Hugo Burnham’s Endicott College faculty profile doesn’t mention anything about Burnham opening up for the Buzzcocks in the ’70s. It doesn’t talk about Burnham mentoring REM or a song getting banned by the BBC or refusing to play “Top of the Pops” because the venerable British TV show wanted to censor Burnham’s band.
Burnham is a professor of visual and performing arts at the North Shore college. He’s also the drummer for Gang of Four, the incendiary British punk-funk-dance-noise rock band that burst out of Leeds in 1978. Lately, he’s seen those two distinct worlds laid right on top of one another.
“The band was all here at Endicott in January rehearsing when the students were away,” Burnham said. “The college has a fantastic band room and studio in the arts center and we were using that solidly for two-and-a-half weeks.”
The “we” came together around a series of reissues from Matador Records and includes Burnham, fellow Gang of Four founder and singer Jon King, ’80s bassist Sara Lee, and new guitarist David Pajo. While the lineup has absurd chops, purists (or snobs) might balk at the idea of the band touring without guitarist Andy Gill – a strange, singular talent who passed away two years ago. Burnham is well-aware that Gill is irreplaceable, but Gang of Four don’t think of Pajo as a replacement.
“We said to David, ‘You are playing Gang of Four songs, you are playing Andy’s parts, do all the studying, get deep into them to find out what his focus was on each song, but play them your way,’” Burnham said. “We’re not a tribute band. We are now Gang of Four.”
“The songs don’t sit in aspic,” he added. “The songs are entirely recognizable but they are now.”
Now matters with this band. Modern acts from Sleater-Kinney to Franz Ferdinand, St. Vincent to Cage the Elephant have lifted bits from Gang of Four’s style, sound and swagger. Much of rock seems to still be trying to catch up with what Gang of Four did 40 years ago.
Pajo, who has played with everyone from Slint to Will Oldham to Zwan, will help fire up the urgency in old tunes.
“Andrew was a brilliant, brilliant guitar player so we couldn’t just get any good guitarist,” Burnham said. “David wasn’t obvious but as soon as he started playing stuff and sending it to us, there was no competition. He’s great.”
While the local show at Somerville’s Crystal Ballroom on Sunday is sold out, not all the dates are. The band knows this lineup will have to win people over – to the consternation of other members, Gill played out for nearly a decade as Gang of Four without any other founders.
“If we had a legacy as a live act in the ’70s and ’80s, it was, for want of a better world, fabulous,” Burnham said with a little laugh. “We hope this initial run will bring us back to the live legacy we had back in the day and we will be able to continue touring over the next couple of years.”
“On and off, obviously,” he added. “Because I have a real job that matters to me and is important.”
And it’s one that he’ll do for the next month via the WiFi on the tour bus. Then maybe some weekend gigs in the fall and during school holidays. Basically, he’ll tour around the academic calendar just like one of his students might, setting a good example of how to balance a life as an artist and an academic.
“I’ll say this, I spend a lot more time in class than I ever did,” he said with a chuckle.
For details on the tour and Matador re-issues, go to matadorrecords.com.
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