Features | Interviews

Gang Gang Dance

By Peter Holslin | 8 November 2008

Gang Gang Dance is renowned for explosive, brain-melting sonic adventures inspired as much by African indigenous music as London grime. But this Manhattan-based foursome is no one-trick pony: last spring they pulled off an elaborate audio-visual presentation at the Whitney Biennial in New York, in August they conducted an orchestra of 88 drummers on the Brooklyn waterfront in an epic cross-country collaboration with the legendary Japanese band Boredoms, and most recently they released Saint Dymphna, a transcendent record that the Glow’s own Mark Abraham calls “possibly the most complex and weird dance album of the year.“ The day after Barack Obama was voted in as the first African American president in US history, guitarist Josh Diamond spoke with CMG on the phone about channeling the right energies, using a guitar hooked up to MIDI, upcoming plans to record a new album, what happened to former drummer Tim Dewitt, the purity of Japanese food, and more.

CMG’s Peter Holslin (CMG): How do you feel about the outcome of the election?

Gang Gang Dance’s Josh Diamond (GGD): I’m psyched man, I’m really psyched. I’m a little bewildered, as well, because it seems like this unbelievable potential for our country to finally be more progressive. You travel around the world, and most places get it by now, and it’s so frustrating. I mean, New York gets it. There’s a lot of places that get it.

[Barack Obama]’s a real caring human being, you can really tell. And it’s just beautiful. I think it’s beautiful to go from slavery to today. I just feel there is a chance, you know, for some progress. And I haven’t felt that way in a long time and, if anything, was really cynical for the last eight years. You just feel the weight of everything. I know that there’s pit falls as well. I know also that the world is pretty fucked right now, and we’re pretty fucked in a lot of ways. But I think that there’s a chance for Robin Hood. For true Socialism.

CMG: So, I just want to get this straight: Is Gang Gang Dance named after the Gang-Gang Cockatoo?

GGD: No, we found out about the Gang-Gang Cockatoo later. It’s named after this record that Brian [DeGraw, the band’s keyboardist/percussionist] got. I never remember the name of the band, but it’s like, he went to a record store and bought all these different, really diverse records and brought them to the counter and the guy was like, “Oh, you like all this stuff? Try this record out.” It was some band and the title of it was Gang Gang Dance. He took it home and it was the worst record he’s ever heard in his life.

CMG: So when you found out about the cockatoo, what was your reaction?

GGD: Is that the bird that won’t stop singing?

CMG: Um, I don’t know.

GGD: Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is. It’s nice to have strange connections. There was another one, it was a video of Ashanti’s. She was describing this dance move that she did and she said it’s not quite hip hop, it’s not R&B, it’s not funk, it’s kind of experimental or whatever. She said it’s called ‘gang gang.’ So that’s a little connection too. Pretty cool.

CMG: So you’re heading to Milwaukee right now, a few days into your tour. Is there any place that you’re looking forward to, or not looking forward to?

GGD: Right now, particularly just with this new kind of potential environment we have here in the United States, I’m looking forward to seeing all the places, you know?

CMG: Do you prefer to play in any specific kind of environment?

GGD: Oh, for sure, for sure. We started off this trip opening for Of Montreal and we were playing these big theaters and a couple of them were kind of nightmarish for me personally. There’s seats, and everybody’s sitting down in assigned seats. The vibe is just gone. I like playing places where you feel the audience there with you. I like the smaller clubs, where we shine.

CMG: Gang Gang Dance has a very distinct sound, but there are also elements of reggaeton, grime, and other styles of music. Are you planning this out, or are you just inspired in such a way that elements of different music end up in your songs?

GGD: It’s the latter for sure. We improvise. It’s a really natural thing. This is my therapy session.

CMG: How do you feel about Saint Dymphna? Do you think it’s a more mainstream record as many reviewers have suggested?

