Gang Gang Dance
Let’s get this straight: “I am a total snob, a pseudo intellectual, and an occasional dilettante.”
I know this about myself. At least I should get some Buddha points for being mindfully (if knowingly) self-aware. I appreciate most genres of art and music. I even admire my own openness to various genres when I’m alone with myself in my car. I may pop in Four Tet, followed by Blossom Dearie, Elvis Perkins, Arvo Part, and Simon & Garfunkel. Then, sometimes it’s the Black Keys, Joy division, Toumani Diabate, Ukulele Ike, Hello Seahorse, and Jurassic 5, finishing off (haha) with Guns N Roses. The juxtapositions of my car DJ skills have me liking myself right through my morning commute.
One of my biggest snobby glitches is this: When I first hear about something, after it has already become a little too popular with the local hepsters, a wee switch goes off in my brain which keeps me secretly “above” whatever it is (at least for now). Let’s call it snob-tourettes. I bide my time. I hold off until this brilliant (or not so brilliant) pop group, painter, movie, or writer passes through the imaginary threshold of popularity and into the passé; I subconsciously wait for it to be uncool enough for it to be cool enough for me…and then I sit back and take it in for the first time. Maybe (probably) I haven’t even really paid attention to it before this. My snob-tourettes has wrestled my tiny Buddha to the ground.
Lately, I have been openly rooting for my better self. I do aim to grow to appreciate art on its own merits, god damn it!! So, when an opportunity to cover the Gang Gang Dance show at Seattle‘s Neumos came, I jumped at it. I – mostly – missed the slow swell of psychedelia that was Gang Gang Dance’s rise to international notoriety; a fact (sadly) that would usually inhibit me from listening for at least a couple of years. This was the better-self-test that I needed; a prime opportunity to step willingly on to a popular alternative band wagon, or at least be open to it.
So, then and there, I committed to attending the show.
I prepared myself with a very limited crash course on the Manhattan music/art collective. Some of the music was familiar to me already, but, previously, I had tried to ignore it. So, I listened a little more, but not much better. I watched a few youtubes. I read the MonsterFresh.com interview. I listened to a few songs on spotify. I did not want to learn too much. I definitely did not want to go to the show as a confirmed hater or a fan. I was hoping to be genuinely converted from the live event. I wanted to be convinced that they were worth the hype; alternatively, I wanted to be justified in shunning their popularity.
Here’s what I learned about Gang Gang Dance before the show: The band has been termed many things: avant-garde, experimental rock, art-punk, world beat, tribal-electro-pop, & electro clash. They tour with friend/artist/band-member Taka Imamura; he has been described as the band’s “spiritual advisor.” They have some songs that last 11 minutes. Okay…so definitely unconventional…and, in my mind (though I was trying not to pass judgment), they started to seem a little gimmicky(?) I stopped my research there.
When October, 14th came, it was one of the first rainy cold nights of autumn. It was dark by 6pm and I had trouble with even the thought of leaving my warm little house. Attending the show didn’t feel like a good idea anymore. Nobody really cares if I like popular alternative music. What was I proving exactly? I wanted to read a book in my bed, not shake it on the dance floor. I was going, but I was not in the mood. To top it off, the venue (Neumos) sits in the center of Seattle‘s Pike/Pine Corridor! The show was in the middle of “Weekend Party Central” and it was Friday night! I got into my car. It was so rainy and so cold. I drove. I questioned if I’d find parking? I thought that I might be late, I was tired, and I had limited expectations.
Then, out of nowhere, events aligned. Is there such a thing as a divine trance-rock-fairy? Did it give my kvetching inner humbug a smack down? I don’t know what magic suddenly occurred, but the evening got lovely. I found parking instantly (unbelievable prime, free, parking). Then, I met an awesome pair of friends at the door. I breezed through the photo pass scenario and had a drink bought for me.
Light anxiety turned to contentment.
