After over ten years as a DJ and member of experimental group Gang Gang Dance, Brian DeGraw is cautious about the nightclub scene that he’s been so much a part of: “it was great, but it broke me down to the point where I’m not that interested in it anymore.”
These days, DeGraw spends most of his time writing and recording in Upstate New York. With his new solo album as bEEdEEgEE, SUM/ONE, DeGraw ventures away from improvisational group jams and into the realm of structured composition and remote collaboration, an approach that may reflect his recent preference for solitary living: when I ask if he thinks of himself as a social person, he responds candidly after a brief moment of hesitation, “No. I think I used to be.”
As we speak, DeGraw is nevertheless out and about in New York City, and eager to talk about going “off the beaten path” on his upcoming tour, which will hit spots in Portland, Maine and Covington, Kentucky. “I want the live show to be a psychedelic version of the record, where it can fall apart and come back together, and a song can drop out and come back later in the set,” he explains. DeGraw plans to accompany this DJ-style expansion on the album with an insular stage setup that will include playing inside a tent of semi- opaque mosquito netting covered in projections.
Despite the hint of trepidation that creeps into DeGraw’s voice when we discuss internet culture and the social demands of constant gigging, our conversation has an undercurrent of positivity. When technical problems cause the call to drop out, he calls me back from a bar ten minutes later, to expand on thoughts about the next few months with subdued anticipation: “I’m really excited about it. I think it’ll be cool if I can pull it off.”
How often do you get back to the city?
I usually DJ once every two weeks so I come down to do that.
Where did you actually record and write the album?
I did it all in Woodstock. I have a studio in my house. It’s extremely isolated, on state protected land on top of a mountain with no houses or anything around. It’s just me and my housemate by ourselves.
Would you say that being isolated is important to being able to write freely?
Yea, for sure. I did it here in the city for so long and it’s not the most functional place to focus, for all the obvious reasons–physical space, distraction and just general chaos. It’s much easier up there.
Do you enjoy recording more than touring?
I think I go back and forth with it. I haven’t toured in about a year now, so I’m kind of rusty. I’m a little scared, actually, because I definitely wasn’t feeling the last stretch of tour I did. All I wanted to do was be in the studio. I’m fragile too, physically. My body can’t handle it too well sometimes, so I have to be careful with eating right and stuff like that.
Are you tied to a daily routine when you’re in Woodstock?
There’s not much of an option to not be that way up there because there’s nothing else— it’s just me with my work. I’m pretty much doing the same thing every day, just waking up, cooking. I usually start to work around dark and then go until very late at night, around 3 or 4, and just get up and do the same thing the next day.
I wanted to ask you a little about the album cover — eyes have been a pretty consistent theme on the Gang Gang Dance album covers, do you want to talk a little about that?
It started with
He had super intense eyes, so I wanted that to be the focus of the cover. I used his eyes in a lot of different elements of our record artwork after that. It’s just this constant thing that I’m drawn to. Plus with my own record, I didn’t really want to show my face too much.
The eyes are the one aspect that I’m comfortable showing. I’ve also been looking at a lot of Rousseau paintings, and I think I was subconsciously kind of inspired by that as well– the hidden faces in nature.
In that image, it also seems like you’re looking a little bit past the camera, as opposed to right at it.
I’m uncomfortable with cameras, so it’s probably just that. I’m probably trying to get it over with.
Do you feel that this is a high pressure situation for you, as your first solo album since Eye Contact, which was a pretty big record for Gang Gang Dance?
Part of the reason I made it was to escape that feeling. I was feeling a lot of pressure with Gang Gang towards the end of the last tour. I wanted to escape that and be a little more carefree. But it didn’t really end up being that way. Just being back in the machine of a tour and record cycle, it’s stressful. Which all ties back to why I’d rather be in the studio, even producing music for other people rather than myself.
This album feels very composed to me, in contrast to the grooves on the Gang Gang dance albums.
