Jon Tjhia trades e-mails with Gang Gang Dance’s Brian DeGraw, who teaches him that the Stones make him sick, New York is a giant office, and ‘art school’ is the new ‘new school’. Read on…
Firstly… how and when did Gang Gang Dance come about? Did it arise out of improvisation? If so, tell me about the process of Gang Gang Dance becoming more of a solid project.
Gang Gang formed as a result of all of us spreading ourselves too thin in music “projects” throughout New York city. We had all known each other for quite a while and at some point we realised that we were each just fucking around too much, playing with all these different random people, and never really settling in to anything long enough to really concentrate on the music. So a few years ago we came to a decision to quit all these other little ventures and to focus more as a solid group. Around that same time we began to take what we had learned from years of improvisation, and to began to create some structure out of a musical language amongst the four of us that had now become comfortable and very second nature.
What are your musical backgrounds?
Tim and myself have been playing together for about twelve years now. We met when we were both living in Washington DC and began playing within days after our initial meeting. We had a band called The Crainium for a few years down there. That sort of dissolved somehow and we headed to New York……partly for musical reasons, and partly so I could try to take my visual art a little further. We met Lizzi shortly before we moved up. She would come to Crainium shows whenever we played in New York, and we all eventually formed a close relationship. Around that time she was in Actress which was some sort of conceptual noise type band….four or five people with a disdain for skilled musicianship. They usually just made a racket and there were some more performative elements to the live shows as well. I think the only recordings are on cassette tapes.
Through Lizzi and other mutual friends we met Josh, who was always working at this cafe in the Lower East side where lots of different free jazz and improv musicians would congregate. There were always shows in the back and Josh would be up front simultaneously serving food and playing guitar or violin. Anyway……as the years progressed we all became closer and closer to each other and eventually GGD came to fruition.
What inspires your sound? What do you each listen to for pleasure? Forgive me for asking, but do you listen to Kate Bush?
Yeah… I think it’s safe to say that we all get extremely disgusted listening to “new” music that doesn’ offer any hint of the present or future. There are obviously so many bands nowadays just picking a genre of the past and trying to recreate it in the present, and I think that is a very big factor in why our music sounds the way it does. The frustration definitely works its way into the music and i think all of our minds have been cleared of that whole idea of living in the past and just being comfortable and making music that doesn’ challenge the ear.
But I don’ want it to sound as if its a really conscious thing…like when we sit down to play we say, “alright, this has to sound like nothing that has ever been heard before”…it’s not like that. I’m trying to say that it has become very natural at this point. The music that we make just sort of flows freely out of us. I suppose it’s got a lot to do with what we listen to…which for the most part is extremely modern music in addition to music from many other parts of the world outside of where we live.
You’ll never catch any of us putting on a Stones record or anything like that. That shit makes me sick to my stomach. We tend to listen to things that offer some sort of hope that music is changing and evolving. Lots of hip hop and grime stuff from London…music from Africa, Iran, wherever…anything that sounds fresh and new and exciting to us. And yes…Kate Bush is in the stereo at times as well.
With your style being often improvised, would you share your thoughts about the year it took to record God’s Money â€” what was the process like? Were you all busy with other projects at the same time?
At the time that we were making the record we were also really just getting the songs together, so that meant a lot of re-recording and scrapping things, because we would play a show or something and in the process of rehearsing we would add parts…so we’d have to go back to the studio and re-do a lot of things. A lot of time was spent just improvising and then going back to the practice tapes and thinking about how we could use certain parts within a structured song. So we’d find little bits and then have to go back to practice and try to recreate them. Honestly, its all a bit of a blur as to how the record finally came together…..but those were the general processes.
How do you feel about God’s Money as an album? Also, tell me your thoughts on the awesome title and the themes that drive the music for you.
Well, Tim is definitely not as pleased with the record as the rest of us. He took on the majority of the mixing role and so it’s completely understandable. He had such a specific sound that he wanted out of the finished product, but after weeks and weeks of trying to get it, it became apparent that it just wasn’ possible. We wanted the sound to be more of bass heavy and sharp percussion oriented thing… like something that could fit sonically or production wise into the playlist of hip hop radio. But the way we ended up recording, which was pretty much live, wasn’ really conducive to getting that kind of mix, because there wasn’ enough separation to be able to really pump the drums and get that really solid banging sound.
But I think whatever the case, what we ended up with is quite different from what we were after, but to me it is a pleasant mistake. It ended up sounding a bit more soft and cloudy and new age……which I quite like as a sound within itself.
The album’ title came from something our bandmate Nathan used to say a lot (he was struck by lightning and killed 3 years ago on a NY rooftop). At some point he had gotten some sort of inheritance from a relative. He had always been the poorest of our friends…..no money, no home, just sort of floated around in a very mystical way. He went to live in Egypt for a while and paid off the guards to let him sleep inside the pyramids; spent a lot of time in Israel just roaming around by himself. Anyway, when he got that money and one of us would be starving or something, he would buy us food or drinks or whatever, and when you would try to thank him he would always say, “don’ thank me… it’s Gods money”. He never had money to begin with so when he finally got some it really had very little value to him. It was something he thought should be shared with whomever. And, needless to say, it was gone very, very quickly as a result of that.
