ESCORT: Wild for the Night

STARK writer Laura Smith unearths the power of a night out with Escort, a 17-piece Disco orchestra.

Words & Interview: Laura Smith
Images: Lenny Tso, Jody Kivort

After catching the “disco orchestra” Escort perform a sold-out show at Music Hall of Williamsburg, I’ve fully experienced the transformative power of Disco music on an indifferent audience of music bloggers cum professional cool kids. Where crossed arms and tapping feet turn into full body shake-downs. Who needs to dust off Studio 54, when you can catch Escort on tour?

I caught up with the co-founder of this 17-piece powerhouse, Eugene Cho and lead diva/singer, Adeline Michèle, before they embarked on their SXSW run to talk about their new album, the evolution of dance music and how itall started with Michael Jackson.

So I caught your live show with Midnight Magic at Music Hall of Williamsburg. Definitely one of the more memorable live shows I’ve been to. I literally saw people being dipped on the dance floor, which was a first…

Eugene: That’s hilarious.

How would your describe your live shows to someone who has never seen or heard your music before?

Eugene: It’s all coming from this place of Disco, but the cool side of Disco, that gets lost on a lot of people. We’re trying to bring it back to the good stuff. Putting it on stage is a whole other monster. You have bands like Chic and Kool & the Gang that pulled it off live, but most of the old Disco stuff was really just studio projects. Now when we get the whole band out there, with the strings, back-up singers and horns, we‘re trying to put on the big party that never happened in the late ’70s.

Adeline: 17 people on stage, great music and a crowd that’s going crazy. I feel like every Escort show is such an event. The energy is so, so high and the vibe so positive. Everyone must experience that at least once.

With 17 members in the band, how collaborative is the process of songwriting?

Eugene: When we first started out, it was just experimenting and recording. We would get these people in the studio and they would come out, not knowing what the hell just happened. Over time we’ve developed a better relationship with the musicians that we use. Caleb Burhans helps us a lot with the string arrangements and Adeline’s been helping out with the vocals, so they suit her a little bit more.

Adeline: Recording the album definitely helped me craft the kind of vocal style I was going to embody for the live shows. Eugene and [co-founder/producer] Dan [Ballis] were very specific in the studio, but they still left a lot of room for my vocal personality. While staying soulful, I chose a tone less raspy and clearer, and leave out some of my usual “runs” for cleaner lines. I listened to a lot of ’80s up-tempo tracks for influence: Donna Summer, the Pointer Sisters and many more.

You’ve been releasing music under the name Escort since 2006. What was it about this past year that crystallized things for the group and got the album out?

Eugene: Dan and I eventually decided we can’t just keep putting out these 12’ one by one, or put out a compilation record of all these things we’ve already released. So we sort of took our sweet time in putting together a bunch of new songs that we could release and make something new for our existing fans and in a format for those who had never heard of us would listen to, rather than just another DJ 12’ single.

With your background in DJing and in-depth knowledge of dance music, what would you say are the components of a great dance track?

Eugene: If it’s live, you need a great drummer or at least a great drum loop. There are all these stories about the “Golden Tape Loop” that the Bee Gees used on a lot of records. This one perfect bar where it just felt so right. Maybe our biggest criteria when making a track in the studio is, that point where you start nodding your head. That’s when you know you have it right. I know the session’s going well when I turn around and see Dan is just sort of just dancing behind me.

With Dance music having become more prevalent in recent years, what is it about right now that makes it perfect timing?

Eugene: It definitely has much more of a hold because Electronic music (which has always been synonymous with Dance music) is becoming more commonplace. People aren’t scared of synthesizers anymore; you hear that in Pop music and these ridiculous Techno records with R&B artists, which is crazy! It opened up with LCD Soundsystem and a lot of the bigger indie bands that have the live Dance music vibe. At the same time, you had all these indie people beginning to be less “cool” about everything and it started to be straight up more dancey.

Thank god for that.

Eugene: Yeah I mean, people want to have fun. Then there’s the other side where people who say, “Oh, Disco, I remember Disco. That was definitely not Led Zepplin and Led Zepplin is cool”. There’s a side to it that’s kind of dark, where people hate the cultural connotations of Disco. There’s a big gay culture aspect to Disco that some people turn upon.

You’re a longtime fan of the genre and era. Is there a particular song or artist that made you fall in love with it?

Eugene: It’s gotta be Michael Jackson. All that stuff that was bouncing around that was really Disco; it’s just so great it ended up becoming Michael Jackson. Later on, the stuff we [Ballis and I] found most inspiring was August Darnell, Kid Creole & The Coconuts and the Savannah Band. That’s another example of a great live show. We watch old footage of that all the time. They’re so smart and so witty. Them and the Talking Heads, they’re very cerebral. They think about it all, but it’s still fun.

Adeline: Everything about the ’70s just moves me. The music, the clothes, the moves, the message behind the music. Musically that era to me is where up-tempo, Dance songs meet high-level musicianship and positive message the best way it could be.

You’ve sung back up for Michael Jackson on live television at an early age, setting the bar quite high for yourself. Who would be your next dream co-collaborator or co-performer?

Adeline: Prince, Prince, PRINCE!

For those of us who don’t really know Disco, what are some key tracks that would serve as a good introduction to the genre? Or favorite dance songs from any era that would make up the perfect Disco DJ set?

Eugene: Machine- “There by the Grace of God Go I”. Rinder & Lewis- “Willie and The Hand Jive”. Donna Summer- “I Feel Love”. Chic– “Everybody Dance”. Michael Jackson– “Can’t Stop Til You Get Enough”. Coati Mundi – “Mi No Pop I”.

Adeline: The Pointer Sisters– “Don’t it Drive You Crazy”. Michael Jackson– “P.Y.T”. Cymande– “Fug”. James Brown– “The Big Payback”. Betty Davis – “Git in There”. Curtis Mayfield– “Move on Up”.

Catch Escort live at SXSW or on their upcoming European tour this spring. For dates, visit their site HERE. Also check out Adeline Michèle’s solo debut Pounds of Soul. Escort’s self-titled album is out now.

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