With Gang Gang, it’s always based off of improvisation–it’s hours and hours of jamming with other people, and working with compromise among the rest of the band. It’s more of an editing process, of finding bits of improvisation that are worth returning to and then working off of those. With this record, I really didn’t do that. It was recorded in a much more standard way of going track-by-track at a computer, working on one instrument at a time, creating a rhythm track and then going back and adding a melody or a bass. There’s a little bit of jamming on there but, for the most part, I was thinking more about pop structure.
The percussion and the rhythm parts really seem to drive the dramatic arc of the songs. Would you say that was a central part of writing?
Yea, usually I start with that, it’s what I’m instinctively drawn to. The rhythmic aspects of music are the ones that feel most natural to me. I could easily be satisfied with just making a record of beats.
I saw you mention once in an interview that you like to play Brazilian bateria music in your DJ sets.
A lot of what I listen to is percussion-based music. From all over the world, but including Brazilian Carnival drum music, for sure. With Gang Gang, a lot of times when we start improvising, everyone in the band will just be playing percussion. It’s always sort of the root of everything.
I went to Brazil this time last year. I had been there before to play, but this time I went just to hang out. I went to Bahia, which is in Northern Brazil, and just hung out in the jungle. After that trip, I started listening to a lot more Brazilian music, mainly stuff from that region–all of the heavy dudes from Bahia like Jorge Ben and Caetano Veloso.
On that note, could you talk a little about the sample that you used in “(intellectual property)”? There’s a voice in there that sounds a little like it might be somebody speaking in Portuguese.
That’s weird, because it’s not, actually—it’s taken from a West African song. I don’t always remember how I arrive at these things, but I’m pretty sure that sample is actually backwards, or manipulated somehow. To me, it sounded like it was saying something like “how ‘bout the sun” in English, and that’s why I liked it. My Brazilian friend told me that it sounded like someone saying “she is dancing” in Portuguese. It just re-worded itself through the processing, I guess.
You have several guests on this album, including Alexis Taylor on “(F.U.T.D.) Time of Waste.” How long have you known each other?
I met him at a festival in Belgium in 2006 or 2007. He was a really big Gang Gang fan, and he came to speak to us and we just hit it off right away. We’ve worked together a lot since then–he was on the last Gang Gang record and Liz [Bougatsos, of Gang Gang Dance] was on the last Hot Chip record, and he and I did a few art installations together.
In that song, “F.U.T.D.” is an abbreviation of “fuck up the day.” Do you relate to that idea of intentionally wasting time as someone who is dealing with the pressure of recording and touring?
I think everyone can relate to that. You know, days when you want to just give up and drink a beer.
Did Alexis contribute to the lyrics for that track?
I basically wanted to take a vocal that already belonged to a song, and then treat it like a remix, recreating the song it originally belonged to the way I envisioned it. So I asked him to send me an a cappella vocal that he wasn’t going to use. Outside of structurally editing, the vocals are used as he sent them. I had nothing to do with the actual lyrical content.
“Empty Vases” also has some suggestions in the lyrics of shaking free from a burden. Was that written in a similar fashion?
That song was different from the one with Alexis in the sense that I had a completed instrumental track and I just sent it to my friend Doug [Armour]. I’ve loved his voice forever, and I always wanted to make stuff with him. I gave him very vague guidelines in terms of imagery–I just wanted him to address aspects of nature. I didn’t do much to that vocal track, I rearranged it and took out a couple lines, but other than that, it’s as he delivered it.
I was actually wondering about the nature aspect, whether the relationship between nature and technology is something you think about when you’re writing.
I think about it all the time, especially since I’ve been in Woodstock, removed from city life. I think about the differences between how I feel up there and how I felt when I was living down here, and how much technology has to do with that. It’s definitely a big aspect of what drove me out of the city. I needed to get out, pay more attention to nature, and not spend my day staring at screens.
I spend a lot of time thinking about whether I even support or believe in the internet. It has its obvious benefits, but I honestly think I would prefer a world without it. Being around nature for the last two years, I’ve realized that my body and mind feel a million times better when I’m not immersed in internet and phone culture. I would be a much happier person if it just disappeared.
Do you think some of that negative association comes from what you do for a living?
I’m sure it does. It’s such a heavily used tool in the world of what I do, and I just don’t like it that much. I wish it was like the ‘70s in those respects. When I watch movies from pre-internet eras I kind of romanticize the idea of living like that again. But it ain’t gonna happen.
