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I caught the group in their full, stage-filling nine-member lineup, and by the time they got warmed up the only part of the crowd (an interesting combination of hipsters and middle-aged gay men dressed leather-daddy-casual) that wasn't dancing was the line for drinks. Tomorrow night the their slightly leaner away team opens for Blood Diamonds at Schubas, and I highly recommend you pull yourself out of the post-Thanksgiving laziness hole and check it out. (And then hit up Frankie Knuckles's set at Smart Bar for a full night of classic house.) Before they hit the road I talked to core members Morgan Wiley and W. Andrew Raposo about Chicago house, the new wave of big disco bands, and writing with a nine-piece band.
Do you guys write as a group or is there a core songwriting team?
Raposo: It usually starts with something Morgan's been working on in the studio on his own. He'll start playing something for me and Tiffany and we'll be like, oh oh, that really speaks to me, let's work on this or work on that. Then the three of us will start building the song forms and arrange them so for more people to participate in in a studio environment. It's more of a studio/producer-based thing to start, usually, but sometimes we will actually compose a song with all nine of us.
Would you say there's a separation between the studio side of the band and the live version, or is it more of a continuum?
Wiley: I guess "continuum" would be the right word. The sound of the recordings, it's much different from the live show. The live show has a lot more energy and is way more organic. And it's live, we're not using any [prerecorded] tracks or anything like that. They work together. There's two sides. The recordings are definitely more electronic and have a lot more going on with synthesizers and drum machines and things like that. But we've never been the kind of band that's been like, oh, live it has to sound exactly like the recordings. The live show ends up taking a whole life aside from the recording that's the same but different—the songs are still the songs, but there's more rawness live.
I saw you guys in the New York Times piece on big disco bands in the city, and it brought up the fact that originally disco wasn't very much of a live-band genre. Why do you think it's become one recently, and why do you think so many bands have such sprawling lineups?
Raposo: It's interesting. I don't feel like it's really so different. If you look at some of the most famous disco records of all time, it was usually a producer with a bunch of vocalists and session musicians working in a controlled studio environment, and these records weren't built the same way as a jazz or rock group might, with everyone playing in the same room and kind of composing together. It was definitely about the producer as artist. That's how we do it, that's how Escort does it, that's how Crystal Ark does it.
I think also what you're seeing more and more is, in a way that I didn't see 15 years ago when I was playing in indie rock bands around the city, there just seems to be a lot more cross-pollination and musicians between the jazz, classical, and rock 'n' roll and hip-hop worlds. It seems like where in the past you'd work with musicians who were cut very much from the same cloth. I've been playing in bands since I was 14 or 15 and it wasn't until I was 25 that I started working with dudes who weren't indie rock kids. Making music with Morgan when we met, he knew all of these amazing string players and horn players that I never would have met in the little indie rock scene.
You guys get described as a disco band a lot but obviously there's a lot of house music in what you're making. You guys are playing in Chicago—are there any Chicago house tracks that have been influences?
Wiley: Definitely. Especially early Chicago house inspires a lot of us. Particularly Jamie Principle and Frankie Knuckles—the classic tracks. Especially for me and the piano, I really appreciate the soulfulness and the rawness of the way they used piano. That plays a lot into what we're doing.
Raposo: I remember the first time I heard "Your Love" and that bass line kicked and the arpeggiation kicked it. I'd never heard anything like that before in my life.