Dan Balis: [to Cho] By the way, he says this exercise isn't Stump the Band. That means this exercise is Stump the Band.
Eugene Cho: I like how he looks at us as if he expects instant recognition. [laughs]
Dan Balis: It's like the early side of disco, when soul makes that transition into four-on-the-floor beats.
Eugene Cho: Not really—you can't hear the kick that well.
Dan Balis: It's almost four-on-the-floor, but that snare on every beat, that Motown snare. You can see the natural progression. We've never really been drawn to this side of things. That's not to say we don't love soul music. There's some stuff from that interim period that's exciting. But I think that also [with] our background as DJs, what we loved was late '70s production—a lot more aggressive, a lot more precise, particularly the drums. It's more suited for DJing.
Eugene Cho: We start looking backwards from modern dance music. I think this is a little too far removed from house, basically.
Dan Balis: It's better songwriting than a lot of the stuff that came later! [laughs] Most of the songwriting from the period we like—all these records with immaculate production and then the lyrics are...
Dan Balis: Execrable. [laughs]
I first heard this on a compilation from 1997 called Super Rare Disco—my introduction to the less popular stuff. Where were you introduced to that side of it?
Dan Balis: For us, the reference points are pretty obvious: disco by way of New York, disco by way of Detroit to some extent, by way of Chicago. As you listen, you start digging back to what inspired those particular records.
Eugene Cho: There was the Loft compilations [on Nuphonic].
Dan Balis: The Loft compilations were great. By the time they came out it did sort of help to crystallize what that sound was about, say, versus the [Paradise] Garage sound. Another thing that was a big, big influence was Deep House Page. I started listening to it in '98. The audio quality was horrifying. But they already had all these old Frankie Knuckles mixes. They had Hot Mix 5 mixes [from Chicago's] WBMX. That kind of exposed [us] to the Italo side of things, like My Mine's "Hypnotic Tango" [from 1983]. Do you know that record? It's this kind of weird new wave-Italo crossover that became the house sound in Chicago.
Est-Ce Que C'est Chic
Dan Balis: There's a song that I actually really like that uses the same chord progression. I can't remember what the hell it is.
Eugene Cho: "Spooks in Space" by the Aural Exciters?
Dan Balis: Yeah. You know, I hate to say this, because I'm the biggest Chic fan in the world, but this does very little for me. I guess this is maybe when they were developing their own sound, and just doing the [popular] things at the time.
Eugene Cho: This is their "let's get signed" record? [laughs]
Dan Balis: It's kind of like a hustle record.
Eugene Cho: How hot was this when it came out? Was it, like, a banger?
No, this is an album track.
Dan Balis: The one thing we definitely take from stuff like Chic, and throughout that period: We try to write songs, but when you write melodies, you kind of write melodies like horn parts. You try to—we're very much about the percussiveness of a particular hook, rather than letting it sort of loosely meander over a song.
Eugene Cho: It's not exclusive to records like this, but it's very important. I think Nile Rodgers is pretty much an OCD control-freak guy. You need that personality to get it across.
Dan Balis: [instantly] I love this song. It's amazing. I actually had a period when I listened to this song over and over again.
Eugene Cho: When it came out?
Dan Balis: No, recently! While we were writing stuff. It's definitely one of the songs I come back to. I love this record. I love the vocal performance, I love how the bridge is phrased. The production's ridiculous.
The first time I heard "All Through the Night," I thought Break Out-era Pointer Sisters, only the vocals were really fast.
Dan Balis: We take that as a huge compliment. I love the Pointer Sisters. Who produced this?
Richard Perry, which is funny because he spent the '70s producing Barbra Streisand and Ringo Starr.
Eugene Cho: Is this a Prince cop? That's probably the tie-in with "All Through the Night." That's definitely a Prince cop. You can hear it definitely with the guitars. It's funny: this has all the same trappings, but it's much smoother.
Dan Balis: [to Cho] This is your realm of expertise.
Eugene Cho: I don't know this track, though.
Dan Balis: I told you he was going to stump us!
Eugene Cho: Dillinger?
Dan Balis: I was guessing that was the [artist].
Eugene Cho: It's funny. Dillinger and Eddy Grant—there's even Rita Marley jams [with] disco crossover. It really seemed like a lot of the same sounds and productions that were in reggae records translated so well—it was dance music.
Dan Balis: And then there's all the Grace Jones stuff produced by Sly & Robbie, "Padlock," the Gwen Guthrie stuff. We love those records.
Eugene Cho: There's definitely something to the drum production on this. It's kind of classic—they've really dialed in this sound. It just got so satisfying. The sounds were so good that the arrangement could become so minimal but really worked.
How did you decide to do "Cocaine Blues"?
Dan Balis: We used to sing the People's Choice bassline all the time, it was kind of a running joke, although usually with lyrics that we made up making fun of each other's race. [laughs]
You don't care to kick a little freestyle on the record?
Eugene Cho: That bassline is so good. It's one of the best basslines ever. Our bass player in sound check would just play, and it would sound so good, you can't really get it out of your head. We researched it a lot. The Dillinger version, I think he came from the same place: "This bassline is great! Let me make a track with this bassline."
