[Q&A] Gang Gang Dance's Brian DeGraw on being a hippie in the big city, avoiding downer vibes and going toward the light as much as possible

Many bands think that they are trippy, but few possess the full-on will to be weird of Brooklyn's GANG GANG DANCE. Having existed for more than a decade on the fringes of the indie world, their glacial refinement of their globe-trotting sound is finally starting to pay off in amazing albums. back in 2008, we thought that their then-new Saint Dymphna was the sound of a jam-band getting their shit together; little did we know that three years later they'd put out an insanely rad album that would make that record sound like overcooked vermicelli by comparison. Eye Contact is what it sounds like when consumate improv wanderers re-calibrate their mapping devices and laser-beam full-on jammy-jams into your skull. We featured the band in this week's issue, in anticipation of their show tonight at Brighton Music Hall, as part of a rare full-on tour by the band that is pretty much a must-see. But our conversation with multi-instrumentalist and founding GGD-er Brian DeGraw left tons of awesome stuff on the cutting room floor; here's the whole convo. Enjoy!

For this album, did you guys have an idea in mind when you set out, to make a record that sounded a certain way?

We don’t normally ever have any sort of idea of what we’re making. I don’t think we’ve ever had that for any record. And I feel like in the past, when we have maybe tried to have an idea is when it all goes wrong! So definitely with this one we didn’t set out with a goal of it being one thing or another. With our last record, Saint Dymphna, we actually had some ideas of what we maybe wanted it to sound like and we ended up recording that thing like four different times, throwing it out. So that’s a pretty good example of what happens when we try to set an aesthetic goal for a record. It’s more just about improvising, really, and letting the songs evolve out of that.

Gang Gang Dance used to be entirely improvisational-- what is your process like now? I know that you don’t have pre-written songs or anything, but I’m curious how it works.

It’s more about, you know, it always comes out of jamming, no one ever comes in with a part or song structure or anything. If anything, someone might come in with a sample, that might be the most we ever have to work off of, someone has one thing maybe. But no one ever comes in with a song or an idea for a song or a written part, it’s just jamming and jamming and jamming for hours and then recording those jams and then usually we kind of all know when we’re playing when something clicks and we all unanimously agree or can sense that that could become a song, or something that we want to return to. So that’s the process, and the reason that the sound jams is because of all the work after that point, when we go back and rehearse one part, add bridges or choruses or whatever you want to call it, and evolve it from there. But it’s definitely never a kind of “Ok, step one, here’s a song, you play this, you play that”, etc.

It seems like it’s been a gradual shift from the way you did things in the beginning.

It was pretty gradual-- not conscious! It happened, and it’s been happening, and it continues to happen, more and more. Around 2005, when we made God’s Money, it was the first time we made a record without doing just a straight improvised recording, as we did on the 2 or 3 records before that. All of those records, there was no editing after the fact aside from sequencing the record. We never took a recording and went back over it or change it or anything, it was a straight document of the jams. With God’s Money, we started structuring things. We started recording these improvs and then refined them. Before that, it was just straight improv. boombox recordings, that would be the record.

What made you guys shift from straight improv?

We were improvising for a while, for five years or so. I mean, I hesitate to say that, though, since the basis of everything we do is still improvisation. But we did that for so long that it became stagnant, in a way. It’s backwards in a way to think that the free-est form of music could actually become, like, limiting, but it did become that because we found ourselves using the same setup all the time, going through the same motions. And pretty much after five years of doing that we were ending up with the same sounding recordings over and over. It just sort of became its own sort of-- what we produced just was sounding too much alike and we became bored. And we thought “Let’s actually try to make songs”, and that became this whole world that we had never even considered and it was so exciting. And I still find it extremely exciting because we’re still not born from that, so it’s this whole world to explore. Each record since God’s Money has been extremely exciting to explore.

Gang Gang Dance is a remarkably diverse group, musically, but you seem to go to lengths not to wear your influences too overtly.

We’ve always just been into all different types of music, that’s never been a very conscious thing either, as far as using influences, being into music from all over the place, that’s very natural and has become obviously part of what we do. Again, it’s not a very conscious thing, we don’t try to have our music sound like something, or make it obvious that we listen to music from all parts of the world. But we do and it comes out, rears its head in our music. And it gets filtered so heavily through our personalities.

It’s interesting: so many groups love to wear their influences on their sleeves. Does that sort of thing make you guys uncomfortable?

I think we’re very very aware of how awful it is to mimic another type of music. That’s like really a big turnoff to us, when we see a group that is re-creating-- not even music from another part of the world, but that’s even worse. But for us, it’s just our worse nightmare to be anything other than completely original. So sometimes we even find ourselves having made a song that is really, I guess, easy or we’re really satisfied listening to it, but because it’s not weird enough or original enough, we just throw it out. We are just not interested in making something that can be compared to other things, I guess. I like the fact that you can hear the influence, that you can listen to our music and think “Oh, this band obviously listens to a lot of different kinds of music”, but that’s as far as I want it to go. We don’t want it to be like “Oh, here’s their West African song” or “And here’s there drum and bass song”, it’s supposed to be a sort of melting pot of everything we like, filtered through us until it becomes something else.