Woosh, there I was, happy and sharing a cocktail with a friend. My car was parked for free on a Friday night. I had missed most of the opening band, but I would catch all of the Prince Rama set before the headliners took the stage.
Prince Rama is a sister act from Brooklyn, NY. The band is made up of sisters, Taraka & Nimai Larson, friend Michael Collins, glitter, sequins, and an eighties jump suit. Wikipedia states: “Originally raised on a Hare Krishna commune in Florida, and educated at an art school in Boston.” This is the most succinct and descriptive wiki statement I have ever read, and sums up Prince Rama perfectly. They definitely reminded me of the other kids of hippies that I grew up with. Their performance reminded me of the haunted houses and rituals that I would invent with my childhood girlfriends. All in all, they played tribal-psychedelia, with an earnestness of pre-teen girls or art school kids. One of the sisters (Taraka) ended their set by chanting “trust, trust, trust…” and falling into the crowd. They were young (20’s?) and probably deserving their own little review, but it was getting late and, by the time they left the room, I was ready to fall asleep on my feet.
At last, the members of Gang Gang Dance arrived on the stage. They didn’t seem like they were in any hurry. Things were being set up pretty casually. Instruments were getting their final tunings and Lizzi Bougatsos was emptying a leather bag. Out of the bag came a small wooden, African (?) devil (?) mask. She put the mask in front of her face all nonchalantly, like… umm… she was just checking to see if the mask still worked and as if no one was watching. Then she took out a black bustier and tossed that down in the small pile of purse contents. The pile contained percussion sticks, mallets, and other things that I couldn’t quite make out. “This could go either way” I thought.
The audience pressed closer together. I stood with my hands on the stage and to Lizzi’s left. The crowd was diverse. A guy who was in his mid-forties and was sporting the classic ex-grunge rocker look was pushed up against my right arm. Standing behind me was a Northwest skinny pants, horned-rims and fedora guy. To my left a girl (barely of age) was in a new-agey-gypsy get-up swinging her arms in anticipation.
Lizzi said hello to the crowd. She wore black gladiator heels, a black cat suit with back cut-outs and a sheer black-metallic button up with the giant tags still on it. She said something about the Occupy Wall Street protests, which I didn’t understand completely. When she spoke, she sounded a little like Fran Drescher (which was all that I could think of). Then she thanked to Prince Rama and summed up my feelings about the opening band by asking sincerely, “Aren’t they cute?” They were cute… exactly.
A series of color saturated video projections began: still, moving, and layered. The rest of the band took their places. Brian Degraw placed a drum stick in his mouth and laid into the keyboards. There was a gradual spacey drone filling the room; like new age wind chimes set to heart beats. Then the music transitioned into what sounded like traditional Arabic music. One moment it seemed like a massage therapist soundtrack. Next it sounded like “We built this City” by Starship. Suddenly, the percussion kicked in from all directions (Brian Degraw on drum pads, Jesse Lee on the drum kit, and Lizzi drumming along at center stage). The music morphed in to a tribal rite of passage.
Bougatsos’ voice was like some odd combination of Kate Bush, Cocteau Twins, and Grace Slick; with a hint of Sinead O’ Connor (from “I Am Stretched on your Grave”). It was spacey. It was techno. It was hard core(?) Wait… hold on… sometimes it was like that scene in Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood (okay, pretend you haven’t watched it, if you’re “too cool”) when the little girls are chanting around the fire with homemade tribal headdresses. At moments the front-woman wailed, then she cooed, screeched, and sometimes she was barely audible at all.
Brian Degraw ceremoniously placed a scarf over his head like a holy man. A large white triangle was projected onto the video screen. The words “positive” and “energy” were visible on two sides of the projected triangle. The image slowly rotated. “Was I being inducted into a secret society?” If this was a cult, then it was kinda okay by me, because the music was extremely danceable.
