Sometimes you get to meet people who were your heroes back when you were a teen. The first time a 16-year-old me heard Gang of Four, a "post punk" band from Leeds, England, the directness of the vocals, the taut rhythm section and slashing, stuttering guitars of Andy Gill made a huge and lasting impression. To be sitting in Andy Gill's personal recording studio (in the Beauchamp Building, London) nearly 30 years later and finding him to be an engaging and interesting person was a treat. Not only is Andy an inspiring guitarist, but along the way he became a producer — not only with Gang of Four, but also on albums with The Jesus Lizard, The Futureheads, Michael Hutchence, Killing Joke, Red Hot Chili Peppers, We Are Standard, Asyl, Detlef Zoo, The Stranglers and The Young Knives.
You started out co-producing with Gang of Four.
Yeah, that's when I was learning how to, on Entertainment! Then, on [second album] Solid Gold, I think we got a bit more sophisticated.
When you listen to [third album] Songs of the Free it's got more of a studio- savvy feel to it as well. You're hearing synthesizers, layered backing vocals and such. Outside of that, who was the first artist to call you to produce?
I did a little bit with bands like Delta 5.
Most people wouldn't remember that. [laughter]
Yeah, I know. You know who they are though, right? I was talking to an American woman the other night who said that she danced at Studio 54 to "Mind Your Own Business" by Delta 5, which was a bit of a club hit. So stuff like that I was a bit involved in. But the first big one was The Red Hot Chili Peppers on Capitol [first, self-titled LP, 1984].
And they searched you out based on Gang of Four?
Flea and Anthony [Kiedis, vocalist] told me the reason they formed was because Gang of Four was their all- time favorite band. That's what they wanted to do. So, obviously they wanted someone from the band. I was the one who was more production-inclined.
I think I remember hearing there was a bit of a rough time on that.
We had our good days and our bad days. I think the drug thing didn't help the situation. A lot of massive tension between Flea and guitarist Jack Sherman. I think they thought, as their sort of hero I suppose, I'd just hang out and befriend them. Somehow the music would come — we'd lay it down and it would be great. Like I wasn't going to get involved with, "You need to do this. Why don't we do the bass and drums first? This is a drum machine. We're going to use it to keep time for us."
Maybe a little more "hands on" than they were expecting?
Exactly. "We're gonna put your voice through a compressor, Anthony." "Compressor? But I want it bigger, not smaller!" I made him go and get some singing lessons. [laughter]
Where were you working on that?
Eldorado Recording Studios, in L.A.
Did you learn something from that experience? Such as mapping out "how we're gonna work together"?
Yeah. I learned a lot. Don't ever fight about it. Don't ever argue about something. There's always another way to skin a cat. Don't make one issue the be all and end all. You can go around it.
Like the old "just try it" and it will succeed or fail based on its own merits.
Yeah. With those band situations you want to say, "Let's just try this." "No. I don't want to try it. I don't like the idea." Not the right response! Sometimes, it's too many irons in the fire. I mean the drum machine thing was quite funny. At one point, Anthony grabbed one end of the drum machine and I grabbed the other. Anthony's saying, "Man, this thing has no fucking soul!" "Of course it's got no soul!" "Yeah, but it's like 1984!" And he was trying to grab it so he could smash it. In the end, we compromised with a click coming off it and Cliff Martinez, the drummer, would listen to the click and tap it out, which would make it "human," and then we worked with that click that he made. [laughter] Whatever works, you know! They felt better about it because there had been an intermediary.
Did you feel like you could have just used the drum machine click?
Yeah. But I feel like that about a lot of things I do.
Were you able to go and negotiate how you'd be working or discuss it first with the artist for projects after that?
Yeah, I think so. You talk it through. Everything's a lot easier after that! Basically you work with the band and talk through how they see it and how you could go about it — whether you're all gonna play it together or one at a time. A lot of it...