Like low-tech scavengers from a William Gibson sci-fi novel, Gang Gang Dance blow minds using trash. Crappy synthesizers, busted boom boxes, staid influences sent through the media-hype grinder—all is fair game. The New York four-piece's greatest strength is grabbing at the future by reconfiguring the past.
"I just want to see people exploring sounds that haven't ever been made—music that hasn't been heard before. That's futuristic to me," says Brian DeGraw, visual artist and electronics mastermind behind Gang Gang Dance. "There's a million other ideas people could be exploring, isn't there?"
Gang Gang Dance do their best to explore every one. On the 2005 album God's Money, songs like "Ego War" pin Tim DeWitt's tribal drumming against a music-box synth line; vocalist Liz Bougatsos's chanting is all present-tense weightlessness. In contrast, the recent Retina Riddim DVD culls GGD jam sessions into fractured edits—at one point, saxophone noise barely squeezes through rave-inspired kick drums, as if spaz-funker James Chance and Dutch gabber headz finally finished that old project they'd been talking about.
DeGraw's visual art follows a similar disregard for stylistic boundaries—his most recent exhibit was actually titled Behead the Genre. In his sculpture Youth of Today, album covers from straight-edge hardcore band Youth of Today and pop-reggae child stars Musical Youth are mixed—both albums proudly reading "Youth of Today," yet neither having a damn thing in common. "The art and music connection—I see them as the same thing now," explains DeGraw. "They come from the same place—the same purpose."
For Gang Gang Dance, that purpose is reckless endangerment of buzzword consolidation. Since the band first came together in the late 1990s, critics have tried in earnest to slap every genre label and fad on them, but nothing has stuck. Freak-folk made sense for a minute, but DeGraw's love of UK grime fucked that up. "The last time we played in London, we played with [Grime MC] Tinchy Stryder and JME," he says. "The kids who showed up were expecting some sort of weirdo folk thing, but they started bouncing once they figured out it was okay to like those guys. We just listen to so much different shit that no matter what, those things are gonna creep up."
GGD was originally formed by DeGraw along with Bougatsos on vocals, Dewitt drumming, Josh Diamond on guitar, and Nathan Maddox as the band's "vibe man." All of them had been in bands prior, but GGD still opted to play at coffeehouses during those first years of existence. "We kinda fucked around at first," says DeGraw. "We recorded most of our first record [Survival of the Shittest] with an old boom box. But we were getting more into the idea of being a band when Nathan died."
That was back in 2002, when the 25-year-old Maddox was struck by lightning on the roof of a building in Chinatown. "It was crazy, man," DeGraw says. "When that happened—it wasn't even conscious—but like within a week, we all started playing so much. It was therapeutic. Ever since then, we've been a real band, which is strange. I'd like to think it's him, from wherever he is, just saying, 'Dudes, come on and do this.'"
So Gang Gang Dance remain a fixture on a New York scene no one can name. Their avant/new-age contemporaries, artists like Panda Bear, Excepter, and Soft Circle have similarly stumped classification. "Everyone needs to make comparisons, but I'm comfortable being associated with those bands," DeGraw says. "They sound like something new—stuff I haven't heard before."
With Gang Gang Dance continuing to defy commodification, the only sane approach left, as DeGraw would say, is to behead the genre. Dumpster-diving for musical junk can yield limitless combinations. "Everything is indebted to the past, but it doesn't mean you have to replicate it," says DeGraw. "It's no wonder people are so stuck on the '60s—the music was an exploration then. It was genuine, a fuck you to politics and whatever. But it's not the '60s now. If you're going to react to a modern world, you should be making modern music."