stream (cue up a riff on “A Death Foretold”). Having moved from a much small­er north­ern town, Kendal, in the Lake District, I was ini­tial­ly sur­prised that punk rock appeared not to have per­me­at­ed the music scene, at least out­side of the University and Polytechnic cir­cles. With hind­sight this should not have been a sur­prise as “up north,” as those from London deri­sive­ly ter­med any­where north of Watford, was con­sid­ered decid­ed­ly provin­cial.

On and around cam­pus it was anoth­er sto­ry. There were the stir­rings of what we might call “alter­na­tive music,” in its true form, not those flac­cid bands, old and new, that limp along under cov­er of that title in the USA today. And here I’ll jump with­out too much back­ground to quick­ly throw out the names of a few bands and artists that I can recall were in that “alter­na­tive” mix besides the ear­ly Gang of Four, in the peri­od rough­ly book­end­ed by 1977 to 1980. Apologies to read­ers in advance for any seri­ous omis­sions:

Marc Almond, a per­for­mance artist, who along with David Ball would form Soft Cell, Frank Tovey aka Fad Gadget, Girls At Our Best, Delta 5, Mekons, Andrew Eldritch who would form Sisters of Mercy and The Three Johns all come to mind but there were many more. And 30 min­utes down the M1 motor­way in Sheffield we knew of the Human League and the Scars who were soon to become label mates with us and the Mekons on Bob Last’s Fast Records. During the same peri­od, over the Pennines to the west, Manchester was lead­ing the charge rather more force­ful­ly, egged on by the mer­cu­ri­al Anthony (Tony) Wilson who was expos­ing the kids to punk on his TV show in the evenings host­ing bands such as Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, Manicured Noise, the Fall, as well as Jon Cooper Clarke and Magazine.

So the “provin­cial” north was stir­ring and was soon ready to fight back. And we didn’t require mohawks and bondage pants to get it done.

Q: Was bass your first instru­ment? And who were your instru­men­tal heroes at the time you first start­ed play­ing?

A: Bass was my first instru­ment, yes. And rather than “heroes” I had great respect for Jimi Hendrix, John Bonham, Sly & Robbie, Lee “Scratch” Perry whose ‘Return of the Super Ape’ album I still trea­sure on vinyl, and Brian Eno. Jaco Pastorious was per­haps the bass play­er who inspired me the most, Bootsy Collins can be called my hero whose style informed my play­ing lat­er when I formed Shriekback. Hell, he backed James Brown!

Q: Can you describe meet­ing the oth­ers and begin­ning to play with them? How did that come about?

I was look­ing to find a band to work with and would check in dai­ly at a notice board in the Leeds University’s Student Union where there were dis­played hand-scrib­bled notes about rooms to let, room­mates want­ed, and of course, musi­cians want­ed. Hugo had post­ed a note, writ­ten in his par­tic­u­lar­ly unique “loud” style of hand­writ­ing that prac­ti­cal­ly yelled at me “Bassist want­ed for loud, fast rhythm and blues band.” I knew that was code for punk or sim­i­lar, so I applied.

Q: The bass was near­ly a lead instru­ment in Gang of Four, espe­cial­ly after the first album. How much was a con­se­quence of your play­ing and how much the influ­ence of reg­gae in post­punk?

A: Remember, there was no such cat­e­go­ry as ‘post-punk’ when we wrote and record­ed ‘Entertainment!’ in 1978. Arguably Gang of Four and Wire were ear­ly pre­cur­sors of post-punk—enablers might be a bet­ter word.

At it’s most syn­thet­ic Gang of Four as a musi­cal group sim­ply decon­struct­ed rock music. None of us were trained instru­men­tal­ists, we found our way to becom­ing a band by osmo­sis. Me and Andy Gill had very unique ways of approach­ing our instru­ments and Hugo devel­oped a style of drum­ming that com­ple­ment­ed the fits and starts of our play­ing, cre­at­ing rhythms that simul­ta­ne­ous­ly meshed and yet left space for me and Andy to punch through. The results of our par­tic­u­lar craft might be described as a hell-on-wheels ver­sion of punk-dub reg­gae, although I wouldn’t place too much empha­sis on dub reg­gae.

It doesn’t feel like com­plete hyper­bole to sug­gest that me, Andy and Hugo remain unmatched in rock music in our instru­men­tal orig­i­nal­i­ty. I ital­i­cize rock music because there are musi­cians oper­at­ing in oth­er musi­cal dis­ci­plines that I real­ly admire.

Q: What was the rehearsal envi­ron­ment like with Gang of Four? Did the band jam at all, or were the songs played as demoed by Gill and King?

A: That mis­con­cep­tion always leaves me feel­ing deflat­ed. Where did the idea that we played songs “as demoed by Gill and King” come from? Any of our fans or music crit­ics who have done even a cur­so­ry amount of read­ing up on our career would under­stand that the band wrote every­thing together—there were no demos, but there were fledg­ling ideas that the group teased out and com­plet­ed. On Solid Gold there were a few songs bro­ken out and cred­it­ed to who­ev­er wrote them.

Jamming (what an ugly term) was a large part of the cre­ation of our mate­ri­al for Entertainment! and Solid Gold, and I use the term “jam­ming” as in three instru­men­tal­ists and a singer work­ing out parts togeth­er to cre­ate the scaf­fold­ing of a whole song, not morose­ly noodling away on twelve-bar blues riffs. Mood and atmos­phere played a large role in our rehearsals, a sit­u­a­tion in which one could use descrip­tors such as angry, fero­cious, angu­lar, tense—and that was often before we start­ed play­ing..

