Anti Hero: Gang Of Four's John Sterry On The Life And Legacy Of Andy Gill
At the core of post-punk group Gang Of Four’s music are the immaculate, staccato electric guitar chords of the group’s late guitarist and founding member, Andy Gill. His daring, metallic guitar playing influenced everyone from U2 to Fontaines D.C., but Gill never saw himself as an icon.
The guitarist passed away of pneumonia in February, and wanting to pay tribute to the radical musician, the band’s remaining members came up with the perfect name for their new EP - titled ‘Anti Hero,’ it's out on July 17th.
This is the second EP the band is releasing since Gill’s passing, as the remaining members - lead singer John ‘JJ’ Sterry, bassist Thomas McNeice, and drummer Tobias Humble - wanted to fulfill his initial plans for the band. The newest release consists of Gill's final recordings, including two remastered tracks, a new song, and one touching tune written by Sterry after Gill’s passing.
The band’s lineup has changed a few times since the band formed in ‘77, but Gill always stayed on as the band’s fearless ringleader. The quartet might’ve flown under the radar for most of their career, their influence seeps into past and present generations of musicians.
Through brash and sharp notes, Andy Gill cemented the group’s refreshing sound by weaving in elements of funk and reggae into a punk foundation into tracks like ‘Damaged Goods’ and ‘At Home He’s A Tourist,’ which paved the way for post-punk and punk-funk.
Gang Of Four is going out with a bang, and Clash caught up with the band’s lead singer John Sterry to discuss the final EP.
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The EP is titled ‘Anti Hero.’ What does the name mean to you and the band?
There's a slight reference to where there was the COVID-19 crisis in the NHS. All of the NHS workers were being lauded as heroes and they didn't want to be called that, they were just doing their jobs. There's a little bit of a reference to that and just the fact that Andy himself was always skeptical of hero-worship, in a broad sense, hence the song 'Not Great Men.
' It was all kind of skeptical and [it] was [about how] ordinary people in extraordinary situations can do extraordinary things. It was a play on what the NHS doctors said and Andy's outlook on things.
Andy was a hero to so many musicians, but like you said he was skeptical of the idea of being a hero. Do you think he saw himself as an anti-hero then?
I wouldn't say an anti-hero as such, but he certainly was humble in certain ways, in his influence and things like that. He would very clearly point out when he thinks someone had ripped him off. So I don't think he thought of himself as a hero at all, but he was always flattered when people came up to him and told him what an influence he'd been on people, production-wise and guitar-wise.
So then how did ‘Anti Hero’ come about? You just had ‘This Heaven Gives Me Migraine’ EP released a few months ago, what made you want to release this now?
We've had a few recordings that Andy was working on right up until his death, and we'd been in the studio, getting them all mixed and stuff. They were so close to being ready that they were about to be released in their own right. So it was just a case of that we wanted to get the tracks out there and it was fulfilling what we thought Andy would want.
We thought we had a couple of absolute bangers on this EP that we wanted the world to see, especially the first single, which is ‘Forever Starts Now,’ which Andy and I had written at the end of the sessions for the last album.
Every time we got together we would go 'We've got to finish that song!' Life got in the way, we were touring, things like that, but we'd always bring it up at the most inopportune moments. Like, we'd be in a bar or something and go 'Ah, gotta do that song!' And we never got around to it. So it was partly tying up some loose ends and partly we just thought that it was valid to put it out and we wanted to.
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Going off that, this is the last record with Andy’s influence and recordings. Is that daunting at all?
No. No, because we're so close on everything, really, before he died. So it was just a case of polishing a few things. With 'Forever Starts Now' and 'Days Turns Into Night' it was a case of those tracks [being] pretty much done.
And then Thomas took on the production role, which would have been Andy's role, but there was enough of a seed of an idea there, enough of a foundation, to sort of be clear as to what we needed to do for it. From knowing him and working with him for the amount of time that we had, it didn't feel like we were directionless at all, in that it felt like we knew exactly what we were doing.
Can you talk me through the EP’s powerful single, ‘Forever Starts Now?’
‘Forever Starts Now’ was a co-write between Andy and I, and it started off as just a vague guitar riff that we were sort of sending back and forth [and] I added a second part to it. Then Andy curated the two parts together, we kind of got the foundation of a song. Then we just went back and forth, back and forth over the Internet, sorting out production for that and getting it pretty much ready.
The lyrics changed many, many times. We talked so much about male-female, or any kind of relationship really, where the one person has the control, whether it be money or in status, so it was kind of about that, and it morphed into something that became quite personal. I think with something like that, with a lot of Gang Of Four things, we talk about the macro, talk about big concepts.
