The people in Gang Gang Dance looked to be just getting up when I arrived in their green room for an interview. Vocalist Liz Bougatsos needed to brush her teeth. Guitarist Josh Diamond fixed his self-proclaimed “Jew fro” in a crappy mirror. Keyboardist Brian DeGraw still lay face down on the sofa. It was already past 9pm, but the band appeared still dazed and only nominally awake.
Bougatsos and Diamond joined me upstairs at the Berbati’s Pan bar for a quick interview. Bougatsos’ sister was in town and though she was generous with her time, I knew family trumped publicity. Though brief, the interview was still quite interesting as we discussed the band’s new album, dubstep and Bollywood.
Hey, guys. Welcome to Portland!
LB: Thank you.
Have you guys been here before?
JD: This might be our fourth time here.
Let’s talk about your new album first. It’s called Saint Dymphna. This is the saint of outsiders, right?
JD: That’s one of them. Outsiders, the mentally ill, the mentally disturbed. There are some other good ones. Like, epileptics, I think sleepwalkers might be in there. All kinds of characters and emotions wrapped up with Saint Dymphna.
How did you come up with that name?
LB: Brian (DeGraw) was researching Saint Dymphna for awhile. That wasn’t the original title for the album, but we changed it last minute. It was kind of a joke to use it for the album title. It is obviously very deranged, but we were having a deranged process while we made this album. It took so long and it was driving us all a little batty.
JD: We were losing our minds. The band was actually in a very dark place for awhile, in general. Yeah, we almost didn’t make it through this whole experience.
But meanwhile, the record is getting the best reviews of any record you’ve done so far.
JD: The record that we put was made in the last month and a half of this three year period. There is maybe one track that was recorded before that, but everything else was done in this final push that we made and that was really positive.
So what changed?
JD: We think we just re-directed our energies. The band also changed. There were some internal issues that got worked out in some way that helped and we just re-focused our energies on just making something.
LB: We were changing roles in the band. Like our drummer didn’t want to play drums anymore. We made about 10 hours of music in different studios and that was a huge thing when he decided he didn’t want to play drums we just had to finish it immediately.
Though it sounds like you had a dark period and come through, this new album is brighter and glossier than anything you guys have done before.
LB: I think that’s what we mean by coming through. I don’t know. We have some things to figure out as a band.
JD: We worked really hard at the end but it was a positive experience. But, it was heartbreaking to go into the studio and it wasn’t all personal conflicts. We kept running out of money. There were all of these problems that happened. But I think the biggest problem was kind of accepting what we do. This is fine. This is what we do and we’re going to make something out of it. I think we had a really hard time as a collective with everybody involved accepting anything we did was okay for whatever reason.
LB: And when we came back to ourselves and realized it was really about us, it kind of changed things in a really positive way.
JD: But I think that title is kind of a joke about that period for us, but also Saint Dymphna gives comfort to people that….
LB: Are victims in some situation. If you look at the world at large there are a lot of victims. I feel in a universal way, music does relate to what is going on in our universe.
Speaking universally, you guys draw from a bunch of disparate sources. There is Eastern music, music from all over the globe. Is that one of you or is that a collective thing?
JD: The band is really all of us. Everybody brings things into the mix subconsciously.
LB: We all listen to things at home but what we bring to the studio is ourselves. It’s not like we specifically draw, like, “Oh, let’s use this Middle Eastern melody.”
JD: There are different members of the band with more interest in certain musics than others. But what I think what Liz is trying to say is that is almost less important than just not censoring one another when we all get together. There’s not a collective decision to make something that sounds like Bollywood.
Right, but what it is is Bollywood filtered through grime filtered through trance.
JD: It’s just a thing that’s very natural and Tim (DeWitt), he knows more about Bollywood music for sure than me.
LB: He was so influenced by Bollywood music that he wanted to change our recording experience. He wanted to bring in orchestras and instrumentation that didn’t involve the core of the band. That is where the situation got a little scary because what we wanted to do was make music ourselves rather than bringing in other people. We already had so many hours of recorded material. I think it’s not really healthy to go into any studio situation and bring in a type that you want to play. You have to let down your guard and free your mind and challenge your subconscious.
JD: In terms of influences, we get asked that question a lot and I understand why, but the reason that troubles me is I feel a lot of people just blatantly just try to label us as something.
Yeah, but the mind works by drawing connections.
JD: It does, sure.
When someone asks what Gang Gang Dance sounds like, you have to compare it to something.
JD: Sure, but I think we try to be natural about it. There is no denying there are influences on our music but we don’t want to be too heavily identified as any particular genre. If we just naturally do what we do, that’s a good thing. That’s one reason I love the band.
One thing I’ve noticed about your new album is the songs are becoming more structured. Now there are three or four minutes rather than long, drawn-out pieces. I feel like the introduction of dubstep into your stuff is partly responsible for that. I think dubstep is becoming since a big thing. That Burial album from last year is just amazing. How do you feel that progression has come about?
LB: I think we started composing songs since God’s Money. Brian is a DJ, so he does listen to a lot of dubstep. He sequenced the album, so that element is there. I loved the Burial album; I thought it was beautiful and I haven’t heard anything like that in a long time.
JD: We listen to that night-driving. It’s a spooky, night album. It is a fantastic. I don’t know.
We have been writing structures, because songs isn’t really what we do. I’m fascinated by structures. I really enjoy them. After years of just being this amorphous, improv band, it is so fun, and also so challenging, to try and channel our sounds. When we improv, we came up with certain languages and ways that we could make songs interact and then we put them into our structures.
How does this transition into your live show?
JD: Our live show is very moody and very environmental. On this tour, if we’re feeling really good and the room is really good we’ll do a lot more improve and try and do more mixing and make it different. We try to make the show different every night, but I think sometimes we have a set that has improvs but it is less likely they will go completely out to something brand new. We could make a song on the spot sometimes. It’s very moody.
An interesting thing about the new album is Liz’s vocals don’t come in until about a third of the way through. It’s almost like you get into this groove and all of a sudden you hear a human voice. It’s like a wake up in some ways. Did you plan it that way?
LB: We take each record as a whole piece, like a movie. I think it was just a natural progression to put me in there then. It wasn’t really planned, but that’s how it came out. We like to create and build up to a climax. We have a different method of making layers and how they connect. Every album we ever made had a certain flow.
The thing I like about the new album is that every time I listen to it, I always discover something new. There is so much on there that you can’t digest it right away. It just keeps expanding.
JD: It’s a pretty schizophrenic record. It’s pretty all over the place. We didn’t plan it that way, that’s how it came out. I don’t know if our next one will be like that. But who know?
by David Harris