Ideas for songs came from all cor­ners. Here are a cou­ple of exam­ples: “(Love Like) Anthrax,” as an idea, was mapped out by Gill and King on a nap­kin in a bar, as a “two-vocals with a mas­sive amount of gui­tar feed­back” premise. We then craft­ed that in rehearsal to include my loop­ing, puls­ing bass line and the repet­i­tive mono-drone of the cir­cu­lar drum rhythm. “Return the Gift” began life one morn­ing when Jon King and me were read­ing a fly­er pushed under our rehearsal room door. It promised the lux­u­ry of an “inside show­er” which in the UK was a lux­u­ry at the time; it also promised a “free” gift with pur­chase. The lyrics and the bass line were almost com­plete by the time Andy and Hugo arrived to add their parts.

And so it went. I find it dis­taste­ful, even today, that Jon and Andy con­tin­u­al­ly attempt to play up their roles while play­ing down the roles of me and Hugo in those first two albums. It’s an attempt to re-write his­to­ry which is rather sad. I have nev­er dis­cussed in pub­lic any of the albums that Jon and Andy released under the Gang of Four moniker post–Entertainment! and Solid Gold but I will always pas­sion­ate­ly defend how the orig­i­nal cohe­sive four-piece unit per­form­ing live, and as record­ed on those first two albums, was far supe­ri­or to any line-up that followed—all the way up to the reform­ing of the band in late 2004.

Q: How much of a sense did you all have of rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing the form you were work­ing in? Did you find your­self too busy to take stock of the sit­u­a­tion hap­pen­ing around you? Or was there that gid­dy per­cep­tion of mak­ing art in an impor­tant time?

A: Being con­scious of “mak­ing art” is a tricky con­cept. These days I make an attempt at “not know­ing” when­ev­er I begin a project, what­ev­er that project might be. One that could include music, an essay, a web­site strat­e­gy, or remod­el­ing my house. I’m unsure that I was con­scious of this back in 1978, but I find that ideas flow more quick­ly if I’m not try­ing to decon­struct the “learned” part of “know­ing.”

Musical artists who I admire appear to always have an over­ar­ch­ing con­cept behind their work. David Bowie is one who comes to mind. You can almost taste the think­ing that went into his work, espe­cial­ly in his Berlin peri­od when he worked with Brian Eno, a peri­od that result­ed in a tril­o­gy of remark­able albums—Low, Heroes and Scary Monsters. And he is often clear­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal in his lyrics. For instance, in this lyric from “Ashes to Ashes :” “I nev­er do any­thing out of the blue … ” and of course there’s “We know Major Tom’s a junkie” in the same lyric. I love the idea of nev­er doing any­thing out of the blue.

On reflec­tion then, I agree with you that we were “mak­ing art,” per­haps not exact­ly gid­di­ly. I’m still wrestling with the idea of “in an impor­tant time” though.

Having said that, per­haps it also goes with­out say­ing that I’m unsure we were deeply con­scious of rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing rock music as a form. Punk pro­vid­ed the open­ing but I do know that we hadn’t delib­er­ate­ly set out to be a punk band. I recall dur­ing the mix­ing of Entertainment! Tom Robinson vis­it­ed the stu­dio and we played back one of the songs while he lis­tened. His reac­tion was very sim­ply, “Holy shit … !” Perhaps at that point it may have sunk in, to me at least, that we were on to some­thing, and yet per­haps not, because we’d have had to have been delib­er­ate­ly aware of rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing rock music as a goal. I don’t recall hav­ing that dis­cus­sion with the oth­ers.

The influ­en­tial fuel for our musi­cal engine was drawn from Funkadelic and the gui­tar play­ing of Hendrix and Wilko Johnson. Hugo had great respect for Charlie Watts’s spare drum­ming and that of Simon Kirk of Free whose play­ing was more mus­cu­lar. Throw in Sly and the Family Stone, Bootsy Collins, and then add the Velvet Underground.

From that won­der­ful, kalei­do­scop­ic mix of influ­encers the world was served up with Entertainment! and Solid Gold—two albums from a band, oper­at­ing in a moment in time that would nev­er be repeat­ed on record again.

Lyrically we were more delib­er­ate­ly and con­scious­ly chal­leng­ing; Jon, with help from Andy, avoid­ed the bul­ly pul­pit rhetoric of the car­toon punk bands and the some­times off-putting, hec­tor­ing tone and slo­ga­neer­ing of the more vocal left. Leaving aside for a moment my favorite song, “Natural’s Not in It,” let’s con­sid­er “(Love like) Anthrax.” Popular music of all forms seems to require a dis­course on “love” by default, and the for­mat of deliv­ery seems to require a verse-cho­rus-bridge-cho­rus set up, or as Jon Bön Jovi famous­ly uttered “don’t bore us, get us to the cho­rus.” Well, the lyrics to ‘Anthrax’ laid out our approach to the “all songs have to be about love in a cer­tain form” angle, as did the deliv­ery format—rather dev­as­tat­ing­ly, I might add.

So let me get back to your idea of us hav­ing a “sense of mak­ing art in an impor­tant time.” That state­ment feels clichéd to me, or may­be I’m per­son­al­ly uncom­fort­able with it as too high­brow. Were we “in” an impor­tant time in British soci­ety and cul­ture, or did Gang of Four form “at” an impor­tant time? I think there’s a dis­tinc­tion. We shouldn’t for­get that punk music was a move­ment amongst the art rock set in Manhattan before the punk sven­gali Malcolm McLaren import­ed it to Britain’s shores in the form of the Sex Pistols. Arguably David Byrne and Talking Heads or Patti Smith and Richard Hell were work­ing again­st a dif­fer­ent cul­ture than the one that per­me­at­ed Britain at the time.

