MAKING CONTACT: Interview with BRIAN DEGRAW of GANG GANG DANCE
The following piece/interview was originally written/conducted way back in March and was done so for an upstart print publication that, to my understanding, was to be distributed Nationally. At that time, there wasn’t a ton of information available regarding Gang Gang Dance’s latest album, Eye Contact, or pertaining exactly to the future plans of the group creating it. Since my interview, the album has been released to critical acclaim, Gang Gang has already performed their scheduled slot at the Animal Collective-curated ATP event in Minehead, UK, and the band has even announced a slew of upcoming US tour dates. Although I wasn’t compensated monetarily for the work that I had put into this piece, I was still happy to contribute freely to a new publication, welcoming the opportunity to collaborate on an outside project and to help in its fruition as it grew into whatever it is destined to become. As for publishing rights, no contracts were signed and, beyond the initial contact with the publicist -whose contact information I had already possessed- all follow up, research, editing, additional contact, and writing was handled by myself.
It would have been great to be the first to provide some “scoops” regarding the album, but it takes a lot to get a new magazine off of the ground and that includes time. I, of course, never posted the interview here on Monster Fresh, so as not to conflict with the publication that it was originally intended to run in. A couple of months passed, without any real updates. I sent an email inquiring about progress with the project, but never heard back. Eventually, I heard that the magazine had gone into print, but still can’t figure out how to obtain a copy locally or where to instruct anyone to pick one up in their local areas. I haven’t even seen a copy in person, myself. My hopes were to help promote the project and alert everyone to it’s existence, but my main goals with writing are to compile information and to make it as available as possible. Of course, I was also hoping to see my work in print (which it apparently is) and to try and avoid recklessly burning another bridge (which I’m openly risking by posting this now). As someone who operates an outlet of their own, I’m a firm believer in keeping those who contribute in the loop with the progress of their work. This is especially true when they aren’t even receiving any real compensation for the work that they provide, other than the pride, outlet, and audience they are creating for. In my particular situation, I didn’t need the connections or the forum. I was/am proud of this piece but, as it stands now, I feel as if I’ve put my energy into something that someone else has locked into a box somewhere and have no real understanding of what is happening with it. I wish no ill will towards the publication and hope to see it surface and do well at some point but, after this much time has passed with consistently little or no response, I feel that it’s time to put this interview up for those that want to read it and have, up until now, been unable to do so. Like I said, this was originally conducted a full 4-months ago, at this point, but I tried to construct it in a manner that would allow the information to remain consistently relevant. I hope that endeavor proves to be successful.
as always, thanks for reading.
INTERVIEW w/BRIAN DEGRAW
It’s been a full decade since Brian Degraw, Tim Dewit, Lizzie Bougatsos, Nathan Maddox, and Josh Diamond first came together to form Manhattan’s experimental music collective, Gang Gang Dance, under the temporary moniker of “Death & Dying”. By the turn of the millennium, their individual involvements with such acts as Cranium, Actress, Russia, Jackie-O Motherfucker, and SSAB Songs (with filmmaker Harmony Korine), had already made them regular fixtures in New York City’s art and music scenes, respectively. However, it wasn’t until they began working with each other that the members truly found a vehicle that would allow them to both, materialize their full potentials, as well as to expand organically. Drawing on a range of influences and backgrounds in the DJ-ing, music, film, performance, and visual arts worlds, Gang Gang Dance has continually challenged the boundaries of what actually constitutes a “rock band” and music in general. Everything from “Ambient”, “Psychedelic”, and “noise” to “Eastern”, “Tribal Futuristic”, and “Electronica” have all been used to describe the sounds extruded by these auditory shapeshifters. Then, there are others who have been known to refer to the group, quite simply, as “cursed”. This inability to easily categorize their music goes hand in hand with the chameleonic nature of Gang Gang Dance but, if there are any words that could adequately embody the nature of the group, “experimentation”, “evolution”, and “resiliency” would have to be 3 of them.
