Even amid the din of espresso machines and juicers, the delight is evident in Hugo Burnham’s voice.
At a corner table at Atomic Cafe in Beverly, the founding member of Gang of Four is talking excitedly about the English band’s upcoming US tour, which includes a sold-out show Sunday at the Crystal Ballroom in Somerville.
“We’re not a nostalgia act,” says the drummer, 65, who’s lived on the North Shore for more than 20 years and teaches at Endicott College. “Gang of Four is still relevant, still sonically challenging and interesting.”
It’s true. Four-plus decades after its release, the band’s debut album, “Entertainment!,” still sounds indispensable: the stiff beats; jagged, unambiguous grooves; smart, subversive lyrics. Its influence crosses generations and genres, with admirers ranging from REM to St. Vincent, Red Hot Chili Peppers to Run the Jewels, the hip-hop duo whose track “The Ground Below” makes clever use of a classic Gang of Four riff.
On this tour — Gang of Four’s first since guitarist Andy Gill died — Burnham says the band will be drawing heavily from “Gang of Four: 77-81,” the Grammy-nominated box set released last year that includes the first two albums, early demos and outtakes, a typically frantic live recording from 1980, and a handbound book containing the first official publication of Gang of Four lyrics.
“It was a limited edition and sold out in weeks,” says Burnham. “God, I wish we’d made more.”
The lineup these days, which might more accurately be called Gang of 2½, includes Burnham on drums, original singer Jon King, bassist Sara Lee, who played on two Gang of Four albums in the 1980s, and ex-Slint guitarist David Pajo, whose discerning CV also includes spells with Stereolab and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. (Founding Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen decided not to tour this time.)
But Gang of Four has always been mutable. Over their long history — the band got together at Leeds University in 1976 — core members have left and returned and left again at various times. Indeed, the group’s discography includes more albums without the original quartet than with it. Yet, says Burnham, there are a few constants.
“It’s about attitude, ideas, and these songs,” he says.
Gang of Four is still impossible to pigeonhole. Critics customarily use words like “spiky” and “angular” to describe their music, but the rhythms are also danceable. (In the United States, the band’s biggest commercial success was 1982′s funk-inflected “I Love a Man in a Uniform”). Burnham believes the group’s sound is so singular because their influences were so disparate.
“We got together with a blank canvas, but the paints we were using were Dr. Feelgood, Parliament Funkadelic, Free, Jimi Hendrix, and Chic,” says Burnham. “This is what we listened to, what we danced to. Between the mishmash of how we interacted, how we created, we were able to come up with something that was different enough that people paid attention.”
Also, King, the singer and principal lyricist, says Gang of Four’s priority from the outset was making art, not money.
“I was sad when Betty Davis died a few weeks ago. When she did those hard funk records, they sounded like she wasn’t caring about selling stuff, she was caring about expressing herself,” says King, reached by phone at his home in England. “That’s certainly true about what we were doing. We were trying to make as pure a version of the art as we could. If you put shackles on, dial it back, it becomes a bit anonymous.”
The lyrics, as much as the music, also distinguished Gang of Four from their post-punk peers. King would call out capitalism, for example, but in ways that were provocative and funny, not didactic or dumb.
“[Producer] Jimmy Douglass, who worked with us heroically on ‘Sold Gold,’ used to get annoyed with my lyrics and say, ‘This is all so schoolboy,’” recalls King, laughing. “I said, ‘No, it’s Bertolt Brecht.’”
Gill’s death in February 2020 — his widow believes it may have been COVID-related — was shocking and left an enormous void in the band. But the remaining members were determined to carry on. When Allen opted not to tour, Lee, who’d played on Gang of Four’s “Songs of the Free” and “Hard” LPs and, later, with the B-52′s, Indigo Girls, and Fiona Apple, was invited to join.
“Sara’s a bigger rock star than all of us,” says Burnham.
Pajo, who’d been a Gang of Four fan growing up in Louisville, also said yes, but Burnham and King were clear they didn’t want him to simply mimic what Gill had done.
“We want to pay real respect to Andy’s inventiveness and brilliance. I always felt thrilled when Andy turned on the gas. It was unreal,” says King. “In rehearsals, I was intrigued and excited to hear David, and to see that he’d taken the mission so intensely — nailing the sound and the attitude, but bringing his own genius to it.”
In January, the band convened at Endicott College, where Burnham is an assistant professor of experiential learning and the internship coordinator at the School of Visual and Performing Arts. (He previously taught at the now-closed New England Institute of Art.) With the students on break, the band was able to spend a few weeks rehearsing.
As excited as Burnham is to be playing again, he says this tour — it kicked off in Buffalo Feb. 27 and concludes in Vancouver March 25 — won’t be like the old days. The band will be observing strict COVID safety protocols: No one will be allowed backstage or on the tour buses, and all-night debauchery — “We once spent a day and a half in a hotel in Amsterdam with Rockpile, and we held our own,” Burnham says, grinning proudly — is a thing of the past. (In yet another sign that he’s a grown-up, Burnham’s daughter, Ts, a musical theater major at Dean College, will also be singing backing vocals at a few shows.)
Going forward, the band has modest ambitions. Of course, if one of the many acts they’ve influenced — Rage Against the Machine or Red Hot Chili Peppers, say — ask them to open a couple of their upcoming shows, Gang of Four would happily oblige.
“We’d be sort of the cool grandpas,” says Burnham. “We know the world isn’t waiting for new songs from us, so this’ll be more like when we first started — doing it for ourselves.”