Upon its release, Entertainment! was hailed for its musi­cal impor­tance. While mak­ing the album we were not exact­ly unaware of the soci­etal and eco­nom­ic issues that were upheav­ing the UK, along with oth­er prob­lems that had informed the punk move­ment, yet once we step out­side of that speci­fic cul­tur­al and eco­nom­ic time peri­od, if Entertainment! were deliv­ered today I believe it would still have a huge impact—because rock music is no longer chal­leng­ing.

If we are to be hon­est, punk music on the whole real­ly was a three chord thrash topped off with melod­i­cal­ly-deliv­ered lyrics that were usu­al­ly about some­thing rebellious—insert top­ic of the day here. The uni­form as men­tioned ear­lier was car­toon­ish, the for­mat of deliv­ery was rote and it became very bor­ing very quick­ly. In short, it buried itself under the bur­den of its own pompous­ness but also because the pre­cur­sors of the move­ment drove them­selves into a cul-de-sac. Punk rock died with Sid and Nancy. Post-punk appar­ent­ly took its place but I’ve nev­er been one to cur­ry favor with either a musi­cal “move­ment’ nor with those that fly the flag for one. I feel strong­ly that the oth­er three would con­cur.

What if we’d deliv­ered Entertainment! in this last decade while the world econ­o­my was bub­bling and froth­ing, with most Americans ignor­ing two major wars while treat­ing their “homes” as “assets” and strip­ping them of equi­ty so they could con­tin­ue to indul­ge them­selves in an ever more lux­u­ri­ous lifestyle?

How then would we be received?

Well, given that not one major rock band (as far as I know) has raged angri­ly and open­ly about where we were and where we are head­ing as a soci­ety today, is both sad and fas­ci­nat­ing to me. If we dropped Entertainment! today I’d say it would have as much impact, if not more, than 1978.

And here’s how I would con­sid­er our stance if we had start­ed as a band in the last decade: there are no longer any rules. Radio no longer counts. We have access every­where along with the tools of man­u­fac­tur­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion. The Internet cre­at­ed a zero-bar­ri­er-to-entry mod­el, and the com­pe­ti­tion is thin.

Not that much dif­fer­ent from 1978, minus the Internet, in oth­er words. And 2010 is fer­tile ground for the rad­i­cal­iza­tion of rock music. Unfortunately, no one appears to be inter­est­ed in doing it. And here I pause to praise Bob Dylan, an artist who has always trav­elled his own road. Here are two quotes from him:

I don’t break the rules, because I don’t see any rules to break. As far as I’m con­cerned, there aren’t any rules.”

What good are fans? You can’t eat applause for break­fast. You can’t sleep with it.”

Take a lis­ten to ‘Isis’ from the album, ‘Desire.’ A sto­ry of love, desire, escape, loss and travel—four chords, no vers­es, no cho­rus, no bridge. A poem set to music.

I can hear the argu­ment that time and place, cul­ture and soci­ety must have informed our art in England in 1978, and I find it dif­fi­cult to deny because I‘m not sure I can accu­rate­ly frame it for you. It’s safe to say that out­side forces had an effect in inform­ing our work, e.g. the rise of the Nazi National Front, the Brixton riots, the min­ers bat­tling a new­ly-formed para-mil­i­tary police force, and lat­er, the whole­sale land grabs of our pub­lic com­pa­nies by Margaret Thatcher, which she then sold to her friends in the City of London, all the way up to the Falklands War. Nothing seemed so Great about Britain for many of us in our ear­ly twen­ties. The soci­etal upheavals I men­tion above were hap­pen­ing dur­ing and after Entertainment! and Solid Gold.

It’s worth point­ing out that Gang of Four began when the Labour par­ty was still in pow­er under the hap­less lead­er James Callaghan, with Margaret Thatcher tak­ing the reins in 1979, eight months after the release of Entertainment! So it’s not as if we were in oppo­si­tion to the Conservative par­ty at the time, and we cer­tain­ly didn’t write songs that had a polit­i­cal par­ty agen­da. We were open­ly sup­port­ive of the strik­ing coal min­ers, we sup­port­ed the Rock Against Racism move­ment, we were open­ly Feminist (“It’s Her Factory”) and so on, but real­ly is that any dif­fer­ent than sim­ply being coined “lib­er­al” or being a left-lean­ing Democrat in the USA today? Politically I could be defined as a Socialist, and I empha­size that as I prefer the term to lib­er­al which I con­sid­er a weak term that is reg­u­lar­ly mis­used by those on the right. “Socialist” is stronger and more clear for me. If the rad­i­cal right wants to defile my name and my right to my own polit­i­cal align­ment I’d rather be spit on as a Socialist than as a lib­er­al.

As for that time, I can agree that punk music was rev­o­lu­tion­ary as long as it’s also framed as reac­tionary and con­ser­v­a­tive.

Q: How gen­uine were the rad­i­cal pol­i­tics? I can remem­ber vivid­ly get­ting into an argu­ment, at Brown University in 1981 or 1982, in which I said that Gang of Four rep­re­sent­ed a gen­uine attempt to cre­ate a Marxist plat­form in the musi­cal world. True or untrue?

