gang gang dance is back and the timing couldn't be better
On 'Kazuashita,' NYC's beloved avant-garde noisemakers blend transcendent soundscapes with very real references to 2018 America.
Photography Ari Marcopoulos
“Hi, it’s been a while,” Lizzi Bougatsos grinned at fans at Gang Gang Dance's euphoric sold-out release show in Bushwick on Friday night. NYC's seminal cosmic noise band is finally back on the city's gig scene as it drops its first album in seven years, Kazuashita. During the years that have elapsed since Gang Gang's critically lauded 2011 album Eye Contact, the group's signature borderless approach to genre-blending has stopped being weird. Drake’s “One Love” soared to the top of the charts off the tropical beats of Nigeria’s Wizkid. K-pop groups are catching the ear of Grimes, and everyone from Beyoncé to Justin Bieber is singing in Spanglish.
This makes Kazuashita sounds more radio-friendly than it would have 10 years ago, but it’s also the opposite of a record you’d expect to hear today. For starters, it feels shaped by Gang Gang’s own canon rather than current trends: if the band’s self-released God’s Money was an abrasive DIY catharsis, Saint Dymphna its version of a pop album, and Eye Contact a full-circle medley of pan-cultural noise and catchy hooks, Kazuashita is Gang Gang drifting into some sort of halcyon afterlife. Friday’s show saw Bougatsos perform in front of the same hazy moonscape that adorns the album cover: “Do you feel like you’re on the moon yet or what?” she asked before launching into the fittingly titled Dymphna instrumental “Vacuum,” one of Gang Gang’s first flirtations with the shoegaze sound that infiltrates Kazuashita.
How did such euphoric, meditative sounds arise during such dire times? Kazuashita’s optimism is actually directly inspired by desperation, Bougatsos tells me over the phone a few days before the release show. Anyone who follows her on Instagram wouldn’t be shocked by Kazuashita’s commentary. She posts passionately about everything from pipelines to the harrowing details of the Trump administration’s child separation border policies. “Pure Evil has arrived and manifested living hell on earth,” Bougatsos wrote the day before Kazuashita dropped. “I know this is not a new history of Amerikkka but what can we do now?” The new album feels like a bold condemnation our current political situation and also a respite from it. “I’m not going to sing the word ICE,” Bougatsos announces on stage as the transcendent intro to Kazuashita swirling lead single “Lotus,” “it’s not about that that nasty, nasty thing that’s going on.”
At the same time, it’s exactly about what’s going on. “J-TREE” extracts ecstasy from a vocal sample of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe member Shiyé Bidziil, speaking out against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The title track “Kazuashita” is a tribute the baby boy of the band’s “vibes manager” (yes, really) — a flag-waving Japanese man called Taka Imamura, who has been appearing at shows since the Dymphna days. “Kazuashita” translates to “peace tomorrow,” and after a light attempt at cajoling Imamura to join her on stage, Bougatsos repeats this affirmation over a hypnotizing blend of techno and swirling synths. On “Young Boy (Marika in Amerika)” Middle Eastern rhythms are peppered with percussion smacking of gunshots. Bougatsos reminds me that Gang Gang isn't exactly unfamiliar with political upheaval. The band was formed the same year as the September 11 attacks, and became a fixture on the NYC live scene during the Bush II years. But this is the first time their music has sounded so, well, American.
At the release show, Kazuashita's more caustic sounds are spliced with swooning, spiritual melodies, and cathartic dance anthems from the Gang Gang archive — including Eye Contact’s “Adult Goth” and Dymphna’s “House Jam.” The most palpable crowd reaction comes during the God’s Money deep cut “Before My Voice Fails,” a track Bougatsos credits as “the song that formed my voice.” Another old live favorite — “Nico Man” from 2007 EP Rawwar — goes out to “all the people that were there from the beginning.” Bougatsos wrote it for a girlfriend from Gang Gang’s olden days NYC art circle.
I ask Bougatsos if the group plans to take the album on an outdoor tour, given that founding member Brian DeGraw has claimed that “J-TREE” was intended only to be played outdoors. “When I started writing the skeleton of the song I imagined it would only ever be played live in an outdoor setting,” DeGraw recently said. “That was the goal: to create a song that was a sonic dialogue between ourselves and the majesty of wide open space in nature.” But Bougatsos reminds me this wouldn’t be a novelty for Gang Gang. In the summer of 2009, the band played aboard a Russian ferry while sailing through Japanese waters in a treacherous storm. She is animated as she recalls the interplay between natural forces and live electrical wires, then grows solemn as she remembers how early Gang Gang member Nathan Maddox was struck and killed by lightning while watching a storm from a Chinatown rooftop. Nature has shaped the band’s trajectory in both positive and traumatic ways, and nature gives the band hope during a time when human forces seem to be fucking everything up. By the time the show ends, it’s pissing with rain outside, and everyone heads to the rooftop after-party anyway.
Gang Gang Dance's North American "Kazuashita" tour kick off this Saturday, June 30, in Los Angeles, before heading to Japan later this fall. See all the dates here.