Big-band disco acts Escort, Midnight Magic channel ‘off-kilter, New York’ retro vibe, when they can afford to

Escort, live at Highline Ballroom. ()
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“Are we going to tell the David Byrne story again?”

Dan Balis and Eugene Cho were sitting in their Soho studio, laughing. Balis plays guitar, and Cho, keyboards, in Escort, which began as the duo’s studio project and has blossomed into a 17-piece extravaganza. Five years after they released their first 12-inch, Escort’s debut album, titled Escort, came out last week on Escort Records.

Anyone who likes disco in both its late-’70s commercial peak—think Chic’s zingy strings—and its more synth-heavy early-’80s mode, will find a lot to like about Escort. Songs like the wired electro-funk of “All Through the Night” (“Giveittomesayittomeworkitwithme ifyou’rereadyI’mabouttopop!”) and the appropriately twinkling mid-tempo boogie number “Starlight” take their place proudly in the disco canon, however late in the game they might have arrived.

The David Byrne story goes like this: Balis and Cho were working on something recently and discussing Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club in relation to it. Then they went to dinner at a nearby restaurant, where they spotted Byrne with Cindy Sherman.

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“We go back to the studio to get the C.D., go up to David Byrne, and we interrupt him,” said Cho. “He’s talking to the guy who played the chef on 'The Sopranos.'”

“He looked really annoyed that the chef from 'The Sopranos' was talking to him,” said Balis. “He’s like, ‘I want to talk to my girlfriend-slash-life partner.’”

Balis and Cho handed Byrne the C.D., explaining who they were. “We give him the spiel,” said Balis. “‘We’re huge fans. We’d love you to listen to this. We’re a 17-piece band.’ And he says, ‘A 17-piece band? How do you make any money?’” They laughed again. “The answer is, of course, you don’t.”

Well, of course. Few bands of any kind make money anymore—never mind one that’s more like a small orchestra playing a style that was supposed to have been left for dead more than three decades ago.

But Escort isn’t alone. Around the time Balis and Cho were releasing their first 12-inch, “Starlight,” in 2006, another Brooklyn band, Midnight Magic, were starting up. That group solidified thanks to its founding members’ involvement with the highest-profile New York new-disco group, Hercules and Love Affair, whose mastermind, Andy Butler, has since relocated to Colorado.

Everyone knows someone who’s had to leave New York because they simply couldn’t afford it anymore. Maintaining a giant disco group—Escort’s is a 17-member live setup, Midnight Magic gigs with nine—is costly, and simply not possible to do full-time.

“Most of the [musicians] have pretty rich musical lives outside of Escort,” said Cho. For example, the disco band’s strings are arranged by Caleb Burhans, who also plays in the new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, leads the band itsnotyouitsme, and plays with the Arcade Fire, among many others.

“You see him on Letterman all the time,” Cho said of Burhans. “I think he played Le Poisson Rouge a hundred times last year. For some reason he really likes playing with us. It’s a fun time. It’s really completely different music, but for a lot of the people in the band, they don’t come from a disco background at all, or dance music background. It’s kind of a novelty. But as they play more they get it and enjoy it more. We’re kind of blessed that we’re that band for them.”

“The other thing is that everyone gets along really well,” said Balis, “even without that shared musical vocabulary. Not all string players can get it, because a lot of the stuff is about the phrasing. Sometimes pop phrasing is difficult—but not for our string players. They totally get it. But there’ve definitely been some times . . .”

“Some people who have that kind of classical phrasing, and it’s not tight to the 16ths, and it doesn’t really work,” Cho said, elaborating.

“Before working with Eugene and Dan, I didn't know the first thing about disco,” said Caleb Burhans. “I learned a ton from them. The first thing that really struck me about original disco tracks was how amazing the string players were. Their intonation is flawless, even while playing without vibrato and their falls are perfectly together. I generally play classical music, post-rock, and jazz, so getting to play with a huge disco band is nothing but fun.”

“We’re surrounded by all these ludicrously talented musicians,” said Balis. “The two of us both, especially in the studio, can play lots of different things badly. But we both know exactly what we want to do. In terms of executing live, it’s all very, very competent folks who play. We can play our own instruments perfectly well, but I wouldn’t hire myself as a session guitarist.”

The singers are a different story. Lead singer Adeline Michele and backing vocalists Joy Dragland, Karlie Bruce, and Angelica Allen are all powerhouses, given to grand displays.

“You should be at sound check,” said Balis. “It’s the torch-song equivalent of a rap battle. They all try to out-cheese one another.”

Dragland won the most recent round.

“She camps it up,” said Cho, who noted her flair for Janis Joplin covers. “In sound check she becomes just short of singing and then throwing the mike down: ‘Yeah! What’d I say?!’”

“I don’t think anyone’s ever taken it to Celine [Dion],” said Balis. “But if they had to, someone would take it there.”

“Normally Joy is a singer-songwriter,” said Cho. “But when she gets with us she has this whole other persona.

“It’s not really Joy,” said Balis. “It’s Roy, her alter ego, which is basically: We get her very drunk. She drinks a lot of bourbon—just enough bourbon that she’ll bullshit but not so much that ... it’s a fine balance, to create Roy.”

In whatever guise, Dragland has a substantial hand in Escort, singing lead on the first two tracks, “Chaméleon Chameleon” and “Cocaine Blues.” “Generally, Adeline [Michele] is the lead singer,” said Cho. “But Joy helped write a lot of the melodies on the record, putting down the scratch tracks. We had in mind that Adeline would come in and re-sing them, but they were done.”

Still, Escort is clearly Balis and Cho’s project. Midnight Magic, on the other hand, occupies less stage space but has a larger nucleus. Its core is four musicians rather than two—vocalist Tiffany Roth, bassist W. Andrew Raposo, keyboardist Morgan Wiley, and trumpeter Carter Yatusake.

