Gang Gang Dance: Feral Art Rockers

Publish date:

Approaching tribalism with a modernist bent, feral art rockers Gang Gang Dance craft a mind-bending masterpiece. Often running on pure spontaneity, the band’s crowd-shaking live shows are nothing short of transcendental. But since their 2001 inception, the New York City-based art-rock outfit–whose style is a forward-thinking recontextualization of tribal rhythms with a post-punk ethos–has struggled to capture this kind of magic on record.

The long gap between their last LP, 2004’s God’s Money, and October’s Saint Dymphna (their new ode to the patron saint of victims of mental illness, epilepsy, and incest) illustrates the band’s desire to correct that incongruity. Between long stretches of touring, performing at this year’s Whitney Biennial, and handling the East Coast arm of The Boredoms’ 88 BoaDrum spectacle last August, the group spent two-and-a-half years shaping a new release (scrapping more than a few completed projects along the way) before they felt satisfied with an outcome.

Mechanical Animals
Three months before the album’s release, Gang Gang Dance vocalist Lizzi Bougatsos, keyboard player Brian DeGraw, and guitarist Josh Diamond are sitting at a café in the far southeastern tip of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In jeans and t-shirts, the guys blend in, but Bougatsos sticks out dazzling, even in her everyday black streetwear.

DeGraw and Bougatsos both live nearby, and their portion of the downtown city grid is almost exactly where the bohemian enclave meets with neighboring Chinatown, an intersection of abrupt cultural collision. Somehow, this odd area provides an ideal backdrop to discuss Gang Gang’s music. The band, which also features drummer Tim DeWitt, has a complicated aesthetic that lives at a similarly strange junction where contrasting notions of primitivism, futurism, impulsiveness, and art-making share the same space.

Gang Gang is often mentioned in the same breath as leftfield acts like Black Dice and Animal Collective. Like those groups, they approach their music–an amalgam of insistent percussion, experimental rock, and electronics–in an untamed manner. That is, creating sounds on the spot rather than considering them beforehand. “When I think about how our band started, we were really just, like, feral,” explains DeGraw, speaking contemplatively in hushed tones and drawing frequently from a pack of Camel Lights. “Not even composing songs, just making a racket.”

Plenty of bands make noise, but Gang Gang Dance shapes gothic phantoms and undulating trance-like songs out of this loose, spontaneous format. “I think we make music intuitively,” says Diamond, the liveliest and most effusive of the bunch. “We don’t set out to make things with specific intent, and we’ve been playing together for such a long time that there’s a naturalness to the way we play.”

The band’s philosophy toward sound might stem from its artistic leanings: Both Degraw and Bougatsos are accomplished visual artists. Each has shown at galleries throughout New York such as James Fuentes, ATM, and Deitch Projects; DeGraw’s artwork–which ranges from pen-and-ink portraits to sprawling multimedia–has even appeared at the MoMA.

“How we make music and the way that I make visual art is very similar,” says DeGraw. “It’s very improvised. I don’t sit down with specific ideas. Each field connects to the other. I can find certain shapes or colors as I make music that fit into making visual art and vice versa,” he says.

Bougatsos, who arrives late from a photo shoot and possesses a capricious spirit (she’s a “free sailor,” her bandmates playfully chide), agrees. “I’ve even used pieces from, like, an old drum head that fell apart for my art. There’s a language between the two things.”

Loose Joints
If art and music are one and the same, then Gang Gang employs a wide array of paintbrushes. In addition to traditional rock instruments, the group uses a bevy of electronic equipment on stage: synths, pedals, samplers, and drum pads, to name just a few. Even with all of these gadgets running at once, their sound is surprisingly organic.

“I try my best to not just press buttons,” explains DeGraw, who handles electronic percussion as well as keys. “Not to have too many sequenced things, and still be very physical with things. I have drum machines but instead of programming beats, I play them physically. There’s still an element that can fall apart, a looseness.”

Diamond, whose guitar is connected to a web of sonic manipulators, concurs. “I feel like [our live setup] has the push and pull of being a human. That’s always been part of our sound and we’re not really interested in losing that.”

