Disco Revivalists Escort on “Cocaine Blues” and the Rules of Ripping Off

EscortGroup1 Nick Sylvester interviews Eugene Cho and Dan Balis of Escort discuss their new single, over at Riff City at channel 13. (You can get the single free over at the Escort website.):

Last week my friend Sasha Frere-Jones wrote about “the delicate art of revivals”: how deliberately vintage-sounding acts like Brooklyn funk&b group Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings or Swedish psych-pop band Dungen hold up against popular expectations that “new music” sound like “new music.” “How much of the past does one need to draw on before shifting categories from new to retro?” he wrote.

Right on cue, a Brooklyn-based disco-boogie revival outfit I like called Escort announced the imminent release of “Cocaine Blues,” their first twelve-inch in three years. (You can download the radio edit for free at their website.) Everything this band’s put out so far has the feel of an undiscovered classic, a song the disco compilations somehow forgot about. I remember hearing “Starlight,” their first single from 2006, and probably overdoing my show of disbelief when Jason Drummond, a/k/a DJ Spun, told me it wasn’t some one-off Montreal disco act from 1978. With the moody “Cocaine Blues” it’s no different; it might as well be a deep cut from some Chic LP I’ve never heard.

Dan Balis and Eugene Cho, the architects of Escort’s meticulous throwback sound and the band’s principal songwriters, were kind enough to talk about Frere-Jones’s piece and walk me through the kinds of decisions they make when putting together their records.

Riff City: A lot of your records, “Cocaine Blues” included, borrow very specific rhythms and melodies from very specific early disco tracks. How do you decide when a move or sound is ripe for borrowing, versus a move/sound that is overexposed and would potentially distract people that you’re taking it? What is your personal rulebook for “ripping something off”?

Eugene Cho: Sometimes the disco influence is very organic. We start playing our instruments and there’s a wealth of musical vocabulary that becomes second nature to you from listening to and playing dance music over the years. On the other side is that some grooves and musical ideas are so good that they’re screaming out to be explored and refined further. For “Cocaine Blues,” we found that some of the lyrics in previous incarnations of the song were taken from nineteenth century folk rhymes and we found other verses from those old rhymes and added them as well.

Dan Balis: “Cocaine Blues” is a loose interpretation of a Jamaican version of a turn-of-the-century blues song; a version, which in turn, relies on the groove from an American disco hit that was popular among Jamaican soundsystem DJs. We weren’t really preoccupied with distance, but rather with coming up with a unique and distinctive version of something we already thought was great.