Drum's Not Dead

Gang Gang Dance take the pulse of the street
Joshua Wildman

While as noisy and amorphic as their NYC brethren Animal Collective and No-Neck Blues Band, Gang Gang Dance are far more reliant on their taut, almost telepathic, polyrhythmic foundation to spur on such spiky whorls. About to head out on their third tour of the year, drummer Tim DeWit just gambled away his drum kit. DeWit bet his girlfriend's 13-year-old brother that he could quit smoking by the end of the year. But with two months remaining in the calendar year, DeWit has conceded defeat, kept his pouch of Bally Shag, and handed his kit over to the kid.

For a band as rhythmically attuned as Gang Gang Dance, whose members might combust into a percussion jam using congas, cymbals, cowbells, and electric drum pads at any given moment during their live set, the loss of the main beatmaker's drums might be seen as a bit of a setback. Not so, explains DeWitt. "I really hate drums. I'm always trying to do things to my kit to just make them not sound like drums. I love playing them but an actual drum kit is something I'm not very passionate about. The only drum I have right now is a piccolo snare; it's the most beautiful drum in the world for me right now. I just love the thing." A conflicted notion of love and hate is a common theme throughout my conversation with DeWit, vocalist Liz Bougatsos, keyboardist Brian DeGraw, and guitarist Josh Diamond: They enjoy creating music together, but are loath to embrace the concept of being in a band. "We're just too damaged to believe in it," Diamond explains.

Gang Gang Dance concoct a decidedly New York sound, but one that is continents removed from both the manicured scruff of the Strokes and the premeditated detachment of Interpol. Instead, they embrace Bollywood musicals, Jamaican dancehall, Germany's Can, the Ethiopiques series of African jazz, Timbaland, and 4AD's aural opiates, and replicate the rhythmic messiness of the world at large. On top of these heaps, Bougatsos's voice evokes Kate Bush at the Wailing Wall.

Bougatsos met Diamond while she was still attending school in West Virginia and enacting deranged multimedia spoken-word performances in dive bars. In one of her first shows upon returning to New York (she grew up on Long Island), she shared the bill with the Cranium, a D.C. band featuring DeGraw and DeWit, and they became fast friends. For years, they were ronins in various projects: Bougatsos and DeGraw played in painter Rita Ackermann's black-metal band, Angelblood, while DeWit drummed for singer/songwriter Cass McCombs. Bumping into one another at a European music festival, they resolved backstage to forge their own band with friends Nathan Maddox and Diamond, rather than be hired guns for others' visions.

The band developed under a blight of misfortune. One of their pivotal concerts occurred after Pat Hearn, a woman known for confrontational, sexually charged performances and an early mentor to both Bougatsos and DeGraw, died of liver cancer. Bougatsos organized a tribute at Hearn's Chelsea gallery; the event galvanized the quintet of friends as they played from Hearn's songbook of cabaret songs. "It was never a band," Bougatsos clarifies. "We would never rehearse, but instead just have this...reaction to everything." In the miasma of art openings and basement parties, Gang Gang Dance began to find their sound. Glossy or gritty, slipshod or precise, their notorious live shows could be infuriating or ecstatic. "It's a morale issue, coming down to minutes before the show itself," DeGraw theorizes. "Any weird vibes can make it a lost cause, impossible to get on the same page."

Death visited the Gang Gang Dance family again in 2002, when singer Nathan Maddox was struck by lightening on a Chinatown rooftop during a freak storm. "When that happened," DeGraw recollects, the cold air suddenly charged with his memory, "we all just—without talking about it or deciding on it—got our shit together and really started playing." I suddenly realize that it's Maddox's eyes that stare out on the cover of 2005's breakout album God's Money, and his portrait on the back cover of their early EP, Revival of the Shittest. He remains a part of everything they've done and will do, as DeGraw sums up: "Nate was just this energy. He played fucking energy. He made everyone feel so good."

Trying to pin down their sound in a studio, though, proved elusive. DeGraw soon realized that with hours of the band improvising, "the only way to make some sort of cohesive record was by cutting it up. The editing process was almost as important as the actual writing process." Employing a cut-up, collage aesthetic evocative of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, the music captured early on is a gnarled mess of no-fi rehearsal tapes, squalor, loops, and the band's no-wave take on ethnological music. Their sound resembles a market in Chinatown: bustling, grimy, oriental, plastic, cheap-yet-glamorous. With the release of the by turns terse and lush God's Money, most of these far-flung touch points came together as the band revealed a newfound focus on crafting jagged, heavily rhythmic pop songs.

Despite their ability to, in Diamond's words, "write a song in as long as it takes to play it," the band wants to explore further. DeWit pines to work with Timbaland and make some banging club tracks, while DeGraw's weekly gig as a DJ re-emphasized the notion of a seamless flow of divergent rhythms. The end result so far is not a follow-up record, but a DVD—titled Retina Riddim, it's a video collage made by DeGraw as he fucked around with Final Cut and hours of tour footage. "Really, it's me smoking weed and sitting up until 7:00 in the morning. I learned a lot musically from doing that, taking these bits of music and basically dropping in (their) visual equivalents."

Difficult and grim though the early years were, the negative charge surrounding the band seems to be dissipating. DeWit called to announce that he got a new kit, so he'll have drums when they venture to the woods of Kentucky to record again. But perhaps the best sign of all came when DeGraw was at LAX, about to fly over to Japan for a DJ gig. "My cab rolls up to the gate and right in my window, I see this huge fucking yellow clock. And it was Flavor Flav, dressed all in yellow, smoking a cigar...and he just bear-hugs me. 'Respect, man,' Flav said, patting me on the back. I felt really blessed after that."

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