Gang Gang Dance: Interview
“Rock ‘n’ roll has been happening for so long. It’s really nice to see it go.”
Gang Gang Dance have seen some shit. Since they began playing together in New York at the beginning of the decade, the city has undergone tremendous changes, physically as well as culturally. Then there are the more personal turbulences, ranging from the death of original member Nathan Livingston Maddox in 2002 to a freak fire that destroyed most of their equipment this past February. They don't seem taken aback or even particularly worried when I suggest that they might be cursed. They seem to accept it as part of the process.
When I met Josh Diamond, Brian DeGraw, and Lizzi Bougatsos at the now defunct Good World in New York's Chinatown, they weren't there to dwell on their losses, except to say that it just furthers their conviction that they are keyed in to bigger forces. Brian was even-handed and frank, Josh thoughtfully intense, while Lizzie was positively effervescent. The printed word cannot do her speech rhythms justice. Taken as a whole, they seemed a band of weathered, but far from jaded, genuine bohemian lifers. In our interview, they didn't try to hide their ambivalence to New York hype and internet-bred style-hoppers, but they also didn't try to contain their reverence and awe when discussing things like Eye from the Boredoms off the record (“He lives on a mountain, and I think he controls the weather.”)
Tell me a little bit about what happened to your instruments in Amsterdam.
Josh Diamond: Sure. We had just played our first show, at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, in what was to be a two-and-a-half week tour. The morning after the show, the club called the hotel I guess and said “There was a small fire in the club last night. Maybe...
Brian DeGraw: Maybe!
J: ...some of your stuff was damaged.” So we get down there, not too worried or anything, and all of our instruments were out in the parking lot. Everything was melted, and the stuff that wasn't melted was completely drenched (with water from the fire hoses).
B.We had asked to leave it elsewhere, actually, but the club told us this was the best space for it.
J: It was the only room to catch on fire.
B: They had put in a new fire detection system and that caused it (laughs incredulously).
J: A lot of what we lost was material. The most devastating loss was not being able to do the tour. It seemed like it was going to be our best tour in Europe. Shows were selling out, which is maybe not here nor there, but there was, like, an energy that was going to be really good... people were excited.
Lizzi Bougatsos: There was a momentum.
Is there a Gang Gang curse?
B: [makes drum beat with his hands on the table] Shit has always been pretty real for us. We've heard that a lot, but I don't think of it that way. I mean, it's definitely weird, but this wasn't necessarily a negative omen.
L: The curse thing — it's not a joke. There's nothing ironic about it. [laughs]
J: We had to stay in Amsterdam for a week while the insurance got all figured out, and I just sat there in the hotel in Amsterdam eating space cake. By the third day, I had gotten to a place where I just thought “If it's a curse, it's also a reminder of how we're doing the right thing.”
B: We are very sensitive to energy and we really believe that the universe reacts to people who are open to it.
L: And we're superstitious.
"We live in New York; this isn't some magical landscape. We're not in the desert tripping on mushrooms."
I'm not too shocked to hear that. What's really attractive about a lot of New York bands right now is this aura of mystery that surrounds them. I'm thinking you guys, White Magic, Animal Collective, et al. And yet, there's a certain cynicism that comes with being a musician or an artist in New York. How do you reconcile the more mundane, even grating aspects of New York life with the wild questing spiritual nature of your music?
B: Well I think that sort of implies that bands are pretending to be mystical, but I don't think that that's the case. We live in New York, this isn't some magical landscape. We're not in the desert tripping on mushrooms. I dunno, a lot of the bands that have those qualities... it has a lot to do with being open to music from all different parts of the world. Also, there's the thing where, because you are in this crazy urban environment, there's a longing to experience the opposite, to experience another realm of consciousness.
J: It's really just an openness to different experiences. If you're open to this different sort of experience, then it happens when it happens, you know? There are moments when you are connected. It's not like there is this other universe that we or any of the other groups you mentioned live in. It's just an openness to this other ideal.
Josh, I believe you once said something in an interview to the tune of “Fuck the Rolling Stones, we don't sit around thinking about rock's history.”
[Blank, searching stares]
Really, I read it on the internet and it was quite memorable. Well, even if I just made that up, do you think that the traditional idea of a rock band has finally become antiquated? Do you feel that Gang Gang Dance and maybe some of your contemporaries represent a new model?
B: The idea of rock 'n' roll being really fashionable, I don't really like that. Too much rock 'n' roll is about, like swagger and being dirty and cool. Maybe this new wave that you're talking about has a lot more to with listening and not looking. Also just musically... rock 'n'roll has been happening for so long. It's really nice to see it go.
L: There's really not a lot of musical moments in rock. It's not really very melodic, because there's just so much attached to it. It's just playing a game, so regimented and boring.
B: There are a lot of rock bands that we like, of course, but for a while with that whole rock 'n' roll resurgence thing however many years ago, The Strokes and stuff, that, that was really grim for us. The whole “I live in a city, I'm dirty” – there had to be something else, y'know?
Sometimes I feel like you guys don't necessarily see yourselves as a New York band. Would you ever relocate?
B: Yeah, actually. I feel like we all have more and more a longing to leave, for environment reasons, to be in a place that's more serene. We've been here for so long, it's not so easy to just leave.