A: Debatable, but … are you not, as many did, sug­gest­ing that our work actu­al­ly was rid­dled with rad­i­cal pol­i­tics? Radical to whom? Listeners in the USA, a con­ser­v­a­tive coun­try by nature? What about France and Spain? Presumably gen­uine would have to be proven by our actions, not just our words? I don’t want to speak for the oth­ers, but the way I see it is that we were open­ly inter­est­ed in per­son­al pol­i­tics; the idea that our every act is polit­i­cal. If one were to dig you’d find sub­tle slo­gans sown amongst our songs, slo­gans that poked at the idea of mass mar­ket­ing and how it was received by con­sumers. We debunked the idea that “every­thing” is out of “my” con­trol. We weren’t slo­ga­neers but we did sub­tly ask of our lis­ten­ers to con­sid­er choice: For e.g., the choice to work, or not, the choice of “how to be” and “act” in a rela­tion­ship, or not. “The prob­lem with leisure, what to do for plea­sure?” as Jon sang in ‘Natural’s Not In It.’

Everyday upon wak­ing we have a choice. This is how I sum it up when I’m pre­sent­ing to a class or at a conference—“I’d like to go surf­ing today as the swell is in but I have to go to work.” Or with a choice—“I’d like to go surf­ing today as the swell is in.” but “I have to go to work.” So, go to work or go surf­ing? The choice is yours, and as with any choice there are reper­cus­sions but at least one does have a choice.

Now that I’m old­er and with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, I’d like to think that we were again­st mun­dan­i­ty. Against the mun­dane chores of a life—unless they were tru­ly arrived at by choice. If cho­sen, then sure­ly one has reached a cer­tain lev­el of peace or at least calm? (I would nev­er use the word “hap­pi­ness” as I think it should be struck from the English lan­guage.)

Here’a third par­ty view of our pol­i­tics from an MTV review around the time we reformed. It also includes Andy talk­ing about our posi­tion:

Unlike the polit­i­cal alt-rock groups they would lat­er influ­ence, how­ev­er, Gang of Four nev­er raged again­st the machine. They were some­times cast as unyield­ing Marxists, but the Gang’s politi­cized agen­da was over­stat­ed and mis­un­der­stood. Their art was not a ham­mer, it was a mir­ror they held up to soci­ety.

A polit­i­cal man­i­festo was nev­er our bag,” Gill said. “It was nev­er about grand­stand­ing or pre­sent­ing left-wing ideas and get­ting in front of the crowd and wav­ing the red flag like, ‘Come on, broth­ers and sis­ters, if we work togeth­er we can smash the sys­tem.’ It was nev­er any­thing remote­ly like that. It was much more about the per­son­al side of things, about the­se forces that work on all of us in our dai­ly lives.”

Gill is talk­ing about con­di­tion­ing, in respect to both the per­va­sive reach of cap­i­tal­ism and the accept­ed notions of cul­ture. Gang of Four were soci­etal observers and com­men­ta­tors, whose iron­ic slo­ga­neer­ing about the absur­di­ties and con­flicts of mod­ern life were sar­cas­tic, humor­ous and inci­sive. Their sar­don­ical­ly titled debut, Entertainment!, was all the man­i­festo they need­ed.

Another thought about choice—if I con­sid­er the recent mid-term elec­tions here in the USA and the ter­ri­ble par­ti­san attacks that took place (and both par­ties are guilty of it, by the way) then I would sug­gest to you that the angry cit­i­zens of North America are com­plain­ing about choice—the choice to work, the choice to be edu­cat­ed at a fair price, to be made well in a health care sys­tem that’s afford­able, etc. They feel that in 2008 they chose bad­ly, so now they have cho­sen again. And so on.… They don’t under­stand that gov­ern­ment is not there for their own per­son­al needs. It’s a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing. How one’s life is lived makes the dif­fer­ence. It’s a choice. Ironically this time, those on the right and those Independents and Democrats who switched sides or didn’t vote, made the wrong choice. Not because of Democratic loss­es at the polls, no, because they have cre­at­ed a beau­ti­ful dead­lock where noth­ing will get done while the country’s eco­nom­ic woes wors­en.

As for “cre­at­ing a Marxist plat­form in the musi­cal world,” I’m not sure it is actu­al­ly pos­si­ble or even plau­si­ble. What would that look like? I do find it iron­ic that post-eco­nom­ic col­lapse and the fail­ure of Wall Street, the wise have been look­ing to Marx and Engels for answers to what went wrong and find­ing in their writ­ings some hard-to-swal­low truths. At the same time, I find it hard to believe that any­one was look­ing to us to cre­ate any kind of plat­form, nev­er mind one built upon Marxist prin­ci­ples. For the record—we were nev­er, and as far as I know still aren’t, Marxists.

Q: When the band went on to make Songs of the Free, and you moved on to the first Shriekback album, both fac­tions, if that’s the right word, moved dra­mat­i­cal­ly in the direc­tion of funk/dance and away from the noisy qual­i­ties that had made Gang of Four sin­gu­lar ini­tial­ly. Was it just his­to­ry? Or did the noise just get tire­some after a while?

A: One thing that elud­ed both bands was a bona fide hit sin­gle. Gang of Four came close in 1979 with “Tourist” as did Shriekback in 1982 with “Lined Up,” but both bands fell short. Gang of Four did well after my time with “I Love a Man in a Uniform” and Shriekback also did well with “Nemesis,” both huge club and indie chart hits but nei­ther cracked the main­stream. Other than that I’d argue that there were no real par­al­lels between the bands. If the guys in Gang of Four felt they were done with the noise I would nev­er know, I do know that Songs of the Free was a good album.

