• How to Talk to Your Kids about Electro Swing

    How to Talk to Your Kids about Electro Swing

    When the Gentlemen Callers of Los Angeles (pictured above) start a DJ set, it sounds at first like funky, soulful house. Then other elements start to creep in: violins, muted horns, a jangly saloon piano, maybe the ghostly voice of an old jazz singer crooning through the pops and crackles of a worn 78 rpm record. It’s as if Duck Sauce time-traveled back to 1925 and DJed a party at the Great Gatsby’s house.

    The music of the Gentlemen Callers is known as electro swing, a fusion of classic four-on-the-floor house with the jazzy music of the speakeasy era. Mixing contemporary house and EDM with the music of your grandparents (or even great-grandparents) may sound like an odd combo, but it’s already developed a big enough following in Europe that major festivals like the UK’s Bestival and Belgium’s Tomorrowland dedicate entire stages to it. Adding to the music’s old-timey vibe, many electro swing parties feature burlesque shows or circus acts.

    While rooted in house and jazz, electro swing has a fun, freewheeling quality that, not unlike the music of mashup DJs like Girl Talk, giddily mixes sounds from a multitude of styles and time periods: early blues and gospel records, classic Bugs Bunny soundtracks, French accordion pop, even ’90s hip-hop (the Gentlemen Callers have been known to drop Will Smith’s vocal from “Getting’ Jiggy Wit It” into their sets). Electro swing producers love coming up with their own, half-kidding terms for the genre, each of which sounds both sillier and more awesome than the last: “voodoo house,” “burlectro,” “sleazy listening.”

    To Atom Smith and Buck Down, the duo behind the Gentlemen Callers, electro swing’s mashup of multiple time periods makes perfect sense. In the Roaring ’20s, when alcohol was illegal, speakeasies were basically the underground raves of their time. “Burning Man has its roots in ’20s speakeasy culture,” says Smith, referring to the infamous desert festival where he and Down first met over a decade ago, eventually going on to a co-lead a tribal electronic rock group called The Mutaytor.

    So far, American electro swing still maintains close ties to the Burning Man-related underground scenes of the West Coast. Among the Gentlemen Callers’ first gigs were a steampunk-themed “Edwardian Ball” party in Los Angeles and Lightning in a Bottle, an EDM camping festival with a decidedly Burning Man feel. “Electro swing fills that vibe,” says Down. “It’s something you can dress up to.”

    Nowadays there’s such a whirling cyber junkyard tornado of electronic sounds in EDM, but there’s no poignant human tale in any of it.

    One of the West Coast scene’s early architects was a DJ named Aaron Delachaux (pronounced “De La Show”), who started delving into what little electro swing existed back in 2006 for an absinthe party in San Francisco. “Absinthe was still illegal in the US at that time,” Delachaux explains. “So I started digging around for tracks that leaned more into the 1920s and 1930s to really play up that speakeasy vibe.” When he couldn’t find much to work with, he threw together some remixes and mashups of his own, “just layering these vintage samples over big, ballsy bass and contemporary beats.” The result? “People went nuts.”

    In 2012, Delachaux and another Bay Area DJ, Boenobo the Klown (who calls his dirtier take on the genre “glitch swing”), threw their first Trapeze party at San Francisco’s Monarch lounge, an attempt to bring the California electro swing scene a little more above-ground. “We called it Trapeze as a high-flying metaphor for the music,” Delachaux explains, “and also because they actually had a suspended trapeze ring over the bar with a girl swinging from it.” They’ve hosted a Trapeze event in San Francisco nearly every month since, and they are starting to throw Trapeze parties in Los Angeles as well. “We lured circus performers, ravers, ballroom dancers, kinksters, burners, burlesque dancers, punks, goths and club kids all onto the same dancefloor.”

    They’ve also lured a few European acts across the Atlantic, as well. One of France’s most popular electro swing artists, Bart & Baker, played a Trapeze party last summer; but because electro swing remains an underground phenomenon in the States, it’s one of only two US gigs they’ve ever done.

    “Electro swing has to be become more popular in the US,” says the duo’s Bart Sampson. “You invented jazz, folks!”

