We visit Gang Gang Dance’s synth wizard Brian Degraw in his cozy hideout in upstate New York
Taken from the January issue of Dazed and Confused:
For the last two years, Brian DeGraw of NYC experimental electronicists Gang Gang Dance has been living upstate in Woodstock. His house, which he shares with the artist Tony Cox, is perched at the top of a windy road, above a vast Norman Rockwell smear of trees showing off their autumn colours. It’s a serene place, disturbed only by the occasional rattlesnake or harsh winter. Cox is away when we arrive so DeGraw is alone, blasting John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass and making tea in his kitchen, art in his garage, music in his attic. This wilfully solitary life has given birth to SUM/ONE, his beautiful first solo album as bEEdEEgEE. Written and recorded during a year-long Gang Gang Dance hiatus, it hops musical genres with knowing playfulness. After giving us a tour of his retreat, the 39-year-old talked about the foundation of the record, from hippy drum circles to getting his kicks from Miami Vice and the universal consciousness inspired by Michael Jackson.
New York, I love you but you’re bringing me down
“I just felt a desire to get away from people and enclosed environments for a while. Gang Gang Dance were touring so much, I wasn’t feeling like the city was a nice place to return to sometimes. I couldn’t really afford the space I needed to work on art or music. I had been there for 15 years and it just started catching up to me somehow. I felt like I needed some serenity.
Woodstock on a whim
I had never even been to Woodstock. This was the second place I found, and it was really weird because the Craigslist posting was the shittiest photo that didn’t show any of the view or anything. It was basically the front side of the house. It could have looked like any house anywhere. But the way (the owner) described it was cool. He was like, ‘It’s on state-protected land so there’s no neighbours and there’s giant waterfalls in the woods behind the house. There’s a pool.’ But there were no photos. Then I got here and immediately I was like, ‘I’m definitely going to take the place.’
Hip, hippy, hooray
I might as well be anywhere. I’m so far removed from everything that I don’t know if (being around) cultural stuff makes a difference. There are cool things here. It’s just the age difference – there’s no youth culture at all. I think kids leave as soon as they can. It’s a lot of older hippies, which is cool. Every Sunday there’s a huge drum circle in town. I always go down there and listen to that and make recordings and stuff. Reggae shows mostly happen in the summer. There are great local bands and they also bring in heavy dudes from Jamaica. I was blown away.
I used to have a shitload of books but I had to get rid of a lot when I moved. Manifesto for the Noosphere (2011) is by José Argüelles. It’s this theory developed in the late 19th century in Russia that there is this whole other layer of the atmosphere that is basically a hard drive that collects people’s experiences and thoughts. It’s like the natural internet. People believe that all human thought is stored there. It’s a comforting concept, and it ties into random-number-generator experiments. Random number generators will be set up in different parts of the world, but then when something happens that is universally known, a big event like Michael Jackson dying, the numbers in each location start to be the same because everyone is thinking the same thing at the same time. It’s crazy shit.
“I don’t know how to make pop music very well. When I hear a pop song I’m baffled, like, ‘How the fuck do people do that?’”
Going it alone
I thought it would be interesting to try something different. To me, SUM/ONE sounds crazy poppy compared to everything else I’ve done. That’s a world I’m not familiar with at all. I don’t know how to make pop music very well. I’m really intrigued by it even though I don’t listen to it much. When I hear a pop song I’m just baffled, like, ‘How the fuck do people do that?’ I have no clue how to approach music that way. I was trying to see how it would turn out. It’s the least personal record I’ve made. It sounds like I’m shit-talking my own record by saying that, but I’m not. That’s part of why I did it. To just try to not be me. That’s an okay thing to do. A lot of the past year or so, my life has been very intense with all this personal stuff going on, so I just needed to not be thinking spiritually. I was tired of thinking too much.
I played keyboards and synthesisers growing up. When I was probably 11 or 12, I took keyboard lessons. I went to this stoner dude who in my mind was like, 30, but was probably 18. He taught me Van Halen songs and Crowded House and all those things. My parents brought up a box of stuff including all these yearbooks from grammar school. My science experiment was synths and stuff, and I was rewiring them. For my live setup I always use a drum pad and multiple keyboards. So many people use them now, but when we first started everyone was tripping, like, ‘Whoa, you use that thing?’ I was thinking about the first one I had (as a kid). I had the same setup! I think I had it because of Miami Vice. Jan Hammer was my hero. The keyboard I took lessons with was a Yamaha DX7. When I was 16 I sold it at a pawn shop to take the train to the city to see Morrissey.”
SUM/ONE is out now