Features
12.05.2011, Words by Charlie Jones

Gang Gang Dance interview: "Always evolve."

The last time I interviewed Gang Gang Dance, before their London show, they were caught in a flurry of technical glitches. This was only a few months after the meltdown of their kit in Amsterdam, the bitterly ironic result of an electrical fire caused by a recently fitted fire alarm. It seemed at the time that this was a band fighting fire, literally and figuratively. A lot has changed since then – the permanent addition of their spiritual advisor, Baby Love / Taka Imamura, drummer Tim DeWit leaving to pursue other projects, recording with new drummer, Jesse Lee, and a move of labels, from Warp to 4AD. It’s clear Gang Gang Dance live the flux of their extraordinary music.

The irony is that all this chaos allowed them to focus their sound even further. They began in the early years of the decade, largely orientated around an improv-setup, and though their fourth studio album, 2008’s stunning ‘Saint Dymphna’ [Warp] contained nods toward a pop sensibility, their new album, ‘Eye Contact’ [4AD], is the result of a more fully defined recording process, in which Lizzi Bougatsos’s voice is the arc that the others wield their melodies around. It is a nice symbiosis: the instrumental dynamism tested by the constraints of Lizzi’s playful and vocal allegories. Interviewing them together you get two clear feelings – that Lizzi’s enthusiasm is infectious, and that they’re a band who are willing to have differing views on what it is they’re doing, how they do it, and where they’re going.

Refreshingly, I’d say. I’m bored with the idea that a group of people is meant to be on the same trajectory all the time, always in sync with what they’re doing. It reminds me of Jean-François Lyotard’s musing on modernity, that the state of today is one of “an incredulity towards meta-narratives”. He called it the end of “the Grand Narrative,” and Gang Gang Dance’s potency is in their reluctance to construct one story. In this regard, the Lyotardian concept of ‘little narratives’ – distinct but comfortably coexisting stories – provides a useful premise for understanding some of the dynamics of Gang Gang Dance: a band with so many different legitimate contexts that they are not competing for enhanced legitimacy, even as most people, myself included, try to impose a sort of teleological thinking upon them. The grandest of these is seeing the “move away from improv” as both rigid and finite. It’s not, and they know that. On ‘Eye Contact’, you’ll hear this and you’ll read about it below.

It’s because of all of these “little narratives” that you’ll never be bored with Gang Gang Dance. Their world extends from windowless New York basements to Soviet-era cruise ships in the Pacific Ocean to the California desert, as they described when I interviewed last month.

They’ve conquered all terrains – the only meaningful thought then is Where next?

So I interviewed you about a year and a half ago, when you last played at Dingwalls, and it seems that a lot has changed since then. A new band member, a new label – how has that informed this record?

Jesse Lee: I’m the new member and I would say, definitely, there was a change but I don’t know what that is – I wasn’t there before! We figured out how to work together and we immediately started writing music – like the first day that we played together.

Lizzi Bougatsos: Yeah. It’s interesting because they [Jesse and Tim DeWitt] both have their own very distinct styles of drumming. But we were playing with Jesse for a while on the live shows and we were eager to get it recorded. So once we started that, we just couldn’t stop and then we got offered some really amazing opportunities, like, playing on a Russian cruise ship with the Boredoms under the solar eclipse. I guess the Boadrum was when we first started playing with you, pretty much.

Jesse: Yeah.

Lizzi: We’ve already been through a lot together so we just needed to get it recorded as soon as we could!

I read an interview in 2009 where you mentioned you had already recorded a lot of stuff for the new album.

Lizzi: We always record a lot and we always trash everything!

Really?

Josh Diamond: That’s true…

Lizzi: We get very connected to things that we write, especially me. Josh and his guitar-synth melodies are almost similar to the melodies in my vocals. And it’s kind of hard for us to leave them behind, but I do realise that we’ve trashed a lot of music.

Jesse: I think the thing that you are referring to is when we went to the desert in California to try and record.

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The last time we spoke, you were recording in a windowless basement in New York. You had just moved space from somewhere that had a lot of light…

Jesse: Oh yeah, that was our practice space but we didn’t really record there. Though we did write the music for the 88 Boadrum there.

Lizzi: I guess for a while we were running out of money and playing shows … and then we packed up all our gear and went to California and made our own makeshift studio in the desert. But we did write the Boredoms composition in this really shitty practice space, which was kind of awesome. Actually I remember we were meeting a lot of people then and I was embarrassed to bring them to our space because it was so shitty!

Josh: And now we don’t even have a practice space!

Jesse: This one, the ceilings were so low and I am like 6’2”, or around there, and it had a light fixture to screw in a lightbulb, but if you had the bulb in there I would have bashed my head on it every time.

