Photo: Ari Marcopoulos

Always Strange No Matter Where We Are: An Interview with Gang Gang Dance

Gang Gang Dance multi-instrumentalist Brian DeGraw discusses the process behind the experimental band’s first record (and arguably most accessible) in seven years, Kazuashita.

Gang Gang Dance
22 June 2018

Did Gang Gang Dance break a mirror? It’s been seven years since the NYC experimentalists released new music. That’s forever in band time. But fortune smiles: a new album, Kazuashita, is out on 4AD. As if acknowledging the long wait, it opens with a funhouse of oozing synth sounds that play like an entity roused from stasis. It’s a melted, post-hibernation soundscape from which the band — currently consisting of singer/percussionist Lizzi Bougatsos, multi-instrumentalist Brian DeGraw, and guitarist Josh Diamond — boot up an insanely good, free-flowing set of songs.

The album is named after the new baby of the band’s spiritual associate, Taka Imamura. On the phone with Brian DeGraw — whose relaxed demeanor belies the scary amount of musical multitasking he juggles in a live setting — I ask if naming the album in such a way implies that birth and new life are themes that the album explores.

“I would say so, yeah. I think it’s one way of looking at this underlying narrative on the record for sure,” Brian affirms. “I think there’s a couple of ways you can read it, and one of them is that [the record] is this journey from the death of something into the birth of something new. This directly relates to the state of where we’re at in the world right now. And so that was definitely a theme on a few different levels.”

What’s it like to have a new record out, knowing that politics and technology have drastically mutated between releases? “It’s a little bit alien,” Brian admits. “We never dealt with Spotify and things like that on the last record, and the way people listen to music now is different, and the attention span is a little bit different, and the use of social media is a lot different. Those things, more than anything, are what feel a little bit alien. It was 2011 when Eye Contact came out, so [social media] was a thing then, but it wasn’t as widespread and everyday as it is now. And then, of course, the political side, that always feels strange no matter where we are.”

Kazuashita‘s far-flung influences swirl in a tonal constellation of New Age, ambient, dream pop, sci-fi exotica, and electro-acoustic sounds. Like a constellation, these influences achieve a self-evident shape comprised of otherwise unrelated elements. The points cohere into a gestalt that can only really be called a Gang Gang Dance record. Unsurprisingly, “Gang Gang Dance” has long been a quick tag applied to any music made in a genre-porous, magpie manner. Yet this strategy is increasingly the way music is made now — production as curation and combination, to put it bluntly. I ask Brian if he agrees.

“I do, yeah,” he says. “And I think that also, weirdly, that has a lot to do with the sound of this particular record. I wanted to do something a little bit different from our normal process because that feels a little bit more widespread now. The way that people approach music does feel similar to the way that we always did, and I’m always, for better or worse, turned off by the idea of the popular process. I would definitely say that affected the record a lot, realizing that people are approaching music the way that we did, sort of pre-internet, and now with the internet, it’s easier to approach music the way we always had in the past. So when we first started making this record, I remember that being a thing we wanted to avoid.”

“I’m not saying we’re like responsible for anything or anything like that, but as you said, the approach now is more similar to the way we did things,” Brian continues. “I thought it would be nice not to do that, and make a more expansive thing that breathes more and was a little more rootsy.”

While making Kazuashita Brian returned to music he absorbed back in high school, “things like Disintegration by the Cure, the B-side of Low by Bowie. Those are records that I listened to when I was like, whatever, 15,” he says. “I hadn’t really thought about those records in a long time, or at least hadn’t thought of them in terms of using them as an influence. They were just in the back catalogue of my brain, but I started re-listening to those things a lot. That felt, to me, like a good way to approach avoiding making music the way we always had, or the way that everyone else sort of is now. Mostly just do a massive rewind.”

The massive rewind led to an album that flows in an uninterrupted, nuanced, 40-minute arc. When not journeying through free-form Bardo soundscapes, songs are built from sequencer patterns that fractal and superimpose, through which Lizzi’s vocals dance and dart, light as helium, often seemingly near the point of evaporation. The record’s production has a holographic quality — detailed and dimensional, fully iridescent as if shaped from light instead of by matter.

But opposite of my glowing platitudes, DeGraw is characteristically nonchalant about the album’s genesis. “We started talking about it about three years ago, and then it was just like, we decided to do it, we told the label we were going to do it, and then we kind of sat around for like almost a year before we actually did anything,” he says with a laugh.

Kazuashita came together unlike the band’s prior works. With members spread across New York City and Upstate New York, parts were often written independently and later assembled in the studio. “It’s always about communing and jamming and improvising and then slowly shaping songs out of that,” DeGraw explains. “But, this record we didn’t do that much at all. One or two songs were based on that process, but for the most part, we made a record where there were these skeletal things we brought into the studio and then added to. That has very much never been our process in the past.”

Though the band’s process differed, Kazuashita is — to make a self-reference error both acknowledged and unavoidable — completely and unmistakably the work of Gang Gang Dance. While their early albums felt like glimpses into the future, Kazuashita rests comfortably, perfectly, within an interconnected, content-omnivorous era.