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.
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.