Just prior to the release of their self-titled studio debut, Nathan Maddox was struck by lightning and killed. This tragedy only worked to strengthen their resolve as a unit and, since then, Nathan’s voice and/or eyes have appeared on every one of the subsequent GGD releases. When God’s Money dropped in 2005, it was a critical breakthrough for the band. Their process of creating songs by pulling segments from their practice tapes of free-form improvisations hadn’t changed, but the songs on it were widely considered to be more “accessible”. In reality, they were just becoming more adept at harnessing and refocusing the musical thunderstorms that they’ve been known for conjuring up. The heightened anticipation for their next release seemed to create a new level of pressure for a band who had never been accustomed to creating with any outside expectations. 2007 brought the 3-song EP, Rawwar and an abstract DVD/CD titled, Retina Riddim, but their full-length was being delayed by inner conflicts, alternate responsibilities, and a lack of funds; forcing them to play one-off shows just to finance more studio time. Tim Dewitt decided that he didn’t feel like playing drums anymore, opting to quit the group and focus on his production work as “Dutch E. Germ”. He was present for a music-based/performance-art piece that GGD presented for the Whitney Museum’s 2008 Biennial but, after that, he was pretty much gone. That June, Dewitt was also shot and temporarily, maimed as he drunkenly stumbled in on a bar robbery in his Michigan hometown. He was eventually replaced with drummer, Jesse Lee. That August the group went on to conduct the Brooklyn section of the Boredom’s massive percussion extravaganza, 88 Boadrum. Multiple albums worth of material was scrapped and, when St. Dymphna finally did surface in September of 08, the majority of the music that it contained had only been composed within the last month and a half prior to it’s release. It was a bit more dance-oriented than their previous efforts, but it also showed the band garnering even more rave reviews and finding themselves on multiple “best of the year” lists. While addressing the sizeable gap between releases, GGD announced that they would begin work on their next album the following January but, in February, the majority of their gear was destroyed in an electrical fire at a club in Amsterdam. The room that was storing their equipment was the only one in the entire venue to be effected by the disaster. Ironically enough, the fire was also reportedly caused by a recently installed smoke detector. That was over two years ago.
In an age where the musical climate tends to flip on itself like a Jacob’s ladder, the attention span of consumers is shorter than ever, and so many acts are concerned with keeping their faces in the public eye, Gang Gang Dance doesn’t seem to mind slipping into the background, working in solitude, and allowing themselves to be rediscovered every few years so. Last year saw the band successfully requesting royalties from Florence and the Machine -due to copyright infringement- and releasing the Kamakura EP, which consisted of a single 15 min. track that was originally recorded in 2007. Other than that, however, they’ve been fairly quiet. After 3 years, little has been announced regarding their latest follow-up, EYE CONTACT, except for the May 9th release date and a sprawling 11 ½ minute track called “Glass Jar” streaming on the front page of GangGangDance.com. While they are as often associated with the prominently mixed, up-front rhythms of early post-punk counterparts like ESG and Liquid Liquid, as they are with the gritty, layered waves of electro static delivered by contemporaries like Animal Collective and Black Dice (both of which they once shared a practice space with), “Glass Jar” exhibits a more calculated, fluid, and tantric Gang Gang Dance than ever before. In an attempt to discover more about the upcoming album, the process behind it’s creation, and what the future holds for the group, we went right to the source and reached out to keyboardist/visual-artist/founding member, Brian Degraw, himself.
DEAD C: The latest promotional photos that I’ve seen feature 5 people. Is artist/photographer, Taka Imamura now a member and, if so, how did that come about?
BRIAN DEGRAW: Yeah. Taka is a member for as long as he wants to be. We have known him since we moved to NYC. He has been a constant figure and very dear friend and inspiration to all of us for many years. A few years ago, he started traveling with us on tour and, once we experienced that, it was very hard to imagine doing anything without him. Taka is pure magik… absolutely one of the greatest, kindest, and most centered spirits I have ever encountered in this life.
I understand that Jesse melded incredibly well into the group, but Tim was such an integral part of the development, before Gang Gang Dance even had a name. What was that transitional point like for you when he first decided that he didn’t want to play drums anymore and left to work on other projects?
I’m not totally comfortable talking about this, because Tim’s exit as an active member wasn’t exactly the most pleasant or well defined experience. But I will say that he definitely was an extremely integral part of the group from day one… or even before day one. Tim and I played music together for years and years in various bands and projects and without that experience we wouldn’t be who we are today. I am really, really happy to see him working on his own music and helping others with his production skills and amazing ears. He is unbelievably gifted.
Whenever I read about Nathan’s death, there’s an almost mystical quality surrounding it, as if that lightning bolt eternally burned his spirit into the emulsion of the band. Besides the obvious unification through tragedy, how has that incident permanently affected or fueled the spirit behind the band itself?
Nathan’s ascension was both tragic and glorious but, as strange as it may sound, I would have to say that the glory outweighs the tragedy. I mean, the obvious element of tragedy was that we lost the physical being that we loved so much and we were no longer able to spend time with him here on earth, but the glory of it I think is much stronger. Nathan is a true Shaman and his fascination with the otherworldly elements of this universe is definitely what led him into the sky. In fact, he often would climb to the tops of trees or to the roofs of tall buildings and ask the sky to take him. So, really I am happy that he achieved this ascension with such grace and determination. The poetic elements of his life and death are so unbelievably powerful that I always find it hard to explain within the context of one question in an interview. His story really deserves volumes upon volumes. But yeah, Nate is a driving force within our group and seemingly within the lives of every single person that knew him. I feel him all the time and I look to him for knowledge and guidance… and he does indeed answer back.
