There are artists for public consumers, artists for critics and artists for artists. When these three overlap on a large enough scale, it’s usually a pretty good indication of iconicism. Take, for example, the Beatles, or for you millenials out there, Radiohead -- yeah yeah, I feel the collective yawn and eye roll from the rabble rousers who would like to deny the importance of those groups, and I’m ignoring it. There is a reason (and it’s not necessarily because they are “better” than the rest of the artists out there) that groups like the Beatles and Radiohead have reached their iconic stature, and it’s largely because they have found a way to click -- for whatever lucky reason -- with the three primary audience groups of art consumption -- the public, the critics and fellow artists.
Often, however, an artist will be a critic favorite but not a public favorite, an artist favorite but not a critic favorite or any combination of the three. In the case of Gang of Four, the band is clearly and undeniably an artist favorite. Tom Morello, Kurt Cobain, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), Carrie Brownstein and Red Hot Chili Peppers have all cited the group -- specifically guitarist Andy Gill’s contributions -- as absolutely fundamental to their development as artists.
Falling somewhere between the Clash, Sex Pistols and Talking Heads, Gang of Four’s late ‘70s/early ‘80s post-punk resonates resoundingly with musicians while being somewhat unfairly backgrounded in other spheres of public and critical influence.
In a phone call with Andy Gill, I asked him whether he understands exactly why he is so influential to such a wide range of artists. His response was, “I think it’s because I have a simple approach to [guitar]. It’s a mixture of noise and expressiveness whilst keeping it minimal. A lot of guitarists want to get a lot of technical skill. Whatever technique I have is homegrown.”
Perhaps it’s this humble, intuitive -- almost Zen-like -- approach to his art that has appealed to so many musicians, past and present. I could even hear it (barely, because the connection from England to Boise, Idaho, is apparently not the greatest) in his voice -- he’s meditative and deliberate but with an exacting generosity (he was concerned about the bad connection, and I could tell he wanted to make sure I got everything I could out of the interview).
“When I was a kid, I was pretty mad [in a good way] about Jimi Hendrix,” he said. His other favorite guitarists included Steve Cropper and Wilko Johnson -- talented in their own right, but subdued in public influence (definitely not style), and not as iconic as Hendrix.
Gill’s interest in music production coheres with the development of his approach to music in general. Having produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ debut album and the Jesus Lizard’s self-titled EP, he finds that music production affords him the benefit of a different perspective on music.
Music production is yet another way for Gill to lend his monk-like talents to other artists. It’s as if he’s some beneficent spiritual leader for guitarists, and any musician lucky enough to enter his sphere of influence is graced with some of his humble -- but politically energized -- divinity.
It makes sense, then, that Gang of Four’s newest release is a live album called, “Live … in the Moment,” which Gill engineered and mixed. The record -- “it’s literally a really good record of seeing Gang of Four live,” he said -- combines his different musical perspectives (performing and producing) into a coherent effort.
(Although, he joked to me, he didn’t really have to do that much tweaking to the recordings other than fixing the pitchiness of his own voice.)
Gill is the only remaining original member of Gang of Four, which is a testament to his cornerstone status in the band. His contributions to contemporary music should be elevated, not just by prominent musicians, but by aspiring musicians, critics and public consumers alike.
He performs with Gang of Four on Oct. 18 at Observatory North Park. The band will share a bill with the Faint, and you can expect a mix of two or three songs from Gang of Four’s last album, “What Happens Next,” and “other songs from other times … a mixture of old and new.”
Don’t expect the politically fraught spectacle of iconicism. Expect the organic expressiveness of one of the most influential musicians in contemporary rock music.
Rutger Rosenborg was almost a Stanford neuroscientist before he formed Ed Ghost Tucker. He is currently on a national tour with the Lulls, and he makes music on his own when he's not writing. Follow his updates on Facebook or contact him directly.