Lizzi Bougatsos is magic. As the frontwoman in my most favoritest band, Gang Gang Dance, she is the leader of a crew of cosmic noise-makers that speak to each and every level of my being. I discovered them on a compilation about eight years ago and became immediately OBSESSED with their mystical sounds. Their records are like psychedelic trips, and their live performances are all-out dance parties where the good vibez abound.
Lizzi also plays the drums in I.U.D. with her friend Sadie Laska (their record cover for The Proper Sex is probably one of my all-time favorites). Her onstage persona is magnetic and her real-life presence is funny and charming and just everything you’d imagine someone who spreads so much good energy is like. I could’ve talked to her forever. But I didn’t. So please enjoy our exchange, and when you’re done maybe go pick up the drums or some boxing gloves and get to discovering your inner magic, too.
LAIA: What were you like as a teen?
Lizzi Bougatsos: Well, I was on the cheerleading squad a little bit, but it was just because I liked to choreograph dances. My dad was very strict with me [until] one day, when I was 15, I made this drawing of a pot leaf, and that changed my life. It wasn’t really a pot leaf—it was just a plant—but I made it look psychedelic. My dad came to my art show and I got an award! That changed everything. From then on I just hung out with the art kids.
Had you started discovering weirder, psychedelic-er stuff around that time?
Yeah, I just really got into art and I started hanging out in Washington Square Park and I took classes at FIT on Saturdays. So every Saturday I would come into the city and take drawing classes and hang out in the park. I was always dressing up; I’d buy something every Saturday to wear. I usually shopped at the Indian shops. So yeah, it was pretty psychedelic in those days.
Did you have a big discovery during that time, like a band or an artist that made you go “holy shit” and changed your life for forever?
There was a radio station that I was really into—it’s called WDRE now, but it used to be WLIR. It was the “alternative” station. That’s where I discovered, like, “Pass the Dutchie” and Sinéad, and I think that was a big thing for me. I would draw my self-portrait in the mirror and I would sing Sinéad songs and cry about my boy problems. That’s how I learned how to sing, actually: I would sing along to Sinéad. And I was really into reggae.
The first CD I ever bought was a Brazilian compilation—it was just all these artists from Brazil, and I was really into it. But I was also doing a lot of modern dance, and I was really into African drums ’cause we were doing a lot of that in my dance classes. So I think I had a world vibe going on.
I was wondering where Gang Gang Dance’s international vibe came from—coming from dance makes so much sense.
Also, my dad’s Greek, and he would play music around the house. He actually wanted to be a singer, so he was always singing around the house and everyone was always singing in Greek all the time.
Can you speak Greek?
A little bit. I don’t speak very well. People have told me that I should probably not try to speak.
Aww, that’s terrible! Did you want to be an artist before you wanted to be a musician?
Yes. The musician thing just sorta fell in my lap. I was in college, and I started opening for punk bands, doing spoken word, like Beat poetry kind of stuff.
Did you have backup music to it?
No, I was my own beatbox. My songs were kind of like Peaches’s when she came out. But it was before Peaches. I had really nasty songs. They were very much like revolt—women’s rights and all that kind of stuff.
What’s the first instrument that you picked up? Was it drums?
The drum thing was really interesting. When I moved to Manhattan after college, somebody liked my voice and said, “I’ll give you a drum kit if you would sing for my band,” and I said OK, so that’s how that whole thing started.
I’ve always wanted to play drums, but it’s really hard! I can hold a basic beat, then once it starts getting too crazy, I lose it.
It is [hard]. I like to consider myself a jazz drummer. I mean, I’m just all over the place—I can’t really keep a steady beat. My drummer [Jesse Lee] is really good. He can keep a beat for a really long time. That’s why our songs are so long!
What’s the first song you wrote?
It was called “Pussy Motherfucker.”
NICE! How did it go?
It was, um…it was crazy. Oh my god, this is embarrassing…
It’s OK, this is a safe space.
All right. I won’t look at you when I do it. [Looking away] It went: “Pussy motherfucker / You have no hair / Pussy motherfucker / Don’t you care / Pussy motherfucker / Give ’em a lick.” It was so harsh! I don’t remember the last line, but it was very pro-female. It was kinda Lil’ Kim! ’Cause I had the alternative radio station growing up, but I also had Hot 97 and Z100. The song was like a mix [of those].
The first Gang Gang Dance records were very mysterious. The first song I ever heard was “Rugs of Prayer,” and to me it was like, “What is this music?! It sounds like it’s coming from a cave from millions of years ago or something.” But now your music feels very “of now”—one of the last times I saw you, you were playing club beats before the show. What do you think caused this shift?
I don’t know! I guess we were just interested in different things. I wrote “Rugs of Prayer” when I was in Paris. I remember I was really into Pasolini, and I was reading a lot of his poems, as well as Pablo Neruda. At that time we hated playing live, and I always hated rehearsing—I still hate rehearsing!—and I would show up late to concerts and we were very much about not being a band, and I think our performances reflected that. The sound was so crazy ’cause we were just all over the place; we were so anti getting on the stage and putting on a suit, you know. We just wanted to fuck with that. But over time we got bored with that.
How did the name Gang Gang Dance come about?
There was this African band—I forget their name, but their album was called Gang Gang Dance, and [keyboardist] Brian [DeGraw] liked it. The guys actually flipped a coin. They had a few names for the band…
What were the other options?
Before Gang Gang Dance it was Death and Dying. I’m so glad that didn’t stick.