So you tried to record in the desert?

Josh: We did record a bunch of stuff in the desert. Liz says we trashed things but I think it’s different to trashing. I think we make things and we have a process where we keep chipping away at things over time. I don’t think things are ever lost. Like something from the desert might materialise at some point in the future and we grow from the process. I think we let things go, just be what they are, and not worry that we are trashing them or whatever.

But you feel like it’s needed? For ‘Saint Dymphna’ I heard you had recorded three different albums almost, but then ultimately recorded what we hear in a month and a half?

Josh: In a way … But, for ‘Eye Contact’, this is probably the most time we’ve had to record an album. To actually track the record we had a month upstate and we’ve never really had a solid block of time like that in one place. I think the record feels really focused, to us, than other things we’ve done and I think part of that is because we had one place to be, and were able to just work on it there. Then we had some more time to mix on our own somewhere else afterwards.

Lizzi: We had a lot of time, yeah. [Speaking to Josh] But I agree with what you say, in the past we trashed things a lot … Not trashed, but we never really reworked them … I feel much more positive about the desert recordings now because I know that we might actually use them. Whereas in the past, a cut was a cut.

Jesse: When we get together and play – in a practice situation – we just start playing and writing and making stuff on the spot, and definitely in the three or more years I have been in this band there has been so many really amazing “almost songs” that we played a couple of days and then have been lost. But it is not that something from that doesn’t get added to what we’re doing – we get somewhere with it – though I think Liz gets attached because she’ll write some beautiful lyrics and be super-stoked on the song and then we’ll have to leave it behind or something.

Josh: I also have to say that part of the band – we’ve been doing it now for 10 years – is private. It’s not necessarily for everyone to hear, which could change, we could put some things out from that, but we have so many recordings, so many practice tapes, that we do because we love playing music together. Not everything is for a record, or for this, or for that. Part of our process is playing together and this is the thing we’ve done for so long, so there’s trashbags full of cassette recordings of our practising, so many albums, so much music …

Lizzi: It’s all going to come out here and there.

Josh: But we have our own universe that we need to protect a little bit too.

When I first listened to ‘Eye Contact’ I was like Wow, you could hear this played on daytime radio. You’ve taken the pop of ‘Saint Dymphna’ and really run with it.

Jesse: It was definitely a struggle to go from there because we’re a band comfortable with our live shows. It’s so much about vibes, so much about emotions and human connection…

But with a pop song you can really convey that. Specifically it feels like Lizzi’s vocals are conveying that intensity that might have previously been taken up by the more abstract tracks. On ‘Saint Dymphna’ I started to really notice your voice, but on this album your vocals are the anchor.

Jesse: It meant everything for us to have Lizzi’s vocals, mainly because they’re just so beautiful but to have them right up there!

Lizzi: Honestly, I think I have just been doing the same thing all these years, they just never heard me! I am constantly writing and singing while we’re practising, but everyone’s setup is so complicated that when we’re playing together, [each person is] listening to themselves. Jesse makes a huge point to hear me – and so do you, Josh. I worked with a specific producer on this album just to make sure they could hear what I was doing and they were really shocked, as they’d never really heard it before, because I always get lost in the recordings.

Jesse: It seems to me as a fan of Gang Gang Dance – I was a huge fan of Gang Gang Dance before I joined the band – that Liz’s voice was used more as another instrument. And at times it would pop out in certain places, but in this album the lyrics are so beautiful and vocal performances are so powerful it really makes it for me. It pushes it over the cliff. She had worked with Alex XXXchange doing the vocals and we were doing the musical tracking. That was perfect as she wasn’t needing to wait around for us to sort our shit out.

Lizzi: I also added a lot of effects to the songs themselves. Like in Chinese Eye you’ll hear a ghost talking to themself underneath the refrain. That’s me doing a lot of effects.

Josh: I think in the past year, it isn’t that we didn’t listen as much to Lizzi’s vocals, it’s just that in some ways you had never gotten the opportunity to have that much attention put on your voice. Which is one of the best things that have happened to us as a band, I think. I am kind of similar to Liz in recording performances, where often there are times I feel I need someone to bring out my best “self”. Alex has talked to me about Liz and he loves her lyrics, he loves what she does so much, he’s genuinely excited about working with her that it just works out in this way that the best is brought out.

And also I think that this makes the album more accessible, you can imagine it – and I hate this word – crossing over.

Jesse: That is totally fine and that is great if people are in to it and want to accept it and enjoy it. That’s awesome. But definitely it was music for us and for our souls. I’ve never put out records with them before but when it was about to come out I didn’t even want it to because I just wanted to keep it for us.