With anyone else, I wouldn’t even bother asking about the meaning behind an album title. However, I’m aware that the last 2 full-lengths (Gods Money and St. Dymphna) were given their titles for very specific reasons and I am curious to know why the name “Eye Contact” was chosen for this upcoming release.
Eye Contact came about for a few different reasons. The term got stuck in my head after a night of practice a while back. We had been rehearsing upstate at the house we have been renting. Taka’s dog, “Baby” was up here with him sleeping on one of the beds in the room where everyone crashes. In the morning, Jesse woke up first and opened his eyes to find Baby just opening her eyes and they shared a moment of strong eye contact. So I was thinking about how nice the term is. I liked the way the words looked together and I liked the multitude of thoughts that it evoked. And the visuals I get when I imagine the term are close to me because all of our artwork has always been centered around Nathans eyes; he had the most amazing eyes. So there was a connection there somewhere.
But the decision was made final after hearing the completed mix of the record. In the past, I think much of the music we have made seems to evoke the idea of escaping into the ether and, when we perform on stage, it has often been about closing our eyes and drifting off into this dreamscape. With this record, it sounded different to me and I didn’t equate it with that closing of the eyes. When I heard it completed, I imagined very much the opposite… like this one was more about having your eyes wide open and confronting the music and the environment very directly… staring the listener in the eye.
For a group that places importance on the sequencing and album structure to create one complete and fluid product, how difficult is it to select one simple piece for use as a “SINGLE” and how well do you think that “Glass Jar” represents the album as a whole?
Well… I don’t think we have it in us to think in terms of “singles” really. A record label always needs a song to put out there initially before the whole album drops. Its nothing more than logistics really. I’m happy to have used “Glass Jar” as that song though, mostly because it’s the opposite of a single. I think it’s actually a really good representation of how we feel about all those logistics and where we stand within them.
I’ve heard the different members describe your music in terms of texture, shape, and color, and that shared interpretation of sound seems to be something that helps in your communication with one another. Is that a fair assessment to make?
Yes. I have always heard music in a very visual way so, for me personally, it makes way more sense than talking about notes or directly referring to sound. Josh was telling me that he never had that same visual relationship to sound in the past, but has recently begun to see the music. I think his musical third eye opened at a Black Dice listening party, which makes complete sense.
How would you go about describing the visual aesthetics behind this new release?
Like a very darkly colored egg that bleeds iridescent colors once you crack it open.
I’ve been relistening to Gods Money and St. Dymphna a lot lately and I’ve noticed that the music often appears to be breathing. On some tracks, I can almost envision a dragon-like beast rising up slowly and majestically learning to walk and move around. In creating new music, is there a moment that you wait for where it all clicks and comes to life for you?
Yeah, we always call it the “magic layer”. We are never satisfied until we hear that layer. The mystery of it is that we still don’t know how it’s achieved; it just seems to happen at some point.
Historically, a lot of your final recordings have developed out of experimentation together in practice spaces and studios, but I recently heard that a lot more individual composition has taken place and was brought to the group later, for this album. Is that correct?
Hmmm…..no…. I don’t think that’s the case. If anything, I would say that this record has the least amount of improvised material on it, within the context of all of our releases, but there certainly wasn’t anyone coming into the studio with chord progressions written in a notebook or anything like that. I think it’s more just that the songs were more completed than usual, when it came time to go into the studio. Whereas, in the past, most of the record would be written in the studio while improvising.
The St. Dymphna recordings were plagued with multiple interruptions, damaging the momentum and causing delays. Did it go any smoother this time around? Did signing with 4AD provide you with any more financial stability to allow you to focus on the work?
Yeah, definitely. There was much less tension involved in getting this record together. The songs were pretty much where we wanted them to be already, so that gave us a lot more breathing room in the studio. I’d say the environments that we were working in during each phase of this record made a really big difference in terms of momentum as well. We started by recording demo versions for three weeks at a friend’s house in the desert of Wonder Valley, out near Joshua Tree. Tracking was done at this studio called Dreamland in upstate NY. It’s a giant church with super high ceilings and just a generally relaxing vibe. Then we did all the mixing up in Tivoli NY at the house we were renting. So, all in all, every phase avoided the city clutter and chaos that we have always been limited to in the past. There were a lot of windows involved throughout the creation of the record… windows with really beautiful views.
You’ve mentioned leaving New York for a more serene place. What effect did you find recording in Joshua Tree and the location near Woodstock to have on your sound? How much of your sound and approach is affected by your environment or by an attempt to transcend it?
