Published Dec 17, 2013For the last 12 years, Brian DeGraw has been steeped in Brooklyn's hearty experimental music scene, starting out in Washington, DC noise band the Cranium, before participating in a number of projects that would ultimately lead to the formation of indie dance avant-gardists Gang Gang Dance. As keyboardist and spokesperson for the group, DeGraw helped the five-piece become one of the most celebrated and beloved bands to come out of this burgeoning underground movement. With, SUM/ONE, his first official solo LP (recorded under the moniker bEEdEEgEE) DeGraw strives to push his craft even further, bringing in a number of guest vocalists (Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor, CSS's Lovefoxx, electronic artist Douglas Armour and Gang Gang Dance vocalist Lizzi Bougatsos) to help him craft this collection of highly structured and melody-infused songs. Brian DeGraw spoke with Exclaim! from a noisy Manhattan bar to discuss being a workaholic, flying solo and Gang Gang Dance's year-long hiatus.
So, you're talking to me from a bar?
Yeah, I just did an interview and then my battery died, so I had to go to a bar and charge it. I'm at a bar on the Lower East Side [in Manhattan], it's a bar I've never been to before, it's called Clockwork, I guess? It's right around the corner from where I used to live, it used to be this reggae bar called King Size but now they're blaring the Clash or something.
Why did you decide to record a solo album?
It's something that I've always wanted to do in general and Gang Gang Dance has been on hiatus for the past year. The time was there so I just decided to start working on it. I've been making music whether or not it's going to turn into a record and it got to the point where it started to become enough stuff to release. I talked to [4AD] and they said they wanted to put something out, so after I talked to them I started working on stuff with the idea of a release.
What was the impetus for the hiatus? Was everyone just tired from touring?
We had to realign some things in the band, there was some personal relationship stuff and yeah... exhaustion from too much touring... and a lot of things, but basically, we just had to stop for a minute and figure out a different way to approach the band that doesn't rely so heavily on touring. But we're still trying to figure out how to change that.
Are any other Gang Gang Dance members pursuing side projects right now?
Lizzi [Bougatsos] has her band, I.U.D., I don't know if you know about that one. it's a drum duo with our friend Sadie [Laksa from Brooklyn band Growing], they both play drum kits and sometimes they have our friend Spencer [Sweeney] playing guitar, they've been playing for about a year while we've been chilling with Gang Gang. Tim [Dewitt], who's our original drummer who I started the band with, he's being doing a lot and he's about to put out a mixtape of beats that's going to be really incredible, it's one of the things that I'm really looking forward to.
Has anyone left the band?
Uhhh... yeah... but I really don't want to talk about that. Yeah, we've had one band member change in the band, for sure. For some reason that's been talked about, internet-wise, that we've changed drummers once again.
But, though this break, you've kept working. Do you feel that you're a workaholic?
I have to work or I go crazy, yeah. With Gang Gang, we stopped about a year ago, we decided to take a break and I spent maybe a few months taking advantage of that time and just chilling but I feel really uncomfortable if I spend too much time not working. I guess I would consider myself a workaholic. I don't feel comfortable if I'm not involved in some project, be it visual or music.
Do you feel you're going through an extra-creative time in your career? Did the songs come to you fairly easily?
Yeah, it was pretty easy but it's a drastically different process than I'm used to with Gang Gang. For obvious reasons, with it being by myself, but also process-wise, with Gang Gang it always stems from improvising, being in a room with other members and just playing for hours and hours and then going back and recording and listening and sitting around and finding things that excite us and seeing if we can recreate those parts, and if we can we start building those into more structured pieces. But with this [SUM/ONE] it was more of just a straightforward tracking process where I was just by myself, just going in a studio and putting it together piece by piece on a computer with one synth or one drum machine, just track by track, going back and using whatever parts I thought were good and then adding bass, adding melody and blah, blah, blah, you know? I guess it's a more traditional approach, it's a big difference from what I'm used to and I'm thankful for that because I've never made a record that way and I've always been interested in trying that.
Can you talk a bit about the album's guest vocalists? How did you alleviate that expectation for them to come in and try to sound like they're performing on a Gang Gang Dance album? Because, for example, the song with Alexis Taylor ["F.U.T.D. Time of Waste"] really retains his musical personality.
We've been close friends for awhile and when I started making tracks for the album I had a lot of instrumentals and I had this idea to get other vocalists, people I don't know, people that I've admired or that I find interesting. I started to do that and then I was just like, fuck that, I'm just going to go for nice people. Alexis is one of those people, he's just a go-to person for me when I think about what kind of vocals I want on something, so it was just natural in a sense. As far as how it sounds, there's no goal to make it sound a certain way, I really didn't have an expectation of it sounding like Hot Chip or Gang Gang but that particular song, I asked him to send me an a cappella of a song that he had already made that was unused, that already belonged to a track that he made at home. I told him not to send the music, so I wouldn't have any sort of reference as to where the vocal belongs.
Are there any plans to release that as an A-Side/B-Side with the flip side being Alexis's original song?
I'm not sure but I know that he makes so many songs that I think a lot of the stuff he makes ends up sitting around and he figures out where it belongs, it could have potentially been a Hot Chip song but he has his own solo project and he has another band called About Group, so it could have been for any of those things, or nothing.
Your sound has become more structured and less primitive over the years, is this due to a change in musical tastes or have you just improved in your craft?
I think it's a bunch of things. Part of it is that I've held an increasing interest in my producer role and structure is pretty foreign to me as a musician. I've been learning that as the years go by but Gang Gang started as a completely improvisational group, no structure whatsoever, completely improvisation, and then around 2005 we started incorporating elements of song structure. And ever since then it's become more and more interesting to me, basically because it's not natural to me, I really don't consider myself as someone who has that in them. What comes naturally to me is just improvising, being intuitive and spontaneous in music, and once I started messing with structure I became obsessed with it. I see it as this challenge, how to crack that code. I really started to enjoy figuring out those elements of music because I never really thought about them before. And this gave me the chance to explore a little more, because I was working by myself and basically I was just exploring this one little entity of my brain of entertaining pop structures.