Brian DeGraw of Gang Gang Dance answers the Questions of Doom
Often when I listen to Gang Gang Dance, I feel that they are trying to mesh in everything, like they are trying too record the musical history of their fractured world (from psychedelia, ambient, glitchy electronica, dub and tribal rhythm) with the express intention of freaking. But this? This year's release 'Eye Contact'? It kinda freaked me out. It is akin to being stuck in a Mondo Michael Mann film about whispering schizophrenics in a french disco (and then the beat kicks in ...). What can I say? Gang Gang Dance went all transcendental this year. Eye Contact is the epoch of Gang Gang Dance. We had absolutely no choice but to get Brian Degraw of Gang Gang Dance in for this week's Questions of Doom to discuss no-wave, influences, Lee Scratch Perry, going from Dowtown '01 to 10,000 people, and whether or not Terence Malick will ever direct a Gang Gang Dance video.
Who is Brian Degraw?
I'm still trying to figure that out. I've known him for a long time but there are a lot of puzzle pieces that seem to have fallen on the floor…..i think the dog may have eaten them.
The genesis of Gang Gang Dance, Black Dice, Animal Collective and other acts was an exciting time for music and revived the idea of an 'arts' scene. Were you under the vibes of Downtown NYC art scene of the early 80s (Basquiat, No Wave, Disco et al)? And how much do you think has changed in the musical scene since the original inception/reception of Gang Gang Dance?
I would say i grew up under the influence of that 80's scene you mention…i mean..at least in a romantic sense. Its what drew me to live in the city i think…this idea of just existing in the streets and thriving on the struggle….brown bagging beers and trying to hustle paintings….not being able to afford an apartment. I loved living in the city during the time when i could romanticize these things. It was such a great time for me. When we started Gang Gang we were still existing in that world. We were playing galleries mostly and just doing improvised shows wherever and whenever we could…just jamming with free jazz musicians or playing with bands that had just been conceived the previous night. We weren't taking any of it seriously…except for the energy….but we were never thinking about how we fit in or didn't fit in or where any of it would take us….none of those thoughts were part of the equation…it was just straight up ritual and a chance to hopefully get some free beers with our downtown posse. Really special times.
It has changed quite a lot since then. I mean…last night we were playing to 10,000 people and i was stressing about our set time and my gear being broken and i was having an anxiety attack about having to do interviews after we played….it's pretty far from that romantic zone of the past….but of course the present will become the past of the future and I'm sure i will be sitting around talking about how great it was to play to 10,000 people,etc,etc…..that's just how life works. I have to remind myself that the "good ol days" are constantly being created…that's very important.
How important is the internet to the aesthetic of your music?
I wouldn't consider it important at all to our music. In fact i'd be pretty excited to be rid of it for the duration of the recording of a record. I enjoy the internet for sure but i am definitely longing for a more direct creative environment that doesn't involve the brain being subconsciously inundated with all the residual cultural residue that seeps out of the screen everytime the computer is turned on.
What draws me into Gang Gang Dance world, over and over again, is how entertaining the 'unobvious' it is, I keep hearing different things, and sometimes it feels as if you are trying to compress all the music on the internet into a song - is no influence too unlikely for Gang Gang?
Influence just happens…that what it is. We are not a very conscious band in terms of setting out to achieve a certain result. I think whenever we have done that it has been our worst output. Our music only makes sense and is only comfortable to us when its origins are a mystery to us. It has to come out of the sky or else it just doesn't feel good, y'know? If we sit around and try to write too much or if we try too hard to make something sound specific it just ends up being really unnatural. I'm sure a lot of those unnatural sounding things that we have abandoned could probably be very nine to listen to for outside ears….maybe even hits…like radio hits….but its just too uncomfortable to put that kind of hyper-conscious thing out into the universe. That isn't why i make music. I am drawn to mystery and i fell that the music world lacks mystery more and more these days and its kind of sad to me,
Anyway…..yeah…we aren't really "trying" to do anything. We just happen to listen to lots of different types of music from all over the world so of course its all gonna work its way into what we do in some way or another but its definitely coming more from the subconscious than the conscious.