In part because of its off-the-cuff nature, what the band is able to accomplish on stage can’t always be reproduced in a studio. DeGraw admits that, for Gang Gang Dance, “recording and playing live are drastically different.”

“Having them be so drastically different is frustrating at times,” chimes in Diamond. “Because the live stuff, I think, is where we really work together. It’s something where we’re in the moment more. Recording can get frustrating if you get too precious about it. That’s not the point of it, anyway. That’s not why we make music. We make music to make something beautiful, to make something natural that is our own.”

All Saints' Day
One of the reasons it took so long to create Saint Dymphna is Gang Gang’s atypical recording style. Unlike most other groups who arrive at the studio with half-formed song ideas, this group does everything on the spot through a deliberate process of practicing and editing. “We kind of chisel away at things slowly,” explains Diamond. “It’s kind of like sculpting things out of something spontaneous.”

“Sometimes we’ll just jam on a part, improvised,” says DeGraw. We’ll have a vibe going, and we always tape everything, all of our practices. We go back to those tapes and listen to the sweet spots and then the next practice maybe try to recreate that one spot, then slowly start building songs from there. It’s never preconceived.”

Gang Gang made several albums’ worth of material over the course of this two-year recording period, though most of it was shelved or reworked. The songs that make up Saint Dymphna were composed in one final month, and they are the band’s loosest and most accessible yet. With an unrestrained tunefulness, Saint Dymphna examines a variety of genres–dub, hip-hop, and ambient among them–but remains remarkably coherent. It’s one of those rare experimental albums that gets better over time, remaining both wholly captivating and endlessly listenable.

While there were no preliminary sketches for Saint Dymphna, the band will concede one bit of planning. “We did set out to make something that sounded closer to our live shows. Because our performances evolve, we’re working towards these bigger sounds, and we tried to get some of that into the recording,” says Diamond. On that front, they’ve succeeded immensely–the album surely matches the quality of Gang Gang Dance’s stage show. But most astonishing is that this accomplished record grew wholly out spontaneity–that its many moments of depth and originality were, in many ways, totally unplanned. “It just happened that way,” shrugs DeGraw.

The album’s most surprising moment comes in the form of “Princes,” a grime-infused cut featuring U.K. rapper Tinchy Stryder. “We had this amazing tape of pirate radio shows from London when grime first started coming out. He was just one of the mind-blowing kids on there,” says DeGraw of Stryder. “[The song] somehow got orchestrated when we were in London last year–these kids were aware that we were fans of his and brought him in to the studio. I like how it’s kind of really strange when it pops up on the record.”

Bougatsos is also in fine form on the record, using her signature yelp to add subtle dashes of color and drama to SaintDymphna’s elaborate tracks. On “Holy Communion,” an interstellar banger, she’s exhilarating, weaving in and out of the deep synths and heavy bass bumps. On slower tracks like the narcotic “Blue Nile,” her vocals resonate with melancholy, revealing an emotional depth absent on previous Gang Gang releases. “For me, [singing is] very emotional,” she says. “Ethiopian singers always identify with me. They’re all about emotion. The sadder you are, the more beautiful you are. That’s what they think is beautiful, and that’s true emotion.”

Bang Bang Glance
A piece-by-piece look at the equipment that comprises the band’s elaborate stage setup.

Josh Diamond
Roland GR synth guitar
Axon AX 100 guitar-to-MIDI converter
Roland V-Synth sampler/synth
Korg Triton synth
E-Mu Sampler – E4XT rack
Roland GR33 floor unit with guitar synth
KC-550 keyboard amp
Roland Jazz Chorus guitar amp
Boss RC 20 looper pedal
Boss delay pedal
Jim Dunlop Cry Baby wah wah pedal
Rat distortion pedal
Spring reverb rack
Ibanez delay rack unit

Lizzi Bougatsos
Roto toms
Digitech vocal pedals
Boss pitchshift/delay pedal
Various percussion
Carnival horn

Brian Degraw
Broken Yamaha keyboard
Korg MiniKorg synth
Korg Electribe EMX synth
Roland SP404 sampler with mic
Yamaha drum pad
Pioneer CD-J
Eventide Harmony delay box
Boss pitchshift/delay pedal
Behringer Euromixer
Gallien-Krueger amp heads with 4x10 cabinets