Freak for You

Chop Suey Anniversary Party: Darshan Jesrani, The Divorce, Hint Hint, and more.

I ADORE THE expression “mutant disco.” As a kid, mutants and disco were the two primary staples of my cultural diet. The same day I taped “Dance and Shake Your Funky Tambourine” by Universal Robot Band off AM radio and onto a cheap cassette, I remember walking to 7-Eleven to get my freak on via the latest issue of Uncanny X-Men. Over the years, my passion hasn’t waned for either, especially with the X-Men 2 flick due any day. I hear the words “mutant disco” and picture Hugh Jackman’s sweaty, shirtless Wolverine, shaking his Aussie ass to “In the Bush,” and my knees go weak.

In reality, while “mutant disco” can occasionally call for wearing funny costumes, it doesn’t involve the X-Men. The term refers to a varied strain of late-’70s/early-’80s underground dance records that bore little resemblance to mainstream, Saturday Night Feverstyle pap; cuts as diverse in character as the abrasive “Contort Yourself” by sax maniac James White & the Blacks or the percolating freestyle synth-pop of “One More Shot” by C-Bank. In recent years, several compilations, like Strut’s Disco (Not Disco), have introduced these oddities to a new generation. But the genre is far from dead, and New York duo Metro Area is chief among the acts keeping it alive.

Darshan Jesrani was only 3 years old when I bootlegged “Funky Tambourine,” but dance music was still in the air as he grew up in early-’80s Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “There was a lot of new wave—Thomas Dolby, Devo, Human League—being played on New York radio,” he recalls. “But there was also post- disco, early electronic R&B, and the beginnings of hip-hop, which was very drum machinebased. Hearing all that propelled me into getting synthesizers and making music.”

Fast-forward to the late ’90s. Jesrani and Northern New Jersey native Morgan Geist (already releasing his own solo records) started noticing each other’s names on the same music-related mailing lists. Having been turned on to Geist’s 1995 debut, the Detroit-influenced Premise EP, Jesrani fired off a complimentary post, and the two arranged to meet. Inspired by their mutual love of old disco as well as newer house and techno sounds, they soon began collaborating.

Between 1999 and 2001, Metro Area released four eponymous EPs, all of which garnered critical praise and club play, particularly overseas. Last year, the duo finally dropped a self-titled full-length (on Environ Records), which reprised six old numbers and added four new ones. Far from being a hodgepodge, it proved remarkably consistent, full of treats like the flirtatious “Pi� which married flamenco guitar licks to sprightly keyboards, and the dark, rippling classic “Miura.” Rather than relying on samplers, all the instruments on Metro Area—including flute, brass, and Philly-style strings—were played live, for maximum warmth, right down to the last clanking cowbell. The attention to detail paid off—a few weeks ago, during the Winter Music Conference in Miami, Metro Area was crowned Best New Artist Album at the DanceStar USA awards.

This week, Jesrani is taking time out from recording the fifth Metro Area EP to DJ at Chop Suey’s one-year anniversary party. And like his original compositions, his sets incorporate elements of both the classic and contemporary musical styles he loves. “In terms of tempo, it’s going to be a deep house foundation, but then I’m going to play all kinds of club classics and disco breaks on top and mix all that in.”

“I’m really obsessed with the sound of that period from ’77 to ’83, records made at the height of disco and right after when the use of electronics makes its debut and then sort of aids the genre,” he adds. “I like a lot of weird dub tracks and B-sides from that era.” As he flips through his crates, Jesrani predicts trainspotters can anticipate hearing cuts like Kid Creole & the Coconuts’ “I’m Corrupt,” the drum-machine boogie of “I’ll Be a Freak for You” by Royal Delight, the West End rarity “Ride on the Rhythm” by Mahogany, Forrest’s quirky 1982 cover of “Rock the Boat,” and “I Can’t Stop” by early house act Plez.

As for the wave of renewed interest in “mutant disco,” Jesrani is all for it—so long as the emphasis is on sound, not visual style. “If there’s genuine musical interest, and creative people are reviving elements of that time period and flipping it in new ways, that’s great. Fashion is fine, but when the bands are becoming popular because of imagery, which is what we’re seeing with a lot of the electroclash [trend], then it’s become something else. Our revivalism comes from a geekiness about old records and labels, and I’d like to see more of the same.”

Or, to put it in terms Wolverine would understand: You don’t need to wear yellow spandex to be a freak fighting for the forces of good.