There may be no one quite as busy as Jason King. Before we speak on the phone, he has just flown in from Dubai. Throughout the year he can be caught at either the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi or NYC teaching courses at Tisch’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music where he formerly served as artistic director. In his spare time, he’s a journalist, producer, radio host, and head of his own music company. Lately, the hat he’s tried on is of musician, specifically the kind that heads an international supergroup known as Company Freak. Spearheaded by King, Company Freak is his vision of the grand sounds of orchestral disco that bring together massive, live horns and strings sections alongside spectacular vocalists and a desire to get you moving.
With one EP under their belt, Company Freak has a busy year ahead of them, given a couple of big shows this month and plans to release an album early next year. King explained his motivation for a project like this, where disco can be heard today, and how he finds the time to keep this collective running.
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How long has Company Freak been in the works?
It’s been in the works for at least a couple of years, through all my travels. It’s been associated with the fact that I’ve been working in the UAE; I got really inspired by the idea of creating the global dance music ensemble. Although hip-hop has been described as global youth music, which I think in a lot of ways it is, I think they’re may be an even bigger story there which is that house music — house and funk influenced dance music — seem to be everywhere. You go to Africa and there’s a big house music scene. Asia has big house music scene. Europe obviously has a big scene. I wanted to recreate the sound of orchestral soul, funk and disco that moved into post-disco house music in the late-’80s and put together a band that would recapture that sound of music when it was orchestral — there were strings, there were horns, it was big, it was grand — and to recapture a sound that artists like Nile Rodgers were creating in the late 1970s. I suppose [it’s] a sort of sophisticated disco sound.
Between everything that you’re doing, how did you find the time to manifest this project?
Wherever I would travel, I would work with some of the best musicians I could find — the best session musicians, the best session singers. I really was invested in creating a global dance music ensemble or collective, this rotating group of musicians and singers that would change based on wherever I was. For example, I traveled to Ethiopia and I managed to record with some of the most amazing instrumentalists there. I was in Turkey and I recorded strings there and that became a track that was on the album called “Istanbul Disco.” It’s on the EP. I just came back from Lagos, Nigeria and did the same thing, working with some legendary Afrobeat and funk musicians there. So, where do I find the time? I don’t know, but I manage to connect with great musicians wherever I am. I really wanted to create a hybrid fusion music that sounds like my experience of traveling the world.
Do you think of Company Freak as a solo project or band?
I definitely think of it as a band. I’m the producer. I’m the songwriter. It’s my vision, but it’s for sure collective in the same way that Sly of Sly and the Family Stone was clearly the driving force behind [his band], but it was really a collective of individual talents that came to form this amazing group of people. I feel the same way about Company Freak. We have a set core of musicians who you’ll see perform at Rough Trade and SummerStage. There’s about 11 or 12 of us in the band. Then I have guest artists that will be here with the band, like Vivian Reed, the Broadway diva who’s a part of it. I like that part of it. I like the fact that it’s rotating but it’s still a collective.
You’ve taken the international intersections of disco’s history very seriously and have recorded all over the world for this EP and upcoming releases. What have been some of your favorite places to record?
I loved recording in Lagos! That stuff will show up on the album when it comes out early next year. I loved it because the level of musicianship in Nigeria is so high, especially in a post-Fela world. What I loved about it is having the opportunity to assemble some of those old school musicians from the ’60s and ’70s — and these guys are real industry powerhouses and work horses — to get them together the kind of music that even they hadn’t done in a long time because their was this disco scene in Lagos in the 1970s that many people have since forgotten about. It was a great chance to reunite them and put together a sound and a style that I think hasn’t been heard in a long time.
I loved recording in Turkey. The musicians were top notch there as well. Very often when I’m in the recording studio, the musicians that I’m working with, very often we don’t speak the same language. For example, some of the musicians spoke exclusively Turkish. I speak English so I need to have translators and facilitators to help with that process, and that’s what I love about being in a recording studio — those opportunities where you have to figure things out on a meta-language level. Language fails you and so you really have to go beyond that. It really does confirm that music is a kind of universal language.
