Ross Simonini interviews the percussion-heavy, experimental, psychedelic band that created God's Money
The music of Gang Gang Dance is a close relative of religion. Wild chanting and ritualistic drumming. Kate Bush and Grime and Oliver Messiaen. Every note used in a sort of ceremonial function. Song structures induce blurry meditation and psychedelic dance. There are no choruses, just sounds, flowing violently into each other. Every song feels like the golden moments hidden inside fourteen-hour, drug-induced improvisations at abandoned concrete warehouses.
Inside every GGD album there is enough creative energy to inspire transcendence. Their self-titled release is a collection of two twenty-minute long explorations into the emotive limits of experimental female vocals and the sonic possibilities of unusual percussion. Hillulah is a collage of live stage recordings, including ten-minute improvisational drumming, blankets of distortion, aggressive electronic keyboards and free-form structures. God's Money, their most recent release, is a move toward more traditionally minded songs and recognizable melodies, without any loss of the passion for experimentation that sets GGD far, far apart from any band in any genre of music. They have a new album on the way this fall.
Will you talk a little about the forming of Gang Gang Dance?
Gang Gang was a long time forming. We really only officially gelled as a unit a few years ago, but there were several phases leading up to this in the past five or six years. Tim and I have been playing music together since around '93 when we met in Washington D.C. where we had both moved fairly randomly. I moved there to go to art school, although I didn't really have it in me to take any sort of academic leap, so I basically just chose the first city that I was intrigued by musically. At the time I was really into Fugazi and Nation of Ulysses and all that kind of thing, so I just picked a school there and moved. Tim had moved there from Michigan out of similar interests; he was into Unrest and that kind of stuff so he just decided to go there and check it out in hopes of making music of his own. Eventually we met at Tower Records, where Tim was stocking shelves and I was shoplifting CDs. We started playing music almost immediately after meeting. We would just do really minimal things with piano and guitar or bass and guitar, just recording on four-track in our apartments, etc.
Eventually I convinced my old friend Jim from Connecticut to move down to D.C. and form a band. He obliged and we started The Cranium with Tim playing drums, me on bass, Jim Loman on vocals, and Raquel Vogl on guitar. We did that for a few years, put out some records, did a few tours, etc. We met Liz in N.Y. at one of our Cranium shows where we played with her band at the time called Russia, which was a sort of "no wave" type thing with mutual friends that Tim and I had lived with in D.C. for a time. Eventually everyone's bands kind of fizzled. Tim, Jim and I moved to New York in hopes of continuing The Cranium—Raquel had decided to go to college instead—but when we arrived Jim had become ill with some sort of Suicide infatuation and decided that he wanted to just be a two-piece with vocals and synths. I ended up going with this for a bit but really couldn't stand it. It was much too contrived and retro sounding for my tastes, and I couldn't seem to make music without Tim, so eventually I stopped. Jim continued his vision and formed Centuries with his friend Amy. Tim and I were reunited and bandless.
We spent a few years just dabbling—playing with different people here and there, doing different improvised gigs with friends. We had a band for a little while called Death and Dying where we tried to keep a similar vibe as the Cranium stuff, but the other people involved weren't on the same page. We changed the name from Death and Dying to Gang Gang Dance, played one show, then ended up splitting with the singer and guitar player. After that we asked Liz to sing because we played an improvised thing as a three piece for a Halloween party and realized that we worked really well together and that everyone had the right spirit. Our friend Nathan whom we had also met in D.C. long ago had moved to N.Y. as well so the four of us started playing together fairly frequently. We got a practice space which we shared with Black Dice and Animal Collective and eventually Josh came into the picture with guitar. We had known Josh since we moved to N.Y. and he was another person who we would do improv projects with all the time—random shows at bars or cafes, just making noise and having fun. Anyway, Josh came in as a permanent member around this time (2001 maybe?).
We continued like this for a while, doing vaguely structured but mostly improvised shows around town, playing fairly consistently. We recorded our first record after about a year of doing this, then shortly after recording, Nathan was struck by lightning on a rooftop in Chinatown and died. This was obviously a very intense thing for us, but very joyous in many ways as well because he had always wanted to be struck by lightning. When this particular storm rolled into the city, he made a point of going to the roof and offering himself to the sky, as he always did, and this time the sky obliged. After Nate moved from earth to elsewhere is when something began to drive us to really work harder on the band and to buckle down a bit and begin really bashing it out. It seemed very unconscious in a sense, as if Nate was pushing us from the heavens, telling us that it was urgent and important to do this. And really from then on we have been playing quite militantly and have immersed ourselves in Gang Gang.
