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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.
Only those symphonic strings, brass constructions, intergalactic synth lines, and cavernous drum-circle breakdowns were wholly fabricated on tape. In the economically depressed late ’70s of New York City, disco big bands didn’t play out much. “Kid Creole had these incredible live shows, as did Chic, but most of the stuff we were initially looking to as inspiration were strictly studio creations,” Cho says. “The folks making those types of disco records are really just nerdy studio-session guys. There actually wasn’t much of a live-band tradition outside of Philly soul stuff.” Escort might not have been able to assemble more than three times a year, but that didn’t stop the band from releasing a streak of crisp and supple nu-disco singles in 2006 and 2007. These tracks foregrounded a powerful singer from London named Zena Kitt, whose voice evoked those of divas like Gwen Guthrie and Donna Summer. Around the time that Escort decided to put their energy into recording a full album, though, she struck out on her own.
“Escort was what I had been looking for for awhile. At the time, I was in a live instrumentation hip-hop soul group, but I wanted to have a bit more . . . diva.” Adeline Michèle extends her thin arms wide to strike a graceful pose before she settles back onto the couch in her Prospect Heights apartment. A Parisian by birth, Michèle relocated to New York City five years ago. A mutual friend introduced her to Balis and Cho, and “right away, I imagined myself onstage with that band.”
Dusk quickly darkens the room, yet Michèle’s halo of tight curls catches all of the room’s light and seems to glow. She has just returned from a weekend performance in the Cayman Islands, where she sang Motown, ’70s funk, and top 40 for a private function. But fronting Escort is where Michèle shines. She came late to the group in the recording process, but she’s still the star of the show. “Adeline can go out there and belt, but she’s more subtle than that,” Cho says. “What she evokes varies from track to track.” Much like the song subject “Caméleon Chameleon,” Michèle’s voice shape-shifts from plaintive to fierce, a seductive coo for “A Bright New Life” and a gritty turn on “Makeover.”
Rather than simply be indebted to the swooping strings, percussion outbursts, and chanteuse-cooed vocal imperatives of disco, Escort is mindful to not just go for “kitsch” in their sound. The whip-smart pop of Chic, August Darnell, and Prince wiggles in all of their grooves, which also possess the sleek and pliant qualities crafted by the likes of nu-disco producers like Metro Area and Daniel Wang. Sure, “Caméleon Chameleon” has a telltale Tom Tom Club bounce, and closer “Karawane” is tribal disco in all its hedonistic, polyrhythmic release, but Escort digs deeper than just dance music for its inspirations. There’s a breezy and upbeat take on “A Sailboat in the Moonlight,” a jazz standard made famous by Billie Holiday. “Cocaine Blues” elevates the early-’70s Dillinger reggae hit “Cocaine in My Brain” into a tingly good time, while “Love in Indigo” has a touch of Duke Ellington in its elegant piano.
Lording over the band, though, is one particular pop monster. “Just in terms of engineering, Thriller remains a touchstone for us,” Balis admits, detailing how they spent an entire day just mic’ing the drums so as to best emulate Michael Jackson’s sound. “There’s one-off curiosities you love as a DJ, but honestly, there aren’t that many great disco or dance albums. Thriller was our unobtainable aspiration.”
Although they aim for perfection in the studio, for the live show, Escort aims for spectacle—their ranks have swelled to 17 members. Michèle feels that Escort is at the height of its powers onstage: “Honestly, it’s just an incredible feeling, being carried by their energy. It’s 16 people behind me, and I’m the receiver of all that energy, and I get to send it out into the crowd.”
Escort plays Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday.