The first thing that lets you know Escort is different from all the other bands in Brooklyn is that there’s no animal in its name. The next hint might be the electronic group’s 17-person live lineup. People lucky enough to be in New York Saturday night can catch the band playing a live show to celebrate the release of its self-titled debut album—chock full of songs inspired by the '70s but which feel absolutely modern; Jake Shears has described the band as “the best disco you’ve ever heard”—at a party being thrown by Spank magazine at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
Out caught up with the group’s masterminds, Eugene Cho and Dan Balis, to find out why they need such a big band, what makes disco exciting again and just exactly what we should take to prepare for the show.
Out: So, how did you guys decide to start a gigantic electronic band instead of just grabbing some guitars, a bass and a drum kit?
Eugene Cho: Dan and I met in college at Vassar and we were both in the same electronic music class and were working with this techno producer at the time. I’d been playing music in another band in high school but college was when we first started to do electronic music, under [producer/professor] Jamie Hodge, but it never really became anything until we started Escort.
At what point did you decide to start the band?
Dan Balis: It’s pretty fuzzy because there are pieces of the instrumentals that date back to long before there was an Escort, but I guess strictly speaking we finalized what we were doing in late 2005 or early 2006.
EC: When we started producing [our first single] “Starlight,” really. There was a point when we decided to drop the sampler and we realized we could play guitars and record bass and drums. Once we did that, it got the sound together.
Did you only expand in order to play live, then?
DB: It came about fairly quickly. When we did “Starlight,” it was basically a studio project. I had a studio, Eugene had a studio, folks would come over and we would build up the tracks via extensive overdubbing. Then we started getting requests to play live and we sussed out that we didn’t want to do a cock-eyed, half-ass, play-a-bunch-of-stuff-off-the-tape version of what we were doing in the studio. So, a lot of the band members came out of what we were doing in the studio. By the time we had our first show, there were a bunch of members but there was no band, per se; they had never met each other.
EC: The first show was at [Queens museum] PS1. We did a little, tiny practice show but the first real show was at PS1, which is a big jump. I remember our singer came in through the back. This is before Adeline. This singer didn’t have much stage experience. So she got dressed and though, OK so we are gonna play the show, and then walked into the sea of thousands of people—she didn’t freeze up, but she was taken by surprise. Still, she really delivered.
After such a big-deal first show, did you have to go back and start playing the usual sort of early gigs bands play?
DB: We never had the luxury of playing the smaller shows. For one, you literally can’t fit the band on that stage, and you couldn’t afford to pay everybody. We said early on, we don’t want folks to spend time working on this and not get a good rate.
EC: In that way, we’re able to keep a really high caliber band together and have some of the people we really want the most. We do have to play the larger shows, but we never really looked back after that first show.
Was the entire band in the studio for this new record?
EC: It was definitely more along the lines of Dan and I composing and writing everything and then we’ll bring in, once we have the base of a track, other people. It would be very difficult to write anything like that with a mound of people, so it’s never really a jam. Sometimes we approach that feeling on stage, but with a band of this size, we really have to make a whole arrangement—it’s a pretty controlled studio environment.
A lot of people use the word “disco” to describe your sound, but that has a lot of strange connotations. How would you describe it?
DB: It varies over the course of the record. I don’t know if we’re that easily encapsulated. We’ve got stuff… it all falls under the rubric of disco or dance music or club music, but we’ve got some songs that would be described as post-disco and we have other stuff that’s more solidly in the main cannon of boogie.
EC: I would say that we are unique in that while we are not the only band flirting around this type of music, we are probably much more willing to self-identify as a disco band.
DB: One of the things we’re trying to do is really write songs that will stand on their own outside of the packaging of dance music. There are very much verses and choruses and lyrics we spend time on.
OK, so disco is also a thing now—you can’t go anywhere without hearing old Donna Summer. There’s a whole resurgence, right?
DB: Oh, absolutely. The way we came to this kind of music was a function of going out, going to clubs and listening to club music. Obviously there’s the sort of broad, white polyester jumpsuit conception of disco, but the part we gravitated to was the Paradise Garage sounds filtered by really amazing DJs. That’s the route by which we came to this, not just going out but also listening to old mixes and finding our way to a lot of the records they were playing.
EC: Younger people know and feel, or some have an idea, of how disco was perceived. But a lot of bands you hear throwing around the term disco just to describe themselves as dance music are taking on a much broader term. It definitely means something different.
OK, so what should people expect from a live disco show?
DB: There’s a lot more dancing than you would have at a typical rock concert, that’s for sure. Just the sheer spectacle of having that many folks on stage playing their instruments incredibly well, we like to think it’s a very compelling show.
A friend of mine was looking for some help to make the show even more, uh, compelling…
DB: I think you can enjoy the show perfectly sober, but healthy recreational drug use is always part of club life.
Photo by Lenny Tso