It’s rare to find a band that can capably mix a love of grime, hip-hop, dream-pop, Kate Bush and reggaeton into a cohesive whole. It’s been a long time in the making, but New Yorkers Gang Gang Dance have done so, and they've produced one of the year’s best records in Saint Dymphna. Putting past misfortunes behind them, such as the tragic death of singer Nathan Maddox in 2002, the band is set to reach out to a wider audience. Here, frontwoman Lizzie Bougatsos talks about making the album, leading the Boredoms' 88Boadrum event in New York this summer, and what happened to drummer Tim DeWitt in a Grand Rapids bar in July.
You’ve talked about grime being a big influence on the band. How did you first discover it?
We were in London and a friend of ours gave us some cassette tapes of all these grime artists. They were like pirated tapes; you could only get them in London. When we first listened to it, it felt similar to our music in the practice space. When we make beats they sound really dirty and kind of hip-hoppy. Obviously we love hip-hop and rap, so I think we felt a connection to the rawness of the music and the beats.
Can you remember how you felt when you first heard those tapes?
I realized this later, but for me they reminded me of Wu-Tang in a way. And that’s why it felt close to home, because I’m the biggest Wu-Tang fan. When I heard it I felt a kinship to it. I’m not saying we are as good as Roll Deep Crew or something, but I really felt a kinship for some reason.
Is the album format frustrating for you? Grime seems like a very immediate format, with the instant transition from studio to white label to pirate radio station. And there’s been a long gap between God’s Money (2005) and the new album, Saint Dymphna.
Definitely. We had some band problems at the time. For example, our drummer [Tim DeWitt] didn’t want to play drums any more, and we really love playing with live drums. We used four different studios, four different engineers. We kept having to go on tour or play a one-off show just to pay for the studios. There was no money from our label, so we had to do everything ourselves. But we did produce an EP [titled RAWWAR] at the same time, and we did make the DVD [Retina Riddim]. So it wasn’t like we were being lazy, it was just really frustrating, because ideally I really just want to release everything we do.
Despite all these problems, Saint Dymphna has a real flow to it. Is that something you constructed in the sequencing and mixing of the record?
The actual album only took a month and a half to make. And Brian [DeGraw] is a DJ, so we wanted to incorporate a little bit of his DJ mentality to the album. So in that way I think it made it flow better, from the way he sequenced the album. I think that made it more flow-y.
Is there a narrative flow to the lyrics?
There’s not really a cohesive theme, but we did choose that title because I thought it really reflected a lot of elements, musically and subconsciously and metaphorically, that the band was dealing with. So I felt like it really made sense to grab that title by the reins and just use it even though it felt really heavy and scary at times.
Where did you get the title?
Brian actually discovered it, and it’s kind of strange because…I don’t talk about this usually in interviews, but it’s the name of this bar that we hang out at a lot in New York. And I think for that reason Brian looked it up on the Internet, and he found it was this patron saint for the mentally disturbed. I think he got really excited, because I think that’s a constant theme in his life. If you look at his artwork, sometimes he gets so much distaste for his surroundings. I think it really comes out in our music and in his artwork in particular.
When you recorded the album you collaborated with grime artist Tinchy Stryder in London.
Yeah. We were doing an album for Southern Studios. We just finished it, actually. It’s been a long piece in the making, because of the traveling.
So the track came out of a different project you were working on?
Yeah. We actually started it when we were in London because we were so itching to record. We just needed to release some things. So we went into the studio and there was this production crew that came in called Tim and Barry. They’re really cool. So they knew we were Tinchy fans; he’s kind of our favorite. We like the whole Roll Deep Crew, but Tinchy is like a prodigy.
Did you feel nervous recording with him?
I kind of did, because there were video cameras in my face. And I like to record in privacy. But I faced it pretty well. I tried my best, I’m not going to deny who I am. I think I was intimidated, because he’s like a rapper basically, and I’m not -- I’m a singer [laughs]. So I was worried about that. And also, I’m kind of freaky [laughs]. [I’m] a little arty, and I didn’t know if it was going to work. So being videoed live while I was doing that was nerve-racking. But I think the track really epitomizes that, and it was really cool to be there at that studio [Southern Studios]. At the time they were archiving Crass tapes and the Subhumans, and they were telling us all this gossip about Lee “Scratch” Perry. We just had a good time in general.
I think Southern is a great unheralded British institution.
Absolutely. It has a legacy, and the sound there is really good. There’s a guy there, Harvey [Birrell], who’s just really good with sound. The reason we went there is because we listened to this track by White Magic that was recorded there, and it was one of the best sounding things we’d ever heard.
So when will we hear what you recorded at Southern?
Well actually that’s really interesting. I just heard it almost finished last night. It’s kind of sad that it’s only going to be 1,000 copies, because I think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. It’s about 20 minutes of music. It could be less -- it’s a limited-edition thing. Maybe we can release more, but I don’t want to mess with Southern’s rules. It’s called Latitudes, and they invite a lot of musicians to record for just one day at the studio, and you have to make it there and finish it there. But Gang Gang couldn’t do that, because our drummer wanted to take it home, and he was overwhelmed with the whole thing. I think he was overwhelmed with Tinchy coming in and the production crew. So he basically had to beg us to let him take it home and work on it.
