“It’s basically a party wherever we go,” says guitarist and co-founder Dan Balis of Escort. “With so many of us, we’d have fun even if we weren’t playing a show.” The revelers Balis is referring to here are the seventeen-person ensemble that makes up Escort’s NY-based disco-boogie dance act. It’s a setup of four vocalists, two guitars and a bass, a three-piece string section, a drum kit augmented by two additional percussionists, a sax, keyboard, trombone, and trumpet. In fact, the group is so expansive that they almost never practice together and generally only hear full tracks when they’re sharing a stage. “We have to put spreadsheets together just to put together section rehearsals,” says the group’s co-founder Eugene Cho, laughing. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a full rehearsal that everyone’s been able to make it to.”
The group didn’t start out as a massive party though. At the beginning Balis and Cho, friends from their college years at Vassar, were a simple two-person studio project focused on house edits and other dance fare. As musicians themselves, they soon decided to ditch computerized instrumentals and recruited friends to record live in their respective studios. The collaboration eventually led to a row of self-released 12-inches that included instant underground hits “Starlight” in 2006 and the synth-infused, cowbell laden sing-a-long “All Through the Night” a year later — the latter came with a music video that turned one of Jim Henson’s Muppet Theater into a swinging dance fête. Both were early favorites of dance DJs and led to Escort’s debut show at MoMA’s PS1 Warm Up series. It was actually the first time the entire ensemble performed together. Escort went relatively quiet and spent most of the next three years in the studio. Meanwhile, the disco-revival became a full-blown movement. In 2010 the group finally resurfaced with talk of a self-titled album and the debut of “Cocaine Blues,” the band’s reinterpretation of Dillinger‘s 1976 classic “Cocaine in My Brain.” As for the time that it took to make the album, the duo blames their obsessive aim for perfection. “We’ve always sweated the details,” says Balis. “We wanted everything feel like a single on it’s own. Or something that DJs could actually see themselves playing.”
In turn the album sounds much like a best-of compilation, mostly because it includes previously released favorites “All Through the Night,” “Love in Indigo,” and “Starlight.” Otherwise, the eleven-track LP features the band’s signature pep via funky basslines, big-band horns, and silken vocals courtesy of the leading songstress Adeline Michele, along with singers Joy Dragland, Karlie Bruce, and Angelica Allen. “With vocal disco, it’s important to have a story, a soul, a real human touch,” explains Cho. Not only do Michele’s hooks play a significant part in keeping Escort from being a retro-disco act (lyrics were never a defining part of the movement’s glory days), but the stories of love, nightlife, hometown pride, and idle daydreaming further separate the group from the minimal / sample-friendly vocal loops of their peers. Sure, most of their work would feel most at home in a house or disco set alongside their progenitors and inspiration like Kid Kreole and the Coconuts, but they’ve left room for interpretation, too. There are nods of Sharon Jones-esque funk and soul, balearic beats, and even New Wave in their songs. Take “Karawane,” for example. The tensely-woven track unfolds into a bongo-accented, tribal chant with references to both the Talking Heads (they reference “I Zimbra”) and George Krantz’s “Din Da Da.” It’s this kind of experimental curiosity and production nerdery that pervades their work, reflecting their disco roots while keeping current. As far as they’re concerned, what they’re doing isn’t anything new either. “Disco never went away,” says Cho. “It just changed names and went different different directions.” Luckily, there’s enough room in Escort to follow all of them.
Escort’s self-titled debut is out now digitally and arrives in physical form on January 31 via Escort Records.