GGD: As far as the mainstream thing, I think it’s still pretty weird. The production quality is a lot clearer than our last record, which people pick up on. I don’t know, we just make music, man, that’s what happens. It’s not up to us, people can decide whatever they want, if it’s more mainstream or less. We didn’t plan it to be any particular way.

CMG: From what I’ve read, it sounded like the process of making Saint Dymphna was pretty fractured and frustrating. How did the record come together?

GGD: It didn’t come together for a long time, it was a fractured process. And I think maybe there was a bit too much in our minds at the time when we started making it. There was a lot of pressure inside the band to make this more ambitious thing, whatever that was. I think that force, the pressure to do that, was messing everything up. We have a really natural way of making music. Things work out the best for us when we actually just accept ourselves.

But that was only one thread of the fractured process. We’d start recording and then we’d have to go on tour. We would go to a studio and make some headway, and then, like, not finish what we were working on and have to take, like, two months off, and gather money, or go back on tour, and come back to try and start where we left off. By that time, we couldn’t even go where we left off, you know?

CMG: It’s like you have this energy going, and then once you cut it off, you’ve lost it…

GGD: It’s lost, to a large degree. We also had a really hard time, like, putting the right energy into making the record. But finally, in the last month and a half, that’s really when the record was made. We had one last push, we recorded almost all of the record. We used a couple of old recordings but almost all of it was recorded then. And we mixed with our sound engineer, Sean. It was a much more natural process and I think we finally just were like, ‘OK, we’re gonna get this done.’ It was just so relieving to have something. I’m proud of it, I just can’t deny that there was turmoil in making that record, you know? But we’re going to record a new one, to make up for that.

CMG: It’s in the works right now?

GGD: We’re gonna record in January. We’re going to the desert, to Joshua Tree, for a month. And we’re going to make demos on our own, and then our sound engineer, Sean, is going to fly out. We’re just going to record it all in the family, you know? I think it’s gonna be awesome.

CMG: When you look back, how do you feel about the band’s development? Have you ever had an idea of what you wanted to do, where you wanted to go with your music, some sort of plan or goal or something?

GGD: It’s intense to look back on it because it’s almost been a decade of my life, with the band and my friends making music. But looking back is always way different than looking forward and I don’t think that we had a plan. Certainly not in the beginning. Really, I think that we just really believe in our music and we try and be as pure as possible and as close to that kind of ideal, the ideal that we believe in our music. To continue making music, all the time. The only sort of plan is to try and move forward, to try and not rest, or like get stuck in some specific frame.

CMG: How did you, personally, start making music?

GGD: I played the violin from the age of four to the age of, like, fifteen. Music has just been something I’ve always done.

CMG: As for your guitar—is it run through a MIDI processor?

GGD: I don’t know, I could get techy on you…it is a MIDI processor, but it’s a pick up that is able to split the signal into like six different signals, then it’s a box that recognizes the pitch and converts it to MIDI.

I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I’ve had different guitars that have different pickups and I finally got a nice piezo pickup. If anybody wants to do it, those are the best ones for the job. The real weird thing about it is that it’s basically failed technology. This stuff has been around for years and nobody really wants to use it. It doesn’t sell very well, it has no money behind it. It works pretty well, actually.

CMG: Why do you use synth sounds on a guitar, instead of using a normal guitar or a keyboard?

GGD: Well, as far as the normal guitar thing, I like to think of our music as very colorful. I feel like there’s a lot of different textures and colors it makes. That’s what makes our music special. I felt, with a guitar, it felt too limited. No matter how much you change the sound, it always sounds like a guitar. And as for not playing on a keyboard, you just play differently on the guitar, there’s different ideas. To me it just works. I’ve been doing it for many years, and it just makes sense to me. It might not make any sense to anybody else, but…

CMG: Has your increased popularity over the past few years brought the band more funds, for new equipment or better production quality? How has that affected the band, if at all?

