By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
It's a sweltering mid-August day in 2006, the sun bouncing off P.S.1's cement courtyard during their Summer Warm Up series. Although "warm" doesn't seem an adequate descriptor for the heat wafting off the crowd of people pressed against one another. Yet onstage looks just as packed, with 15 members of the Brooklyn disco band Escort—a procession of horns, violins, percussion, guitars, keys, and backup singers—having filed out and jostled for space.
Not even two months elapsed between Escort's first single being pressed up and released on their own label and the Warm Up gig, their first live show. But that single, a zooted-up, squiggly, string-stabbed gem called "Starlight" had soundtracked most of that summer's underground dance parties. "It was right at the cusp of New York City DJs shifting from spinning house and electro to disco, and it just seemed like everyone was playing 'Starlight,'" recalls Eugene Cho, the keyboardist and co-leader of Escort. Bespectacled and measured in his responses, Cho shares the couch in the band's West Village studio with his longtime musical partner, guitarist, and co-leader Dan Balis, who adds: "And it spread outside of New York, too: [the famed Hacienda DJ] Greg Wilson was into it. Dimitri From Paris played it. We even heard it once at an H&M."
Up until that summer day, Escort had been only a studio creation; its members had never all been in the same place at the same time. "That first P.S.1 show was the first time we'd ever had the entire band playing everything together," Cho says. "And so rather than playing keys, I spent most of that performance just cueing everyone else." Balis adds: "That first show was crazy. Our singer at the time, Zena Kitt, had never played for a crowd before, and then all of a sudden, we were standing before 3,000 people."
As sudden as that initial success might have been, it has taken Escort five years to put the finishing touches on their self-titled debut album, which was just released and is being celebrated with a Saturday-night show thrown with the party promoters Spank. Even with the album's long gestation process, now feels like Escort's time. New York City's most famous disco infiltrators, LCD Soundsystem, called it quits earlier this year, and Escort is poised to become Gotham's premier live dance act. Their sound is deeply rooted in classic disco, that strain of glossy, decadent dance music that the city churned out at a coke-fueled pace throughout the 1970s and into the '80s on labels such as Salsoul, West End, and Prelude.
"Right now, we're living the 'Confusion' video," Balis says with a laugh. He's referencing the legendary early-'80s New Order clip, which shows the band and producer Arthur Baker making their way to West Chelsea discotheque The Fun House, a new dance track in hand. "When we finished a remix of [the album's first single] 'Caméleon Chameleon' in the studio a few weeks back, we wondered who was DJing out that night. Our friend Prince Language was at (le) poisson rouge, so we took a CD-R of the just-finished track for him to play in the middle of his set. And last night, we walked down to subMercer where Quinn Luke [of fellow disco big band Phenomenal Handclap Band] was spinning." Balis, his chin grown scruffy, talks while twirling a pack of Pall Malls between his fingers; he looks like he might have been holed up in the studio all night, meticulously reworking the album tracks into more dancefloor-friendly fare. But the all-nighters pay off: "It's always affirming when we hear it on the system and see the people at peak hour moving to it."
When Cho and Balis met in an electronic music class at Vassar in the mid-'90s, disco was still the loathsome genre that everyone ignored. Instead, the duo worked together on the music of that moment—downtempo, minimal techno, and drum 'n' bass. Upon graduation, the two went their separate ways: Cho went on the road with a ska band while Balis relocated to New York City. The two reconnected later that decade, and they stumbled across a dance party upstairs from Frank's Lounge in Fort Greene. "Eugene and I started going to Bang the Party basically every Friday night, absorbing a lot of music," says Balis, recalling seeing Chicago house-music legend Ron Trent there: "I was so inspired that I even released a house record called Franks."
The two started DJing house records together but soon found themselves going back to the source for most of house music's vocal hooks: disco. "And it just dawned on us to make our own music," Balis says. "We already knew how to play and write music. Instead of just cutting up samples, why not just write precisely the kind of music we wanted in the first place?"
The name Escort might bring to mind upscale call girls, but Balis sheepishly admits that it came to him while "taking my cat to the vet in Ridgewood, Queens, and noticing that my carrier was called a 'pet escort.'" The duo began using friends and fellow musicians to help them realize their sound, bringing players in one at a time and layering tracks to achieve the full sound they knew so well from all of their disco 12-inches.