Gang Gang Dance Catching up with the acclaimed group as they release their first album in seven years

"It's a weird time. We're beyond Everything Time now." (Photo: Ari Macropolis)

It’s important to remember one fact about Gang Gang Dance: they are a band from Manhattan, not Brooklyn. One of the unique aspects of the experimental mavens that have been around since 2001 was that, despite having a similar trajectory and timeframe as their contemporaries, they were never actually associated with what some would consider the “scene” in Brooklyn. Gang Gang Dance were essentially doing their own thing while at the same time being a part of a larger group of New York-based musicians who incorporated the vast, tremulous sounds floating around the prior decade. Given Lizzi Bougatsos’s explosive drumming and fiery vocalization, alongside Brian DeGraw’s soundscapes and Josh Diamond’s ephemeral guitar work, Gang Gang Dance were always somewhat different, extremely distinguishable from their Brooklyn colleagues.

However, things can change. In their first release in seven years, Kazuashita — out today on 4AD — Gang Gang Dance take distinct steps that, while not wholesale rejecting the intense tendencies that were apparent even up to the venerable Eye Contact, nevertheless speak indifferently to them. They also impose a more narrative structure, one attached to the timeline at present and the topics surrounding it.

I spoke with DeGraw on many topics, including the state of New York City, the scene at large, how being detached can change one’s perspective, and the all important question: “Is it still Everything Time?” Of course, but not before embarrassing myself.


How are you doing?

Oh, I’m good. I just finished another interview, but I’m in the zone.

Oh def. I can dig that. With that said, I’ve been guessing a lot of interviewers have been asking what you’ve been doing the last 7 years. So instead of asking that, I’ll ask you: In the 7 years that have gone by, has Brooklyn sucked more or less?

[laughs] Oh man, I was away for a lot of it. I’m just getting reacquainted. Specifically Brooklyn?

Yeah, I feel like that that’s part of your band’s development…

Eh, I’m into Brooklyn. I actually like it right now. I’m gonna be positive about it. I really do. I mean, I live in Manhattan and always have. There’s this common misconception that we’re this “Brooklyn band…”

You know what? I just realized that I knew you were a Manhattan band, and I am so sorry for forgetting that detail.

No, no, it’s okay. But our music studio and our art studio are both in Brooklyn. So now I spend way more time in Brooklyn nowadays. It’s still a fair question. But I’ve been loving Brooklyn. That’s why I’ve brought up Manhattan, because this is still so new to me. I was never a Brooklyn guy before, so it’s hard to say. I’m kind of new to Brooklyn and digging it right now.

I guess, then, my follow-up question would be: Has Manhattan sucked more or sucked less?

Manhattan sucks more. I can definitely vouch for that. I’m not one of those guys who really hates New New York. But it’s just it was never so difficult to live here as it is now. Which is a bummer. The rent’s increased a lot because of the condos and everything. They just make it a much less welcoming place for working artists. It’s hard to be here now unless you happen to have a lucky place that’s rent-controlled.

So I can definitely say it sucks more. At the same time, there are good things popping up. Some of the New New York developments feel good, and there’s nicer food around and stuff. But in general, if I had a choice, I would prefer the late-90s version of Manhattan, definitely.

I can see that. It’s kind of the same with me here in Chicago. I was just walking by this one neighborhood this past weekend that 10 years ago I would’ve loved to live in when I was first here, and now it’s just too expensive to be around or live.

Yeah, it’s happening everywhere. It’s just the way it works. I mean, I don’t know what the cost of living is in Chicago, but here in Manhattan, it’s definitely gone way beyond my means. I don’t know how a lot of people that are doing it do it. I’m lucky right now in staying in a rent-controlled place. But I don’t know how the younger generation of people living in Manhattan do it, how they survive and make it work. I really have no clue about it.

But I’m not really bummed about it. I don’t mind leaving now. I’ll just move someplace else, I’m not opposed to that.

In that respect, Gang Gang Dance has been active for the better part of 17 years, and you yourself have been active for at least 25 years. Sorry if I stirred some emotions of oldness for you, but…

[laughs] I’m used to it now.

But do you feel that the conditions that allowed Gang Gang Dance to come into being in the first place would ever occur in today’s New York?