Shriekback start­ed life very dif­fer­ent­ly. As found­ing mem­bers, Barry Andrews of XTC and League of Gentlemen fame and I felt that we’d rather be far more exper­i­men­tal and the main tool that was required for that to hap­pen was a stu­dio. Carl Marsh joined the group cre­at­ing a tri­umvi­rate and we set up shop in the base­ment of EMI Publishing, my music pub­lish­er at the time, and set to work in what was EMI’s demo studio—a 16 track-analog-record­ing slice of heav­en as far as we were con­cerned.

One of our biggest suc­cess­es as a trio, not as in sales although they were strong, was our first full length album, Care. We wrote, record­ed and mixed it on an extreme­ly tight dead­line and I believe we got it done in less than a mon­th, start to fin­ish.

Q: Did Shriekback ever achieve a coher­ent band iden­ti­ty, or did it just remain a rotat­ing cast of char­ac­ters? Was the band idea less appeal­ing to you in that peri­od?

A: After a while the core Shriekback trio added drum­mer Martyn Barker. Carl left after Oil & Gold to pur­sue his solo career so we were back to being a trio, and we con­tin­ued on with a more or less per­ma­nent addi­tion­al cast of characters—the Partridge sis­ters, Wendy and Sarah, Steve Halliwell, Mike Cozzi, and Lu Edmonds. The cama­raderie of “band” was still some­thing I enjoyed, but the “idea” of band was dif­fer­ent with Shriekback, as it was the core mem­bers that drove it along.

Q: In the nineties you seem to have acquired a very suc­cess­ful life as a pro­fes­sion­al in the dig­i­tal world. What attract­ed you to the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion ini­tial­ly? Did it seem as rev­o­lu­tion­ary as the world of punk and post­punk?

A: You know, when I look back I see dis­tinct peri­ods in my cre­ative life that run in par­al­lel to my peri­ods of cre­ativ­i­ty, across decades. My pro­fes­sion­al music career start­ed in 1978 and con­tin­ued through 1998 in dif­fer­ent shapes and forms. In 2000, post my time with eMusic.com I joined Intel and then left that com­pa­ny to start apply­ing my atten­tion to how the Internet and the Web were dis­rupt­ing the adver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing world. I still con­sid­er myself a musi­cian because I know I’m always capa­ble of pro­duc­ing music in some form or oth­er. But I no longer see my cre­ative self oper­at­ing through the lens of the musi­cian.

That change occurred around 1995 when I dis­cov­ered the pos­si­bil­i­ties that the Internet pro­vid­ed, espe­cial­ly in its open for­mat guise—the plat­form we call the Web. In its way the Web pro­vides a sim­i­lar “rev­o­lu­tion” if mapped to punk, in terms of reduc­ing the bar­ri­er to entry, giv­ing peo­ple the tools to change the way they com­mu­ni­cate, or for musi­cians, the abil­i­ty to cut out all of the mid­dle men. The biggest dif­fer­ence between the two is that the Internet/Web cre­at­ed a mas­sive soci­etal and cul­tur­al shift where­as punk rock was a nar­row musi­cal cat­e­go­ry that spilled over only mar­gin­al­ly into soci­ety through fash­ion, art and music. Punk was fleet­ing in its pow­er to change soci­ety, the Internet pro­vides con­tin­u­al soci­etal change with it’s ever-chang­ing plat­forms like the Web and the mobile plat­forms that are still emerging—platforms yet to be even thought of.

My inde­pen­dent record label, World Domination, was alleged­ly the first inde­pen­dent label to have a web­site. I do know that we were the first to broad­cast a live show over the Internet with the folks from IUMA, beat­ing the Rolling Stones by a few days. This was back in 1993, so I caught the bug ear­ly and it has remained stead­fast­ly with me.

From the days of America Online, on whose plat­form the ill-informed, fledg­ling dig­i­tal pop­u­la­tion thought they were surf­ing the Internet, through to 2010 where the some­what-bet­ter-informed dig­i­tal pop­u­la­tion think Facebook is the Internet, I have been fas­ci­nat­ed with the amor­phous, ever-shift­ing appli­ca­tion we call the Web. For sev­en­teen years I’ve been con­sid­er­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties the dig­i­tal uni­verse offers. As a pro­fes­sion­al work­ing in this space at NORTH, I have the won­der­ful job of try­ing to explain just what the hell I think is going on in that uni­verse to our company’s clients.

Prior to join­ing NORTH I cre­at­ed a Digital Strategy com­pa­ny with two part­ners, which we named Fight. One of the part­ners is my good friend Justin Spohn and he wrote this:

Fight was found­ed on the prin­ci­ple that, what we thought we knew about dig­i­tal was incor­rect. Where we thought it was a new thing we had to learn, it’s actu­al­ly some thing that has total­ly dis­rupt­ed soci­ety and along with it, the mar­ket place and mar­ket­ing, to the extent that the fun­da­men­tal rela­tion­ship between cus­tomer and brand has been per­ma­nent­ly changed.

What’s need­ed isn’t a new way of mak­ing dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing, but a new way of see­ing the mar­ket.”

He also wrote that “Access to tech­nol­o­gy makes things a lot more equal, and a lot more com­plex. It also changes the rela­tion­ship between brand and cus­tomer.”

