Singer Lizzie Bougatsos talks about wearing masks and her mindblowing band.
Gang Gang Dance are a natural phenomena. Since their Brooklyn formation in 2001, out of previous musical encounters Cranium and Death & Dying, the trio have existed outside of the normal strictures of music, inhabiting their own little (and ever growing) world. That world seems to include everything from grime to world music to Sinead O’Connor. Their ability to present their ideas in the loosest – yet comprehensible – sense has nurtured releases which are, at times closer to freeform compositions than traditional albums, stuff as diverse as God’s Money, RAWWAR, and the visual treat of DVD Retina Riddim. Their recent album, Saint Dymphna, sees them embracing, consciously or not, a pop dynamic – in tracks like ‘House Jam’ and ‘Princes’ you can literally hear the distillation of their experimentation into bite-size pop. And in doing so, they represent the perfect antidote to the banality of much of today’s music – undeterred, unrestrained, and unashamed.
Singer Lizzie Bougatsos and keyboardist Brian DeGraw’s involvement in the NYC visual arts scene permeates their music. They are one of the few bands where the visual element is contiguous to the music, personal and not the end product of a wacky song. Live, they more than nod to the ritualistic practices of the tribal sounds they appropriate, leaving their fans entranced in the polyrhythms and improv Burundi-esque drumming. At one point during the Dingwalls gig, the band were accompanied by the indiscriminate drumming of Alexis Taylor, who was supporting them. The gig was an impressive mix of improv with a only a hint of Saint Dymphna’s structure – an awesome, full-on psyche-out, like Can in the late seventies. That good, totally.
Gang Gang Dance isn’t the safest place to be. In 2002 one of the founding members, Nathan Maddox, was tragically struck by lightning and killed, and recently their equipment was destroyed in an electrical fire at an Amsterdam venue. However, it seems that the destruction of their instruments has been almost cathartic, and they’ve recently embarked on the European leg of the tour they had to cancel. Alongside this, they will support Animal Collective at their London date and play Green Man Festival in August, while continuing to record material for the new album. I managed to catch up with a very tired but chilled Lizzie in between technical difficulties – and an ever-expanding line of interviewers – before their Dingwalls gig.
Simon Reynolds commented recently on the middle ground in the improv scene – about bands like Animal Collective and yourself, who started out in improv, now using structure, melody and pop elements – and Saint Dympha has esoteric pop elements. Where you conscious of this during recording?
I think it was just a natural progression. It was natural, because at the beginning, when we started out as an improv band, that was a time and a place that was sort of reactionary with what was happening in the music scene. People were trying to really form bands and Animal Collective were just touring all over the place, playing live to three people in like Fargo, Mississippi or something… And then they would come back and we would have a practice space, and it was very much like taking anything you could to make a beat.
Using random, found objects? Like early 80s No Wave?
Yeah, we used to drum on chairs; I even had one of the members of my band bring all this percussion and he would fall asleep during practice. That was a really amazing time in NYC, because we would just practice, like one band would practice and then another would be outside listening – or Black Dice would be practicing and we would be outside listening – we’d never interrupt each other. It was just a raw thing, were everyone was just curious; they just needed to revolt against the people that wanted to make bands, who were really tying to be a band.
I think No Wave was kind of like that too because a lot of them were art school, they were trying to make sense of what it meant to make music. I think after a while, with the music that was sort of taking off, it just got really boring. For example, when we did ‘God’s Money’ – then we had to do structure, we had to write songs – we were bored with improv-ing, basically. You have to evolve and I’ve grown up listening to tonnes of pop music. In high school there was an alternative radio station called WLLR in the tri-state area, and they would play Sinead [O’Connor], Eric B & Rakim. Sometimes I take Sinead’s autobiography on tour with me – I actually learned how to sing through Sinead, she taught me how to hold notes!
Honestly, my drummer when I started Gang Gang Dance, he bought me The Dreaming in 1999, and I was really mad at him, so out of protest I would just play it when he wasn’t around. And I would never show him that I was. So I didn’t really study it, but I did love the dramatic elements to Kate Bush’s voice, and how she would create drama, almost as if she was an opera singer.