Lizzi: But they were really shocked when they heard my vocals and I remember because it was really funny. I did this one song Sacer, [while] they were all upstate recording the album…

Jesse: We recorded the music of it and Liz did the vocals of it separately.

Lizzi: They just asked me to take a stab so I went to my producer’s house in Brooklyn and I did two takes – it was very natural – and I sent it and the response was pretty great. They were crying!

Jesse: I was crying! I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard, you know?

To me, every track on ‘Eye Contact’ feels like a different narrative.

Lizzi: That’s interesting you say that because I actually think this album is more cohesive…

I don’t mean it isn’t as cohesive, it’s more that each song is like a separate protagonist, if you like?

Lizzi: I know what you’re saying but I think that each song is so different that even I’m confused. But I personally feel it is our most cohesive album. Our last albums have all blended together as one track, you know, like 30 minute tracks, so it is really interesting for me because these songs do have breaks and they are separated. They are so diversely different; I do really feel like we have plunged into this cohesive vortex and it actually has been a paradigm of oneness.

It can be more difficult to make 10 or 12 short tracks that are so individual and different.

Jesse: The thing is with this band – and just in general – none of it was planned, it’s just a happy accident. We had the songs and for the most part these songs were going to go on the record but I was really unsure how it would be as a whole, how it would fit together. Would it just sound like a bunch of songs with different styles? But I was happily surprised. It also just made complete sense – they all tell the story of what’s been happening to us for the last four years. But we didn’t know it.

Josh: No. I actually think because everything still sounds like Gang Gang Dance or whatever. People say different styles, people say different moods, maybe even different chapters of a story, but it all sounds like our music.

I wonder how you will interpret this album live? Are you going to change anything?

Josh: Our live show will always evolve.

Jesse: The live shows are where we’re most comfortable, I think. The real challenge was to put the songs on a record and make it be like something you’d want to listen. With a good live band, you can’t somehow just capture that energy and make it into an album, it doesn’t work like that, it’s a separate thing.

Lizzi: I feel like the live show is going to sound a little bit similar to the record in the fact that there will be breaks…I sing every song almost exactly how it is sung on the record but I do improv a lot in between when I need to spice it! But it is interesting because there are breaks for the first time and we’ve never really done that, right, Josh?

Josh: There are breaks but there is continuity… Everyone keeps talking breaks and I almost don’t even know what everyone is talking about. Like, where are the breaks? There is less of a blend, I guess, but I keep thinking it still has one sound…

Like you don’t stop playing?

Josh: With our live show we care about it a lot and I think if people are expecting to see us play this record from beginning to end then they’re not going to see that. It’s a different medium.

You are playing Primavera soon. At Dingwalls [where Dummy interviewed Gang Gang Dance before they played in 2009], the “closedness” of the venue added to the effect, almost like being caught in a trance – do you find it hard replicating that at festivals?

Jesse: I’ll say that we played Primavera once before and that festival because people are just down to get down and get into it. We had a really amazing show where we’re on the big stage in a big open area and you have the actual distance from the audience – you’re that far removed– but we could still feel those vibes. For the most part we’re a band that likes to be sweating on the audience.

Lizzi: Primavera for me is always so magical …

Last time I spoke to you, you had just been back from Primavera and you had just played the same slot as Ghostface Killah and Sonic Youth …

Jesse: Yeah, Sonic Youth played…

Lizzi: Sonic Youth, I feel that we have some of the same fans and I am also friends with them so it would have been cool to see them. But Ghostface Killah, I would have loved to have seen that show, goddamnit! But anyway, we played and it was fucking magical! Actually, Tim Koh from Ariel Pink’s band – he plays with us sometimes – said that was the best show that he’s every seen in his life.

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Really?

Lizzi: Yeah. That’s his thing.

Jesse: But it’s weird, as we don’t play many big venues like that beyond the festivals, at this point. Though one thing we are lucky to have is Sean Mafucci, our sound guy, who also helped mix and produce the record; he’s always taking care of us for the audience. So, even when we’re in those situations, this man can get the sound there. It’s funny because we’ll do some of these big shows with big stages but we still setup really close to each other.

What was the show you mentioned earlier, the Russian boat gig with the Boredoms?

Lizzi: Well the Boredoms asked us to play on a Russian cruise ship during the solar eclipse.

Jesse: Now, I just want to clarify this, because it’s funny…she says “Russian cruise ship,” it was like a Soviet-era cruise ship. Inside, there were pictures of this white, shiny beautiful ship with Gorbachev standing in the USSR days. This is years later, of course – it was pretty gangster. It was smelly, but cool…

Where there lots of Russians on the ship?