J: The pull is getting stronger in a way. I've been here for almost 15 years, and I feel like I've done my time here. I know how to live in New York. I think the band is almost at this place where we can function anywhere. I don't think that was necessarily true a couple years ago. The city has changed a lot — there's all these obvious things — we do have a pull to go some place where you can wake up [where] it's warm and nice.
L: We're definitely into tropical climates. Theres's something very attractive about putting yourself in nature. We do visit a lot of places that are really appealing. I haven't played in Antarctica or Norwary, but the idea of being surrounded by ice, watching the light reflect, being in a place where nature subverts your whole surroundings... I would like to go places like that for a little bit. But we're sort of feeling the Joshua Tree at the moment.
You guys have been together for a while, huh.
B: It's been eight or nine years
L: We've got to do something for the ten-year anniversary!
In that time, more and more bands have begun really embracing rhythm and fat beats. Stuff like dub, hip-hop, house music have become quite common as influences in “indie” rock. Do you think it's good that bands are branching out, or is it something you react against?
B: Both, actually. I think it's a good thing in general, but I think the quality of a huge percentage of it, because of its popularity, is really low. That's a personal thing. I just get annoyed with trends. In actuality, it's probably a good thing. I have a really short patience when it comes to trendy movements. Theres'a lot of really nice music coming out, but the fact that everyone is all of a sudden so into this type of music makes me a little bit suspicious.
L: I think Timbaland kind of started it, at least the Middle Eastern thing. I kind of grew up listening to a lot of rap; I grew up on Long Island with cars with big sound systems, like Eazy-E [laughs]…and at the same time, we would go see Fugazi shows.
J: Trends are difficult because of the internet. Everyone can be doing the same thing at once so easily. It happens so fast, sometimes the special qualities get lost. This trend stuff is hard to navigate because we may be almost damaging ourselves by always trying militantly to do our own thing.
"Ten years later, we have a practice space and everyone sounds like Animal Collective. Like, they literally listen to the album in the space. You just have to be smart about filtering things!"
But doesn't that seem a more sustainable way of operating, particularly in your guys' case?
J: That's true, but we get lumped in, like we're associated with this trend that's going on now…
B: But we've all been sorting of doing it the whole time..
L There's also cool, positive things about the internet. Like six years ago, you would never have a Gang Gang Dance song mixed up with an Aaliyah song in a proper mash-up on the internet; that wouldn't have happened.
B: It's a tough call, this whole cross-pollinization of different genres, with people making different music being into each other finally. That's definitely an awesome thing. But I think the results are pretty bad most of the time [laughs]. I think once everyone gets over the fact that “whoa, I'm into African music.” Once people get over that and it all fuckin melts into one thing, then shit is gonna get really good. Once everyone gets over trying to be something that they're not and actually start on their own things
L: You just have to be playing your own thing, making your own sound. Like we did have a practice space with Animal Collective and Black Dice a long time ago. There were so many other bands in that practice space: TV on the Radio, Interpol even. But everyone was doing their own thing. Now, ten years later we have a practice space and everyone sounds like Animal Collective. Like, they literally listen to the album in the space. You just have to be smart about filtering things!
J: In a way, it's hard to do now more than ever because so much information is at your fingertips. People reach for the trends because they want to fit in to what's going on. I understand that impulse. I don't think it's that negative, but it's only part of the way there. You have to go a step further.
B: It's going to have to be taken to such a different level, where you can't even differentiate. Everyone will just be doing everything and it will probably the most interesting music ever made. Where it's not about influence any more, everything will just be one thing.
L: Maybe 2010 will be the year.
J: It better happen fast, because, what, it's 2012 when the world's ending [according to the Mayan calendar]? Maybe that's when it will happen, when the calendar expires all of the disparate elements...
B: That's when Mayan hip-hop is gonna come up! [general laughter]
Until then, what can we look forward to from Gang Gang Dance? I heard you guys have been back in the studio, and also that you may have an EP coming out.
B: Yeah, we recorded [the EP] at Southern Studios [in London]. I heard the label might be shutting down, but then I just got an email saying it's set to be released. But it's just a 25-minute short thing.
L: That's really one of my favorite things we've made. Brian edited it together. I'm really proud of it.
J: Brian did some magic on it.
L: Brian's a real DJ!
J: Brian's DJing — it's one of those experiences where it hits you on all levels. His mixing is really multi-dimensional. Some things hit you lyrically; it's really three dimensional. I've had some magical — it's similar [hushes, mock surreptitiously] to an acid trip, where I've gone to some really beautiful place in my mind. I've been to the club; all of a sudden, it's 8 in the morning, and I'm dancing alone feeling so good about life. [laughs]
Brian has a lot of skill with taking things we've recorded and making new things out of them. Which I think will be a major part of the next record. But it's hard to say; we're just getting our feet wet. One thing that's important to me [is] the sense of a journey through something, and also different states of mind and vibes. We don't want to make all this in-your-face stuff, or all super mellow stuff. I think it has to weave in and out of territories.
L: I was really feelings this sort of simpler, Arctic kind of vibe. Almost a sort of ghetto-Arctic vibe. Now I'm sort of feeling like the vocals are going to be really interweaving, pop out a little more, in a really dirty way. That's kind of what I'm envisioning for my part at least.