Tough one. I think the way music is made has changed more. It’s caused people to become more prone to make music on their laptops in their small apartments. So anywhere can accommodate that really. But I don’t see a lot of live bands that use live instruments. I see hardly any of that here. Honestly, we were trying to find another opener for our record release show, and we want there to be this live energy. But every one of our options was just a DJ or just synths with a backing track on their laptop. I’m not hating on that, but it’s definitely affecting in that sense. It’s extremely difficult.

How do you feel the scene has changed in that respect, then? At least since your absence post-Eye Contact?

Well, it’s always tough to differentiate between yourself aging vs. things changing in general. But I know that, when we put out our last record, I felt it represented a sort of tail end of a “scene” we were in. That’s when I felt it going away, really. And I dunno what has happened since then, because I kind of moved up into the mountains and I checked out for a while in some blissful reality here.

I wish I could do that.

It’s nice, I highly recommend it. [laughs]

But I think our prime in feeling part of a community, at least our own community — not trying to sound self-important here, I’m sure there are plenty of communities here in the city that feel great for the people involved in them — the peak of it was 2008. It was around when we released Saint Dymphna. Around then, there was a very thriving thing going on amongst ourselves and our peers: Animal Collective, Black Dice, White Magic… our friends’ bands, they were all very active and very much in this one circle that was going on. Everyone was tied to each other in a beautiful way.

Then, by the time we put out our last record, that felt like it was gone or leaving or at least on its way out. Now, in 2018, I hardly see any of that sense of community. I’m very confused about it. I’m not depressed about it, but it’s extremely different.

I can understand. You could be gone from the scene for about six months, and you walk back and are all “What the fuck just happened?”

[laughs] Yeah. I was living out in Ridgewood for a while before I came back to the city, and it was easier to see it out there than here. Younger people are just being pushed further and further away from where I live, so it was harder for me to see it. But when I was out there, you can see a little more of the sense of community in these clubs that are slightly divier and looser in places where a lot of good energy is happening. But again, the majority of it is based in laptop music and DJ culture. While it’s exciting, it’s not the same feeling. I like the live energy that comes from a live instrumentation setting more than just one person on stage. That type of music excites me the most, usually.

The scenes I’ve seen out there, they’re different.

Now, speaking of that mountain retreat, going into Kazuashita, what was the mental state that you were when you recognized it was time to return to the studio?

Well, I can’t speak for everyone because we were all in extremely different mental states. But as for myself, I had been up in the mountain for a while, and while I did make a record up there — I dunno, I’m not super happy with that record and I kind of pretend that doesn’t exist — I wasn’t making music. I was listening to tons of music and learning how to listen to music and feel it better. I tried to make a record, but the intentions were very off immediately when I finished it. I thought “Oh god, this is not me at all.”

But anyway, my head just had the itch. I spent a lot of time up there listening to music but not really making it, and it was kind of my own meditation retreat, like a five-year retreat where I was much more focused on piece of mind. I was also researching different things such as sustainable building techniques and such. I found a different kind of peace outside of music. Then, I don’t know, when it felt like that sort of mission was complete was when I started to feel like this desire to get together and do something again. So I was in a fairly good state when I decided to make this record. But there were other personal things with Lizzi [Bougatsos] and Josh [Diamond]. They were definitely not in the greatest personal mental states.

So it was really trippy in terms of status. Technically, it took us three years to make this record. But it wasn’t by any means three years of working on this record. It was more, three years ago we said “Let’s do it,” and then it was almost a year before we ended up starting working on it. So it was a lot of getting back into our personal mental groove before we even touched the musical groove.

One thing I did notice with Kazuashita is the absence of tension or buildup. The songs have a much more immediate payoff on a regular basis, whereas with RAWWAR, Saint Dymphna, and even Eye Contact, you were often building up the melody into something more intense or explosive. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

I think it was more subconscious than conscious. Drawing that line between the two was difficult. I think it had a lot to do with what I was referring to earlier, those five or so years where I was just learning to chill the fuck out. And that probably bled into the music. As a person, I’m much more content, and don’t need this explosion. I’m into the chill parts, and leave out the explosion, so much so that I don’t need it. I’m very happy riding this chill… frequency, this meditative state.

I strongly suspect you were trying to avoid the term “chill wave.”

[laughs] I almost said it, yes, with the intention of waves being literal in a music sense.

