Gang Gang Dance Tries to Explain Their Experimental Sound
It’s just after midnight, and the members of Gang Gang Dance—(from left) drummer Jesse Lee, keyboardist Brian DeGraw, lead singer Lizzi Bougatsos, guitarist Josh Diamond, and visual artist Taka Imamura—are picking at the scraps of Mexican take-out while discussing their new album, Eye Contact. The table in this Noho photo studio looks like a beaten-up buffet, littered with half-noshed quesadillas, splattered salsa, and dented aluminum containers. “We didn’t set out with the goal of forming a band,” says Bougatsos, the Manhattan-based electro ensemble’s ringleader, her picture-window eyes darting around the room. “We were looking around, sort of laughing at all of these people who were suddenly obsessed with being in a band.”
Gang Gang Dance is one of the greatest enigmas in contemporary music. Although they insist on the simplicity of their creative process, the rest of us have trouble categorizing their signature sound. For the past 10 years and over four albums—Revival of the Shittest, Gang Gang Dance, God’s Money, and Saint Dymphna—their music has been deliciously but frustratingly changeable, mixing together mutated tribal beats and R&B noises with percussive hip-hop and warped electronica. The term “alternative” doesn’t even scratch the surface.
Some fans are even reluctant to call them a band. In their first years together, Gang Gang Dance bounced around with like-minded musicians such as Animal Collective and TV on the Radio, jamming together in informal practice spaces and at spontaneous happenings—shows Bougatsos is rumored to have missed altogether. “I made it to every show!” she squeals, laughing, when her attendance is questioned. “Sure, but you were so late my friend Rita had to perform in your place,” says Diamond, shooting her a playful look.
“The turning point for us really came when one of our band members passed away,” Bougatsos says of the group’s eventual cohesion. In 2002, their drummer, Nathan Maddox, died instantly after being struck by lightning while watching a storm from the roof of a Chinatown apartment. “We all believe that’s where he wanted to go,” says Bougatsos, motioning to the sky. “So once he went there we felt like we had more of a mission. I personally felt this need to spread his legacy, or spread the nature of his spirit, and I didn’t know how that worked within the band, but I knew that he was in the band, and that he’d want us to continue what we were doing.”
“After his death, we started playing so much because we needed to recreate, however successfully, the feeling of being with him,” Diamond says. Maddox’s likeness appears on much of the band’s cover art. God’s Money, for example, features their late friend’s intense gaze through a clash of ritualistic face paint. “He had these strong blue eyes that were really amazing,” says DeGraw.
Ironically, the band’s fifth album, Eye Contact, doesn’t have Maddox on its cover. Instead, it features an insect shimmering with dew. (The group vehemently dismisses any suggestion that his influence has waned.) “Eye Contact has become a theme without us really realizing it,” DeGraw says. “On our other albums it was more about shutting your eyes and escaping into the music, but this album didn’t have that same quality.” The rest of them nod their heads. “When things get really cookin’, the sounds we make become our eye contact with each other: my hands on a guitar, lost in my senses, which become really fluid,” says Diamond. Bougatsos adds, “Maybe the whole idea of eye contact is like being one big eye, like with the audience and with the band, and with everything.”
For all their neo-hippie gravitas, the members of Gang Gang Dance don’t actually take themselves too seriously. Kicking off their spacey first track, “Glass Jar,” Imamura sets the tone for the album, saying very simply, “I can hear everything. It’s everything time.” It’s an improvised moment that made its way into the 11-minute song, but it’s no less arresting for its spontaneity. The rest of Eye Contact flows like many of their previous works—you can’t help but feel as though you’re following some sort of ghostly narrative. “The reason we make music is spiritual,” says Lee, the band’s latest permanent addition. “And we all know you can’t plan miracles.”
Photography by Eric Guillemain.