I think on Saint Dymphna [vocally] it has an opera-influence, sort of Maria Callas. I remember my drummer found an opera singer mention she was the only singer they liked in the indie world. So I got some opera appreciation! I also listen to folk music a lot, actually. One of the folk singers I listen to is Mary Margaret O’Hara, she’s from Vancouver, and never really got in the spotlight. My drummer, Tim DeWit, and I used to cover a lot of her songs, there is one song we cover – Help Me Lift You Up – it’s a wonderful song, you should hear it. Her album is called Miss America and one of my favourite songs on it is called Bodies in Trouble , and it is really about a woman using her voice and her body, singing from her soul.
Yeah, totally. I mean, sometimes it can be hard to comprehend what you sing but it doesn’t matter because you conveys so much more – like Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins…
Elizabeth Fraser – that’s how I always validated when people would say to me, ‘OK, people don’t know what you’re saying.’ Like how long have you been listening to the concerts? That’s how I always compose music, from emotion.
The visual element of Saint Dymphna is amazing and works so well with the music – is that you on the cover, by the way?
We always try to make the artwork represent the album; music has a visual element. It’s actually a friend of ours who is on the cover of the album. The album art was the product of a piece we did in the  Whitney Biennial in New York, were we made masks and we performed Vacuum behind a mirror so when the audience came in they saw themselves in the mirror but then Brian painted the mirror so eventually the projection of us in the back was projected onto the mirror. But we made all the masks; it was sort of like we were different people, it really felt like we were in some cult.
Actually, is it one of the mirrored masks in the Panda Bear video Brian directed ?
Yeah, he made the mask for the Panda Bear video, I think, and then we used it in the Whitney. We made about 14 or 15 masks – you can see the performance on YouTube.
Do you ever wear the masks live?
We did in Copenhagen once because we performed in this sort of weird residency at an opera house…
Ah, the The Knife are doing some sort of opera based on Darwinism in Copenhagen and some other places in Scandinavia…
That’s interesting; tell them to find the large toothbrush! I had great costumes for that, but we all had really cool masks. We like theatrics!
So this is my second attempt at seeing you play live this year after you had to cancel the tour because of your instruments literally melting away in Amsterdam.
Yeah it was pretty dramatic! You can see the actual photographs of some of the charred instruments on Brian’s blog. It was devastating, it felt like that film ‘28 Days Later’ – it was really like the end of the world!
How have you recovered from that?
Honestly, we’ve been through the ringer a few times…
I heard about your fourth band member being struck by lightning…
I feel like we have total street credibility at this point! But, for us, the Phoenix rose from the flames. It really did, it brought the band together – and since then we’ve hired a spiritual advisor on tour with us – he’s here today. He’s called Takahiro, but he goes by the name of ‘Baby Love’. So we’ve decided to take him on tour with us constantly, like a very old friend of ours, he keeps us grounded and centred in tough times! He holds my hand when I need my hand held!
You’re just back from Primavera, how was it?
Amazing! We played to 8,000 people, and I was very shocked because we played at the same time as Sonic Youth and Ghostface Killa. But we had such a great crowd.
Gang Gang Dance seems to have love for skewed UK pop and grime, what with Alexis supporting tonight and Tinchy Stryder on Princes. What do you find in particular interesting with grime?
Basically we got into grime through some pirate radio tapes we were given, and we heard it & it reminded us of the beats we made in our practice space. So they felt pretty raw. We’ve been pushing grime a lot – I identify with it through the rap I listened to growing up: artists like Public Enemy, N.W.A…and Wu-Tang. Which really brought rap and made it what it needed to be, and I feel grime is similar to that in the UK…although I also identify with it in a personal way because of the beats. There is this guy in Detroit, he’s 18 and he’s amazing, his name is Kyle Hall – we’ve put him on our MySpace – and he’s our new Prince!
Can we expect him on the next album?
Well, we’re definitely going to try and get him on tour with us. He’s quite young, but then again Tinchy had to go home the first time we played with him.
If you liked this article, you should read our piece on Fever Ray