Now it might seem like an aber­ra­tion to some, that a guy with a back­ground in post-punk bass shred­ding should have turned out to be hav­ing a great deal of fun try­ing to mas­ter the webz, but it shouldn’t sur­prise any­one who under­stands what a game-shifter the Internet, and the plat­forms that sit on it, are for music and musi­cians, and how those musi­cians now reach and inter­act with poten­tial audi­ences. In the last sen­tence of Justin’s para­graph above, it is very easy to switch out the word brand with band.

I cre­at­ed a stir with this essay last year, The End of the Recording Album as the Organizing Principle, a stir that was fueled by the teeth gnash­ing and howl­ing of musi­cians, pro­duc­ers and stu­dio engi­neers. So I fol­lowed it up with this—Dear Musicians, Please Be Brilliant or Get Out of The Way, and the musi­cians’ respon­se was even angri­er. As I said: my job is not work, it’s fun.

In those two essays I was basi­cal­ly attempt­ing to get musi­cians to under­stand that tech­nol­o­gists cre­at­ed the “con­tain­ers.” One exam­ple was that those tech­no­log­i­cal “con­tain­ers” were man­i­fest­ed as vinyl albums, orig­i­nal­ly spin­ning at 78rpm and then 33rpm. They were fol­lowed by the com­pact disc, which iron­i­cal­ly is the tech­no­log­i­cal “con­tain­er” of all those ones and zeroes, the bête noire of the record­ing indus­try. My point was, the tech­nol­o­gists nev­er con­sult­ed with us cre­atives, we musi­cians, they just foist­ed it upon us. The Internet today is an amaz­ing tech­no­log­i­cal mar­vel that unshack­les the cre­ative musi­cian from those tech­no­log­i­cal “con­tain­ers” of the past, yet most musi­cians real­ly can’t get their heads around that sim­ple fact. It’s the first time in his­to­ry that record­ing musi­cians can release their music with­out it being “con­tained.”

To wrap this one up I would say that the Internet is way more punk than punk rock.

Q: You must have put aside some of your pro­fes­sion­al life, if not all of it, to par­tic­i­pate in the Gang of Four reunion tours a few years ago. Was it hard to make that deci­sion? Or did you jump at it?

A: I’ll keep this one short. As I work entire­ly in a dig­i­tal world, as it were, it was easy to work from the road, as long as you dis­count the hang­overs and often numb­ing time dif­fer­ences. No, the deci­sion wasn’t hard as the tim­ing was per­fect. And yes I did jump at it.

Q: What had changed for the band dur­ing the reunion? Was the dynam­ic dif­fer­ent from when you were all younger?

A: Much had changed. And per­son­al­ly I was a dif­fer­ent “Dave” than I was thir­ty years before. Clearly we were old­er and, as it turned out, we were only mar­gin­al­ly wis­er. What was fas­ci­nat­ing to me hav­ing not been around the oth­er three as a group for those thir­ty years (Hugo and me have been almost con­stant­ly in touch dur­ing that time) was how none of us had actu­al­ly changed as peo­ple. It was weird how quick­ly we fell back into hav­ing the same quirks and tics as indi­vid­u­als that we had all that time ago.

As a band per­form­ing live on tour, I would say that we were actu­al­ly far more accom­plished and played as a tighter unit than ever before. Muscle mem­o­ry did not fail us.

Q: Reunions seem to have time stamps on them, and they often fall flat when the band gets back to writ­ing new mate­ri­al. Gang of Four is just now wad­ing into that phase. Did you want to par­tic­i­pate in the writ­ing of the new mate­ri­al, or were you con­tent to play the old songs and return to civil­ian life after the excite­ment of those ini­tial reunion shows?

A: The use-by date has def­i­nite­ly expired on the orig­i­nal idea of the Gang of Four reunion. It was great fun while it last­ed but reunions almost nat­u­ral­ly have an end date. There are mul­ti­ple rea­sons for that and those rea­sons are unique for each band that returns to the stage after a long hia­tus. Gang of Four returned to the stage swept along on the tide of punk-funk in the USA cir­ca 2004, best epit­o­mized by the likes of The Rapture, Hot Hot Heat, Radio 4, !!!, LCD Soundsystem, and egged on by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s.

There was also the lazy jour­nal­ism angle; music crit­ics who should have known bet­ter com­pared Franz Ferdinand or Bloc Party to Gang of Four. Those bands sound­ed noth­ing like us but those tardy com­par­isons helped raise the bar for a reunion.

The offi­cial reunion was from late 2004 through December 2006 when we played our last show with Hugo after fool­ish­ly ask­ing him to leave the band. Two years—about right. A great moment in time. I stayed on until I left the band in April 2008.

As for the sec­ond part of your ques­tion, I’m going to be as del­i­cate as pos­si­ble in respond­ing. I’m not going to sug­gest that Andy and Jon should not release new music, nor would I sug­gest that I wouldn’t like to be involved in a Gang of Four project that includ­ed some­thing new. I’m pos­i­tive that Hugo would too.

The biggest ques­tion I would have around the idea of the band releas­ing new music, espe­cial­ly for sale, would be, why? As I wrote above, the Internet has cre­at­ed a huge cul­tur­al shift and what is required of musi­cians today is a new way of see­ing the mar­ket, as the rela­tion­ship between a band and its fans has now per­ma­nent­ly changed.

I don’t believe the world needs an album of new music from an enti­ty called Gang of Four, and I say that with great respect for Jon and Andy. It’s been six years since we orig­i­nal­ly reformed and six years in the music indus­try, and on the Web, is a life­time. For two years we had a fleet­ing win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty where we could have once again pro­duced some­thing of impor­tance. Because of all the good­will sur­round­ing the come­back of the band with the orig­i­nal line-up, we had anoth­er moment in time where we could have had a large impact on the pop­u­lar music world. In my opin­ion, we missed that oppor­tu­ni­ty.

