Tush is making house and disco raw again, 1 live session at a time
An antithesis to glossy and pristine electronic production, this Toronto band wants to embrace imperfection
On a late summer night in Toronto, Tush brought its booming, electric live show back to life, for the band's first indoor gig since March 2020.
Lead singer Kamilah Apong's honeyed vocals captivated the audience as the six-piece band, including Apong's fellow bandleader Jamie Kidd, played live renditions of songs off their new album, Fantast, for the first time. It should have been a welcome return to the stage, however they couldn't help but feel a little on edge.
"It was good to do it, but it was also anxiety-inducing because no one really knew how to act," said Apong over Zoom. "Some people were standing way in the back, scared. Some people were drunk in the front with no mask on. And we're performing while also trying to manage our own comfort levels."
Tush is a band that loves to be in the moment, to get sweaty, to move around onstage — it makes dance music after all — but the band members were hesitant to fully let go like they normally do. "[Being in the moment] is always our goal as musicians and performers, so that show was challenging," said Apong.
She and Kidd write and produce all their music, but always pull in friends and musical partners to help make and perform it. They have several live-band configurations, from a club-oriented three-piece that involves a hybrid of electronic and live instrumentation to an all-out seven-piece that lets them dive into disco deep cuts.
They're particularly devoted to live performances and improvisational recording because they want to avoid having an overly produced, overly precious sound.
"We're always searching for a way to make our music as authentic as possible," said Kidd in the same Zoom interview. "A lot of music can be very manufactured and very affected and sterilized. I think it's important for a certain rawness and openness and depth to come through."
Apong and Kidd emphasize often that they build their songs from scratch, because it's a practice that is becoming less common in electronic music. Some producers are churning out slightly tweaked versions of older songs without crediting or paying homage to the lineage of music they're pulling from. Kidd sees it as a prevailing issue in the house and disco scenes: "You have producers in Amsterdam putting out disco records that are basically edits from tunes from the '70s and '80s and not giving any credit whatsoever. That's definitely something we want to avoid."
The making of Tush
Tush builds on the legacy of its idols: disco, funk and soul acts like Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, Táta Vega, Chaka Khan, Prince, the Brothers Johnson, Margie Joseph and more. Apong and Kidd took distinctly different paths discovering disco music, but they share an affinity for the classics.
Kidd came to disco in a roundabout way. He studied jazz in university and, after being immersed in it for years, craved something different. He started listening to house and Detroit techno and discovered disco by going back further along the lineages of those genres. It struck him that disco was just funk and soul music with a 4/4 kick drum.
Apong grew up listening to disco without even realizing it. Her parents played it all the time around the house, and she absorbed it without knowing its name. But the whitewashed, mainstream version of disco popularized by Saturday Night Fever was all she thought disco was. What her parents were playing was "just Black music to me."
It wasn't until she responded to a Craigslist ad for a disco cover band (which would become the origins of Tush) in 2014 that she realized the music she had been raised on was disco all along.
Mark Gonzaga, a Toronto musician and DJ known as Cyclist, put out the ad and brought the original group together. They performed as Mainline, doing covers of disco hits. Being the only Black female member in a group of white men, Apong began to feel distressed. "I felt very much like a caricature, like a Black diva girl. I had my afro and I was going out each night performing to white audiences."
Apong and Kidd also reached a point where they wanted to make original music but other group members were adamant that they could only do "capital D disco," nothing blending genres or outside of the box. The group disbanded in 2016 and Apong and Kidd renamed themselves Tush, adding new members and keeping the relationships that did work, like the one with Gonzaga, who is featured on their latest album.
As they reformed the group there was a concerted effort to bring in Black, Latino and queer performers to be representative of the people who created disco and house in the first place.
On Fantast, it was integral that "Black artists, queer artists and specifically Black women" were all over the album, from the background singers to the instrumentalists. "That was very important because a lot of soul, funk, disco and house music now is like white-man central," said Apong.
Fantast is their latest project since 2018's Do You Feel Excited EP, and it has a noticeably less straightforward disco sound. The production is varied; wonky synths pop up in unexpected places and there's a grittiness and clandestine energy borrowed from techno on tracks like "Jessica F***."
The record was partially created before the pandemic at a studio in Owen Sound, Ont., called Wildlife Sanctuary Sound and then the rest of the songs were done at Dream House Studio in Toronto and Kidd's home studio. Fantast is an archaic word defined by the Oxford dictionary as "an impractical, impulsive person; a dreamer," so they found the name fitting for an album that wasn't pre-planned and that came together through improv jam sessions with friends.
The push away from a definitively disco sound was in part a reaction to the pigeonholing Apong felt as a "Black diva girl." Still feeling the spectre of the Mainline era, she wanted to subvert the expectations that had been placed on their sound.
"If you are Black or brown and you're working within a very highly estheticized and sensationalized field of art, in this case disco, people's reaction when you deviate from the four-to-the-floor rhythm is, 'What are you doing?'"
So they leaned all the way in, and threw some curveballs into the new album. It's not as instantly danceable; there are more moments of tension and weird experimentation and it's more challenging, as far as dance music goes. The unpolished recordings let all that rawness come through discernibly.
"We're trying to capture an energy and a vibe, that's what's paramount," said Kidd. "Perfection is not paramount. Perfect is boring. I don't want to be perfect."