How does the creative process work? Usually, does your music begin with single ideas (melodies or rhythms or chants) or does it come from larger, more abstract ideas?
I would say our music most often begins with a simple idea—as you suggest a melody rhythm, chant, or texture—though there have been times when a larger idea forms the basis of structure. An example of this that first comes to mind is in the pre-Gang Gang days in a project that I was a part of with Brian, Tim and Nathan from Gang Gang, called Funeral of the Holy Lamb, in which Brian had invented a notation system, a sort of Morse code chart with dots and dashes which specified not necessarily what someone would play, but where and for how long, and how loud or soft— rhythmic and dynamic ideas really. I remember—the tapes are long lost unfortunately—that this system, however basic, was extremely intuitive and visually very appealing, and it produced some very interesting and effective results. Recently he wanted to try something similar, with a new notation, but we have not done it yet. Other instances of larger ideas come in our constant process of sequencing of music, be it for a recording or for a live show. In these instances the small ideas, be they sounds, rhythms, "songs," or what we would think of as interludes are arranged to form one complete picture, arranged as a sequence like a DJ...where smaller ideas are mixed with others until they become something else entirely. We have done this in many different ways, and to varying degrees of success. Tim has a wonderful mind for large structures—the sequencing of God's Money was more or less his vision; after five years we have learned to trust and admire the strengths of each individual so this process was entrusted to him and I think we are all happy with the results. However most of our ideas start with something much simpler. Perhaps a melody is suggested or a rhythm, until something is formed as a group. From my perspective there are times when we will be playing and everything starts to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, each person supplying some aspect that had been previously been absent, finding a space to occupy.
In a few places, I've seen people refer to Gang Gang Dance as a percussion quartet. Does this, in any way, reflect the mentality of the group? Would you say the group is primarily driven by percussion?
I would say the percussion, and in a larger, more accurate sense, rhythm, is a primary source of what we produce. Obviously—or it is to me—Brian and Tim have an almost telepathic rhythmic relationship. They have been playing together so long and I think their interplay can be one of the more exciting aspects of our live shows. Lately, although she always has to some degree, Liz has been playing more percussion. On God's Money I played a good deal of bass drum, my favorite I guess, and if it weren't so cumbersome I would do it more live and may still in the future.
Percussion aside, rhythmic ideas are so important to us. From the beginning, I often played my guitar more as a drum than as a guitar, and from the beginning I also realized that where I choose to play was just as important, if not more important, than what I play. I think there is an orchestral sense of rhythm going on, or rhythm in a three-dimensional sense, where sounds and melodies and percussion are meant to surround and develop and stand out. I think our next record will be headphone candy, where rhythms spring up and collide in the space between your ears. Other than that, I believe we want to make intelligent but raw honest dance music. I love to dance and I love when people not only understand this about us but let go and dance to our music. I think when we play we are looking for a shared experience, between each other and the audience. Some of our percussion experiments have been like this, where in the middle of the show percussion instruments are handed out to the audience, and there is a transfer of energy—it starts from us then moves through the audience until we no longer (and sometimes don't) need to play anymore, all of the music is being performed by the audience and they generate this tremendous energy. From there we can take that energy back, and start to play again or let it stay with them—and hopefully everyone gets something from this, feels high from rhythm. Rhythm is a very powerful force.
Gang Gang is obviously not technically a "percussion quartet," but I do think there is a natural inclination within the members to think percussively with melody-based instruments. There do exist moments when all members are banging on something—drums, bells, chairs, coconuts—but for the most part we stick to our main instruments. Tim is such a strong presence as well. At times he can sound as if he is more than one person with two arms. So on recordings there can be confusion as to what exactly is happening and how many members are playing rhythms. I think that is another factor. And of course we as a group tend to try our best to lose ourselves in music, and to truly get lost I think one has to go very deeply backwards in musical history—back, back, back—until you reach the beginning of song, which is undeniably the heartbeat. From the heartbeat of birds came their melodic embellishments, and then the squirrels and small rodents began to chime in with clicking sounds and the cracking of nuts. Then the chimps began to bang rocks, and from there the hides were stretched by early men. So as the collective mind of GGD travels, we often end up at this place where all these exciting things were first happening, hence: HEAVY PERCUSSION.