For exam­ple how easy would it have been for us to do the fol­low­ing:

When we were enscon­ced in a north London rehearsal room­ing writ­ing new mate­ri­al for what would become ‘Content’ I sug­gest­ed that we ought to bring in cam­eras and record­ing equip­ment. To have cap­tured our efforts and work­ing meth­ods and then pushed that raw footage live to the Web, I believe, would have cre­at­ed quite a stir. Footage like that lives forever and if it were only avail­able after­ward on YouTube, the only place it could be seen over and over again, the traf­fic would have been huge.

(I actu­al­ly have video footage of those rehearsals, shot by my eldest daugh­ter on a trip to London. You can hear the then work-in-pro­gress as MP3s here and here.)

Unfortunately, the ‘val­ue’ of online music con­tent is always in dis­pute because the fall­back posi­tion in the music indus­try is all about “mon­e­tiz­ing the con­tent,” (no pun intend­ed.) And it is in turn dri­ven by those in the record­ing indus­try, espe­cial­ly man­agers and record label employ­ees, who fail to under­stand how peo­ple access con­tent the­se days and what they are will­ing to pay for too. That fail­ure is why iTunes is now the biggest music retail­er in the USA, sell­ing one song at a time—albums, not so much. The walled-gar­den approach to con­tent on the web is wrong­head­ed. Here’s a shin­ing exam­ple, some­thing I despair of everyday—try play­ing one of the­se videos.

The fail­ure to under­stand how peo­ple oper­ate in a dig­i­tal world is a shame, because the real dol­lar val­ue of Gang of Four music for us is not in CD sales but in licens­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties, such as when Sophia Coppola licensed “Natural’s Not In It” for her movie Marie Antoinette, and when, just this mon­th, Microsoft licensed the same track for its Xbox Kinect ad cam­paign. The Gang of Four back cat­a­logue has incred­i­ble val­ue on many lev­els; there­fore I would argue, we have to do some­thing to keep that val­ue alive. I’m not cer­tain a new album released as a CD by half the orig­i­nal band is that some­thing. (Of course I can accept the argu­ment that any pub­lic­i­ty cre­at­ed by the guys’ activ­i­ties keeps the atten­tion on our back catalogue—as long as it is good pub­lic­i­ty.)

Q: Would you be will­ing to address direct­ly what caused you to retire from the band in 2008?

I’m unsure which was the more impor­tant of the two ele­ments that were both­er­ing me in ear­ly 2008 when I decid­ed to stop work­ing with the band. Those two ele­ments were, on one side, the band’s man­age­ment (exter­nal) and the band’s cre­ative process (inter­nal). At the same time, there were the con­tain­er and deliv­ery sys­tem capa­bil­i­ties that the Web pro­vides, as I men­tioned above. And the icing on the cake was that the cama­raderie of being back togeth­er had been ruined by our wrong­head­ed deci­sion in ask­ing Hugo to leave. I total­ly regret being part of that deci­sion. As I said, we were more mature but clear­ly none the wis­er. Also: I was con­vinced that we did not need to write new songs to con­tin­ue hav­ing suc­cess as a reformed unit.

The band’s man­ager helped me reach a deci­sion when he called me one after­noon in ear­ly 2008 to dis­cuss the “small issue of the song­writ­ing” as he called it. He pre­ced­ed to lay out the grand idea that as Gill and King were “writ­ing” the new songs then I would have no claim to any music pub­lish­ing splits. I had already left the band in my mind before I even respond­ed to his ludi­crous claim.

On and off dur­ing 2006, 2007 and 2008 we were cre­at­ing new musi­cal ideas fol­low­ing the same pat­tern of 1977/1978, as described above. To be told by some­one I have absolute­ly no respect for, that I would have the non-option of take it or leave it with regard to music writ­ing and pub­lish­ing splits, I very eas­i­ly chose to leave on the spot.

The iron­ic twist in all of this is we were wrestling over the future of the band while our old fans, and new ones, were thrilled that we were back per­form­ing our old songs with the orig­i­nal line­up, per­form­ing at its for­mer inten­si­ty. We had already sup­plied the need for some­thing new by re-record­ing our favorite songs and releas­ing them as the album Return The Gift in 2005, about which the music and cul­ture crit­ic Simon Reynolds so suc­cinct­ly and con­vinc­ing­ly wrote:

Return the Gift places in plain, unavoid­able sight the redun­dan­cy and re-con­sump­tion involved in rock’s nos­tal­gia mar­ket. When fans buy new albums by reformed favorites of their youth, at heart they’re hop­ing for a mag­i­cal era­sure of time itself. They’re not real­ly inter­est­ed in what the band might have to say now, or where the band mem­bers’ sep­a­rate musi­cal jour­neys have tak­en them in sub­se­quent decades; they want the band to cre­ate “new” songs in their vin­tage style.

Such con­sumer bad faith is pre­cise­ly the kind of phe­nom­e­non that the old Gang of Four enjoyed skew­er­ing. Could it be that Return is say­ing, “You want a Gang of Four res­ur­rec­tion? Here you are then, exact­ly what you secret­ly, deep-down crave: the old songs, again.

Q: What excites you in music the­se days?

