Is it that swing keeps coming back, or does it just refuse to go away?
The last time early 20th century sounds burbled up to the surface was in the late '90s, when bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy haunted the Derby in Hollywood, a scene immortalized in (and some might say killed by) the movie Swingers. That version of the swing revival was firmly rooted in the big band, horn-rich sounds of the 1940s, brushed with a rock & roll sensibility. Costumery was fun, but sometimes felt narrow: heavy on hepcats and Grables.
This time around, the latest swing mutation marries EDM beats with sounds often drawn from a decade or so earlier, the 1920s and ’30s, spun with a house music sensibility. It's called electro-swing. It's already huge in Europe. But does it have the potential to take off here?
Some might think steampunk fashion would make sense for this music, given its anachronistic mix. But at Trapeze, a monthly electro-swing event that moves between S.F. and L.A., gears and goggles were nowhere to be seen. The look is more club kids/Edwardian/eclectic, with party garb including straw hats, flapper fringe, natty neckties, top hats, one Eliza Doolittle drag queen and a few cat costumes. One of the best swing dancers on the floor was a guy just wearing jeans and a plaid shirt. There was no real rhyme, reason or uniform, and that made it swell.
Presiding over the dance floor were DJ/production duo the Gentlemen Callers of Los Angeles. During their set, two mini-dance floors formed – one for Lindy hoppers and one for EDM partiers. Their co-existence was a perfect metaphor for the music, and just one of many parallels the Callers' Buck Down sees between the 1920s and today.
“You had that lead-up to the Great Depression, versus the great recession," Down says. "You had prohibition of alcohol as opposed to the prohibition of drugs, both of which created sort of an underworld. You had a lot of heavily changing social norms, with women becoming much more part of the social scene during the speakeasy and prohibition era, not unlike how the gay culture has exploded and become a norm. The human impulses and the musical impulses are not dissimilar – you have a very similar petri dish in which they grow.“
Down was inspired during a recent trip to Europe, where a flourishing electro-swing scene has already become enormously popular over the last few years, “almost to the degree that dubstep or trap is here,” he says.
“To me, it seemed like an amazingly cool alternative to the really aggressive, very bro-ish impulses American electronic music is leaning toward — brostep, dubstep — almost confrontational-sounding music. Electro-swing is rooted in jazz, it’s inclusive, it’s fun to listen to, fun to dance to, and it doesn’t require anybody learning anything new. It was really accessible.”
Sampling old 78s from the Harlem Renaissance era has the advantage of providing a foundation free of copyright concerns, as a lot of the music is now in the public domain. And another nice side effect of the realm the Gentlemen Callers are working in: It plays well with burlesque. Though there are, at present, a lot of half-assed burlesque shows floating around L.A., at Trapeze, the girls were not just gussied-up hip grinders, but genuinely trained dancers — using their whole ass.
For the other half of the Callers, Atom Smith, his connection to the music isn't just retro roleplay; it's more a feeling of kinship, and one of connecting the threads between the speakeasy era and today.
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"Isn't it kinda cool to be at a party like this and know that you’re dancing to people that died 70 years ago? There was this whole revolution going on in the '20s," says Smith. "I want them here with me now. I want to party with those people!"