GGD: There’s up and downs for us, all the time. There are some times that we’ve had in the last few years where we did get some money, to be able to get equipment and to be able to…like, we payed for our last studio time by ourselves. I think that we’re more fortunate than a lot of bands out there. This summer was really hard financially, and all of last year before we didn’t have this new record out. They didn’t wanna book us anymore. They were like, “Come back when you have a record out.” And we were out of fashion and out of favor. And we’re in fashion, I guess for the moment, and we’ll probably fall out of fashion, but still make music. I just think there’s an even flow.

We don’t make very much money. We’re below the poverty line, as far as this country is concerned. I would like things to change a little bit as I’m getting older. We’re all getting older. And it’s not age, specifically, but it’s the demands on your life, you know? When you’re doing this, it’s very intense. I’d like to have some sort of…not reward, but it’d be nice to feel more secure.

CMG: Do you have a day job?

GGD: I bartend in New York, at a bar in Brooklyn.

CMG: What happened to your drummer, Tim Dewitt? I read that he got shot, which is very saddening to hear. Also, he’s not credited as a band member on Saint Dymphna.

GGD: He’s in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he’s OK, totally fine. I don’t know, he wanted a break from the band. He wanted to, I think, make his own music for a while. I don’t think he was happy living in New York City. He had a hard time there. He would’ve been happy just being on the road all the time. Going home for him is like ripping his heart out or something like that. He’s still one of my best friends. He makes amazing music right now, and producing, learning how to produce records. We don’t know what’s going to happen with the future. I mean, we saw him in Chicago and he almost jumped in the van with us.

CMG: Gang Gang Dance is often glommed together with Animal Collective and Black Dice. Since 2000, a lot of similarly weird acoustic-electronic hybrid bands with quasi-tribal, experimental and worldly elements have emerged. Do you think this is a movement, a phenomenon? Or is this just part of a cross-cultural musical conversation that’s been going on for decades?

GGD: [Chuckles] Intense. I don’t know, that’s a long question. Well, you named some of our contemporaries. We used to share a practice space with those two bands. That was years ago and it was like this little strange vortex. It was all three of us in the same room, in the practice space. The one thing that really stands out to me about that is we were all very different. There were a lot of similarities at the same time, but the sounds of the bands were very distinctly different. And that was beautiful.

I think we were just trying to make our own music, and that’s how we made it. And we still try to do that, you know? And now there’s all this press, and attention, and this idea that there’s like this thing going on, which isn’t anything. It goes on in different places as well, in Indian music you hear music from ’60s rock and roll and stuff like that. Whatever. One of the most beautiful things you can do is just make your own music, do your own thing.

CMG: How do you feel about the term “world music”?

GGD: I think it’s a capitalist term. It comes from, to some degree, trying to categorize something so you can sell it. I think that that’s a large part of it. Categories can be helpful, in some ways. I can go to a store and I can look in the world music section, and I can go to the section on Africa.

The term “world music” is very trivial. I mean, ideally, I’d like there to not be any borders in the world [the phone cuts out for a couple seconds, cutting him off mid-sentence]. That’d be Utopia, for sure. Even now, we have Obama and it’s interesting, because I think that patriotism is OK to a certain degree as long as it doesn’t turn into some sort of crazy nationalist thing. But, it’s interesting. Now, we’re Americans again. I felt like we’re Americans today.

CMG: What are some of your nonmusical sources of inspiration—like books, places, food?

GGD: Japanese food. And Japan is wonderful. We went there this summer. I’ve been to Japan twice. It’s inspiring for me to go through Japan. Just the way that people treat visitors when you go there, with humility, and hospitality, and respect, and patience. People are beautiful there. There’s just a different kind of way to take in a visitor, an outsider, to their home. That’s been really inspiring. I try to take some of that with me when I leave. I’m still workin’ on it. It’s really intense, man. For me, that’s a heavy thing, to be treated so well, so beautifully. And Japanese food, it’s just really fresh and healthy and if you stay there…like we were there [this summer] for like ten days and it just makes your body feel good. It’s just really pure food.