Brian DeGraw is a New York area based musician and fine artist who recently released a solo album under the name BEEDEEGEE (bEEdEEgEE). His critically acclaimed experimental electronic band, GANG GANG DANCE, has been on hiatus this past year, giving him time to move to Woodstock and make his debut album, Sum/One (released Nov. 29th on 4AD records). Trading his city roots for upstate country ones was a theme running through our interview. It’s the first one this NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION contributor has conducted via Skype chat. Read on to hear about the cathartic nature of losing everything in a fire, anxiety attacks before a Berlin gig, and the restorative nature of walking barefoot in the woods.
Hey Brian you there?
BD: Do you mind if we just type though? I’m Skype shy…
Okay. I saw GANG GANG DANCE when you were here at Berghain in late 2011. I actually met Taka and I think Lizzi in the Panorama bar. So hello again, in a way.
Ah…ok. hello! That was a rough night for me.
Had a horrible anxiety attack just before we played and one of my teeth fell out.
Was the anxiety brought on by something in particular? I remember it being very good by the way. Especially the encore with the beer bottles (you may remember, everyone banging them on stage in a rhythm and you guys took it and looped it and played with it.)
I vaguely remember that. The anxiety was just general tour breakdown. I’m not great with touring and that one was especially difficult and poorly planned. No sleep, not enough food…that kind of thing. I just kind of lost it before we played…but it ended up being fun I remember. I think the rest of the band had to improvise for 20 minutes at the beginning while I regained my composure.
I remember that intro. That sounds really horrible Brian. Glad you pulled through. You recently moved from NYC to Woodstock? What has that been like? (Levon Helm [of THE BAND] lived there)
It’s been great. Yeah I’m just a few minutes from the Levon house…. and Big Pink as well. It was crazy here the week that he died.
What a loss.
Busloads of people coming in to go to his house/studio…he was the pride of Woodstock. A loss indeed.
BEEDEEGEE: It’s very important to be barefoot in grass.
Well now you can add yourself to the roster of famous Woodstockians. So why did you leave New York City?
I left the city because I had been there for 15 years and was tired of not having access to nature. I was having more and more anxiety attacks from being surrounded by concrete and not being able to be barefoot in grass. It’s very important to be barefoot in grass. And I was tired of nightlife. I was DJ’ing so much…my life was spent in bars and clubs…and then I would go on tour and be in the exact same environments…so just too much of the same.
Does it start to feel artificial and toxic?
It does…very much so. So toxic, and often the only way to deal with it is to embrace the toxicity and get into the cycle of it. But eventually the mind and body start to react to how unnatural it all is. My mind and body were telling me in a big way that I needed some stillness and I needed to reconnect with nature. So I listened. And here I am.
Sounds like a good decision. Is GANG GANG DANCE on hiatus while you pursue solo work or are you doing both?
We have been on hiatus for a year…mainly because of too much touring and some general life changes within the band. The solo thing just happened because I needed to keep working on something in the meantime and I figured I would take this opportunity to explore some things I hadn’t explored with GGD.
You have had a long run with GGD. Twelve years correct? What has it been like making music on your own, after being with those band mates for so long?
We started in 2000. It’s very different making stuff on my own…equal parts liberating and lonely. The absence of compromise can be really empowering and beneficial but it can also at times end up creating a feeling of helplessness. Overall I would say it’s been a great learning experience though. In the past I never had time to sit and focus in the way I did for this record. GGD has always revolved around elements of chaos. For better or worse.
Are you also finding more time for your artwork now that you are out in the woods and solo?
BD: A bit. Although this record is taking up more time than I anticipated. But being up here has completely changed the way I work both visually and musically. Even just the simple fact of having more physical space to experiment with has been incredible. In the city I was always living in little boxes for far too much money. Because the space was so small there was always a feeling of wanting to escape…so I would go out into the streets and end up not getting a whole lot done at the end of the day.
Cities can be inspiring but so distracting.
The immediacy of the city is what I miss…. but the positive elements that I am vibing with up here in the mountains far outweigh my longing to be able to walk to the corner deli. I miss the museums though. I miss the Met.
Well, you just need to get out the woods and get the cathedral feeling out there.
My backyard is a museum.
I’m envious. So is that the inspiration for the song Flowers? And what is the sample at the beginning of Helium Anchor?
Not really no. Although I did give very vague direction to some of the vocal contributors in terms of wanting references to nature. But I left it up to them to interpret that however they wanted. But Flowers was written by Luisa (Lovefoxxx of CSS CANSEI DE SER SEXY) after she took part in an Ayahuasca journey. She ended up communing with a dozen roses that she had bought earlier that day. She had a revelatory connection with these flowers that lasted for 10 hours or something. The sample [on Helium Anchor] is Rupert Spira who is a ceramicist who also does a bit of public speaking on the dualities of human nature and that sort of thing.
What were the other collaborations like?
With the Alexis one I asked him to send me an acapella of an unused song of his choice that he had lying around. But I asked him to not let me hear what the vocals belonged to musically. I still wonder what his version of the song sounded like. With Lizzi the process was very similar to how we work in GGD, we were just improvising in the studio. I was looping things spontaneously as she improvised vocally over top. Then I went back through it and found places that I felt I could construct a song around.
BEEDEEGEE: It was very cathartic. Initially pretty awful feeling. But eventually felt great. The weightlessness was excellent…and the next show we played…months later after replacing everything was a totally triumphant phoenix from the flames moment.
There’s a lot in your history: fires, drummers, and drugs. Is it okay if I ask about Nathan’s [Maddox, former band member] death in 2002? And how that affected you?
Sure, yeah. That was probably the biggest moment of clarity for us…though it was a sort of unspoken mystical type of clarity. But when that happened is really when we started becoming more of a “band”. It wasn’t discussed…wasn’t a conscious effort that was made…but it just sort of happened. We became so much closer after that…for obvious reasons of losing our friend and comforting each other but also just because of the way it happened and the person that Nate was. It was pure magic. It’s difficult to really touch upon without giving you a whole history of Nate and how he existed in this world, but the simplest way I can put it is that I truly believe he willed it upon himself to be struck by lightning. He often would climb to the tops of trees and welcome it. It’s just the type of mind he had. He was so interested in other worlds, unknown realms…always wanting to explore those places. I always consider his passing much more of a beautiful thing than a tragic thing. I felt this within minutes of hearing the news. It made that much sense.
Was (is) a truly beautiful and magical being
Our magazine is called Nothing But Hope and Passion. What do the words “hope” and “passion” mean to you?
I guess I would say that both of those words are religious. Not in a biblical sense or in a sense that they are staples of organized religious vocabulary. More in a sense of them being key ideas of the indefinable religion of the self. Those are words that convey an unspeakable life-force. Very pure forms of energy.
Do you practice any type of organized spirituality or religion?
No transcendental meditation or anything like that?
No. I do meditate…but nothing that has been taught to me from outside sources. I’m of the belief that you are god and I am god. That god is within the self. There are religions that share this belief but I don’t study them and I try to keep a distance from knowing too much about them.
Okay. If I could just go back to one thing. I know you are touring with Animal Collective. Any plans/strategies for dealing with the pressures of touring this time around?
I think my only strategy at this point is to not have one. This was a strange record to make in the sense that the process was very rigid in comparison to what I’m used to. So right now I’m looking forward to playing shows as a way to break apart that feeling and to deconstruct that rigidity. I’m hoping that in terms of pressure or stress that this will also benefit me and my state of mind.