One thing that I think can be said definitively about Gang Gang Dance’s music is that it’s psychedelic. Do you agree, and what are your thoughts on a career of making psychedelic music?

To me, our music is definitely psychedelic and really colorful, and a lot of things that I’ve read about us label us as a “dark” band, which has never made sense to me. I guess a lot of people think that we’re “dark psychedelia”. And I can understand that with our earlier stuff, but with our last few records I consider the music to be light and colorful, and it’s definitely psychedelic in that way. I definitely am very into psychedelic music, I can say that much. I don’t know what to say about what that means to anyone else. I like psychedelic things, in general, this idea of this other realm, this other layer where things are more out-there and abstract and open to interpretation.

“Open to interpretation” seems like a great way of putting it-- and I have to say, I always hear your music as, rather than being dark, being almost overwhelmingly ecstatic. It seems odd that people would see it as dark.

I don’t know why that happens, I really don't know. I know that in the beginning we were on a much darker vibe but even then I don’t feel like we were this gothic group of people. Even our earlier shows sounded a lot darker but I’ve always felt like the energy is uplifting, however the music sounds. It’s meant to be this release, this communal feeling for the audience, not this dark depressing introverted thing. And you know, now more than ever, at least for me, personally, and I think for all of us, our goal is definitely all about going toward the light as much as possible and lifting ourselves and other people up. I don’t think anyone in the group is interested in, you know, downer vibes.

It’s interesting to have that attitude, what with you guys being a New York band; most New York bands revel in the darkness of the city, but it sounds like you’re trying to do the opposite.

The city is pretty crazy to begin with, there’s a lot of struggle and darkness going on and it’s not necessarily the kind of city where people are drawn to making uplifting-- I mean, there’s no hippies here, there’s no peace-loving hippies here! It’s very street, very rough, very whatever. And that’s all good, I love all that. But I think after being here for such a long amount of time, I dunno man, I need to make music to lift me up, I don’t want to get pulled down to deeply into the darkness and all. When I was younger, I thought I’d found a certain romance and charm in all the darkness and grit and toughness, but I never even gave myself the option to not be like that. I never even gave myself the opportunity to explore lightness, to immerse myself in total positivity, and that’s become much more important to me, much more interesting to me, than becoming a gritty angry punk or whatever. I’m much more drawn to exploring the other side, for sure.

I’m actually really intrigued by the New York disco era for exactly those reasons, because it was such a city-wide uplifting energy, I guess. And that sort of disappeared since disco and became this gritty dark thing. But I’m really very much interested in exploring that sort of energy in music.

For a band with such an improv nature and such an organic sound, it’s unusual how much you have worked with electronics and whatnot-- how did that get started, how did electronic instruments permeate the band’s arsenal?

It sort of just happened very slowly-- when we started we didn’t have any electronics except for this tiny little keyboard. I used to play bass actually and everything was about percussion-- drums, guitar, everything just used as percussion. Then I got more into the keyboard and I got a gift certificate from some electronic store for Christmas and I bought a drum pad. And from then on I really started to feel a connection to these electronic sounds, and I started adding effects and other keyboards to the sound. Again, I hate to always reiterate this but we never made very conscious decisions to what we did, that was an example of something that just sort of happened.

I’m sure you’ll answer “No,” but I’m curious if you guys had any pressure riding on you with this record because it’s your debut with 4AD. I mean, was there pressure to sound like the Cocteau Twins or anything?

[laughs] No, no! I think this record was actually the least stressful to make, at least in terms of the last few records, because we were given a little more money to do it and we were able to record it in a comfortable place. Normally we’re crammed in some little box in the city with like two weeks to do the whole thing. This one had the least amount of pressure so we were really able to stretch out a little bit.

Yeah, it’s noticeable, especially in “Glass Jar”-- I know you say you don’t plan things out or anything, but you must have had at least some intention of starting the album out with this monster jam track, like the massive awakening beast, a trick you kind of did before with “Bebey/First Communion” on Saint Dymphna.

I feel like we always kind of want to do that, even when we play live-- we do it to loosen up, to take some deep breaths, before the harder parts kick in, before we have to actually concentrate or whatever, to have this meditation moment where you’re making music but it’s looser and more chill so you can relax and-- you know, it’s like a sonic massage before you have to get into the real workout. We do it a lot live and it felt natural to do it on the record as well. That song was originally much shorter, it didn’t have the ambient intro thing until we started mixing; it used to be a six minute song and it became 11 minutes!
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