Photo: Joy Shi
Years before forming an unconventionally modish new wave disco group, 23-year-olds Sean Guerin and Isaac Franco met while skateboarding at Hoover, a public high school in Glendale, California where Franco once took a hip-hop producing course. So the story goes.
Now known as De Lux, the duo first rang a bell playing shows in Los Angeles last year. Backed by three other musicians, they touted an eye-catching, ear-hugging throwback to disco sound, which they'd also debuted as a self-titled EP in November. De Lux revealed Franco's and Guerin's strong appreciation and coherency in disco-era nuances and a modern flair for experimental, electronic funk. With singles like "Better At Making Time" and recent ear-burner "It All Works All The Time," a pied piper throwback to the glory hour of Talking Heads, De Lux had uncovered a fuse they would soon ignite in 2014. Suddenly, the question of "revival disco, eh?" was rendered incoherent; this was, by all agreeable terms, funky, catchy, and therefore unavoidably and incontrovertibly back in.
Many an alternative dance group litters the wayside inching up to the here and now, but when LCD Soundsystem dissolved in 2011 and Skrillex made the cover of Rolling Stone three years after, a sign marking the midnight witching hour of electronic music is upon us, something undeniably shifted. After dropping their EP and playing their first shows in L.A.'s emerging music hubs, De Lux booked a prime spot opening for dream-pop band Cults at the House of Blues in December, and were well on their way to redefining dance music in the present.
A day before De Lux celebrates their April 8 album release party at The Echo, they're seated together in a booth at Abby's, a laid back diner in Eagle Rock featuring a hand-written chalkboard sign with a $2 burger special. It's been a long wait; the album, titled Voyage, was finished a year ago, recorded in two rooms in three to four month increments at ABC Rehearsal studios in North Hollywood. The two laugh when referring to their material as "old" when it just came out yesterday.
Though they skated and lunched in the same group, Guerin and Franco didn't really hang out until their Hoover days were over.
"It was after high school. I was recording music in my basement, and Isaac would come over and lay down some tracks," says Guerin, the disheveled-haired guitarist and singer, drawer of David Byrne comparisons for his funky vocal inflections. "This was like, way before De Lux," he adds. "Then I asked him to play bass for a band I was in, and then we just kind of went away from that."
That initial band described itself as "disco-soul" and featured a female lead on vocals, but the project fizzled when the band couldn't reconcile internal differences over recording. "We would record how it went live. With those limitations, it always didn't feel right," Guerin shrugs. So he and Franco continued on their own. Away from everything else, the duo was interested in DIY production, and simply getting songs finished and done, on to the next. Fond of organic first takes, the two would usually come up with something jamming over a loop, then go back and pick through the best parts of those sessions on gut instinct. In this post-high school haze, this was pure, productive fun for the two.
Since both were born two decades too late for disco, I ask how they came to be so influenced by it in their work.
"For me, high school was Isaac Hayes, [J Dilla’s] Donuts, Chic, and a bunch of disco," says the dark-haired Franco peacefully. As De Lux's bassist, he is the more reserved and observant of the duo; tranquil is his trademark. "I always thought my older brother was cooler. Just driving me around LA, you have a 40 minute gap of traffic where you're just bumping music," he continues, "so he'd always pop in CDs. He would throw on reggae music and disco, and that stuff just stuck with me. Being in 7th grade, I always thought 'Hey, that's kind of weird,' 'cause I wouldn't hear it on the radio, but then it just became normal to me."
Similarly, Guerin's older brother, who used to carpool to Hoover with Franco's brother, also had an influence. But Guerin was submerged in the modern indie era, favoring Arcade Fire, Built To Spill, and Radiohead over the groovier stuff of Talking Heads and LCD Soundsystem, the two bands with whom the group have been most often compared to.
Like growing up, Voyage is about a voyage to realizations, and its songs all have some sort of realization in them, little things of personal matter to both Guerin and Franco. In "I've Got To Make A Solid Statement [No More Likes And Ums]" Guerin expresses the desire to be expressive and conscious of self-expression at the same time. "On The Day" is about waking up late and getting "shit for it from parents and girlfriends." It's a remark on the times about trying to get away from it all, but knowing you never will, really. In that way, maybe it's just a remark on our times, period.
"It's good to be meticulous, but letting it be carefree is sort of a refreshing way to do things," says Guerin when I ask if De Lux had always come out sounding like jam disco. In fact, it was through embracing all their mistakes and accidents that led them to their sound and the completion of album one.
"I feel like we stumbled upon that stuff, just randomly, and were like, 'Wow that's really cool,'" says Franco. "Yeah, there were some happy accidents in there," Guerin agrees. He refers to the song "Sometimes Your Friends Are Not Your Friends" as an example, a jumble of melodic and rhythmic incongruencies that coalesce in elated exclamations of "Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!"
"It's just so off,” he says of it. “There are so many parts that are just off but we're fine with it. Our taste just makes us fine with it."
"Yeah, and just like, accident after accident, we had an album," Franco finishes for him, and the two laugh.
While many bands take themselves semi-seriously these days, managing creativity, fun, and actual structure is an admittedly testy balance to strike. But De Lux manages well in all aspects of creating, recording, and performing.
"The first show we played [at SXSW] was kind of going wrong. But, when things are going wrong, it's more fun for some reason," Guerin admits.
That night at their release party, it comes as no surprise that during their closer, a group of girls come dancing on stage, unannounced. It was unplanned, just like the encore, but it worked, and worked well.
Voyage is out now. Learn more about De Lux here.