    Sampson blames electro swing’s Stateside obscurity on an unlikely culprit: Disney. “The hidden reason why it has not been more popular before is the Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” he explains, referring to the Copyright Term Extension Act, a US law passed in 1998. Disney lobbied for the law in order to prevent their copyright on Mickey from expiring. Because many electro swing samples are public domain (and therefore free to use) in Europe, but protected here, “our compilations are not available in the US,” Sampson continues.

    In part to avoid paying for copyrighted material, the Gentlemen Callers have taken to sampling old folk and gospel recordings from the ’20s and ’30s, which are more often in the public domain than the jazz records of the same era. As a welcome side effect, this also gives their original tracks a more distinctly American feel that sets them apart from their European peers. “Electro dustbowl or electro gospel, we’ve been calling it,” says Down. (More fun new genre terms!)

    Copyright costs aside, “the pool of songs to pick through that are awesome had all already been done,” Down explains. “There are at least 20 versions of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ If we’re gonna have an appeal in Europe, we need to give them something that they haven’t heard.”

    So far, their strategy seems to be working. They’ve already secured a spot on the next volume of Bart & Baker’s influential Electro Swing compilation series, and Bart Sampson thinks they have what it takes to be America’s first breakout stars of the genre. “Wow, man, there is great production value there. We really believe they have the capacity to be Parov Stelar for the US,” he raves, referencing the Austrian producer widely credited with inventing electro swing in the early 2000s.

    As for electro swing’s success in the States, both the Gentlemen Callers and Aaron Delachaux believe it’s only a matter of time. “The backlash against dubstep and trap is palpable,” Down says. “People want to hear songs again,” adds Smith.

    Delachaux waxes more poetic: “Nowadays there’s such a whirling cyber junkyard tornado of electronic sounds in EDM, but there’s no poignant human tale in any of it. It’s like CGI in film. It can be briefly seductive to inhabit, but your disbelief is never totally suspended. It’s that haunting historical timbre that an old swooning clarinet phrase can have, or some timeless bellow from some singer who’s long gone now. These elements smuggle in that powerful human depth.”

    Buck Down’s 10 Essential Electro Swing Tracks

    1. Parov Stelar “Booty Swing”

    What Fatboy Slim was to Big Beat, Stelar is to electro swing. Chances are you’ve already heard his tracks in car and hotel commercials and didn’t even know it.


    2. Bart and Baker “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”

    Another act that’s unavoidable, mainly because everyone has remixed them and they have remixed everyone else. Fun, charming, and highly skilled producers from Paris who perform in top hats and tails and make perfect electro swing every single time.


    3 Gentlemen Callers of LA “Man from Harlem”

    Our take tends to be a little grittier, taking mostly from jive and dustbowl-era gospel. This was our first release, and it definitely caught the attention of a lot of our contemporaries in Europe.


    4. Caravan Palace “Clash”

    From France and probably the hottest live electro swing act on earth. They’ve definitely toured the US more than any other European act so far, including this year’s Coachella.


    5. Lazlo “Busy Line”

    Another French guy with excellent productions skills. This stretches the genre with funk, ska, and the occasional pop flavor.


    6. Ecklectic Mick “Boogie Children”

    Part of London’s Freshly Squeezed label and one of the progenitors of electro blues, which is just starting to branch off from electro swing. Mick is probably the land bridge that joins traditional electro swing with what the Gentlemen Callers do.


    7. Mr. Scruff “Get a Move On”

    This was probably the first real electro swing song to catch on. Released in 1999, it showed up in tons of commercials. Sadly, no other acts gained momentum at that time and attempted to create similar content, effectively delaying the genre’s takeoff.


    8. Kormac “Wash My Hands”

    An Irish producer who fronts his own live electro swing act, Kormac’s Big Band.


    9. Skeewiff “Gospel Train”

    Probably one of the most prolific producers on earth. One of his last releases, Electro Swing & Gospel Breaks, was a huge influence for us. Pretty much anything in any genre that Alex Rizzo touches turns to gold.


    10. Dutty Moonshine feat. Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer “Fancy a Tipple”

    The melding of British chap-hop and electro swing was inevitable, and Mr. B and Dutty Moonshine set (and clear) the bar here. What’s surprising is how well certain types of hip-hop shake hands with electro swing.