We definitely see ourselves in a percussive, rhythmic and tribal existence. I think that was because when we first formed as a band, we used borrowed or used equipment (still do) but we were banging on anything that we could make a beat on, whether it was the floor, a chair, a garbage can, etc. Our shows when we first formed were also improvisation, which were "anything goes" style. I think we hated each other as a result, but it took a lot of guts to meet up and not rehearse, then play a show. That was five years ago. I often hear similar things now when we rehearse and I think: "Oh that was old Gang Gang," but it's ultra-refreshing, like time never passes and we've been playing for hours in our space. So yeah, I think our mindset has always been percussive. It's weird, 'cause people think now that we got some attention—whatever—that we have all this fancy shit, but we're just using the same old shit, and we're broke as ever just doing what we do, beats with our borrowed and found stuff.
You mentioned non-traditional percussion instruments. Would you mind giving some specific example of non-traditional percussion instruments you use. Pots? Pans? Drawers? Do you use traditional sticks, mallets and brushes?
There aren't very many non-traditional objects used for percussion. On God's Money Josh played a chair on one tune, but besides that I can't really recall us using anything out of the ordinary. I always play a crappy Yamaha drum pad thing that I have to replace every few months because it's intended to be used as more of a toy or an instructional thing for children. So, needless to say, it isn't manufactured tough enough for me to bang the hell out of every night. But I like the preset sounds on it more than the more expensive ones. Other than that, I sometimes play a cheap, steel-drum type thing, or I just use a microphone to make percussive sounds. Lizzi plays roto-toms with normal sticks—sometimes she has bells on the sticks, I think. I guess Tim would be the least conventional with his use of percussion. Although he does play a fairly standard drum kit, he is always using different objects and placing them on the snare, or he tends to take conventional elements of standard kits but uses them in unconventional ways, like taking the head of a tom and playing that on top of his snare drum, or holding a tambourine in one hand in place of stick, or placing a gong on the hi-hat. I'm not exactly sure of all his tricks, but he has many. I am always too busy doing my own thing to notice.
Improvisation was mentioned by Liz. To what degree is improvisation a part of your recordings, your live shows, your song structures?
Improvisation still plays a heavy role in the band, but I think now it has become more important as part of the songwriting process than as a part of a finished piece. What I mean is that, in the past, we existed mainly as an improvisational group. We would improvise during rehearsals up until the night before a show then we would try to take very vague ideas of what we'd been playing—more like moods than actual parts—and decide on a rough outline of how the performance would flow. We would delegate different moods to three or four different sections of the set. For example: start the set quiet, moody and minimal using only vocals/ after four minutes do something really heavy with everyone playing at once/ after five minutes switch to something very rhythmically based with a solid groove/ end with a pretty melodic segment. We would do things like that—just very vague movements. The recordings before God's Money were much more improv heavy as well—basically just rolling tape, seeing what came out, then editing it all down in a similar fashion as assembling the moods of a live show.
During God's Money I think things started to change a bit. We had begun writing more re-creatable pieces or "songs" if you like, and we were left with lots of empty spaces in between these songs that we would either fill in with more snippets of improvised takes or we would just expand the songs and stretch them out and add parts to make them longer pieces with more changes, etc. That process gave us the "writing bug" and now I think we are all much more interested in structure as a whole. There are definitely still designated areas within songs where improvisation takes place, but we know how to get into those spaces and back out of them with much more control.
To finish what I began by saying: improv has become much more vital in the writing process because the normal way we go about things now is to just go into the rehearsal space with absolutely nothing written, then we basically just jam for three or four hours with a tape rolling the entire time. At the end of the night we usually sit at home and listen to the tapes and hear certain things that are strong and re-creatable, so we make a mental note of those parts and after we have amassed enough of them we will go into rehearsal with a CD of these compiled little pieces and begin sticking them together and just seeing what works in juxtaposition with one another. So essentially we are still a very improvised group, it's just not as evident in the finished product as it used to be.
Do you all have jobs outside of Gang Gang Dance?
I haven't had a steady job since we started touring. Sometimes I do freelance projects for Visionaire magazine like record reviews or tour diaries or other random stuff. I have designed some stuff for Trees Are So Special in Japan. It's a small gallery. They have some specific GGD shirts that I made according to songs we've made on specific records. Otherwise, I help my friends with their projects—very, very random stuff. I can't seem to manage anything else with recording or our practice schedule. I wish I took up graphic design instead of performance art and sculpture in college. It would certainly be more useful that having art shows. I don't really like to exhibit art—the pressure, deadlines, openings—I dread it actually. It doesn't really help to be a visual artist unless you are a graphic designer.
Who created the cover art for God's Money? Most of you are involved, to a pretty high degree, with the visual arts. Have you made the attempt to create any sort of visual aesthetic for GGD?
