Sept. 28 2011 02:25 PM

Experimental NYC band explores death and rebirth on Eye Contact

Death and rebirth figure prominently on Eye Contact, Gang Gang Dance’s fifth album.
Photo by Brian Deran

For Gang Gang Dance, Nathan Maddox has been something of a spiritual guide. A young wanderer fascinated with metaphysics, he was a member of the New York City band when it started in 2001. He died in 2002 when he was struck by lightning on a Manhattan rooftop, but he’s always been a presence in their music.

His piercing eyes feature prominently on the cover of their 2005 album, God’s Money, the band’s critical breakthrough. Recordings of him talking about ancient Egyptian icons serve as a ghostly narration to “The Earthquake that Frees Prisoners,” the closing track of 2007’s Rawwar EP. And he’s the underlying presence in “Glass Jar,” the stunning, 11-minute opener to Eye Contact, the band’s fifth album, which came out on the label 4AD in May.

“I don’t feel like Nathan really ever left, because I feel like he’s always with us. I see him in all these different things—sometimes in the moon I’ll see him,” singer Lizzi Bougatsos says by phone from her Manhattan apartment. “That’s kind of what that song is about—like, Oh, is that you in the glass jar? Is that you sitting on the grass where I put my hand? It’s like him coming back to me, guiding us.”

Gang Gang Dance has evolved from an interesting-if-uneven improvisational group into one of the most potent forces in indie-rock. They draw from a wide range of sources—anything from African pygmy music to London grime— but their expansive, rhythmic sound transcends all boundaries.

They might not be as famous as peers Animal Collective, but they’ve gotten rave reviews and built a global following. Still, tribulation has accompanied the triumphs. In 2008, former drummer Tim DeWitt got shot and injured during a robbery at a Michigan bar. In 2009, the band’s gear was destroyed in a fire at an Amsterdam club. Then, five months later, their friend Dash Snow, a well-known New York artist, died of a drug overdose.

But if these things have taught Gang Gang Dance anything, it’s that good things sometimes come from adversity. When Maddox died, they felt invigorated to work harder on their music. When all their gear was burned, “It freed us up from our possessions, and it just made us more open to try new things,” Bougatsos says. “It was sort of a blessing at the end of the day.”

Death and rebirth figure prominently on Eye Contact. “Glass Jar” opens like a slowly rising sun, with an ambient jazz passage of glimmering synths and percussion, before erupting into a sweltering dance groove propelled by Jesse Lee’s muscular drumming and Brian DeGraw’s slithering modular synths. Meanwhile, the dreamy psych-funk track “Sacer” is titled after Snow’s graffiti name, which you can find all over New York City.

Eye Contact incorporates a range of sounds, including J Dillain-inspired neo-soul (“Romance Layers”) and strands of Indian and Arabic pop (“Adult Goth”). But the influences aren’t as obvious as on 2008’s Saint Dymphna, the band’s previous album. Whereas Saint Dymphna sometimes felt awkward, Eye Contact ebbs and flows naturally. To Bougatsos, whose dazzling vocals serve as a centerpiece, the album is like a serpent eating its tail—“a completed circle.”

Making Saint Dymphna was a frustrating process, partly because the band felt internal pressure to release a more ambitious followup to God’s Money, guitarist Josh Diamond told me in an interview in 2008.

“I think that force, the pressure to do that, was messing everything up,” he said. “We have a really natural way of making music. Things work out for the best for us when we actually just accept ourselves.”

For Eye Contact, they did just that. In 2009, they holed up in a friend’s house in the California desert near Joshua Tree to start writing new material. With the help of sound engineer Sean Maffucci and spiritual advisor Baby Love, they whittled their jams into songs. In July, they performed with Japanese experimental legends Boredoms on a Russian cruise ship in the South Pacific during a solar eclipse. In May 2010, they traveled to a church-turned-studio in upstate New York to record the album with producer Chris Coady.

The Amsterdam fire in early 2009 set them back, but it proved to be an opportunity, as well. When they got back to New York, they played at the Museum of modern Art with borrowed equipment.

“I personally borrowed some pedals from a friend that I didn’t even know how to use,” Bougatsos says. “When I was on the stage, it was really invigorating because it was like this new territory and it just felt very free.

That was kind of the vibe after everything got burned. It kind of worked out for us.”

Birth, death, rebirth—as painful as it’s been, Bougatsos seems to accept that it’s all part of Gang Gang Dance’s natural lifecycle.

“It’s been a really amazing journey,” she says about the band’s decade-long run. “I don’t think it’s going to end.”

Gang Gang Dance play with Prince Rama at The Casbah on Friday, Oct. 7.

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.