Tramps, the art gallery where Lizzi Bougatsos has until recently kept a day job as a gallerist, is of a downtown vintage that seems to be rapidly disappearing in New York under a carpet of money and shitty condos. It’s nearly impossible to find, for one, unless you’re aware that indoor shopping malls in Chinatown sometimes double as secondary arts spaces.
This one occupies the second floor of a galleria market with a cheery “New York Mart” sign, beneath the intermittent rumbling of trains on the bridge above. Inside, past stalls hawking purses and sunglasses and up a flight of stairs, Tramps sits, an oddly liminal gallery that occupies several individual storefronts, currently exhibiting giant paintings by the young German artist Florian Krewer.
Bougatsos, 44, is sitting at a table in a corner room, swathed in a voluminous black sweatshirt and thick-soled Mad Max-style boots. Her long, light brown hair is pulled up in a messy topknot, and she’s eating one of those “brownies” made of raw foods you can get prepackaged at health food stores. Watch enough old movies about NYC and you notice she’s dressed exactly as you might picture a steward of the fine arts, projecting avant-garde intellectualism. She is that, but she’s so much more, especially when she speaks and the legendary Long Island accent unfurls.
Lizzi Bougatsos is a visionary singer, a feminist visual artist, a burgeoning actor, a downtown fixture, and one of the most interesting women you’ll ever meet. Over the course of 15 years, as a member of the legendary experimental art band Gang Gang Dance, she and her cohorts (now comprised of Bougatsos, Brian DeGraw, and Jason Diamond) have worked diligently to push boundaries, to think deeply and politically, to unravel the secrets of the universe.
Earlier this summer, after seven years’ hiatus, Gang Gang Dance released Kazuashita (4AD), one of their clearest-eyed and most cohesive pieces yet. “With this album, I took the approach that I just had to trust and know who I was, and where I stood,” says Bougatsos. “For me, true art explains itself, and I wanted it to be beautiful in a way that spoke for itself. I had to really go inward and know myself and trust and know that, you know, when I put it out, I was gonna feel good about it.”
Kazuashita, which essentially means “peace tomorrow” in Japanese, is Gang Gang’s document of survival in the face of seismic political shift. Throughout the oughties, the band was at the forefront of Manhattan art bands exploring beyond genre boundaries, incorporating global bass sounds and artists in ways that displayed their natural curiosity but never stepped into otherizing territory—a difficult line to toe. Here, they’ve brought those sensibilities home, with calming lullabies meant as a salve that reflects the spiritual spots in which they are grounding themselves.
“In the past, it was very much a reaction to the world. Like, we would just get on stage and deliver the angst that we were feeling in this sort of anti-band kind of way,” says Bougatsos. “But now, it’s like a community transferral of energy, because it’s all these people coming together and releasing it into the world.”
Bougatsos’s voice has always been simultaneously the most grounding and oddest part of Gang Gang Dance. She intuits Eastern scales and hits wildly high notes with gusto, occasionally growling but almost always feather-tickling her upper range. On “J-Tree,” a mid-tempo synth song, she sounds like she’s flying, her voice hitting treetops as she sings, “I’m not ready to go.” While the band was writing and recording Kazuashita in late 2016/early 2017, she was torn between her pull to make art and her desire to hit the streets; “J-Tree” was a response to this.
“It was so hard, being in the studio during Standing Rock. All I wanted to do was go there, and it got to a point where I was gonna jump in a bus with all these Bernie bros,” she laughs. “But I didn’t have the gear, I didn’t have the money, so like two days when the buffalo clip came on my timeline, I just put it in the song.” It ends with a sample of Sioux activist Shiyé Bidzííl, speaking about the importance of the Standing Rock land, right as a herd of buffalo stampedes by. The song shifts upward and it’s triumphant, like the band believes we’re all gonna get through this.
“Capricorns are sort of workaholics, but we’re grounded,” says Bougatsos, calling poolside from Los Angeles, a few weeks after our Chinatown meet-up. She’s preparing for her first Gang Gang Dance tour in years, and reminiscing about how she used to be, first as a tour manager for Will Oldham and later for her own band, the organized fixer-type in these situations. “We have this thing with delivering our best at all times.”