You’re a visual artist as well as a musician, and some of your pieces that were at James Fuentes gallery have an amusing approach towards the idea of people making demands on you or misinterpreting your music. Is that something that bothers you? For instance, the “DJ Requests” pieces, where you incorporated scraps of paper with different requests scribbled on them…
I was bugging out a little bit when I made those things, in terms of DJ-ing all the time, and how ridiculous it gets. Nightclubs are a really interesting place to see how trends effect people, how they react and push for it or against it. That’s why I made those “DJ Requests” pieces, because some of them are just so absurd, from people who don’t even know what they’re talking about or care about music. It’s this whole hodgepodge of crazy psychology being thrown at me when people hand me DJ requests. It can be really frustrating, but I’m kind of obsessed with watching that happen in clubs.
I’ve collected them over the years, and whenever I get a pretty good collection I try to make pieces out of them. But now cell phones have gotten in the way of that too, because people just text it on their phone and then shove their phone in my face. So now I have to start taking pictures of their phone or something if I want to keep doing it.
What do you think was the most egregious thing that anyone ever asked you to do?
Oh, there’s so many. I get tons and tons of requests that are just brutally racist, and those are always pretty mind-blowing. Like if I play a Bollywood song I get pieces of paper that say “play rock and roll, what the fuck is this cab driver music.” Some of the most amazing ones are the completely illegible ones where people are so wasted, it looks like a Cy Twombly painting on a piece of paper. I like those a lot.
Do you feel the internet has sort of magnified that need for people to categorize the sounds in your music as coming from a certain place or a certain country?
The internet has turned everything into endless genres and sub-genres and sub-sub- genres. Everyone is trying to break everything down into the smallest possible category. Without the internet, I think people would just be listening to music more, appreciating it as music and not getting wrapped up in where it’s coming from and who else is involved in the scene.
Do you personally use the internet to discover music?
I convert YouTubes to mp3s all the time, that’s where I get most of my music. It’s more the social aspects of the internet that I don’t like, and the amount of time it can take out of your day. I’d rather discover music through a slower, more personal process from physically interacting with people, or traveling and discovering music that way.
It used to be so special to go somewhere and meet someone and have them expose you to a new song or band. It was a warmer world, to me. Those relationships that I made with music when we were sitting around with people on tour, listening to records, those always stick with me much longer and deeper in me than when I just click through the internet and burn something onto a CD. There’s not much of a relationship there. Everything feels very different now.
Do you see collaborating as a more intimate, in-person kind of thing?
That’s my preferred way of finding inspiration in terms of vibing with other people. I have a hard time putting 100 percent of myself into a relationship that’s based on the internet. It’s just too much for me. It can feel nice to know that all these different people are reaching out and trying to connect, but I like to know someone in a more real sense if I’m going to collaborate with them.
It might be safe to assume then that you wouldn’t use something like OkCupid?
No, no, no, no. I would never do anything like that (laughs). No.
Another person I know you’ve worked with back in 1999 is Harmony Korine. Did you see Spring Breakers?
I did, yea.
What did you think of it?
I liked it. It was definitely a huge departure for him, definitely reaching for more of a commercial audience. His vision is so strong with everything he does–there’s so much of him in it. I had slept on Trash Humpers; I didn’t see it until just this past week actually. That one’s incredible, I definitely prefer it over Spring Breakers. But he has such a rare visionary aesthetic in everything that he does, that it’s hard for him to go wrong.
What did you think of the Spring Breakers soundtrack?
I think it worked perfectly for the film. If it existed on its own as a piece of music I definitely wouldn’t be into it, but it was very intentional why he used what he used. Skrillex is kind of the perfect man for the job in terms of the culture that Harmony was trying to portray.
Would you ever go to a Skrillex show?
Yea, would you personally?
Uh, I’m not dying to see that or anything. But I do have friends whose opinion I respect a lot that said they’ve gone to see him and it was really amazing. So based on those opinions, I’m kind of interested to see it at some point, but you know, it’s definitely — it will probably never happen, I’ll put it that way (laughs.)