Questions for WIFEE and the HUZz Band
It's a funky ten piece band whose leaders are still in love with each other and the Motown-style music they play.
WIFEE and the HUZz Band comes to Jazz in the Park on Thursday, June 25 at 6pm in Cathedral Square Park. The band boasts a quite unusual name, a funky ten-piece ensemble, years of experience touring the country and even a WAMI award nomination. The band is led by Ruby James (lead vocals/guitar/ percussion/ backup vocals), Stephen Cooper (lead vocals/ Tenor Saxophone/backup vocals), Zach Vogel (lead guitar/backup vocals) bassist Greg Roteik, Kipp Wilde (keyboards/ backup vocals), Mike Underwood (drums/ percussion), Chris Scheer (DJ/ drums/percussion), Tommy V on trombone, Greg Garcia on trumpet and Dan Zaffran on baritone sax. The two leaders answered some questions over the phone while touring in Sturgeon Bay.
How did you get your start in music?
Cooper: I’ve been playing for 27 years. Being a saxophone player, you definitely gravitate towards jazz right away. When I was 17 I was playing with this band called Groove Hogs. It was a 10-piece band with five horns. We did a lot of blued-based horn music, so I’m used to playing grooves that combine horns with rock-and-roll kinda stuff. Ruby and I both really love that old Motown kinda sound and the horns sections is real paramount to that sound.
People have asked us if we’d play shows in a smaller incarnation but we don’t. At smallest, we’re nine. We go out with the horn section all the time and at largest we’re 12. That’s what makes that old sound and that’s what’s missing from a lot of music. It definitely sets us apart from the norm.
It’s like a stick of dynamite when you get nine or 10 people on stage. Somebody walks in a venue and they’re just like ‘Whoa!’ When you’re used to seeing a rowboat next to the water and you turn around and you see the Queen Mary, you get blown away.
James: I come from a rock-and-roll [background] in California when the whole industry of pop music was there. When I was 21, they were telling me that I was getting a little too old for music. And then luckily I got out of LA and cut my teeth in Orlando, Florida. There was an interesting thing going on there which was more of a roosty, bluesy rock-and-roll; that was the kind of band that I played with. And then I went to Austin, Texas and I made a record with Charlie Sexton and his brother, Will Sexton. Charlie’s one of the great guitar players who’s guitared with Bob Dylan. I made albums down there and I hooked up with a woman named Rosie Flores. She was kind of a rockabilly legend. We’re both doing this swinging kind of music. We’re more from the Americana, rootsy, [and] bluesy rock-and-roll world.
How did the two of you form your current band?
James: Our story is very much an explosive love story first. That’s what most of the press wants to hear about. He (Cooper) was playing jazz and I never thought about anything like that. But we came together. It was the first time we sat down to write and realized there was this common denominator of soul. Those were the two worlds colliding to make what is our sound.
Cooper: The band started to form around six months after we were together; when we started writing sounds together. Our first song we wrote in like 30 minutes.
How did you get involved in Jazz in the Park and what do you like about performing there?
Cooper: I actually got a call from my agent and friend of mine, Lance Shellman. He was the President of the WAMI awards for a while. We got nominated for a WAMI award [Best Horn/Big Band of 2015]. He called me up about four months ago and he was like, ‘Hey! I got a gig for you. I got Jazz in the Park,” and I was like “Hey! I played at Jazz in the Park before.” [This was before creating his current band.]
It’s a really fun show. A lot of people come out for it. I know the energy from the crowd at Jazz in the Park shows is pretty incredible. I’ll never forget our second set when I played there that one time because it felt like the whole place was dancing. It’s a great venue to play at.
Who are your main musical influences?
James: I grew up on Stevie Nicks and Bobby Ray. And Sheryl Crow is the first woman that made me want to play rock-and-roll and guitar.
Cooper: John Coltrane and also Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, Donny Hathaway, The Temptations. All old Motown, soul stuff, but being a jazz player for so long, there’s a lot of jazz influences. Checker Brothers and Chet Baker, things like that. Michael Brecker is my main. Him and John Coltrane.
