Adeline Michèle is enjoying some rare downtime. The French-born vocalist for Brooklyn disco collective Escort is emerging from a year spent working on new album Animal Nature, which they self-released in October. Since then, they've been performing in support of the album, lining up a string of shows in their home city shortly after the album's release, with another string of live dates along the East Coast in January.
This is all part of what drives the band. Since 2011, when founding producers and Vassar College classmates Eugene Cho and Dan Balis expanded Escort from a sporadic string of singles into a full-time band, they've been heavily dedicated to touring mode, having made their way across North America and Europe in support of their self-titled debut album, turning each and every club or theater they grace into a sweaty, sexy, ass-shaking celebration of Studio 54 proportions. More so now than in the days of their disco forefathers, putting in elbow grease and getting face-to-face with their hip-swaying audience is the new normal for Escort, which sometimes means that the process of making new music has to slow down.
"In the early stages of the band, it was about developing the sound and where we were going, and what was actually our goal. But after the first album was released, we definitely did not want to take our time," Michèle says in an afternoon phone interview from a cafe in New York. "We wanted to make a record that was the best sounding record possible, but the real reason it took so much time between the first and the second album is...because we were on the road so much. It was hard to find the time to really dedicate to creating a new album. We were playing a lot, but being an independent band, we have to be involved in a lot of the logistics, which takes time away from the creative process, unfortunately."
That creative process takes some time of its own. Escort's brand of lushly arranged dance music is heavily layered and sumptuous. Cho and Balis take a maximalist approach to their dance-floor funk—more Chic than Arthur Russell—and from their earlier singles such as "Starlight" and "All Through the Night" up to their 2011 self-titled album, Escort has been all about a more-is-more sound, all the while their beats and basslines speaking directly to the hips. And that's key to what makes their music so appealing. That dance-heavy, energetic approach is what drew Michèle to the group in the first place. "I want to make people dance, because I'm a high-energy person," she says.
Animal Nature is a little bit different than their past work in that it's more overtly influenced by house music. Electronics play a major role on the album, be it via the piano loops on the sumptuous opening track "Body Talk," the siren synth of "Temptation," the twinkly keyboard touches of "If You Say So," or the new wave pulse of the band's cover of St. Vincent's "Actor Out of Work." Yet just because the textures of the album are defined more by synths than by strings, horns or funky guitar licks doesn't mean that it's any more minimal than before. This is a big-sounding album, and for that matter, Michèle says that it's a better representation of the band's collaborative approach as a whole.
"I definitely remember us saying we want the album to be better than the first one," she says. "That's always a good thing to have in mind, I guess. We decided to go a little bit more electronic. We thought people would be ready for it, and that it was part of the evolution of our sound. We learned a lot from the first album, where it was a little bit early on in our stages as a band. So Animal Nature was definitely more of a band project...as opposed to the first one, which was more of a studio project."
When expanded to full capacity, Escort features as many as 15 people onstage at one time. When that happens, they're less a pop group than a funk orchestra or disco big band, not far removed from cult disco acts like Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. A lineup of strings, horns and percussionists turn their deep grooves into elaborate, lushly arranged pocket symphonies. But those extra members and instruments are there in the service of the funk, not to overpower it.
As one might imagine, however, bringing 15 people on tour—with their gear, no less—is kind of a logistical nightmare, not to mention the overhead costs. That factored into the songs the band wrote and recorded for Animal Nature, which can be pulled off on a much smaller scale. Not that Escort don't take advantage of getting everyone back together on one stage when the opportunity is right.
Escort plays February 25 at The Casbah
"We are not, officially, a 15-piece band," Michèle clarifies. "We are a band that hires a large number of musicians when we can because it's fun and we love it, and we like to have that sound. But the core of the band is five to seven people. Ninety percent of the time that's what you'll see, unless you're in New York and we're on a big stage.
"We thought the new sound in Animal Nature would be more compatible to a smaller band formation. It's viable with just five to seven people, whereas with the first one some of the songs suffered without the horns onstage. And that's a good thing," she adds, laughing, "because we'll never make money if we tour with 15 people!"
Escort's sound remains massive, even when the band playing those songs is smaller in size. As they embark on their spring tour in support of Animal Nature, they'll be leaving the horn section behind, but Michéle says that their ultimate goal is the same, whoever's onstage: To blow the audience away.
"Our biggest thing is performing," she says. "We just want people to think 'We really gotta see this band live.'"