Muppet! at the Disco

On the endless Donna Summers of Escort, Brooklyn's finest disco orchestra

"If you wanna sex me, give it up," sings esteemed Muppets bandleader Dr. Teeth in a rare uncouth moment, a plume of smoke billowing behind him as he ribaldly bashes his keyboard. Members of his backing band, the Electric Mayhem, join forces with Miss Piggy and several other slow-dancers (some human, some mutant, one a half-peeled banana) to flesh out the sentiment:

When you wanna sex me
Give it up
If you wanna freak me
Give it up
You don't have to take me out
Just pick me up and turn me out
Give it up

Jim Henson is doing the Hustle in his grave. For the finest collision of infectious disco and Muppet exuberance known to man, avail thyself of Escort's video for "All Through the Night," the zenith of a truly splendid couple of weeks as far as YouTube is concerned. (Its partner in dominance is that bewildering clip of Filipino prison inmates re-enacting the "Thriller" video.) For three and a half mesmerizing minutes, Rolf, Animal, Sam the Eagle, the Pigs in Space, and various other furry personages are expertly synced to the Brooklyn disco orchestra's fourth and latest single, a Technicolor blast of dance-floor dynamite propelled by a helium-huffing, syllable-stuffing chorus of Giveittomesayittome -workitwithmeif- you'reready- I'mabouttopop. Given the relatively basic mechanics of Muppet speech—few teeth, fewer tongues, mouths just clamping open and shut—they are credibly edited so as to espouse more erotic commentary than you have perhaps grown accustomed to; it's amazing. Irvin Coffee, a jovial filmmaking friend of the band who's worked on The Chappelle Show and a documentary called The Beauty Academy of Kabul, sat down with eight DVDs' worth of raw Muppet material and bashed it out. "Discounting all the technological bullshit, it took three days," he recalls.

Enrapturing the young 'uns at the Stuy Town Oval
photo: Rob Trucks
Enrapturing the young 'uns at the Stuy Town Oval

Irvin is relaxing in the "green room" on a recent Wednesday night at the Stuyvesant Town Oval, where Escort has just performed for a crowd of children with balloons. Thankfully, the kids' parents are either ignorant of or amused by the band's lyrical lasciviousness. "'Pick me up and turn me out' could mean, like, 'change my diaper,' " reasons keyboardist Eugene Cho, an Escort core member and producer along with keys/guitar maestro Dan Balis. Onstage, the crew swells to 13 large, a maelstrom of congas, bongos, timbales, and cowbells of various pitches alongside two guitars, a three-man horn backline, two folks each in the rhythm and string sections, and Eugene in the Dr. Teeth role, blipping out cool Kraftwerk pocket-calculator riffs on a synthesizer. And then, of course, there's lead singer Zena Kitt, resplendent in a red dress, waving at the half-pint princesses twirling merrily in the front row. She's a belter, whether thundering through Escort's own cowbell-saturated "Starlight" or reprising a period gem like Roundtree's "Get On Up (Get On Down)." Everyone in the Oval is hella smiley, onstage and off, from the pogoing young 'uns to the twentysomething beanpoles carrying Other Music bags, to the nearby dancing queen who informs me several times that she is (a) 78 years old and (b) really excited. "If they can bring this out in me—a 78-year-old lady!" she marvels. "I haven't felt this good in ages!"

World domination would seem imminent, but Escort is invading slowly. "All Through the Night" follows "A Bright New Life," "Love in Indigo," and "Starlight" in the band's cachet of singles since Escort coalesced loosely around Eugene and Dan's production and DJ work in 2005; their sudden Muppet-abetted ascension has raised their profile but probably won't accelerate their pace. They'd like to tour, sure, but we're talking about a lotta people. And yes, they are recording a full-length, but the timetable remains unspecified. "We have to write some songs first, and then record them," Eugene notes.

Achieving abrupt Internet fame has got to be the most surreal experience. It's hard to know how to even talk about it.

So, uh, what's it like, being a sort of, uh . . .

". . . an ephemeral YouTube phenomenon?" Dan finishes, bemused. He gives all the credit to Irvin; Irvin demurs, saying that it was Dan's idea. In any event, the Muppet motif is certainly apt, given Escort's unabashedly retro sound: It's a genuine shock when you're so busy gawking at Fozzie that you don't realize "All Through the Night" was released in 2007, not 1977. Their influences are not covert. "I remember Donna Summer," Zena says. "I remember Chic. I remember, uh, something train—B.T. Express! All of those. But what stimulates me is Donna Summer. I like her style. I like how she handles herself when she's up onstage."

"For a lot of people who do production, when you're digging for samples on disco records, you're like, 'Oh, I actually like this better than the stuff that's coming out now,'" Dan explains. "The engineering's better, the production's better—and oh my God, it's actually musical." Only Zena's experiences in the actual disco era are really visceral, though; as Eugene and Dan are "circa 30," they're not exactly painting from memory. "You can't really be nostalgic for something you didn't experience the first time around," Dan says.

Perhaps that's why Escort sounds so fresh and vibrant—for most of them, it really is the first time around. At the Stuy Town Oval, the band's newly minted originals bleed seamlessly into some of the three-decades-old tracks that inspired them; Zena is particularly dominant on a thundering cover of Geraldine Hunt's "Can't Fake the Feeling," disco's very own "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." It all sounds vintage without devolving into nostalgia—no mere puppets of retro chic, they're instead a fully formed instrument of Electric Mayhem, crafting vaguely pornographic odes to sexing and freaking you. Give it up.


Escort play P.S. 1's Warm Up August 25, ps1.org

 
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