Another thing I noticed, too. You’ve always done guest vocalists from time to time. This time, here it’s less a singing guest and more just spoken word. And I mean, the thing that comes to mind for that in the way you handled this was when Brian Chippendale did a track using a normal mic instead of his usual kit-bashed telephone mic. The result was a much clearer message, given that the context that was based on an incident at a gas station where a man shot at a bunch of teenagers because their music was too loud. In the context of these and reading other interviews where you discussed “J-TREE” and later tracks in the album, there are definitely some political elements to this. Did you do this to project a clearer message?

In a way. But it’s not a direct message. There’s an underlying narrative that kind of built itself during the sequencing phase of the record. There are two of those spoken word bits that were added in to strengthen that narrative. There’s a narrative happening, and I wanted to add these layers to provide direction for it. But there are other reasons. The “J-TREE” was in there before the sequencing as an element of the song.

There’s another spoken word piece at the beginning of the title track. There are two different reasons that’s on there. That’s our close friend Oliver, who’s an artist. We’ve done a lot of collaborations with him in the past. That was rooted in a show that we played back in 2004. It was a live improvised show back in our early days. During the show, he was hiding behind one of our amplifiers with a microphone and reading from a list of colors in his pocket. I always loved that so much. I started remembering that when I was creating the intro to that track, and I just asked him to recreate that experience, and to add the name of the record at the end of the list. These things, I’d say they’re added to strengthen a narrative that I don’t expect everyone to be able to read clearly. But for me, it’s a very narrative-driven album as a whole.

In relation to strengthening the narrative, do you feel you’ve developed in some ways with this new record? And do you think previous records such as Saint Dymphna, Eye Contact, and even your record has played some role in evolving your sound? I feel like it’s very much a distinct direction from the intense moments of God’s Money.

Well, there are a lot of different reasons this record sounds the way it does. But before I elaborate on that, let me just say that everything we make is always an addition to the bigger picture. It’s always a learning experience, and it’s always adding a new layer of skill or reference or inspiration for the next thing. Whether it’s in terms of the way the songs are put together or even just production skills, it’s all just adding to whatever we already know.

As for the process, it’s a lot different in the sense that it wasn’t built with improvisations. Almost none of it was. There were a couple instances where that was the case. Still, in the past, 80-90% of what we’ve done has always started with improvisation as the first step: Being in a room together, playing live, improvising something, and then taking it from there. Figuring out what parts you can play and expand upon and eventually turn into a little composition that we can play live. But this record, we didn’t do that at all. Because we hadn’t played together in so long — we weren’t in a room together when we started. This was the first time we wrote something at home and brought it into the studio. We did that purely out of circumstance: It wasn’t a choice that was made, it was just how it had to happen.

At first it was a little bit of a bummer. But then I realized there was no need to be bummed about it. I got into the fact that it was a different process and I started being happy with the fact that were were sort of forced to approach it in a different way. I think that’s a really healthy thing to do. I learned a lot from that, actually, in the process of making this record. I definitely came away much stronger, and accepted the idea that it’s healthy to be forced out of your normal process. We were live so heavily in the way we made our records. Yeah, I don’t know, it was nice to do that.

I think an important question must be asked: Is it still Everything Time?

Wow. I think, I think it’s more than that. What’s beyond Everything Time? What do you call the next step beyond everything?

I have no idea, man.

Hah!

Like, you’re definitely right, it is more than that. It’s gotten overwhelming.

Yeah, definitely. Maybe omni-thing time? I don’t know what the hell it is.

Omniscence Time? Omnipresent Time…

But yeah. You know what I mean. There’s just something beyond everything now. It’s bizarre.

It’s everything overwhelming and being there all at once. Like a permanent state of sensory overload.

It is. But I hope that it’s all gonna implode, and there’ll be a calm. I think everyone’s hoping that. But the problem is, sometimes just hoping that happens isn’t enough. You have to take a little more action to make that happen. Still, that isn’t an easy thing to do.

Yeah, it’s sad. I just see so many people just say all these things, and then you’re just, “Why don’t you do something about it?” because they don’t really do anything.

Definitely. I mean, social media is the easiest place to see that madness happening, where everyone’s absolutely addicted, and there’s endless posts by social media addicts about being addicted. They can’t seem to put the phone down. I don’t see people trying that. I mean, I’m guilty of it as well, but I’m not going out buying a flip phone instead. I’m too scared I won’t be able to communicate with the rest of the world. It has to take some sort of mass movement.

It’s a weird time. We’re beyond Everything Time now.

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