Bougatsos was born in Queens, into a Greek American legacy of shoe cobblers who only recently shut their family storefront. (Her father, now 85, decided to retire.) “Because I wasn’t a male,” she says, “it wasn’t really required for me to take over the shoe repair. Which, all my cousins that came from Greece were really jealous of. They all wanted to be artists and musicians, but instead they just ran the shoe repair. So my mom pushed me—my education was the most important thing. She wouldn’t let me watch TV; she pushed me to do dance classes, teaching dance, playing clarinet. But when I started drawing, everything changed. My dad was just like, ‘We havin’ an art exhibit?’” Bougatsos laughs. “He just wanted his picture taken. I’d win an award in school and he’d be like, ‘Oh, we ready? Where’s the camera?’”
She was teaching tap dance by 16 and had what she describes as “a really cool upbringing”—but life in New York during that time was, obviously, hardly idyllic. “I was growing up going to funerals, because of AIDS in the ’80s,” she explains. “I was dancing with a lot of gay people, with a lot of really progressive people at a really young age. It was shocking to see what I saw. To go to funerals when you’re supposed to be in art class? It was kind of wild. It affected me in a visual sense. There was this one guy who put on so much orange makeup to [cover up] his scabs. I was constantly being confronted with all this power.”
After high school, Bougatsos began taking courses at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but in the early ’90s, she felt at odds with the specific way youth culture was headed. “I left New York in ’92—I just like, fled—because I was afraid to take ecstasy. Basically, I was at FIT on Saturdays, I took that Life Drawing class, and all the girls my age were going to raves. You know, I went to the Limelight and the Tunnel, and everyone was taking ecstasy, and I was nervous that I would take it and my spine would split and I would die!” She would get her degrees in sculpture and performance from the West Virginia University College of Creative Arts, but says that every weekend, she would end up driving back to New York, where her lifelong best friend Chloe Sevigny frequented the very rave scene that froke her out in the first place.
Bougatsos’s visual art is full of the humor and whimsy and yarns that she exhibits in conversation. One particularly memorable series from 2009, including “Mr. Limpy” and “Chlamydia,” depicts fluorescent yellow crosswalk signs with matching sculpture of dicks affixed to the round, blank faces of the humans depicted on them. At the time and perhaps now, too, they represented a kind of languidly confrontational feminism that wasn’t overly polite or capitulating the way a certain strain of capitalist feminism is now. (That same year, she and her friend Sadie Laska put out The Proper Sex, their first album as a band called I.U.D.)
Despite the urgency underlining her feminism and activism, even Bougatsos found herself falling into the habit of gendered roles—as she calls it, “Mother Hen.” Before Gang Gang Dance took their hiatus, Bougatsos was its de facto keeper, taking care of the minutiae for the collective to the detriment of her own work. (She was the only woman, but also had experience as a former tour manager for the singer-songwriter Will Oldham.)
“I would always tour manage, because no one else would do it, or I would collect the money because no one else would do it. So in hindsight, a lot of my art-making time used to be devoted to like, banking for Gang Gang, or writing the checks or checking the emails. And then [during our hiatus], I really just dove into my art career, applied for grants, recorded at MoMA. I did all these things that I could never do because all the paperwork and bullshit got into my art-making process. Now I have a better handle on that stuff. I have to be really diligent about how I use my time.”
Because Bougatsos has been afforded the space to grow into, she’s reaching a new personal milestone. For the first time, rather unbelievably given her résumé, she has found it within herself to call herself an artist.
“I always considered myself a worker. I guess that means that I do believe that this has a transformative or meditative or contemplative elements,” she says. “I never wanted to be an artist, because I always thought it was selfish or narcissistic, especially now when people are constantly promoting themselves. I remember when Nathan [Maddox, formerly of Gang Gang] died, I knew I had a message to deliver. I always thought of myself as a messenger, or a gatherer of people. It was very much in the form of this prose. But I always felt really held back by all the tasks of the prose... that I never got to be the prose.”
Gang Gang Dance is currently on tour throughout the U.S., Canada, and Japan. Kazuashita is out now via 4AD.
- 10th - The Empty Bottle, Chicago
- 11th - El Club Detroit
- 12th - Velvet Underground, Toronto
- 13th - Theatre Fairmount, Montreal
- 14th - 3S Artspace, Portsmouth, NH
- 15th - Great Scott, Allston, MA
23rd - Big Cat, Osaka, Japan (w/ Deerhunter) [SOLD OUT]
24th - Electric Ladyland, Nagoya, Japan (w/ Deerhunter)
25th - O-East, Tokyo, Japan (w/ Deerhunter)