Gang Gang Dance

John Bohannon

Photos by Nate Dorr

Listening to Brooklyn’s Gang Gang Dance, it’s evident that experimental music has come full circle over the past century. They hold a very peculiar position in the world of avant-garde expression because the critics can’t seem to find the proper terms to put their sound into words. This is precisely the same thing that happened when Miles Davis decided to bring a Rhodes piano into the room, when John Lennon introduced Beatles fans to Yoko’s squealing rage, and when Arnold Schoenberg first introduced his expressionist works to the world of classical music.

Although Gang Gang Dance might not be working on the same level as the aforementioned, the pesky critics just can’t seem to find the right words to destroy the creative interpretation the band leaves wide open for its audience. There is a significant difference in the way the music-consuming public reacts today to things they don’t understand than the way they did in an age of conformity. We’ve struck the age of non-conformity in underground music circles, and forms of expression that can’t be categorized are being praised to the high heavens. Until a “proper” label can be tagged onto this music (like when “punk” and “rock and roll” were coined in earlier generations), Brian Degraw, Liz Bougatsos, Josh Diamond, and Tim DeWitt have no limitations on the art they can create within Gang Gang Dance and the experimental music world.

“I honestly don’t think we fit anywhere. There’s just never really been a category that we could relate to,” lead singer Bougatsos explains. “Experimental music is the only relationship we do have to any title, because really Gang Gang is a reactionary band. Every experience we have as a band, we take that back and we react to it.”

The band spawned when a friend of Bougatsos passed away back in 1999. “She was a gallerist. Her name was Pat Hern and she was in a band with John Worley’s brother. It was kind of a jazzy band. When she passed away, at her memorial they asked me to sing her song,” Bougatsos says. “So basically, I knew Josh, Tim, and Brian from around town and I asked them to learn the music and at that time they asked me to be their singer. I think that show was really great, so lyrically and musically we just kind of gel. Josh and Tim knew me from around because they were in this band called Cranium and I was singing in another band at the time and we played a show together.”

Over the course of their career they’ve released three full-length albums – Gang Gang Dance (2004), Revival of the Shittest (2004), and God’s Money (2005). Although all have been well received, God’s Money put them high up in the ranks among progressive-experimental music listeners and earned them a credibility they had been striving for up to this point. But inevitably, with a successful album comes the pressure to create one even more successful. “God’s Money was kind of a breakthrough album for us and there was pressure to create that follow-up. I’m trying not to let it affect me,” says Bougatsos with encouragement.

As we wait for that next follow-up, the band is releasing a taste of what’s to come with their RAWWAR EP – a three-song collection that presents more of an effort to capture their live environment. Bougatsos comments on how the new EP differs from the band’s previous catalog. “I think it’s quite similar actually to our previous work just because it sounds like Gang Gang Dance records. But previously, we always recorded our music in different ways, so that might be the only difference because Tim produced and recorded this EP pretty much. If anything, the sounds might have a different quality because of that. Also, we did figure out a way to record a sound that’s more like us. That’s been a huge struggle of ours, and I don’t think we were happy with the way our previous albums were recorded.”

Listening to Bougatsos’s vocal qualities, it’s hard to determine exactly where she gains her influence. Many have claimed Kate Bush, and many compare her sense of rhythm to the sounds of the Middle East. Bougatsos claims a lot of her main influences come from New York hip hop and primitive African music. “Well, they really come from me,” she laughs. “I do love Kate Bush, but my inspiration really comes from rap and R&B and grime – mostly R&B and rap. Its kind of a conglomeration of when I listen to Ethiopian singers and when I listen to rap. Naturally I identify with African singers rhythmically, but lyrically I got a lot of inspiration from rap music.”

As a band working in New York, one would think the influence of the free-flowing nature of the city would come through a lot in a group’s music, but the band seems to think on the contrary. In fact, Bougatsos went as far as comparing their ethos to that of notorious New York hip hop collective The Wu-Tang Clan. “I think really we’re in our own bubble. Although I feel like the Wu Tang Clan, they are spread all over the place now. How incredible it is they can all be together,” Bougatsos says, laughing in a raspy voice before going on a rant about her aforementioned rhythmic influence. “That’s how I see the grime dudes in the UK, similar to the Wu-Tang for us. That’s why I relate to it. I’m more rhythmically for the grime thing – it’s more like the dirty beat. But vocally I relate a little bit more to New York rap. I was raised on the hip hop station here called Hot 97, and I was also raised on progressive music, so I did get Sade and Kate Bush at an early age…it’s kind of a weird mix.”

After their breakthrough with God’s Money, the band was picked by Massive Attack to open for them alongside TV On the Radio at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Bougatsos looks back on that experience: “It was amazing because actually seeing Elizabeth Fraser in the backstage was quite perplexing. I don’t really get idol-crazy ever, because I don’t really think anyone is different from anyone else, but she did take me back pretty far. So experience-wise that was really cool. The guys really liked us and they wanted to work us after that and it would have been better to play longer so they could get more of a taste of our music. We’re definitely homies with the TV On the Radio guys too, and it was really special to actually play together because we’ve been trying to tour together for a long time, but some reason schedule-wise things haven’t really gelled.”

So will we be getting a Massive Attack/Gang Gang Dance collaboration in the near future? “I hope so! I know they’re really busy. I hope they do get in touch with us. I know they want to work with Tim and the producer. I think there is definitely room for us to work together somehow.” Let’s just hope so for our sake and theirs.

With the potential hint of future work with Massive Attack, one might wonder what else comes next for Gang Gang Dance after the release of their new EP. “We have some dates in New York that we’re going to play, because we’re going to Trinidad in March with TV On the Radio. We also some European dates in November, and we have some Japanese dates in September. Besides touring the main thing we’re doing is finishing our full-length in September. So that’s what’s next, and then a lot of touring.”

In a music scene where many groups seem to be revisiting earlier sounds and trying to imitate rather than create, Gang Gang Dance provides a refreshing break from the conventions of modern popular music. Rather than giving us sounds we already know and love, they are challenging us as listeners and putting forth an effort to change the current direction of music. Whether we choose to think of them as groundbreaking or unappealing, Gang Gang Dance will continue to push our musical limits so we can’t box them in. This is why they need to be taken notice of – and quickly, at that.

 
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