You distill it down into relationships between two people and how that plays out, so that was what we were aiming for. And then Thomas finished off the production when Andy died, so it was a real collaborative effort between three of us.
I wanted to ask about the second single, ‘Day Turns To Night,’ which you wrote for Andy a few days after his passing...
'Days Turns To Night' was just my song, pretty much entirely. When Andy died, I just wrote it, and I wrote the lyrics within about 10 minutes. It just poured out of me in a pretty pure way because I never really write like that. I always write [with] symbolism and ambiguity and things like that, so it became a shock to me to have written something like that.
Catherine [Mayer, Gill’s widow] ended up hearing it, I don't quite know how. She ended up hearing it and she loved it. It spoke to her in a lot of ways, so she wanted to include it on the EP. The fact that other people had heard it by that point, I was like, 'You know what, it's quite a pure distillation of how I was feeling.'
I was called to put it on there, and again Thomas finished up the production on that and did a great job.
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How did it feel to write in a time of grieving?
I hesitate to use the word catharsis because I didn't know if it was healing in any way, but it certainly helped me put my feelings in order and made me realise how I felt. Although [it was] just shocking and sad that he died at that point, I was still grieving obviously, it was only a few days after.
I was looking at the positive sides or trying to, and thinking about all these great times that we've had together. The experience we both had together. There was this feeling that when Andy and I were on stage together, we'd look at each other and it was us versus the world.
It was a great feeling and I wanted to capture that — trying not to be too morose about it, because I'll do that in private, there's plenty of time for that. It was just something that came out pretty naturally. I didn't really think too much about it and I guess it's quite uplifting and it's a quite positive song.
This record is to really celebrate Andy. Do you have any favourite memories with him since you joined the band?
Playing pool. Almost every tour we did we'd always find a pool hall and play pool really badly together. Generally, we'd be on the same team, and then we’d get to a certain point in the night where we'd start trying to bet money and everybody would advise us against it. It's those transient moments that I'm playing pool and nothing particularly important [happens], it was just these little moments.
For me actually, one of the nicest moments on the last tour [in November], Andy and I just went off, we grabbed some food in an airport and just sat for two hours, just having a chat. At the end of the day, we're just mates really. It's those kinds of moments that I really cherish and will miss.
Then obviously the stage stuff... like some kind of incendiary gig. It seemed every time we played San Francisco it was always amazing. We'd look over at each other and there was just a nod. He didn't have to smile or anything, it's just a nod, like an acknowledgment, that this is fun, this is what we want to and we're doing it together.
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To commemorate Andy, your EP cover is done by the amazing Shepard Fairey and the proceeds are going to the Guy’s and St Thomas NHS Foundation Trust. How do you think Andy would feel? It’s a great way to remember him...
He'd be honored that Shepard had done a piece of artwork for him and I think he'd like the picture that he chose. Andy was a staunch supporter of [the NHS]. It’s one of the most incredible organizations in the UK and we’ve got to cherish it. He was a huge fan and utilized the NHS throughout his life and obviously in the final few days, he was being looked after very well by them.
I'm sure the fact that the money is going to the NHS, I think he would absolutely approve of.
Andy was the core of the band, does this mean the end of Gang of Four as we know it?
There hasn't even really been a discussion about it to be honest, it feels like the right thing. We're obviously not gonna just stop doing music. We've got loads of things on so we're gonna keep ourselves busy. We'll obviously miss the touring side a lot, because it was, for me seven years, nearly eight years, I think. And then for Thomas, it was well over a decade, so it's been a big part of our lives.
What do you want listeners to take away from ‘Anti Hero’?
I think in terms of 'Forever Starts Now' and tracks like 'Change The Locks,' I want people to take away the fact that Andy and the band were innovating the whole time. I think you can hear echoes of the past but you can absolutely see [how that] rose towards the future and the present. There are bits of electronica in there, there's classic Andy guitar.
I'd like people to know that with this EP, we weren't trying to look back. There's an ethos with Gang of Four that Andy created. It was so set in stone that we all knew exactly what it was about without really having to discuss it, and I think it's that subject matter that he'd talk about in lyrics.
It's a feeling of not ever trying to recreate something again. It’s about moving forward always, and wherever that takes you, it doesn't really matter, as long as it's in the name of progress, and it's the right thing you want to do.
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Gang Of Four's new EP 'Anti Hero' is out on July 17th - order the limited 12 inch vinyl edition HERE.
Words: Caroline Edwards
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