I think I answered this for the most part in the last question, but yeah. For me personally, environment has become absolutely crucial. And I don’t mean this in any dvia-esque or extravagant way, I just mean simply trying out different environments and embracing serenity, rather than being chained to the city streets and dirty air. We are already talking about doing our next record on the beach. I am really interested to see what a few months of working in that environment would do to the music.
Did much of the material from those original Joshua Tree recordings even make It to the album?
Most of the songs made it, but not the actual recorded desert versions. There were a few that didn’t make it. We were sort of forced to stop working on them because, very soon after we began writing them, our gear was destroyed in a fire at a club in Amsterdam.
You guys have become notorious for scrapping multiple albums worth of material and starting over from scratch. Do you view those sessions as wasted time or as a productive part of the evolution that’s necessary to move you towards the final product?
I’d say about 70% of the time it’s been productive, but it’s really hard to say, because there are always different reasons why that has happened in the past. Some of them have been completely absurd and counterproductive for sure.
If I’m remembering correctly, Retina Riddim (DVD) was composed of old archived audio. Do you think that any more of the abandoned material will ever resurface in one form or another?
Retina Riddim was composed of some archived audio, but most of the sound was taken directly from my video camera. Yeah, I’m sure, at some point, we will gather together some of the better stuff from our tape archives and release it or give it away or whatever. We always talk about it, but it’s a slightly daunting task, given the amount of tapes we have from over the years.
The Whitney Biennial was another opportunity that really allowed you to incorporate your passions for visual arts with music. Are there any plans to incorporate more of a visual element into your regular live shows?
Yes, definitely. Just getting the ball rolling on that. We really want to incorporate a more visual and theatrical element to the stage when we perform.
The first time that I saw you guys live was at the, now infamous, 2005 Chop Suey performance in Seattle. As an audience member, things got somewhat confusing, but, from what I remember, there were some issues with the sound being cut off and with members of the opener, Bloodlines, being kicked out. I was hoping that you might be able to clear up exactly what the situation was with that, during and afterward. The police cars swarming in seemed a bit excessive.
Oh man……well…yeah … basically, the house sound guy was a complete douchebag that seemed to think it was his job to judge the quality of the opening band. I guess he decided that they weren’t to his liking, so he cut their sound. I had seen it happen many times before. Tim and I used to be in a band with the singer of Bloodlines and we used to see it all the time. People are often very uncomfortable when they are confronted with Jim’s (the singer) politics. Oftentimes, these people tend to have some sort of homophobic qualities. Anyway, this guy didn’t like them, so he cut off their sound and then, when we started playing, Raquel from Bloodlines went up to the sound guy douchebag and jokingly put her hands around his neck and made an obviously playful choking gesture to him. So, he decide to have them thrown out of the club altogether. They came up to the stage when we were playing and told us they were being kicked out, so we just stopped playing and decided to hand out all our gear to the audience as a form of protest. Things got pretty wild and they cut the power on us too, but we had our own PA system and a lot of drums, so there wasn’t much they could do to stop the sound. It was great. And yeah, there were like 6 cop cars that showed up thinking the place was going to erupt into violence or something. But, really it was fairly peaceful… more of a primal scream therapy session than any kind of violent action, I think.
I also saw you do a show with Marnie Stern at the The Triple Door, which is a seated Jazz club. Do you approach different types of venues differently, are there environments that you feel more comfortable in, or does any of that even matter?
Yeah, I think we tend to perform better in tighter quarters where people can really connect on the same physical plane that we are on. It’s often very strange for a band like us to be on a stage made for “entertaining”. But, having said that, we have also had some pretty amazing experiences at festivals on really big stages. But, I think, in those examples, we are feeding off of the aspect of being outdoors and feeling the breeze and things like that.
You played the ATP Festival back in 2005 and, this year, are scheduled to return to perform alongside old friends like Animal Collective and Black Dice. Does it feel like you’ve come full circle, in some ways?
I don’t know if it really feels like that. I’m just excited to be able to play with so many of our old friends and to spend time with them experiencing great music.
Are there still plans to remove the word “DANCE” from the band name?
Man… you really have done your homework. Nah… I guess not. I wanted to, but the idea got kinda boycotted.
What is the symbolism behind the owl imagery for you? On your “Swine Mending” site, it appears that someone has even been making plaster casts of them at home.
I have been making plaster sculptures of owls as an homage to the garden owl and as a reference to the immortal spirituality of nature. I like the idea of the owl silently watching humankind as they lead themselves into complete self destruction.
Make sure to check out the following Gang Gang-related links
Here’s a current list of upcoming show dates…