Is New York really like the rest of the world seems to think it is, especially in terms of being in a band there? I mean, I saw a photo of Lizzie at an art do with Deborah Harry… Do you think working out of New York is always going to put its stamp on things in some way?
No. Existing in New York is never really the way it is portrayed in the press. Obviously when some situation like the Debbie Harry thing arises, the photographer is there to capture it so that they can put in a magazine or whatever and begin to paint some sort of picture that convinces the reader to continue buying the magazine. If they weren’ able to sensationalise things then they wouldn’ have any readers, because most of the people that buy those things are people that feel they can keep in touch with what is happening culturally by connecting to the sensation. But really when it comes down to it, everyone is just working, just doing whatever they do.
New York is a gigantic office space. Of course there are different communities of friends working towards similar goals and visions,but its certainly not like the Warhol 60’s or anything where you walk in a bar at any given moment and see Gang Gang hanging with Excepter who are sharing drinks with Dustin Hoffman who is getting an incoming cell phone call from Animal Collective who are on their way to the bar with Gwyneth Paltrow because her husband really likes their new record.
Sometimes it gets embarrassingly close to that…but no, we all just work and sweat and pay rent and occasionally get a beer.
I thought you were amazing during your last visit to Australia (I saw your show at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne). Will you tour to Australia again soon, do you think?
We’d love to come back . . . .[edited for legal reasons]. . . Australia was really lovely and we met so many great people there and experienced some of the most intense looking ocean landscape we’ve ever seen.
When I saw you, and now on this record, the tune “Egowar” left me particularly stunned. Could you tell me more about that track in particular, how it came about and how it’s changed? What inspired all the polyrhythms? And… be honest… do you ever get really confused or lose your place in a song?
I can’ really explain the nature of the song. And no… we never get lost. We are just back from a two month tour of Europe and the US and we played those tunes every night… so they are too ingrained in our heads for us to make any major mistakes when performing. I will say that there are definite sections within the song that are designated for improvisation… but we also know exactly how and when to get ourselves out of that improv and back into the groove of the song.
Tell me a little about the other projects each of you are involved with outside of Gang Gang Dance, and how you find the time to balance things.
Right now, there’ not a whole lot of other things going on. I feel like we’ve all caught the Gang Gang bug and that is what we are all mainly thinking about right now. Lizzi and I have always been involved in visual arts, having shows and making work and curating and things like that. I am working now on a show for London in September. I am also writing a score for a new film by artists Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, and teaching myself how to edit video. I will eventually make a feature film. It’s something i’ve thought about my whole life, but I refuse to rush it because it is such a precious form of art that I think it really deserves a lot of patience.
What are your aims for Gang Gang Dance? Where do you imagine yourselves, given an ideal situation?
I’m not sure. I guess we’ll just see what happensâ€¦ just keep playing and see where it goes. I know Tim is very interested in getting more involved in producing and working in the studio; to teach himself how to run the recording and mixing side of things. He has a really natural gift for arranging sound and hearing things that most of us might not hear, so I think that would really suit him well. But, yeah… like I said, who knows…we’ll just keep going until it seems inappropriate in some way.
How difficult has it been to prepare your pieces for live presentation? I noticed that one of you had his hands full on stage between a bunch of keyboards, delay pedals and drum triggers…
Yeah…that was me. It wasn’ very hard to prepare ourselves to play live because the recorded versions of the songs were all played live in the studio anyway, so they don’ really differ. We did do a few overdubs here and there, but nothing that really drastically alters the live song. We usually just get together the tunes we want to perform and then spend a lot of time sequencing them within the setlist in a way that allows us to be able to do all the physical things like switching sounds and setting pedals,etc… I do often wish I had a few more arms though.
Who tends to do most of the arrangement in Gang Gang Dance â€” do you have a de facto ‘leader’ in any sense?
There is no leader. I suppose everyone has a certain role that they tend to concentrate on, and when all four roles are combined we have the music. I usually come up with the core of the songs, Josh usually adds to those cores which will in turn make things change or evolve into something else, Tim is probably the best at taking what we all come up with and putting it all into some sort of structure…..making the song much stronger. Lizzi is singing along throughout this process so when the song has finally taken a rough form she already has a pretty good idea of what she will do with it vocally.
You obviously have some diverse influences â€” could you elaborate on them for me?
Too many to mention. We listen to a lot of different types of music, watch a lot of different types of films, look at a lot of different art, read a lot of different books…its really difficult to elaborate on because we all take in so much.
What are some other great bands that you’ve enjoyed or played with lately?
There is a core group of peers her in NY that we all respect as friends and musicians. Animal Collective, Black Dice, White Magic, Blood on the Wall, Orthrelm, No Neck Blues Band, Growing, Bloodlines…there’ more that I am forgetting. Then there are people we’ve recently played with on tour that we found very inspiring. In Australia, we really got into Richard Bishop’ shows…and Hi-God people were great.
Then in the UK, there’ so much going on right now with all the MCs and producers. After Dizzee Rascal blew up, it just created this tidal wave of talent in London, and we’re really into that whole “scene”. I have always been a big Eno fan as well… been listening to his new one a lot. There was a band we played with recently in Seattle called NA who were really great as well.
I don’ know, man… that question merits a much longer answer and a list of shout-outs that I unfortunately don’ have to time to write right now. Just keep yours ears open for the new shit.