February 18th, 2011 | Interviews

Illustration by Darren Ragle

Gang of Four finally has a new album that actually is a new album—not a re-recording of old songs—and they sold vials of their own blood to fund it. Singer Jon King speaks here about the gift of blood and ashes, the types of microwaves he likes to smash with baseball bats, and why he so dislikes tiny pieces of cheese. This interview by Lainna Fader.

Content is the first Gang of Four album in sixteen years with new material. Why were you and Andy Gill ready to do new tracks?
Jon King (vocals): When we toured the U.S. about five years ago, we had a lot of fun and it was fantastic. When we were out and playing classic material, we recorded an album at that time—new versions of old classics. But being musicians, we just started thinking about new ideas that came to mind. We hadn’t worked together for any concentrated period of time before that tour. We started kicking some things around. It’s almost impossible when you’re a musician or creative person to not come up with new things to do. Eventually we got together a body of work that we thought was good enough to make an album out of.
You’ve said the goal was to make the record as ‘challenging’ and ‘unconventional’ as Entertainment! Why is Content challenging?
Well, I don’t know so much about unconventional. We did make it challenging, yeah. Clearly we’re not a pop band. I’ve always had the great luxury of never being commercially successful. I think it’s a great burden on pop musicians to feel that they have to worry about commerciality or accessibility. You’re a better judge, to be honest—but I hope what we’ve done is exciting and thought-provoking.
Is Gang of Four the last non-pop band that’ll ever sell 100,000 records?
Well, there are views about the web that some people hope will prevail. That it would somehow be a way of supporting musicians—an alternative to the old-fashioned record industry. We made this record ourselves, outside of the industry. I say this with authority here. But it really hasn’t turned out that way. There’s nearly 100 legitimate ways people can buy recorded music now and yet the majority of tracks are shared on peer-to-peer networks without musicians getting a cent from it. They’re not prepared to pay for recorded music anymore. I know last year there was a survey that found that people try to pursue other ways of making a living than doing music. They have to try everything because selling recorded music is very difficult. Mainly for new bands—not as much as for old bands. It’s a lot easier for established acts. Young bands just can’t do it. You have to pay for gas and a million strings. But there’s no point in bleating about it. People just have to find other ways to make a living as musicians. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what everyone else is doing. We’re just doing it better.
You’ve said musicians are doomed to have day jobs because of ‘technology creep.’
The curse of the musician is the technology of media—the Apples, the Googles, Facebooks—all of the money goes to these guys who aren’t investing a cent into music. They’re not friends of music in any way.
If your fans don’t pay for your music anymore and corporations don’t invest back, who are the friends of music?
Still the fans, I guess. The people who go to gigs, the people who love music, the people who want to see what you do. I must’ve seen two to three concerts a week before I became a professional musician. That’s why we’re going on tour in the U.S., Australia, Europe, the like. That’s where your friends are.
What did people think of the incentives you offered to help fund Content?
Some of them are a little insane and funny. Some are just a lark. The point was to do something special for people. Andy would mix your track in the studio. We’ve done some gigs where the only people who’ve come along are people who’ve pledged things. They’re not done for anybody else. You’ve got to be inventive. We’re doing this special edition box set that comes with some very, uh, interesting elements. We’ve got a book of smells, a book of emotions—
Vials of your own blood?
There was a lot of interest in that! I’ve always been interested in this as a writer—the motions of authenticity and realness, which I think is an incredibly strong thing in rock ‘n’ roll. Think of Cobain, who’s a wonderful musician. He was all about wanting to be authen- tic and real and found that’s quite unsustainable once you achieve a certain level of success. Then you have to ask if it’s real enough. The whole blood thing is part of that negotiations. There’s a gag in it—it’s pretty smart. It’s not exactly humor, because you wouldn’t laugh at it, but it’s a gag.
What if people wanted your hair instead?
There are some people who’ve got some transgressive ideas about the world. One of the artists I’ve always been a great admirer of is this Italian artist called Manzoni—a concept artist. He canned his own shit. The interesting thing is no one really knows what he did can. The label claimed that it was shit.
He even labeled it as ‘Can of Shit’?
He did! The only way you can find out what’s in the can—and it could be clay or earth for all we know—is to open the can and therefore destroy the artwork. So the can becomes a thing about belief and authenticity. A lot of people who are very reactionary—I’m thinking of the commercial world of ‘Pop Idol’ and ‘X Factor’—everything they do is so inauthentic. If you say something in that school—
The School of Canning Your Own Shit?
You want to say you’re outside of that. Those are the enemies of music, the real enemies of authenticity—those karaoke singers.
A friend of mind said he went to a T.S.O.L show in ’99 and they were giving away ashes of a recently deceased band member. Is that authentic enough?
I get the gag! That sounds quite poignant. People see in that all sorts of things. You’ve got crazy wrestling fundamentalists in Tennessee who see the face of Jesus in a burnt piece of toast. Not to diminish their personal experience in any way, but that’s kind of crazy. When people are in a very tight group—like a tribe, or a gang, or a music base, when you share the same emotions and feelings about something—I think it’s quite generous to do something like that. I get that.
At what point does it get creepy?
What you give away to people has to be valuable to people. I don’t mean giving away trash. Not handing out randomly your subway tickets or the kibble in your pockets. It has to be something meaningful in the music context or otherwise it becomes a bit like the strange relics of saints that used to fill up the churches and cathedrals of Europe in the Middle Ages. The little bits of wood that some early crook claimed was part of the cross. It has to be meaningful. For example, one of my oldest and best friends—a guy called Mark White who was the original singer of the band the Mekons—for Christmas he sent me the original lyrics to one of his songs originally sung a cappella—‘The Building.’ I was absolutely touched by that—overwhelmed by it. I want to put it in a frame and stick it on the wall.
Are you going to bring microwaves to bash with crowbars on tour again?
Yeah! It’s excellent! Not a crowbar, though. On our rider—we’re not very extravagant or diva-like—but there has to be a microwave from some dumpster site we found. And they have to provide a baseball bat or something of the sort. It makes a really good sound. It depends on the type of microwave—being the world’s leading microwave artiste.
What kind of microwave sounds best?
I like Zenith microwaves. That’s very good. You’ve got the old, huge, steel classic American thing. It’s like tumbling down to death from some old Chevy Caprice. It has a nice sort of dull funk to it. Some of the Japanese microwaves sound nice. Everybody likes to smash things up.
What kind of bat do you like to use? Or is it just the microwave that’s important?
The bat doesn’t matter so much. We’re pretty modest. We just want the microwave and two bottles of wine. Not really. You know what I want? Proper glasses to drink. I don’t like the coldcut tables. If anything, our rider is marked by the absence of that. I don’t like candy. I don’t like coldcuts on the table. I like proper American microbrews. I don’t like Schlitz. No, we’re pretty monk-like.
What could someone put on your table that would offend you?
A sheep’s head! I wouldn’t like a sheep’s head backstage. That’d be pretty offensive. That would be something I couldn’t quite deal with. Those square slices of cheese. When I first saw Spinal Tap I understood why Nigel Tufnel was upset because of the miniature bread.