Raposo met Wiley in the band Automato. When that group split, its other members formed Holy Ghost!—which Midnight Magic is just finishing a tour with. Raposo, meanwhile, met Roth, an L.A. artistic lifer who’d never sung with a band.

“Whatever she sets her mind to she does something interesting with, whether it's graphic design or making a video,” Raposo said of Roth. “When I first met her, she was doing sketch comedy.”

Raposo and Roth tried their hand at experimental music for six unsuccessful months, in a large ensemble that also included Wiley and Yatusake. Soon after, the four of them decided to try their hands at old-school dance grooves.

“Tiffany has an absolutely insane record collection and loves funk, soul, disco, and R&B,” said Raposo. “She was up for it. She always had great points of reference. She’s a proper singer-singer.”

Midnight Magic formed in 2006 and had a clutch of surefire material within a few months, including “Beam Me Up,” issued in July 2010 on Permanent Vacation as the band’s first single. Bolstered by New York D.J. confrere Jacques Greene’s streamlined remix, “Beam Me Up” captures the romance of riding the subway for first-time New Yorkers, many of whom go to the clubs and parties where the track blew up.

The track took so long to see light because Raposo and Wiley were knee-deep in work with Hercules and Love Affair, who in 2008 spawned a global hit with “Blind,” sung by Antony Hegarty (of indie stars Antony and the Johnsons), which Pitchfork named its best track of the year in 2008. That year, Raposo, Wiley, and Yatusake spent ten months on the road with Hercules. (Roth did some demo singing for Butler as well.)

“Andy Butler encouraged us a lot,” said Raposo. “He was like, ‘I think you guys are onto something very special—very New York, very off-kilter, very experimental.’ So we started working on more music thinking, ‘Oh, we’re a dance band.’”

Sometimes they’re a very reverential one. “What the Eyes Can’t See,” the title track of their recent five-track E.P., has a sparse mix that give it a jazzy, loose, roomy feel reminiscent of the mid-’70s, right before Saturday Night Fever took disco mega. “Julio,” also from the E.P., is a thick mid-tempo groove that fits Roth’s moodier and more deliberate vocal, with the synthesizers showing off, Jan Hammer-style, to close it out.

While that approach was there from the beginning, the name Midnight Magic took a while to decide upon, Raposo said.

“We argued for the better part of six months. I tend to play the heavy in the band. So one day I just texted everyone: ‘If we don't come up with a name tonight I'm just gonna choose something and that'll be it.’ I managed to get everybody over to my house. Over a bottle of bourbon the four of us sat with laptops trying to come up with names. You can sit with a group of musicians and they'll come up with 100 of the best joke names you’ve ever heard. Not one person will come up with a proper, good band name.”

What saved the group from being called Clown Boner #9 or Pink Dolphin Pussy was a shared love for horror movies.

“Tiffany said, ‘What is the name of that song at the end of The Shining’?” said Raposo. The tune was a ’30s number, “Midnight, the Stars, and You.” The band started refining.

“I’m a huge fan of alliteration,” said Raposo. “I looked up on my laptop, ‘Midnight Magic,’ and no one had that name. I was shocked. You know certain band names that just sound like something that’s already been established? Midnight Magic sounds like a band that’s been around forever. It looks nice written [down]. People think about sex, they think drugs, they think about stargazing, they think about, you know, New Year’s Eve.”

The one holdout was Roth: “She thought it made it sound like a bad wedding band.”

One night at Public Assembly, while Andy Butler was playing a D.J. set, the group, in Raposo’s words, “had an intervention” with her over the name.

“She went to her lifeline,” he said. “She called three people to see if they thought the name was cool.”

They all said yes.

Midnight Magic’s own internal lifeline seems to be Yatusake.

“What Carter’s good at, as far as decision making, is [when] we all are sort of on the fence,” said Raposo. “He’s the Yoda. We’ll say to him, ‘Can we do this thing with Scion? Is it a bad look?’ And he’ll think, and he’ll think very pragmatically about what we’re doing and he’ll go, “Yeah, I think it’s okay that we do this.” So, we do it.”

Scion A/V is the music-branding arm of the Scion, a Toyota brand that has spent several years pumping money into a number of musical subcultures: metal, garage rock, and dance music, releasing digital-only singles, E.P.s, and remixes by reputable artists, as well as fronting bands tour money in exchange for “having their CDs disseminated,” as Raposo puts it.

Recently, Midnight Magic has taken advantage of both aspects of Scion’s largesse. Last year, Scion A/V sponsored the group’s West Coast tour, and two months ago, the car company-cum-record label made What the Eyes Can’t See, Midnight Magic’s five-song E.P., available for free download. Most of the time, releases of this type are to be regarded with suspicion—even when good acts release music via corporate-giveaway, it tends to mean vault scraping. Not so here: I’ve played What the Eyes Can’t See a lot—far more than I’d expected to.

“Max Goldman, the drummer for Midnight Magic, calls Scion the National Endowment for the Arts,” said Raposo. “He’s kind of right. Record companies are very tough to deal with these days because of one very important thing which is capital. They don’t have a lot of it. You know who’s got a lot of money? The marketing wings of large corporations that make soda and cars. So I’m on a tour right now. The bus is paid for by Mountain Dew and all we have to do is hang up a Green Label Sound banner somewhere in the venue every night.”

So how would Raposo’s old indie self have responded to all of this?

“Fifteen-year-old me would have slapped me in the face and called me a sellout,” he said. “But 15-year-old me was really boring and didn’t get laid a lot. So 15-year-old me can go fuck himself, basically.”