Portrait by Trent McMinn
“Glass Jar”, the 11-minute-plus opening track from Gang Gang Dance’s new album, Eye Contact, is a striking example of the esoteric, even obtuse style of songwriting the band has become known for over the past decade. It builds and swells and drops; it shifts and slips out of grasp just when you think you’ve got a hold on it. Beginning with hushed whispers and arpeggiating synths, it never quite breaks into melody, contenting itself with a three-note piano motif and drums that fire off like warning shots. Anticipation builds nervously until the moment, six minutes in, when the tense, metronomic accumulation of momentum drops away to reveal an effervescent piano melody, bursts of steel drums and pulsing synths that weave in and out of Liz Bougastos’ towering, crystalline vocals.
With each new release, Gang Gang Dance further refines the complexities of its arrangements into a more consistent and unified vision. It is a sound in constant dialogue with itself – never losing sight of its original fascination with the abstract physicality of beats, but revealing itself as more approachable, more lovable, with every record. Following on from 2008’s Saint Dymphna, an attempt at a dystopian pop opus, and the percussive, free-form splendour of 2005’s God’s Money, Eye Contact is Gang Gang Dance’s most sonically coherent album yet.
After another three-year gap between albums, guitarist Josh Diamond acknowledges the measured process by which the band makes music. “We can work a little slowly, but when we actually get down to it, the recording doesn’t take that long,” he explains. “It’s the way we’ve always worked. All of our material comes from improvisation, from naturally playing together, but making Eye Contact there was a new energy. It took a while for us to get into position to actually start recording it.”
Formed in New York in 2001, Gang Gang Dance spent its formative days tirelessly exploring a tribal plane of electronic workouts, hours-long jam sessions and improvised live gigs. The band released two albums to little fanfare in 2004; God’s Money was the first to make an impact on the popular imagination. Saint Dymphna was an unexpectedly populist and refined follow-up, even if it was still wildly eclectic, with songs ranging from the dense, emotional electric symphony of “House Jam” to “Princes”, a psychotic sketch featuring Tinchy Stryder that replaced grime’s paranoid beats with spider-like guitar lines and a percussive piano. “When we worked with Tinchy, he was just this little tearaway, this little upstart,” Diamond recalls. “We got these tapes from our friend in England of him performing with Roll Deep. Then we were in London on tour and we had a day in the studio and got him down to contribute some vocals.”
Making Eye Contact, though, the band were aiming to craft an all-consuming experience, rather than just a collection of tracks. “We wanted to create something experiential for the listener,” Diamond explains. “I think we’re more comfortable with the studio process now; we’re trying to get deeper and deeper into what we do. The name of the record came about because we felt that it sounded so direct and forceful, like it was music that you had to listen to with your eyes open. Saint Dymphna was very dreamlike. I’d actually say that this record is too, but it’s lucid, more like dreaming with your eyes open.”
Eye Contact, Diamond says, was an attempt at “creating what we believe an album should be – fluid and cyclical, not just ‘song-break-song’.” Its ambition may be a legacy of their art-world roots, but Diamond isn’t sure that’s the only motivation. “We try to avoid any qualification of what we do,” he says. “It’s a very unconscious pursuit, being in Gang Gang, but I think as far as our music, we all treat it very visually, very physically, but we don’t make a distinction. We’re just concerned with making our own music – we’ve been making it together for a long time now.” §