I have done the artwork for all the records so far. The God's Money cover is my favorite by far. It is a photograph (taken by Benjamin Maddox) of Nathan Maddox, our fifth member who now resides somewhere in the sky. I altered the photo a bit and then used watercolors and collaged clippings of U.S. dollars to form a mask of sorts for Nathan to wear. I've been told it looks a bit like masks from Papua New Guinea, which I agree with, but I wasn't thinking that when I made it. The main goal with this cover was to create an image that was bolder and simpler than the last two records, so I used a larger, more central portrait and just placed it on a field of white. I liked the cleanliness of the white. It is very important to me to have Nathan's eyes circulating throughout the world on this cover. There are always nice moments when we are touring and we see a poster or flyer placed somewhere very discreetly and those eyes are just staring at people and burning themselves into their subconscious. I think Nathan's eyes did the same thing when they were here, in his head, on earth.
There is not really a conscious attempt to create any sort of visual aesthetic for the band, I usually just begin making the artwork as we are recording the record and as the music takes form the artwork follows. I just try to make it look like what I am hearing in the songs. I would say the one thing that I am conscious about is trying not to make the album art look like what I normally do in the field of visual art. I normally make figurative ink drawings, or kind of layered pencil drawings of people I admire or am intrigued by, so it doesn't make sense to me to put that sort of thing on our record covers. Lately I have been starting work on a Gang Gang video project and some of the images that I've shot thus far I think have a similar vibe to the covers, but that was done without keeping that in mind; so as I said before there is just something natural about the elements of our music that makes me work and think differently when dealing with any sort of band-related visuals.
When you say: "I just try to make it look like what I am hearing in the songs" what exactly do you mean? I'm curious about the transfer of the aural aesthetic to the visual. Would a textural song dictate textural artwork? What about colors? I guess all of this sort of relates to the different systems of notation Josh mentioned. What does a triangle sound like? A series of dotted lines? As someone who is accomplished in both the visual and the aural, I'm curious about your thoughts on these ideas. I think it was Alfred Einstein, the musicologist, who said: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." That's sort of what I'm talking about.
I have always seen visual equivalents to sound, from my earliest memories of listening to music. It is something I always assumed everyone experienced but have come to find out that perhaps it's not necessarily true because I often try to describe a certain part of a song in terms of shapes or directional flows of colors and patterns and more times than not people respond with a look of confusion. But regardless, yes, I always see music and it's become a very standard set of visuals for me. It's something that isn't easy to put into words, hence the confused reaction when I make the attempt, but I will try my best to make some examples.
Most often in our own music the visuals that I see/hear are linear flows of shape, light and color. There are often very sparkly radiations of light during airy electronic sounds or during cymbals played lightly. Like a cymbal being played gently with a brush is particularly sparkly and generates white or gold light in a starburst shape. A cymbal hit hard with a stick is usually more red in color and the burst lasts for a shorter period of time. It doesn't fizzle out like with a brush. It happens quickly and decays in a sharp cut. Melody lines are the most diverse visually. If they are warmer sounds they often appear green or blue and they tend to form linear patterns that move from left to right in my minds field of vision.
They may be a single-file line of blue triangles sort of dancing and floating across at slightly different heights, very gently, like a very organized school of fish underwater. The noisier, less "pretty" sounds are usually grey and blacks or deeper blues, and depending on the length the sound is being played, they will vary in shape and size. Bass is often more round and usually has no sharp points or corners. If a bass note descends, it usually looks to me like an oval that slowly stretches itself out and the right side becomes bigger and droops down vertically until it fades away. Bass always reminds me of those Schmoo characters from the old Hanna-Barberra cartoons...or a slug melting from being salted.
This is really not so easy to describe verbally, but given a piece of paper and some markers in different colors I think I could explain it in a way that would make much more sense. But you can imagine with all of the sonic elements happening at once, the rhythms, bass, melodies, vocal lines, effects—all of these at once create a very, very vivid and colorful combination, an ethereal theatre of visuals that take place anywhere from deep in the sea to high above the clouds. The harsher-sounding songs usually take place on land.
What really interests me is how different bands create such drastically different visuals for me. Rock music is usually the least visual—perhaps because the sounds are too familiar and they just don't represent much to me. In rock music when I hear a stick hitting a snare drum, I see a stick hitting a snare drum. When I hear a power chord, I see a hand on a fretboard. It's very boring visual music. I find reggae to be very exciting to look at, and good techno can create some nice things to see. I suppose it has to do with the specific sounds being used and the number of layers being created by these sounds. Alice Coltrane has always been a good one for that too. Listening to something like Orthrelm is a very interesting visual experience for me. It's a whole new cinema I never thought could exist.
