Lizzi Bougatsos on Gang Gang Dance
November 8, 2011 | by Trinie Dalton
Gang Gang Dance was founded in Brooklyn in 2001 by Lizzi Bougatsos, Brian Degraw, Tim DeWit, Josh Diamond, and Nathan Maddox. Informed by hip-hop, eighties pop and goth, and a wealth of international traditional musical styles, the band blends disparate sounds into a global amalgam. This collage approach has garnered attention from the art world; the band’s mixed-media work was included, for instance, in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, and Bougatsos’s installations and collages have been shown at James Fuentes gallery in New York. Last May, Gang Gang Dance released their sixth album, Eye Contact, a tribute to the many loved ones the band has lost—including Maddox, who died in 2002 when he was struck by lightning on a Chinatown rooftop—and a fusion of large, swaggering beats, polyrhythmic sampling, and Bougatsos’s raw, personal lyrics.
“Glass Jar,” on the new album, opens with a sample of a couple phrases that are clearly audible, and then goes through a movement that sounds like it’s contained in glass. The song feels as if it’s hermetically sealed.
It is its own ecosystem, a geo-dome. You can create your own world with your surroundings.
Does music produce common experiences with others?
Music is universal, and extending your music to somebody is about sharing it. But it is also about how they receive it and how a message travels back to you. The best way to receive information about your music is when people talk about it through experience. We have a spiritual adviser named Babylove who travels with the band. And Tony Cox has been documenting our performances for a long time now. When he photographs us, he calls the experience a sphere.
It’s all about getting in that sphere, the total musical experience. It’s very visual, and the audience adds magnetic force to the music. That’s how music, as a force, is universal. Through it, we can touch anybody anywhere. That’s the most important thing. Most of the time while touring, I just see nightclubs—it’s usually a nighttime experience. But one of the most magical experiences, for me, was when we played during the solar eclipse on a Russian cruise ship with Boredoms.
Japan has also provided some of the most interesting experiences for us thus far. In Nagasaki, we met a nomad group living off the land. One nomad only had a saxophone, a motorcycle, a few jars of pickles, and some blankets. He had been living that way for twenty years. That reminded me of Nathan. Nathan played a bunch of horn-type instruments, but also jars, sticks, rubber tires, glass.
The only other person who reminds me of Nathan is Ol' Dirty Bastard. Dirty had an innocence that was unfortunately taken over by pirates when he was put in the looney bin. It's like they ripped out his soul and after that it was irreplaceable. He was Nathan's favorite artist. Nathan felt his suffering. They spread their love similarly. Not a bad bone in either of their bodies. Scratchy from Roll Deep Crew reminds me of Nathan as well. They have a similar disposition and played similar roles in the bands. Snippets of genius.
Do you think of yourself as a bit of a nomad?
I do. I think of myself as a nomad who’s bringing Nathan’s message to the people. He was a messiah of sorts, and the band only got serious when he passed away, because I believe that he asked us to take this path.
Both Saint Dymphna and Eye Contact indicate a change in your music, with more dance tracks and more romantic slow tracks. It seems to appeal to a larger audience.
We have always been influenced by pop music. I grew up listening to hot nineties dub and R&B. The East Coast was all about slow jams. I was constantly singing songs like Atlantic Starr’s “Secret Lover.” I listened to Eric B. & Rakim, and I loved Sinéad O’Connor. I learned how to sing listening to Sinéad, actually. I would mimic her chords and her timbre and the way she uses her voice to express anger or emotion. The combination of those two things really informed my singing sensibilities. In our minds, we were always making Timbaland jams or producing a Hollywood film soundtrack. “House Jam” on Saint Dympha is a song I wrote with Tim, my old drummer. It’s based on a Madonna melody with an Aaliyah sensibility, in the way that I wrote the words and phrases.
How do you write songs?
I write melodies with my voice set to rhythmic beats, so usually it’s like a drumbeat. For example, I’ll try [sings], “Did you really wanna be like that” using different drumbeats, adding different octaves. The literary content is the most important thing for me, the way the melody supports the words. How it fits together determines how the emotion gets delivered. I want to croon, and I want to cry through the words when they meet the melody. So first I write the melody, and then I craft the literary element of the song—how the lyrics relate to a refrain or a chorus. The song is a structure based on poetics and the rhythm of the beat. I’m trying to make an equation of emotion.
Elizabeth Fraser emphasizes emotional output over literary message in much the same way.
It’s interesting that you make that connection, because I validated my singing style, in part, because of what she did. People never knew what I was saying, and it bothered me a lot, because I know that I have the power to create and deliver messages. I have always struggled with the fact that people couldn’t hear what I was saying through the effects. But Elizabeth Fraser really changed that.
You collaborate frequently with other artists and musicians. How long have you worked with Rita Ackermann?
Since 1999. Our band, Angel Blood, made three albums. After that, we traveled together and made art installations. Gang Gang got really busy with touring, so I invited Agathe Snow to replace me. Then, Rita and Agathe did a beautiful installation for the Whitney. I loved that Biennial because it really celebrated women. That year, A-Ron Bondaroff named Rita, Agathe, and me “The Murda Crew,” because he was so proud that women were in the Whitney. That’s still so fucking rare.
Are you still mostly playing drums with your other band, IUD?
Yes. I have to play drums or else I lose my mind. I have two congas now, two bongos, and wind chimes, but the wind chimes I save for Gang Gang. The root of IUD is drumming. I’m going to get a new set of Timbales, the kind Shelia E. plays. I saw her play them at the last Prince concert. She and Yoshimi [of Boredoms] were really the only reason I wanted to play drums at all. The drummer I relate to the most is Shelia E. She doesn’t give a fuck. She borrowed Prince’s blazer and threw it on the ground to play the drum kit in her bustier. Oh my god, it was epic!
Do you listen to a lot of music when you’re making a record?
Usually, when I’m making music, I don’t listen to a lot. When I was making Eye Contact, my biggest influences were the Last Poets, and D’Angelo. Nina Simone, Sade, Naz, Jay-Z. I go back to hip-hop and the beatbox. That’s where I get my inspiration. J Dilla has really changed my life. You can hear it in “Romance Layers.” I was a Timbaland girl, I was a RZA girl, but now I’m straight-up Dilla.