Q&A with Gang Gang Dance's Lizzi Bougatsos
New York City practically sweats innovative bands, but it has produced few as utterly otherworldly as Gang Gang Dance (due at the Larimer Lounge on Friday, November 7, with Marnie Stern). Bandmembers Lizzi Bougatsos, Brian DeGraw, Tim DeWit and Josh Diamond utilize all manner of percussion, keyboards and electronics to create a sort of melting-pot avant-pop, music that hints at everything from synth-pop to hip-hop to new age, from psychedelia to Middle Eastern dance music to Afrobeat. The band’s new album, Saint Dymphna, is its first in three years, and it contains some of the most thrilling moments of music heard all year. We recently spoke with a groggy Bougatsos – who had just woken up and was sore from moving -- about band poverty, getting in fights with tourmates’ managers and a possible collaboration with the GZA(!).
Westword (Kyle Smith): You guys have said you had kind of a long and difficult gestation period for this record. Can you talk a little bit about the how and the why?
Lizzi Bougatsos: You know…I guess the money ran out in the beginning, and then we had to keep it in the recording process with touring, just like shows here and there, just to raise money to finish it. But every time we got to another studio, in the middle of it we’d run out of money again and we’d have to go play a show, so we were interrupted by touring, and some of the studios…we were never really comfortable with the sound of our songs, or maybe just our songs, not even the sound of the studio, just our songs — our songwriting process kept getting interrupted. And then we made the DVD [Retina Riddim], and we made the EP [RAWWAR]…. The EP came out of some of the sessions, but yeah, basically it was just interruptions and then throwing everything that we previously recorded out. We kind of made, like, six albums in that time period.
WW: Wow, that must have been frustrating.
LB: Yeah, we tried out maybe four or five different studios, and we worked with, you know, five different engineers, and they were all great, but we kept just having — when we’d come back with the material, it was just too long of a thing, not enough time in one place, basically.
WW: On this album, you guys made the hip-hop element that’s always been implicit in your music explicit with the song “Princes.” Do you see yourselves working more with rappers in the future?
LB: Yeah, we have some offers, actually. The GZA from Wu-Tang is interested in working with us, and he’s contacted our manager in the past, so I’m really hoping that comes to fruition.
WW: Yeah? Wow. That would be awesome. The copy of your album that I reviewed was a digital copy, so I don’t have the liner notes, but I swear I hear another rapper on that song. Is that true?
LB: On “Princes”?
WW: Yeah, I hear a different voice.
LB: Um, it’s me and [U.K. grime rapper] Tinchy [Stryder], and that’s it. [Laughs.] I think the other voice is Tinchy, but Brian put our vocals through another effect, so it sounds like another rapper…so maybe it’s three of us. [Laughs.]
WW: How did you come to work with Tinchy?
LB: We were fans for a while, and we were in a studio in London called Southern Studios, and there was this production team there called Tim & Barry — they have a website you should check out, it’s really cool, it’s called timandbarry.com — they take photographs and document a lot of the live scene in the U.K., and they knew we were fans because we talk about it a lot, so they brought him into the studio, and that’s how it happened. [Laughs.] But they knew — we have a booking agent in the U.K. that’s played with Tinchy, so he’s opened that track before, so they kind of knew from that that we were fans.
WW: You guys — especially Brian — have said that you find a lot of Western or American, whatever, pop music not very interesting. What are you listening to, say, right now?
LB: Right now — there was Billy Joel’s “Pressure.” [To other bandmembers] Hey, what is this that we’re listening to right now? Oh, Grace Jones. We’ve been listening to a lot of Grace Jones in the van. We love Grace Jones right now. Other than that…Josh made a mix that we started out with yesterday…some other stuff that I didn’t really know what it was — there was a Kate Bush song that was really amazing. Then Brian just made a mix that had that Billy Joel song on it, so it’s quite an eclectic mix that we have in the van with us today. [Laughs.]