Taka Imamura swayed around the stage looking for things to do. Sometimes he danced to the beat. For a while he held (what looked like) a large tumbleweed. He carried the tumbleweed/sculpture around the stage, placing it behind the singer’s head, walking it to different odd locations on the stage, or holding it over his own head as he negotiated the crowded stage like a cartoon shaman. At one point, he and Lizzi held hands and casually danced through the crowd. How many bands have a spiritual advisor on stage? He didn’t play an instrument or sing, but it was clear that he was considered an integral component to what the group was doing as a whole.
One song became another, or there were minute pauses in between. I tried with my limited knowledge to distinguish between them. My sense was that, aside from the few die hard fan-geeks, it was hard for most attendees to pick out a set list. It could have been one long song; one uniform experience: visuals, players, audio, costumes, and color palette. I felt transported.
Taka arranged a white sheet/scrim in front of Jesse Lee’s drum kit so that the drummer’s head was barely visible and so that the projected images (which were getting denser) could take up most of the visual space on the stage. The visuals shifted from glittery constellation objects to swaths of saturated color blended with layers of metallic video mesh. Some of the projections were in shades of teal, fuchsia, indigo, apple green, red and white. Colors and sound flashed together, pulsed to the music, or oozed like a lava lamp. The room obtained a Willy Wonka ferry boat feeling.
I loved the odd sense of cohesion, equally combined with the more experimental elements of when they didn’t seem to know what they were doing. Near the end of the show, Josh Diamond accidently broke a guitar string. Taka took the opportunity to grandiosely stretch that string out from the instrument; making a new electric screech as diamond played the five others that remained fully attached (I should add Lizzi joined the string pulling, as well). The whole spectacle was both luscious and silly. They appeared to ride the line between taking themselves way too seriously and acting as if it was all complete nonsense. The music was solid, but the stage performance had some looseness to it. Being goofy, bad ass, approachable, and spiritual -simultaneously- has got to be a fairly difficult task to pull off successfully
I have been trying for days, but it’s really difficult for me to relay the experience. My mind, just sort of, flits around when I try to pin down the details. The band’s gestation in the New York art scene might explain some of it. Certainly, there was a flavor of performance art. Have you ever seen footage of old Factory happenings; Beuys in his heyday, early CBGB shows, or even the Sound Lab (cultural alchemy) work coming out of the East Village in the late 90’s? Maybe this comes from a band having spent over a decade together? Another set of players and these components could have seemed easily like a glib spectacle, but, for Gang Gang Dance, it didn’t come across like that at all. They seem oddly self-aware, but also raw and honest about what they were doing.
After the spectacle was over, the members of the band cleaned up their gear. The bustier & African mask (which were never used) were put back into the oversized bag, and Lizzi Bougatsos sat at the edge of the stage. She spoke to those that waited around. She invited people to stay and hang out. She sincerely thanked the fans for coming out and supporting the band. She hugged and took pictures with those who came close. This morning I watched an interview in which Bougatsos states that she literally picks a member of the audience, which she feels connected to, and that she sings/performs to them. In my opinion, the success of the show was built on this sort of communion.
I went home feeling glad that I had the opportunity to attend. My only wish was that I had spent less time thinking about it and more time letting myself go.
Gang Gang Dance has been playing larger shows and festivals lately. This year, they performed at both the Animal Collective-curated ATP Festival in Minehead, UK and The Pitchfork Music Festival. Growing popularity means that there may be fewer opportunities to experience the intimacy that makes this band so special.
The result of my little self-experiment is this: I learned that -yes- I am, in fact, an snob-idiot when it comes to being too concerned about what other people are and are not listening to. The band’s current release Eye Contact is now in permanent rotation on my morning commute. But, more than listening, I am looking forward to an opportunity to see Gang Gang Dance live once again. I am converted and, so it seems, are the masses. These smaller shows may soon become history and so, I encourage you to jump on this band wagon as soon as possible. I implore you: “Shake it while you can!”
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