You've DJ'ed - what is your biggest dance stormer?
I've been DJ'ing since 1998 so there have been many different stormers throughout those 13 years. As for right now the one i look forward to busting out every night is "Samba mi Negra" by Javier Estrada. But there are a few tunes that i have been playing for years almost overtime i play out ..things like "Spastik" by Plastikman or the first song on side A of this Batterria Carnival record i have. Percussion driven tunes i guess…things that incite or enhance the ritualistic and celebratory feelings of the dancefloor.
The covers for Eye Contact seem very important to the whole picture of the album. What were you trying to express?
Well…i wanted to use an aspect of the animal world that…of nature….that referenced the idea of eye contact directly. I was looking at a lot of different insect photography..looking for iridescent eyes..and i found a lot of amazing photos but they all seemed too literal. when i finally came across the photo that became the cover i was struck by it in a way that i am always waiting for an image to strike me. I liked that it suggested the idea of a stare without really being too directly 'that'. I like to take images an process them or effect them on the computer or with collage….and with this image i really loved how nature had already done that for me. The beads of water had already obscured the directness of the image in a way that i would have tried to achieve using a computer program. There are so many thing i love about that image.
The remix by Lee Scratch Perry was a total summer miracle, how did that come about?
It was on a whim really. I mean….we were asked who we'd like to remix the song and we had a short list of people we were psyched on and then Liz said 'what about Lee Perry'?…and its funny because Liz often throws out all these ideas that are extremely unattainable for a group of our status….like really hard to reach things or things that are so insanely beyond our budget that its laughable…and we are always joking with her and given her shit when she does that. She'll be like "oh….lets get Jay-Z on this track?"..or like "lets get Terrence Malick to direct our video"….hahaha…..but anyway, when she mentioned Lee Perry we kinda put it on that list of the unattainable, but i guess we learned our lesson with that one cuz the label came back to us and said it was a go. We feel really blessed to have crossed paths with him. Its really special to us. We saw him perform at ATP a few months ago and it was absolutely incredible. The psychic energy of that man and the power in his music is mind-blowing.
I love the title 'Eye Contact' - it exposes several different meanings, and it almost 'feels' like a threat when I listen to it - what was the reasoning behind the title 'Eye Contact'?
Hmmm….its interesting that you say it feels like a threat. That's kind of the idea behind it….i just never thought to relate it to the word 'threat'. Its just about directness really. I feel like most of our records in the past evoke a sort of escapist feeling…like a record that is listened to with eyes closed…a drifting away kind of thing…and this one i thought sounded wide-eyed and i imagined it being music to look at, music that was not an escape but rather a more present moment that is really right up in your face acknowledging the fact that bit you an I are right here right now.
What has been the biggest misconception of Gang Gang Dance?
That we are from Brooklyn and that we are cursed with bad luck.
We have always been a Manhattan band. We grew out of the Lower East Side streets…not out of Williamsburg.
And the bad luck thing……i don't like that. Yes our band member was struck by lightning, yes all of our gear was burnt to the ground in a fire, yes Liz caught on fire and during a performance and was hospitalized for months, the list goes on for sure…but what people don't understand is the beauty in these things and the fact that the forces of the world are strong and when they interact with us in such dramatic ways there is a power that is handed down to us from them. I mean….Nathan in particular…there is no better example. He used to climb to the tops of trees and ask for the sky to take him….and not in a dark way…not in a suicidal way….it was his goal..he was an explorer of the senses and of the magic in the elements. So when he ascended….obviously it was really hard for all of us not having his physical self around anymore…but the glory of his ascension is really magical and i cant imagine that he is not excited to have achieved this goal of his. To have really summoned this exploration that so few have the power to summon. I wouldn't call that bad luck…..not at all.
What is the biggest secret of Gang Gang Dance?
The secret of prayer is prayer in secret.
What new bands should we be checking out?
Nguzunguzu, Total Freedom, Nikolas, Thulebasen.