What has drawn you to the places you’ve recorded? You’ve mentioned the historic disco and funk scene of Lagos, but what are some other histories?
Well they all have something! I’m fascinated by contemporary music in Turkey. It has a long and rich history of music for sure, whether you’re talking about classical or even the popular scene. They also have a big hip-hop scene and a big jazz scene. Those are both historical in Turkey. But when I go to the nightclubs in Turkey, very often what I hear is disco-influenced. When I talk to people there, they take it for granted. For me, I’m fascinated by it. My goal in the recordings is to make more obvious the connections between African-American funk, soul, disco and contemporary Turkey. I guess in general I’m fascinated by those connections that are already there but for whatever reason, it’s hard for us to make those links because we think of ourselves as being separate and distinct.
Being that you’re a professor, do you see the existence of Company Freak as another educational venture?
Hopefully it’s more entertaining than educational! [Laughs] Education — sure, that’s there. Maybe more entertaining? The live show is just super super dynamic and some of the greatest powerhouse voices you’ll ever hear assembled on stage and the musicians are all amazing. So I think first and foremost, the music should be felt at an emotional level and a soulful level. That’s the goal. It should inspire you, make you feel good, and make you want to dance. That’s my main focus. Outside of that, I think there is a maybe intellectual component just because of who I am. That has to do with the fact that I’m trying to create a cosmopolitan disco sound. To me, that hearkens back to what disco always was. It was always a global music. I want to remind people of that and I also want to connect disco back to visual identity and identity politics. There’s a track on the album called “Andre Leon Talley” which is a celebration of the great fashion icon. In some ways, those aspects are connected to what I do academically and intellectually, but I don’t think of this as an academic project. I think people should respond to it primarily as they would to any funk and disco music, and then if they want to think about it more deeply, there are levels in which they can do that.
You’ve mentioned that no other act is really doing what Company Freak is doing, but I was wondering if there are any pockets of music where you do still genuinely hear funk and disco today?
After I started working on this project, that’s when the Daft Punk record came out and all of a sudden people rediscovered disco on a mainstream level. I love the Daft Punk record, although I’m trying to do something very very different which is the global aspect and also the identity aspect. I’m not a robot, and I have no fascination with being a robot [laughs]. Technology, to me, serves the soulfulness and the emotions, not the other way around.
Daft Punk is amazing. “Blurred Lines,” in some ways, is kind of funk revival. I think a lot of people now are try to get into disco, but again, I’m concerned about the way that they’re remembering disco because it seems to be a superficial version of disco. What I really want to get at is how rich the musicianship was in the 1970s and early 1980s when this music was being created and how it was so deeply connected to the politics of the time. It was really the soundtrack to the liberation of the 1970s and how they all came together — women’s movement, gay movement, black movement, civil rights movement. That’s how they all came together in the ’70s, and that why I wanted to capture this moment of freedom and a feeling of liberation in the style itself. Although there is a big disco revival, I’m not sure it’s as connected to the politics of freedom as I see it, and that’s what I want to recapture.
Given the really cool performative aspect of disco, what can be expected from your live show with Low Cut Connie?
What you can expect is incredible, powerhouse singing, incredible funky, soulful playing by the musicians, energy, and fun. I’m inspired by groups like Chic and Change, but also Earth, Wind and Fire, P-Funk, and bands that have that level of energy and vitality to them. It’s just an electrifying show. That’s our goal, to electrify. If we don’t we feel like we’ve failed.
Catch Company Freak and Low Cut Connie at Rough Trade NYC on Friday, 6/6. 9:00 p.m., $12/$14.
The Jason King-curated, free ‘Club Classics Live!’ show at SummerStage takes place on 6/28 at 3:00 p.m. w/ Company Freak, Sam Sparro, Ultra Naté, Kevin Aviance, and Chic’s Alfa Anderson, Luci Martin & Norma Jean Wright.