Dan Balis: That era, it's like: People's Choice has their hit. People start toasting over People's Choice at sound systems. Then it's like, "OK, I'm going to redo it." Another song uses that groove a couple years before Dillinger. Disco is weird because it's not as formalized as a lot of reggae—it's not like [the Jamaican system of reusing] riddims. But there are these weird bass tropes that you see over and over again, musical ideas it uses and quotes.
Like Chic's "Good Times."
Dan Balis: That's the classic example. I think I listened to something where they were playing the audio from all these different songs, from ["Need You Tonight" by] INXS and "Another One Bites the Dust" [by Queen, whose bassist John Deacon] happened to be in the studio when Bernard Edwards was laying down the bassline.
How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?
Dan Balis: It's kind of funny. You played us the Dillinger track, and now you're playing a soul track. What we always joke about is that I came from a very dance background, whereas Eugene came from more of a soul-reggae-funk background, and slowly over time our tastes got closer and more aligned with one another. I remember when I was listening to Autechre records. [Eugene would say,] "What are you listening to?" [listens some more] This is really good. That guitar lick is ridiculous.
This is Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. It's an obvious thing to play. But certainly when I first heard "Starlight" I thought it was the same kind of idea, but updated.
Dan Balis: I would say we're probably less nostalgic.
Eugene Cho: I love what they're doing, but...
You're not making your records look like 1979, the way they make theirs look like 1968.
Dan Balis: Nor are we really trying to make them sound like 1979. They do kind of incidentally, because that's our references.
Eugene Cho: "Starlight" especially.
Dan Balis: The other thing is, I'd say we're a little less reverent, but it's similar by virtue of making this music now, you are recontextualizing it. It is a very modern thing to say, "This is still relevant now."
Eugene Cho: That's just as much a statement as hearing all these other bands coming out and doing something—like, "I can also do that and be part of this zeitgeist." Or you can create something by looking back. That's definitely where we're coming from as well.
"Starlight" is '06, and I think that's about when the big disco wave started, with re-edits.
Dan Balis: There was the big English disco wave in the '90s—the whole Nuphonic thing, like Faze Action. It's happened before in the context of DJ records.
Eugene Cho: It's not a coincidence. Obviously, we were DJing. Part of playing records with people who were doing the edits back then. That's where it came from. We tried making our own re-edits, basically.
Dan Balis: At a certain point, we realized we actually can play instruments. We can write music. Rather than sample something, why don't we just build it up from scratch, and do it exactly? In some ways it's almost easier. Instead of taking a sample of a drum and mapping it out—or, "I want the guitar to sound exactly like this." So you play it. You can actually play what's in your head, instead of shift something around.
How long was the buildup to releasing records? Were you together as Escort for a short or long time before the first records?
Dan Balis: We made some embarrassing house records before that, the soulful deep house thing.
Eugene Cho: I'm deeply proud of those records. I won't cast any aspersions on them. [both laugh]
Dan Balis: But not as Escort—as Dan Balis and Eugene Cho.
Eugene Cho: That's going back to 1999. We met before that in college. We both took the same electronic music class, and heard each other's stuff. We started messing around, working on music together.
Dan Balis: We were into making new electronic music at the time, and kept looking back to the roots.
Eugene Cho: In addition to listening to mixes, we were good friends with—I guess they weren't Metro Area yet, but Morgan [Geist] and Darshan [Jesrani]. Darshan lived in Poughkeepsie, his family's from Poughkeepsie, so he used to hang out at parties at Vassar [College]. They put us on to stuff. We had synthesizers, but Darshan was the first person we knew who had a studio that looked like a real studio. He helped us with some of our early productions. We would work in his studio and see how he had it all hooked up. This is before it was readily accessible.
Dan Balis: It was the beginnings of digital audio.
Eugene Cho: Yeah. There was a steep learning curve. There were very few people who could work it. He really showed us the way.
Dan Balis: [mockingly] He's like a shepherd.
Deep City Insects
Dan Balis: This is Maurizio, right? Basic Channel?
It's Sepalcure. They both used to live in Brooklyn. One of them just moved to Berlin.
Dan Balis: Of course he did.
Do you feel like Escort could come from another city?
Eugene Cho: I don't think it would have come out of any other city. It definitely grew out of New York.
Dan Balis: In the late '90s, early 2000s, we were going to a lot of parties, to get out and listen to dance music. There was a party called Bang the Party, at Frank's. We used to go almost every weekend. That sort of sensibility—but for those parties being so much fun to go out and dance at, I don't think we would have gravitated to this stuff in the same way necessarily.
Do you pay attention to what goes on in dance music at large? Are you still DJs at heart?
Dan Balis: We're definitely still DJs at heart. This past year, because we've been focused on getting this record we've had for a while [out], we haven't been doing as much DJing in practice.
Eugene Cho: I'd say when we DJ it's 95 percent old records. As far as following new stuff, it's not really our thing. We listen to stuff. But there's so much dance music.
Dan Balis: We did a mix recently, and we're about to put together another DJ mix, and for that we do look for new records. Especially as we get bored of our standby records, we'll end up trying to find something that fits our aesthetic, but is new and exciting. [laughs]