That’s really dark!
So gothic. [Laughs] Yeah, they were dark! The guys were really dark then. When I joined, I don’t know, it was different. We got plagued by a lot of deaths, unfortunately, but you know, it changes your perspective. I was working at a gallery and there was this woman that passed away and she was really cool—she was really inspiring for a lot of young artists, and she was kind of a feminist in the art world.
What was her name?
Pat Hearn. She was in a band with somebody from the Lounge Lizards, and it was really jazzy and sort of arty. When she passed away someone asked me to sing her songs. And it was pretty easy, but it was sort of math-y too, and I asked the [Gang Gang Dance] boys to play with me. They were looking for a singer at the time, so it just clicked. We’ve always been really into jazz, so we just had this connection. The drummer was doing a lot of drumming in D.C. with a lot of jazz groups and theater groups and I was really into that because there was a lot of dance.
I love that there’s always a lot of dancing at your shows.
Yeah! I never thought that would happen.
Do you have any pre-show rituals to keep the energy going? The atmosphere at your shows is always made of magic.
I try to stay by myself. I don’t like anyone smoking. I have a glass of wine just before the show and then sometimes we have tequila. It wakes everyone up on tour. It keeps the vibes really high.
Is your writing process different when you’re writing with Gang Gang than when you’re writing with I.U.D. or your other bands?
Working with Sadie [Laska, her bandmate in I.U.D.] is a lot different than working with the guys, but there are a lot of similarities. For example, with Sadie I write a lot of my melodies on the drums. Like, I’ll hear any song, like “Under Pressure” or some hip-hop song on the radio, and I’ll take that melody and I’ll write it on the drums and then I’ll put words to it afterward. That’s kinda similar, because the beats in Gang Gang are really percussion-like. I like to write in beats. I don’t know where that comes from—I guess the drumming thing. I listen to a lot of rap, too; I think that has a lot to do with it. I like the writing.
Is it weird that we can’t really understand what you are saying? I mean, every time I’ve looked up Gang Gang lyrics I’ve felt a little guilty, like I’m not supposed to know, because in the end I still get the essence of what’s being said.
You know, it used to bother me [that my lyrics were hard to make out], but I realized that there are a lot of singers that I don’t know what they are singing—like Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins. She kinda validated it for me. And, you know, there’s a lot of artists from other countries that I don’t know what they are saying—even the Greek music that I was always listening to growing up, I never knew what they were really saying. My dad always had to tell me what they were singing about— usually love. So it started not to bother me. But I always wanted to include [the lyrics] in the CD because, you know, it takes a lot for me to write the songs and the poetic elements, they’re really important.
Our theme for March is exploration. Is there anything that you’re currently exploring or discovering that you hadn’t been into before?
YES. Um, boxing.
Like professional boxing or like you are boxing?
Well, I just bought the gloves, and I’d like to get into it. They’re Pepto Bismol pink. Oh, and what else did I do recently?… I went to a Knicks game, and it was really fun.
Are you into basketball?
I’ve never been that into it, but my friend is really into it and she explained to me. I mean, I used to watch it with my dad. My dad was a professional soccer player, so we watched a lot of sports, and my mother used to teach gym, so she was always watching the Olympics. It was a big thing at my house, watching the Olympics.
I was more into the [New Jersey] Nets than the [New York] Knicks, but I didn’t tell my friend. I like that J.R. Smith, he’s just cool to watch. He’s on the Knicks. He looks like a 1940s gangster or something.
But the Nets, they have a sort of energy that’s really crazy, and I like to watch them. They work really hard, you can just see it.
I went to a Yankees game once and I got really into it. And I know somebody on the Rangers and I really wanna see him play, because I know it gets crazy.
Hockey’s crazy! They always get into fights and stuff!
I know! I know! I love the energy. I like to watch it. I don’t know—I’ve been getting into sports!
Eye Contact seems like a very 2012 record, dealing with the end of the world as we know it and a shift in consciousness. Is that something you thought about while you were recording?
Yeah, I think we’re very aware of the changes of our environment around us. We have a relationship with the earth that’s really direct and grounded, and we respect it and we respect our ancestors. Brian and I are both Native American, and we’re both really into that. I think it’s sort of a unifying force with all people. So yeah, we’re really conscious of it.
Was the song “Romance Layers” always meant to be a duet with Alexis Taylor [from Hot Chip] or did that come after?
He really wanted to be on the album. Brian just sent him the track when we were at the mixing stage and he did it overnight—it was crazy. And I just sang on one of his tracks, so I’m gonna be on his new album. It was fun. Well, I haven’t heard it yet, but…
I’m sure it’s gonna be awesome.
Yeah, I think it’s gonna be good. I really played around to it.
Do you have a favorite song of yours to play live?
Oh…um…god, that’s so hard. Shoot…what’s my favorite song to play live? Well, I don’t want to say, really.
You don’t want to pick among your children?
Yeah. I mean, I like to sing “Adult Goth.” I like to sing “Before My Voice Fails” because it’s so dramatic. “First Communion” is really fun. I don’t like to play “Through and Through” because the drumming never stops and my hands just spazz out and I get cramps from that song. Oh, it just drives me bananas! But I like the drama in that song; I like that it’s a little freaky. I like it because it kinda has some swag in the lyrics and it’s got underlying messages. So I guess those songs I like to play a lot.
Special thanks to the Ace Hotel in Manhattan for letting us shoot in their beautiful building!