Making eye contact
On a hazy, early summer afternoon in Amsterdam, Gang Gang Dance's Liz Bougatsos is tip-toeing through a minefield.
The topic of conversation is flame-haired chart-valkyrie Florence and the Machine, who last year admitted to borrowing a section of her breakout hit Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) from the 2008 Gang Gang Dance track House Jam (without the New York avant-pop group's permission). Say the wrong thing and Bougatsos knows that -- kaboom -- she could re-ignite the controversy just as it has started to fade away.
"It was strange when we would run into her and she wouldn't talk about it," says Bougatsos, a picture of nouveau hippy chic with her long hair and thrift-store threads. "It didn't bother me until other people started getting upset about this. We had friends in the UK who were really annoyed. It got to the point where people were just so angry."
This was in 2009, before Florence confessed to basing Rabbit Heart's 'The looking glass, so shiny and new/How quickly the glamour fades' lyrics and melody on the opening verse from House Jam. Her explanation, when it eventually came, was that she was paying "homage" to Gang Gang Dance, an outfit whose throbbing art-rock has about as much in common with the Londoner's music as Coldplay do with Crystal Castles.
"I saw her in New York on a couple of occasions," recalls Bougatsos. "There was this Kanye West screening she was at. We met awkwardly at the same time people were telling us she'd stolen our song. It was really weird. We were like, 'Wow, why doesn't she just admit that she really likes us? Why is she coming to try to hang out while this is going down?' It was awkward, meeting her backstage at festivals and stuff."
She stops and thinks about what she is saying. "It was okay in the end. You know, she was trying to say she really likes our band. I don't really want to come out against another singer, that's not my style. Afterwards, it was cool because we got compensated. And that felt pretty good. Ultimately, I thought it was really cool how she handled it."
With a gleefully unhinged new album, Eye Contact, released today, Gang Gang Dance's time as a zealously guarded secret is surely at an end. Blogger buzz is building towards a frenzy; the record, an ante-raising successor to 2008's gorgeous, esoteric Saint Dymphna, is receiving a major push from storied UK label 4AD. Among other musicians, meanwhile, it would seem word is already out. Bougatsos reveals that a major popstar has recently been in touch with her producer with a view to hooking them up. She isn't at liberty to divulge, but will tell us there have also been discussions of a possible collaboration with hip-hop bad girl of the moment Nicki Minaj.
"Honestly, I would really love to work with Nicki Minaj," she says. "It's probably not gonna happen. There have been other people who have approached me who are pretty up there. I'm gonna wait for my producer to make it happen. Someone else I would particularly love to work with is [US hip-hopper and Minaj nemesis] Lil' Kim."
Listening to Eye Contact, a Minaj collaboration is not the first thing that springs to mind. Somewhere between MIA, before her ego barricaded itself in the control room, and Animal Collective at their most proggishly untethered, the album combines world-music contours, psychedelic grooves and vintage synth attacks, over which Bougatsos shrieks like a banshee having a terrifying out-of-body experience. It's exotic, a little frightening and, provided you get past the cheerful refusal to abide by verse-chorus orthodoxy, completely irresistible.
If there was an upside to the Florence affair -- apart from the Lungs' star's eventual agreeing to give Gang Gang Dance a chunk of her royalties -- it was that it put these previously obscure Manhattan electro weirdos on the pop radar. They were, it is fair to say, due a lucky break. In 2002, just as they were starting to garner attention beyond their taste-maker New York stomping ground, vocalist Nathan Maddox died after being struck by lightning. He'd been dancing on the roof of his girlfriend's Chinatown apartment, where he'd climbed for a better look at the storm (no, we didn't make that up).
Then, the summer before 'Florence-gate', Gang Gang Dance lost all their equipment -- including memory cards containing the guts of a new album -- when a fire ripped through the club they'd played in Amsterdam. This week, the band went back to the Dutch capital for the first time. For five still-traumatised musicians, it was a bit like returning to 'Nam.
"Everything was destroyed," says Bougatsos. "The guitar synth alone held 10,000 sounds. We lost a memory card with songs we had just made and were ready to play. That was hard. We never got those back."
Almost as painful as watching thousands of dollars-worth of kit go up in smoke, Gang Gang Dance were forced to spend a week schlepping around Amsterdam while their insurance was processed. They weren't exactly homeless, but sometimes it started to feel that way. "We were basically sleeping in a club. It was like sleeping in a backstage area for a week. But, ultimately, it was a positive experience. Any time you have to rebuild something, it makes you work harder. I like to think we're the phoenix rising from the flames."
The making of Eye Contact was no less dramatic than the finished product. Seeking new influences, the group took what was for them an unprecedented step of recording outside New York. Loading their gear into a battered van, they wended their way west, to the hippy wilds of the Mojave Desert. A sun-bleached wasteland strewn with the corpses of old military bases, and populated by drop-outs and drug casualties, it was, says Bougatsos, like nowhere else on earth.
"The landscape reminded you of a David Lynch movie," she says. "It' s a bit of a freak-show out there. When it gets really hot, only the freaks stay out. You can get a beer for two dollars."
With a frothy laugh and an easy-going manner, the singer isn't quite what I expected. Far from projecting the drop-dead cool synonymous with Manhattan art-rockers, she radiates girl-next-door likeability. She certainly isn't in a rush to impress by reeling off all the obscure artists she's inspired by. At high school in Queens, she says, she wanted more than anything to sing like Sinead O'Connor.
"She was such a huge inspiration to me," she says. "I would sing all the songs from The Lion and the Cobra. It's funny -- my only rival in high school was this bald girl, who was really arty. I mean, I ruled the poetry club but she was the other girl in poetry class. We wouldn't talk to each other cos we were rivals. And she had the same haircut as Sinead. I didn't like that, though I thought she was the coolest. Then she ended up trying to steal my boyfriend, a couple of times. You know, that wasn't so cool."
Eye Contact is released today
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