And yes, this all relates directly to what Josh mentioned about the form of notation that I sometimes try to write. Those notations are a combination of the sounds I am seeing and an attempt at putting them in some sort of order that will hopefully be readable by the musicians involved.
I went to see Brian Eno speak last year and it was so exciting to me because he explained his approach to sound in the 70's when he was making Here Come the Warm Jets and it was very similar. He was much better at explaining it than I am, but he had the help of a projector, markers and acetate. He drew a diagram of what he thought pop music sounded like in the 60's and it was very distinctly separate layers. For example: picture a large triangle drawn on a piece of paper. That triangle represents the skeleton of a song structure. In pop music in the sixties there would be a red circle at the top point of the triangle representing the vocal, which always stuck out in volume and in "importance." Beneath that dot would be two green squares representing the chords of a guitar. Beneath those two squares would be three blue ovals representing the bass line. Beneath those three ovals would be four black rectangles representing the drums. So he illustrated this sort of hierarchy of roles in pop music and then went onto explain that what he tried to with sound was to squash the pyramid down so that the colors existed on the same level, not creating brown, but rather just forming a more single-file line with the colors spreading out in a horizontal row and existing together rather than above and below each other, therefore giving equal importance to all the instruments and allowing them to weave in and out of one another. You can really hear it when you listen to that record too. So anyway, his explanation incorporated many of the same ideas I've always had about the visuals of sound. I'm not even sure if a really answered your question. Send me a piece of paper and a box of Crayolas.
What are some of your musical and non-musical sources for inspiration? Literature? Visual Art? Embryonic development? Archeology? Who are some artists who embody the level of creativity you are interested in pursuing?
I think everyone in the group has fairly diverse interests in life. Tim is very up on world politics and has inspired me to follow suit, although it's so late in life now that it's sometimes difficult to understand all the terms and reference points. Growing up I never cared for history. I got straight D's in high school and could not memorize any of the events of the past. I get my wars all mixed up. If you asked me what year World War I and II took place in I could only make a very rough guess. It's that bad and it's one of my only regrets as far as not paying attention in school.
My interests were always in art and emotion and that grew into an interest in their relation to human nature and the physical and metaphysical worlds. So now I am left being someone who could easily be dubbed a hippie of sorts, but I don't think of it that way. I think it is a very valid relationship to dedicate your life to. I think art, emotion, and human relations are the biggest pieces of the puzzle. If there could be one image to sum up what I think is a sane basis for my existence and my interests I think it would be a picture of a chimpanzee mother sitting on a rock formation that she herself arranged. It is nighttime and she is staring up at a full moon while picking bugs out of her child's hair. The child's eyes are closed and he is listening to the birds singing along with some distant ocean waves. A clan of intruding monkeys is rustling in the trees getting ready to attack. The moment that the mother and child recognize that they are about to be attacked and the very first thoughts that enter their head upon this recognition are what I find interesting in life.
To what degree do think an artist should evolve or change? Is it more interesting to you to explore a very specific area of aesthetics or do you find that incorporating many influences/opinions/aesthetics is more satisfying approach to the creative process? Do you like the idea of GGD as group whose sound will completely change, or as group who refines a very particular sound, record after record?
I think it is extremely important for artists to constantly evolve and change and embrace modernity. I actually find it very offensive when people do not care to explore and evolve. Stagnation has no place in art for me, at least in the culture in which I am involved. I absolutely despise "one trick ponies" who drive themselves and everyone else into the ground with one branch of the creativity tree. That is why rock music is so dull nowadays. It relies on the past and it relies on haircuts, beards, and styles of dress as the meat of their existence. The 60's were forty years ago, the 70's were thirty years ago, the 80's were twenty years ago, the 90's were ten years ago, and 2004 was one year ago. What does not make sense about that equation? I just don't get it. I really, really don't. Music should evolve as culture itself evolves. But nowadays it seems to work in a very opposite way. I went to see a band a few weeks ago, a sold-out show. The band was a group of fairly young people and the entire show sounded like some Gloria Gaynor disco record and the audience was loving it. They were just eating it up and they were so happy that it all sounded so familiar, like the radio they heard when their dads drove them to kindergarten every morning. They laughed and clapped and danced and drank beer and not one single person had to put any effort in thinking about creativity in the here and now. Lazy people and their Sex and the City box sets are powerless and depressing. Then there are the Roy Lichtensteins. The ones who find one aesthetic that they know they can be financially successful with, and they do that for the rest of their lives. I don't know how they sleep at night. At the risk of sounding pompous, I must make it clear that GGD is not like this. Our favorite music doesn't exist yet.
Images from GGD