How would you describe your style of music?
Cooper: More of a Motown kind of sound. It’s like all R&B and Soul, except we do a lot of our own stuff.
How do you try to connect to the audience?
Cooper: There’s a couple of times in the night where we actually jump off stage and go out there and try to get people out of their chairs and get them all dancing.
James: It’s a physical force thing, getting them to participate.
Cooper: I look out there, trying to figure out where she is and she’s thirty yards away on top of a table.
James: I wouldn’t say we have any problems connecting.
How would you describe the state of popular music today?
Cooper: When Amy Winehouse came out, I loved what she was doing. I was like, ‘Oh my god, wow, somebody that can sing and that is singing new, good songs.’ It’s not all computer constructed and it’s not all formula and it was like real music again. My heart was broken when she died.
I like to think that we’re on that same kind of track. We’re actually writing real music. It’s not formula constructed.
I think now, I’m starting to see some groups like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and St. Paul and the Broken Bones where they’re writing music that sounds like real music and guys are playing actual instruments and singers belting out everything they got. I’m optimistic that things are on the rise.
How do you balance your music with other obligations – mate, children, job?
James: We don’t have a child. Our whole life is pretty much dedicated around our music.
What is your favorite thing to see in the audience while you are on stage?
Cooper: Dancing, man. Singing along.
James: We feel like we failed if they’re not dancing.
Cooper: We’ve never played in a room where we couldn’t get people up and dancing. We’ve played at big performing arts centers where people are sitting in chairs and by the end of the night, everyone’s standing up and dancing and partying.
What are some of your most memorable experiences performing on stage?
James: We’ve done some cool shows. We got to play with Wanda Jackson, James Burton, and the Mavericks. We’ve had a pretty good run of it. To get the ride that we’ve gone for, pretty cool.
What are your hopes and aspirations for the band?
Cooper: Letterman is retired, so were going to shoot for Jimmy Fallon.
Where are you performing next/ where can people see you?
We’re playing at Summerfest three days later [Sunday, June 28 at 4:00pm at the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse].
Is there a musician dead or alive that you would love to perform with?
James: Ray Charles. That would be amazing.
Cooper: There’s so many. All my favorites are damn near gone. Jackie Wilson is gone, John Cook is gone, Marvin [Gaye] is gone. Probably Donny Hathaway. He was super bad, that guy. Wow.
What is your favorite song that you perform and why?
James: “I’ve Been a Fool.” It’s a really emotional song. It’s a hard one for me to sing.
Cooper: “Forever My Dear” was the first song that Ruby and I wrote. That’s the one that we wrote in a half-hour. I love her. It gets lost sometimes. I forget to tell her sometimes. I love that song. It hits my heart and makes me feel just the same as we wrote it and when we first started doing it.
You do cover songs?
Cooper: the covers that we pick are pretty obscure. Most people haven’t heard of some of the artists we pull tunes from and the couple of people that have, we’ll pull out “[Those] Lonely, Lonely Nights”, and people will come up and be like, ‘Oh my God! I haven’t heard that song in 40 years!’ And I’m like, ‘Exactly.’
James: I found this song called “Barefoot” and it’s a great song. It sounds like a hit but it wasn’t a hit. That’s my favorite thing about cover songs, a lot of people don’t know them and then they’re like, ‘Wow! Your covers are great!’
What do you love the most about performing live?
James: The first time we ever got on stage and playing with the horn section with our songs. My jaw just dropped to the floor. I was like, ‘Wow! This power behind me!’
Managers, at least where I come from in LA and Austin, push, push, push, push and its always stressful. This is the first time I’ve been in a situation where I feel like I’m just doing what the music wants me to.
How is performing this kind of music different from playing other genres?
James: Your butt shakes more.
What do you think of Milwaukee as a musical city?
Cooper: Milwaukee’s always been a great music town.
James: It’s a funny place because we were trying to get a club gig here forever. You can’t get a club gig but you can play for thousands of people for festivals.