Gang Gang Dance's 2008 album Saint Dymphna is a shimmering, psychedelic head trip with dance grooves, a collage of rock, electro pop, hip-hop beats, African pop, dub, house music, and all sorts of extraneous percussion that should feel hectic and scattered but gels into something that makes perfect sense. It's a counterintuitive masterpiece, a dance-rock album on which a guest spot by the British grime MC Tinchy Stryder doesn't sound out of place. There's so much going on, and it's so seamlessly incorporated into the band's larger vision, that it's hard to tell what's what—especially what's programmed and what's played live.
"That record is a mix of a lot of both," says keyboardist/percussionist Brian DeGraw. "The way it was recorded, there were so many different sessions in so many different places over such a long period. Certain tracks were played straight live in the studio. It really varies."
The band had a long trip getting to its critical breakthrough. DeGraw, singer Liz Bougatsos, and drummer Tim DeWitt played together in a band called the Cranium in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s; they moved to New York, broke up, and then the three regrouped as a loose improv collective around 2001. With the addition of Josh Diamond, the group gradually evolved into Gang Gang Dance. DeGraw says they first started thinking of themselves as a proper band around the release of their third album, God's Money, in 2005.
"That's when we started to have some solidity as an actual band, instead of a group of friends who got together to improvise," he says. "Not to discredit that—we didn't rehearse much, we'd just get together the night before a show and work out some things to do. We were much more spontaneous in general."
Since giving up their improvisational process for stricter songwriting, Gang Gang Dance has developed a reputation for taking a long time between albums. It took them more than three years after God's Money to release Saint Dymphna; a fifth album has been in the works since early 2009. DeGraw says they've finished writing songs and plan to start recording in May. It sounds like it will be a surprising step away from the pan-everything eclecticism of Saint Dymphna.
"It's a bit mellower, smoother," he says of the new material, which they've been playing live recently. "I don't know how else to say it. It's less spastic, in a way. A lot of people have made comparisons to Sade, for whatever that's worth."