You played the Boredoms' 88Boadrum event in New York this summer. Was it difficult to organize?
Well, we had a lot of help. We had this guy, Ryan Sawyer, to organize all the drummers. I was really frightened at the beginning because a lot of the people who played last year went to [the simultaneous Boadrum event in] L.A. Ryan organized the drummers, and at the end we had to turn people down, and that was really sad. Some people just wanted to be a part of it even if they weren’t drummers.
Who was the guy that trashed his drum kit at 88Boadrum?
Oh my god! Yeah, that’s Matt Heyner. He was in No Neck Blues Band. And he’s also in a black-metal band called Malkuth. He played guitar in [Lizzie’s former band] Angelblood when it started going black metal. When he was playing in No Neck Blues Band and Angleblood, he was starting to get very theatrical in his performances. He’s like a free-jazz guy. So I’m not surprised. But I really feel like I channeled him in a way, because our eyes met, and I have a comfortable feeling with him. So I met eyes with him when I was on-stage and then the whole thing went off [laughs]. I’m not saying I had anything to do with it, but I felt like I knew what he was going to do. It was really bizarre.
How quickly did you have to get the music together for 88Boadrum?
We were in Barcelona and we were stranded there. Some of the promoters pulled out of some of the shows we were supposed to play, so we got stranded there. We were leaving for this mini-tour when we found out we were being considered for the Boadrum. It was us and Rhys Chatham. Then we played the show in Barcelona, and after three days of us being stranded in Barcelona at the hotel they e-mailed us. It said, “You are confirmed to do the the Boadrum and there is no backing out.” And there was literally maybe two weeks to compose 88 minutes of music.
We were freaked out. We just came home and we crammed it, and it started to help because we had the practice with Ryan, who was organizing the drummers. He started practicing with us after we were composing. We composed it and then he came and he added some parts and then we went to the practice space and rehearsed it with all the drum leaders. And by then we were ready. But we really needed those practices.
It was a very visual event. Just watching that many drummers playing together was really amazing.
The Boredoms had a lot to do with that. For example, when the sun came down, our stage was a circle, so the sun reflected the moon…like the sun settling and the moon rising. Our stage was like a white moon circle. At 7/7/07 they chose to play in a valley, because they really wanted a concave event. This place needed to be flat because the cherry picker had to place all the drums in a spiral. So a lot of it related to the nature of the land. And the Empire State Building…that was too much! I was really feeling an Arctic vibe, I don’t know why [laughs].
What happened to your drummer, Tim DeWitt, in July?
Oh yeah, that’s kinda crazy. He went home to his family’s house for a while because he wanted to build up his studio equipment. He wanted to go back there and save money and figure out where he wanted to live and where he was going to build a studio. I think New York was kind of driving him nuts as well.
Where is home for him?
Grand Rapids, Michigan. His family lives there. His friend opened up a bar in the ghetto, literally surrounded by projects. He went in the bar one night, because he was having drinks with his friends. He went into the bathroom because he did a bunch of shots and he was really grossed out by the shots, like he had to puke. When he came out everyone was face down on the floor. Everybody’s jewelry and money was taken, and there were two 18-year-old kids standing there. And his friend was like, “Get down, get down!” And he was like, “Why? What’s going on?” He’d just puked and he was drunk; he didn’t know what was going on. The next thing he knew he was shot.
They saw him come out and thought he was a threat, so they just shot at him because they had a loaded gun. He didn’t even know he was shot. Once they left, everyone got up and his friends were outside crying. They were like, “He’s going to die.” He put his hand in his shirt and there was blood, and he was like, “Hold my hand; I don’t want to die here. I don’t want to die in this bar.” Our band has been through a lot of grief and happiness and sorrow. The roller coaster is the way we are.
He’s OK now?
He’s totally fine. The next day he was out in a bar drinking. It definitely changed his life. He doesn’t want to prosecute this kid. He wants to hang out and talk with him and tell him it’s all right that he shot him. The state is prosecuting the kid, and he has to sit there and look at this poor kid in handcuffs. It’s horrible. What [Tim’s] doing is making music about it, and it’s really good.
What does the future hold for Gang Gang Dance?
We’re going to record the next record in the Joshua Tree in January.
What made you choose to record out there?
We have a friend who opened up a contemporary-art museum there. We also have a friend who is building homes there, an old friend from Connecticut. His name is Douglas Armour; he’s on the Social Registry. He has a house that’s empty, and we’re going to bring all our gear out there and bring our sound engineer, and he’s going to figure out what we need to bring there to record in this empty house.
So you have new songs written already?
Yeah. I know you’re supposed to tour around an album for a year, but that’s not our style. We’ve been playing with a different drummer, we have these new songs that we’ve written. We’ve played one of them at the Boadrum, and now that the momentum is there with Saint Dymphna. We want to keep the “trudge” going.
Photo Credit: Chris Owyoung/Prefixmag.com
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