A: Online music videos and MP3s. Seriously! It’s how I gain expo­sure to so much new music. Google music search is my vir­tu­al John Peel. Whenever I come across an artist whose music I like, I then go to the Amazon MP3 store and down­load it. If it’s avail­able on vinyl with free MP3s, I buy the vinyl as it’s my pre­ferred choice for lis­ten­ing to music. You have to inter­act with vinyl so I con­sid­er it “slow music.” My musi­cal equiv­a­lent of “slow food.”

Artists break­ing bar­ri­ers and expec­ta­tions. My cur­rent favorite is Fever Ray, which is a kind of a per­for­mance art vehi­cle for the extreme­ly tal­ent­ed Karin Dreijer Andersson (who per­forms with her broth­er in their equal­ly great band, The Knife), and of course Thom Yorke and Radiohead con­tin­ue to keep every­one on their toes. Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic have a great thing going with 900 Bats. I’m also intrigued to see if my pal Ian Rogers, who helms Topspin, can have the com­pa­ny suc­ceed by gain­ing enough trac­tion to become the go-to-non-label alter­na­tive for music dis­tri­b­u­tion. I think it’s a great ser­vice for band to fan trans­ac­tions. The new Kanye West album My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy is a remark­able piece of work, an “event,” an expo­si­tion on ear­ly East coast rap deliv­ered in 2010 just as pop­u­lar music was fad­ing in its cre­ativ­i­ty. And look what Beck is up to on his Record Club site and Nigel Godrich is doing won­der­ful things over at From The Basement. Here’s what he has to say on the “about” page:

Welcome friends and music lovers. Here lies the web­site of From the Basement—A sort of music show/labour of love pro­duced by a small group of ded­i­cat­ed indi­vid­u­als. We shoot it all on HD video and the sound is pro­duced by me.

The whole empha­sis of the show is about being artist friend­ly and mak­ing our bands as com­fort­able as pos­si­ble so that they can give great per­for­mances with­out the usu­al agony of TV pro­mo which every­one has to do but no one seems to enjoy.

Q: Can you talk a lit­tle bit about the deci­sion to become an American cit­i­zen? Was it unpop­u­lar with friends from Europe? Do you feel like an American cit­i­zen now? And what’s your pre­dic­tion about the next two years of American pol­i­tics?

A: I have three chil­dren all born in the USA all of whom have an American moth­er. During a par­tic­u­lar­ly rau­cous peri­od in Congress in the mid 90’s the despi­ca­ble Newt Gingrich was on one of his infa­mous anti-immi­grant ram­pages. As a Green Card hold­er I felt that it might be wise to become a cit­i­zen so that I’d be able to stick around and help my wife raise my chil­dren. Ironically of course, being white and English would no doubt give me a free pass when it came to both admit­tance and not being deport­ed. I have a vis­cer­al hatred of all racists, but espe­cial­ly racist politi­cians in pow­er.

I don’t have any knowl­edge of being regard­ed as a trai­tor by my European or for­eign friends! I retain my UK/Euro cit­i­zen­ship and my chil­dren also have dual nation­al­i­ty so I see it as a win-win. As for feel­ing “like an American cit­i­zen,” I cer­tain­ly did at first as I am a “when in Rome” kind of guy. Recently though, like many of my American friends, I have become to feel like a belea­guered cit­i­zen of a strange land. In short, there has been a com­plete col­lapse of decen­cy, and the moral com­pass of the coun­try is out of whack. What made America great, and what attract­ed me to it in the first place, has been lost. Fear and hatred of the dif­fer­ent, hatred of the left, hatred of any­one of col­or, per­me­ates the land fed by the right-wing media pun­dits. I feel equal parts appalled and hope­less. Even edu­ca­tion seems to be a dirty word in cer­tain parts of the coun­try.

This isn’t a new phe­nom­e­non in American cul­ture. As Richard Hofstadter wrote of American cul­ture in his 1962 clas­sic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life: Intellect is pit­ted again­st feel­ing, on the grounds that it is some­how incon­sis­tent with warm emo­tion. It is pit­ted again­st char­ac­ter, because it is wide­ly believed that intel­lect stands for mere clev­er­ness, which trans­mutes eas­i­ly into the sly or dia­bol­i­cal. It is pit­ted again­st prac­ti­cal­i­ty, since the­o­ry is held to be opposed to prac­tice, and the ‘pure­ly’ the­o­ret­i­cal mind is so much dis­es­teemed. It is pit­ted again­st democ­ra­cy, since intel­lect is felt to be a form of dis­tinc­tion that defies egal­i­tar­i­an­ism.

As for the next two years in USA pol­i­tics, I’ll lead with this: Obama and his admin­is­tra­tion have failed those of us on the left who sup­port­ed him. We were fooled by his appar­ent lib­er­al lean­ings, all of which evap­o­rat­ed soon after he entered the White House. This is not to say he did some decent things in the first two years, but boy, he failed to do a lot more. And of course cam­paign­ing and gov­ern­ing are two dif­fer­ent things. “Campaigning is poet­ry, gov­ern­ing is prose,” as Mario Cuomo said.

The polling after the mid-term elec­tions showed that the pub­lic is not wor­ried at all about the Bush tax cuts or any oth­er tax cuts for that mat­ter. Priority #1 and #2 for them was employ­ment and the econ­o­my. Our elect­ed offi­cials should be pay­ing atten­tion.

Q: What are your next musi­cal ambi­tions as a play­er and com­poser?

A: I have two musi­cal ambi­tions currently—to add bass lines to any­thing that Aesop Rock comes up with and sends my way. And to work with my son, Dylan McCaffrey, in recording/remixing some of that, because he’s extreme­ly tal­ent­ed. Bassing on the beats, that’s what the future looks like.

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