WW: Is it an explicit aim of the band to bring in non-Western sounds and things like that, or is it just what you guys like to play?
LB: I think it’s really just what we’ve been listening to for a long time; we’ve been a band for almost ten years now, and…I dunno, Josh gets a lot of his inspiration from West African guitar and, you know, Tim and Brian met in D.C., that’s where they started to play music, and there was a very large Ethiopian community there, and I grew up with a lot of rap music, and I think it kind of is just part of who we are, you know, through the whole ride.
WW: I wrote a little review of your album, and I said that you guys have kind of a box-of-chocolates approach; you really don’t ever know what you’re going to get when you put on a Gang Gang Dance song. Your writing process is very improvisational; how often do you surprise yourselves, like “How did we end up here from where we started?”
LB: Well, we like to go in with a free mind, basically with no idea of what’s going to happen. The only thing that was conscious about this record was that Brian was going to sequence and add sort of a DJ element, because he’s a live DJ. So we knew that element was going to be in there, so maybe that kinda made it more accessible-sounding. But to be honest, we never really said, like, we never said with God’s Money, “Oh, we’re going to make this pop record.” We never set goals like that.
I think…I think maybe the next one will be a little more ambient? [Laughs.] But I don’t know. I have these visions of the Arctic in my mind; we’re going to Joshua Tree to record it, and I think the Arctic idea for me was more what happened when we did the BoaDrum [88BoaDrum, a bicoastal drumming event organized by Japanese band Boredoms; Gang Gang Dance led the New York group] last summer, we kind of did the Arctic with the lighting, so…[Laughs.] So I don’t know what’s gonna happen with the next one. [Laughs.] I like to go in with no idea, absolutely no limitations, nothing.
WW: You guys are known for at least occasionally having some crazy shows. Has anything crazy happened at a show recently?
LB: Um…we got in a huge fight with Tricky’s manager in Cologne.
WW: Oh, wow.
LB: I had to hold my tongue because I was afraid that we was gonna hit the back of my neck with a bottle.
WW: Wow. What happened, if you don’t mind my asking?
LB: Um, I dunno, he just said some really mean things. Like, the people in the band were really nice, but he basically had his whole crew take all of our stuff and throw it off the stage, and said, you know, “Get your shit off the stage, you’re the support band,” basically like we had no rights. So, um…[Laughs.] You know, mouths started going off…as we were packing up outside, it really broke out into some nasty stuff, but I’ll just say that when you mess with the Gang, you know, things get pretty…
WW: You guys are pretty tough, huh?
LB: We’ll just leave it at that. [Laughs.]
WW: The last time you were in Denver, which was about a year and a half ago, the effects pedals that you use with your vocals weren’t working, and you tried to borrow some from Pictureplane, one of the opening bands, and that didn’t work, either, and it was, I dunno, kind of a heartwarming moment, or something, because you were very vulnerable, like, “Man, I’ve never sung without my pedals before. Can I do it?” And you were like, “Yeah, I can do it.” And you did, and it was great, and it was a great show. But you’ve said before that you’re often using borrowed or used equipment and that you often have problems with it. Have you been able to afford some better equipment recently?
LB: Not really. [To another bandmember] I’m doing an interview with a guy from Denver. [To Westword] Do you want to say hello to everybody? Wait, hang on a second. [Lots of laughing, noise.] I know it looks like — I know it — oh, he has a monkey. [Monkey sounds in background.] That was for you. We’re just charming you right now. [Laughs.] You’re getting some good, uh, juice from the Gang here. [Laughs.]
No, I guess…no, nothing has changed. We still have the same stuff, and actually, I had even bigger problems when I was in the U.K., because some of my pedals were just going crazy. And honestly, we haven’t been able to afford anything new. But my mom did say she would get me a pair of congas for my birthday. [Laughs.] So that’s basically the newest thing I’m gonna get. [Laughs.] It’s not all that it seems, you know what I mean? You might sign to a bigger label, but, you know…nothing new has happened yet. [Laughs.]