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Rick Moody and Me - a conversation

Rick Moody Dave Allen

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 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 inrock 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 UKwas 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! andSolid 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 Bon 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 theUK, 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 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, thebête 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 USAcirca 2004, best epit­o­mized by the likes of The Rap­ture, Hot Hot Heat, Radio 4, !!!, LCDSoundsys­tem, 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 dosome­thing 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 TVpromo 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 LifeIntel­lect 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.

Banksy, Fairey et al - can street art be digitized?

An interview with me backstage at the Portland Digital Marketing Conference