Jesse: Well there was the crew of the ship. We went from Japan and we were supposed to actually go to an island in the southern part of Japan, but the people of the island weren’t into the idea, because it was 400 hippies going to watch this eclipse. So it ended up that we just took the boat for four days and went out to this place where we thought we could get a good view.

Lizzi: The ship just drove back and forth we didn’t even hit one spot! The biggest highlight of the trip was watching the dolphin family altogether playing and literally all the people on the boat went to watch them. It was crazy.

Jesse: The Boredoms had written a piece for the eclipse and I luckily got to play in it. Gang Gang Dance played as “entertainment” during the journey. One of the nights we played in a club – there was a couple of different little clubs setup in there – and there was food.

It all sounds very surreal.

Jesse: It was a crazy experience. But for the eclipse it was actually cloudy, we didn’t actually get to see it. But we were in the middle of the fucking Pacific Ocean, no islands or anything around, just ocean. It went completely dark in the middle of the morning and all the women were screaming. It made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.


Gang Gang Dance – MindKilla

You seem to have a particularly strong relationship with Boredoms – Shoji Goti just directed the MindKilla video [above’, right?

Jesse: We definitely are lucky to have a connection with them. They see that we’re a band in it for similar reasons – for love and music, for spirituality. They asked us to basically be the Boredoms for the 88 Boadrum in New York and they just said Do it… I had just joined the band and this is all drums stuff, I wanted to go hide under a rock but instead we wrote this music and did this crazy thing. The Boredoms have been really important, to everyone, but to us they’ve given us the pat on the back or whatever!

And you gave Tinchy Stryder a pat on the back on ‘Saint Dymphna’ [Tinchy featured on Princes, are you still into the London grime scene? Tinchy’s a proper popstar these days!

Jesse: You know Wiley man, he’s been keeping proper the whole time. I haven’t heard any of Tinchy’s new stuff but I heard he’s gone pop. I am sure that he’s not completely gone now – Wiley did some of that stuff too, but he keeps coming out with some new crazy jams.

Lizzi: There is this one guy I have been listening to, DJ Rashad, he’s a Chicago juke guy, footwork. [ watch a film we shot of him last month. ] He played a few times at this party in New York called Ghetto Gothik and I really like his mixes a lot.

I remember you telling me last time about the Japanese artist who was recording with his heartbeat?

Lizzi: Oh yeah, I was telling you about him! That was touching my heart at the time; but now I am feeling these groups of young kids who are playing all the things that influence me, like Aaliyah and early Ashanti. You know, like all the singers I actually give a shit about. I mean I don’t listen to any new bands … I’m an R&B girl!

With the move to 4AD, do you feel inspired by its heritage?

Jesse: Fuck, yeah! Cocteau Twins, my god, they’re one of my favourite bands ever.

Lizzi: But the label did kind of confess that we were the bridge between the old 4AD and the new 4AD.

So true.

Lizzi: I think it is interesting because in the beginning, when we started, I did have Cocteau Twins albums, I did listen to This Mortal Coil and other 4AD bands and, you know, I lost touch with it in the last 10 years since we’ve been a band!

I was just listening to Song to the Siren today while preparing for this interview. It just seemed right.

Josh: We played a show at the Hollywood Bowl with Massive Attack and TV on the Radio and Elizabeth Fraser sang.

Jesse: I would say [why we signed with] with 4AD was that they were really interested in us musically and really showed it, aside from anyone who was on the label or anything like that. These people were legitimately interested and wanted to help us realise some of what we do.

Lizzi: They’re working more and more with a lot of artists we’re interested in like Zomby, Joker and Ariel Pink, which really helps with the connection. I really feel at home there.

More so than Warp? They’ve got a strong, if different, heritage.

Jesse: We just have to say, yeah. But we’re not trying to “make it,” this is our life. Not for money to live but for our souls, our hearts.

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Lizzi: But I don’t think anyone on Warp is trying to “make it”.

Jesse: No, but I am just saying purely that 4AD actually showed interest and love for what we’re doing. They wanted to nurture it. It’s not that Warp didn’t do that but, I don’t know, they didn’t show it.

Lizzi: He wasn’t with us when we were on Warp…

Josh: And with Warp, it was a licensing deal, so we had a different relationship. They’re nice people and they also have an historic label, and obviously they’ve released some amazing music over the years. But with 4AD, this is our first worldwide relationship with a label, and it’s just starting. It will be very nice.

David McFarlane interviewed Gang Gang Dance in London on the 7th April 2010. Mikael Gregorsky photographed the band shortly afterwards.

4AD released Gang Gang Dance’s album ‘Eye Contact’ on the 9th May 2011

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