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Gang Gang Dance’s Brian DeGraw Says the Band’s Music Is a Book Without a Title

Welcome back to our interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft. Join our weekly email newsletter to get more insights like this into how professional artists are making music, and how you can apply those lessons to your own music.

Gang Gang Dance is a longstanding New York City institution of dance music experimentation and innovation. Helmed for over 15 years by singer Lizzi Bougatsos and multi-instrumentalist Brian DeGraw (as well as founding drummer Tim DeWit, no longer with the group), they’re a shapeshifting project that never stops looking forward for the sake of fusion.

As a group that has always skirted the lines of pop music, they’ve never really guaranteed their audiences resolution, or at least a comfortable ride to get there. Making heavy use of electronic vocal processing, wild and unpredictable synthesized sonics, distortion, and extended, house-influenced dance jams, the music is somehow the perfect combination of bliss and anxiety. This places them quite perfectly within the cohort of bands they came up with in and around New York in the mid-2000s — bands like Animal Collective, Black Dice, and Psychic Ills.

But their latest record, Kazuashita, is a bit different. It focuses more on that pop element, it’s more defiantly “hi-fi,” softer around the edges and sweeter on the tongue, yet no less weird, unpredictable, and at times, over the top. The lead-off single “J-TREE” features a recording of Shiyé Bidzííl of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at the protests for the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, which concludes in an epic pronouncement of buffalo running across the land.

We sat down with Brian DeGraw to pick his brain about some of this stuff. Hope you enjoy the conversation. Gang Gang Dance’s new album, Kazuashita, is out now via 4AD.

– Jeremy Young

Interview by Max Alper

Right off the bat, I’d love to talk about the musical landscape in greater New York City. Gang Gang Dance has had a seminal career in this city going back almost twenty years. What are your thoughts on the current state of experimental music in the city compared to when GGD was first making its mark in the early 2000s?

I definitely think experimental music was more abundant in NYC in the early 2000s. In that era, it was really thriving and there were so many shows and venues that would accommodate music that was more free and spontaneous, and these venues didn’t seem to need any sort of “proof” that you could draw a certain amount of people. It was just happening all over the city and money was much less of an issue in general.

Now, with the cost of living in this city, music can’t quite exist in the same way. That is not to say that there’s no experimental music happening now, there’s actually quite a bit, but it lives in a much different climate that feels a lot more controlled. Occasionally you can still come across happenings where the spirit is very free and open. It’s a really glorious feeling when it happens because of how rare it is nowadays.

How does this record differ from past albums?

I hope that every record we have ever made differs from the ones that preceded it.

This one, in particular, was made under a completely different working process for us. It involved a lot less improvisation and was constructed a bit more like a painting…. lots of adding and then erasing… adding and erasing.

It’s true that Gang Gang Dance has always been one of those projects that has tended to veer away from being categorized as one specific genre or style. Do you put any mind towards the labels you’ve been given, such as “psychedelic” in the early days and more recently “worldbeat,” or is that not even on your radar?

I don’t think about that at all really. People will apply whatever words they want to describe music. Sometimes the words that get used make sense to me and other times they don’t. At the end of the day, my main concern is that we don’t sound like anyone else. That has always been really important to us.

We have never wanted to make music that is obvious or referential. From the beginning, it has always been about just trying our best to tap into our inner selves and whatever we are feeling at given moments in time. Our outside influences are so vast that I think it would be difficult to pinpoint any one certain genre that permeates our sound.

“I think the mission is to remain truly original — not following a mainstream trend, nor following an underground trend — and to try our best to do all that while making something sincere and spiritually heartfelt.”

While the sound of the project has certainly shifted throughout the years, common elements of drone, live electronics, and improvisation are present throughout your discography. Taking all this into consideration, how would you describe the mission of Gang Gang Dance to a new listener in 2018?

I think the mission is to remain truly original — not following a mainstream trend, nor following an underground trend — and to try our best to do all that while making something sincere and spiritually heartfelt. I think people often connect with our music, particularly through the live shows, without really knowing exactly why. I like this reaction because I don’t ever want the intent to be surface level. I always hope for our music to hit people in places that they aren’t completely familiar with inside themselves.

