Escort Talks Modern Disco, New York City & Experiencing Your 'Animal Nature'

Shervin Lainez

"The bigger, the better" is an appropriate motto for Escort, Brooklyn's 17-piece disco orchestra. The adored, prolific collective, known for their live performances and unbeatable funky instrumentation, is not one to keep the groove tamed.

As their second album Animal Nature, due out Oct. 30, attests, these guys are unwavering in their dance-heavy persona that revives a past genre with a new flavor. Devoted to keeping the beat alive, the group's co-founder and keyboardist Eugene Cho talks with Billboard about what it takes to be a 17-member, disco-abiding band and the animal nature that inspired their upcoming 19-track LP. 

Where was the initial vision of Animal Nature

Our band came up with [the concept]. It’s kind of harping back to when we were younger, we went out to clubs all the time, and there’s a thing that you get into when you keep going out, and you become a different person when you really let go, when you go out. It’s hard to describe. You have your family, work, and your home team and you go out and you can become this other persona only for going out and for going out to clubs and doing really dumb stuff or reckless stuff or just being in that persona, and it can be an excuse. It can be great, but it’s just a real thing.

How was putting this album together different from the process with your first album?

A lot more collaboration. The first album, Dan [Balis, guitarist and co-founder] and I really did all the production and we were kind of new to a lot of this and a lot of these people we were working with, and we would call in a string player or a horn player or a singer and say, “Oh, try playing this part and see how it sounds.” Now, we’ve gotten to the point where we’re writing with different personalities and we know what they’re capable of and we work with them hand in hand to get the recordings together and what’s more of an actual band, a bunch of people that actually know each other and play together rather than a straight studio project. It’s still very much the vision of Dan and I production-wise, but there are a lot more personalities involved that we’re able to work with from playing together so many years.

How do you feel about having so many different characters involved?

It’s great to have more people and more characters and just more inspiration. We’re not the best, although we try. It’s probably not a good idea if we write every single note and every single lyric, and it’s great to have some other energy in there and people helping to write music.

Is there ever a time where you guys have a different vision and it’s hard to meet in the middle?

Oh, all the time. I want to say that we might not hit certain extremes by agreeing on almost everything or by forcing ourselves to agree on almost everything, but there’s a certain level of quality that we expect from each other and won’t go below that we have to keep the bar high for each other and we have to check ourselves and make sure that we’re not putting any garbage in there. 

What was it like when you guys started making music?

I think we were a lot more cavalier about it all, where we had the idea of trying to make some music that sounded something like records that we liked, and when we approached that, we thought that was really cool. Like, I could potentially DJ or maybe people will like this, and that alone was enough for us, so we didn’t really compare ourselves to anything else or think about how we fit amongst other records or what we were really putting out there and how that reflected upon us, and now, all of those questions are coming into play when we write.

So far, you guys have been getting a lot of positive feedback on the music that’s been released from Animal Nature. How do you feel about what you’ve been reading and hearing from people?

I feel really good about it. It’s been so long, and people’s tastes have changed, and we really didn’t know what people would make of it. When we came out, new disco was being born at the time, and that sound was very new and people were clamoring for anything that hit that note with that vibe, and now it’s so commonplace that we’re not so special anymore as far as doing something like that. So it’s really cool that people are still feeling it and listening to it and checking us out even though we’re not just part of one subset of music or just some source of some band that some people like. We’re more of our band identity and people actually know who we are.

So, you guys met and live in New York. What is it about this city that fuels your music, and if you guys were to meet in a different city, would your sound still be the same?

No. New York is super important. The club culture and the music coming out of the clubs and the people here. It all comes together to make disco, the fact that we can get world-class musicians, everyone is here and there’s a certain appreciation for all sorts of different music. Maybe if we came out of Detroit, we would have used more drum machines earlier on, but I don’t think it would be very close to what we’re doing now. It’s cool that people talk about [disco] becoming more of a common thing, but it really is a North American urban music. Philly, New York, L.A., Chicago somewhat. You can even see it when you look at the faces in the band. We have a very multicultural band and that’s reflected in the population in the city.

How are you feeling about the album coming out? Nervous? Excited?

Everything. Excited, nervous. Relieved to finally have it out, really. There’s so much work and stuff leading up to it and it’s not the fun part. I mean, for us especially because I’m running the [Escort] record label, so there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t that interesting leading up to it, but it’s just great to finally have it out there and hear people actually playing it and the idea that it’ll finally be heard after so many years. I mean, we’ve been working on a lot of these tunes for about 2 or 3 years now, so it’s a huge relief emotionally to get the music out there.

Do you feel like your art history degree has filtered into your music in any way?

In an abstract way. A lot of what you get with a liberal arts degree is just ways of thinking and ways of looking at situations and adapting and learning things very quickly. So, with disco and with all this production…to run a band, you can't just play music anymore and write. You have to market, you have to be a part of your visual identity and your social media voice and you have to network and you have to do all these things that aren’t music to make it work, and I think that higher education definitely helps in how you learn and you definitely have to write. You’ve got to take a lot of things up and pretend like you’re a master of them very quickly.

What’s an album you return to and never tire of?

Oh, man. I mean, it’s kind of trite, but Off the Wall is just one of the best records of all time and it’s hard to…it’s never going to die. It’s so good, it’s ridiculous. We looked back to that record a lot in writing and producing this record. It’s a touchstone for us. It’s so deep and it’s so amazing.