Could you take us through your process of approaching the production of a Gang Gang Dance record from scratch? How much of it would you say relies on live group collaboration versus multitrack overdubbing?

The majority of our records have been made starting with live improvisation. This is really the first record we’ve ever made that involved anyone bringing pre-written ideas into the studio. Actually, I don’t think that has ever happened before — not even one song, in fact — so this was definitely a drastically different starting point.

In the past, the process was: improvise live for hours on end and tape it all, then go back through the recordings and find sweet spots that we want to re-create or expand upon. We do that until they become vaguely structured, do a proper studio recording of those structures, then take it into another stage of editing and tweaking and processing and mixing.

For Kazuashita, we pretty much skipped the improvisational starting point and just started building off of these rough skeletal ideas that were written on a Korg sequencer. From there, we just began the painting process: editing, overdubbing, erasing things, playing with structure through more editing, and so on and so forth.

Kazuashita has a seriously ethereal pop sensibility carried throughout it, with undeniably catchy bangers right out the gate like “J-TREE” and “Lotus.” Outside of experimental and electronic music, what are some of the pop influences that directly impacted the creation of this record?

For this one, I think the pop element was something that was seeping into the process a lot more than usual. Some of the poppier influences I can think of off hand were the Cure’s Disintegration, the B-side of Bowie’s Low, all Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Mary Margaret O’Hara, and Prefab Sprout.

But there were also plenty of less pop-oriented influences. Some other music I found myself thinking about a lot were recordings by Bismillah Kahn, Alice Coltrane’s Turiya Sings, William Basinski, Scott Walker, Sussan Deyhim, Phillip Glass with Alan Ginsberg, and Mad Professor.

“My hope is that the narrative reads like a book without a title, in a language you only know a few words of. It’s more about the suggestion of a story through feeling, rather than any type of overt or direct plot.”

In the single, “J-TREE,” there is a field recording from an interview with a protester from the Standing Rock demonstrations in 2016. Is there a political narrative behind this record, or is the priority to leave that open to the interpretation of the listener?

It’s really up to the listener. To me, there is an underlying narrative, but it’s one that is not designed to be shouted at the listener. It’s intentionally blurred. My hope is that the narrative reads like a book without a title, in a language you only know a few words of. It’s more about the suggestion of a story through feeling, rather than any type of overt or direct plot; a dreamlike and drifting walk through the current political and cultural landscape of the times we are living in.

Beyond your diverse discography, Gang Gang Dance is known for its unique, one-off live actions, including a performance at the Whitney Biennial, as well as several collaborations with Boredoms. Are there any plans for Gang Gang Dance to present more unique performances like this in the near future?

Absolutely. We often have much more interest in these types of performances than anything else. GGD started in art galleries and that is still where we feel the most comfortable. I don’t think we have ever felt much like a “band” really. We just sort of fell into that existence. I am very much interested in one-off performances that are site-specific and designed for certain types of environments.

At Soundfly, we use the term “Incorrect Music” to describe the things an artist does that might go against people’s assumptions about what constitutes the “right” way to do something, but which yield exciting and unique results. Is there anything about your music might you consider to be “incorrect”?

Yes. Using your definition as a guide I would say that the majority of our existence has been fairly “incorrect.”

What else is next for GGD?

Right now we are just doing a little touring and still hashing out live versions of some of the songs from Kazuashita. We are also doing some live scoring to a dance performance at MoMA for their exhibition on the Judson Dance Theater and slowly putting together the pieces of a film version of the album that involves several collaborators.

Total fanboy question: Will we ever see another 77 Boadrum in New York?

I think that’s up to the numerical system more than anything else!

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Max Alper
Max Alper

Max Alper is a sound artist, educator, and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the founder and executive director of Sonic Arts For All, a non-profit start-up whose mission is to bring music technology education to underserved communities throughout New York City. He is also an adjunct faculty member of the Brooklyn College Center for Computer Music.