It began as a tribute band but Fat-Suit has just released its second album of original music, Jugaad, in twelve months and at the end of a year that has seen the Glasgow-based collective undertake its first European tour, putting thousands of miles on the clock as well as chocking up some remarkable on-the-road experiences.
Fat-Suit didn’t go into the music business to make money, and perhaps it’s just as well. There are fifteen musicians in the band, sixteen members including their indispensable sound engineer, Gus Stirrat, who can deputise on bass guitar at a moment’s notice (or in a toilet emergency, as he proved on their European tour). And the band that inspired Fat-Suit’s formation, Texas jazz-funk juggernaut Snarky Puppy, although musically and critically successful – Google their Grammy-winning performance, Something, with the divine Lalah Hathaway if you don’t know them – would be few people’s idea of a lucrative business model.
The band grew out of Strathclyde University’s former applied music course about a week after Snarky Puppy’s now legendary gig – as in more people claim to have been there than could possibly have been accommodated – at Stereo in Glasgow in April 2012. The Americans had just released a new album and as is the way that bands develop their fan bases in the digital age, they had posted the “sheet music” for several of the pieces online.
So some of the Strathclyde students downloaded them and decided it would be fun to get a crowd of people into a room and play these tunes. They were right. It was great fun but where could they go next? The answer was Glasgow City Halls, where they replaced one of the ensembles that had to drop out of the Rush Hour Jazz series of work experience concerts that the university staged regularly at the venue.
“I’d joined a couple of weeks before that,” says saxophonist Scott Murphy who has assumed the role of Fat-Suit spokesperson-come-ringmaster, “and it was really just a bunch of mates playing together, rather than a band. We went down well on that gig but we realised we could only steal Snarky Puppy’s music for so long.”
With students on hand who were composing as part of their music studies – Murphy was on the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s jazz course that’s run by saxophonist Tommy Smith – original material was naturally forthcoming. Soon they had enough to play two one-hour sets on gigs, although organising gigs for fifteen players who are now busy professionals in their own right can be, as Murphy freely admits, a nightmare.
“My sister came across a quote that said ‘musicians get into music for creative reasons but end up becoming entrepreneurs,” he says. “And that’s so true. Everyone in the band plays weddings and functions to make sense of being a working musician and I tallied up the number of individual gigs the band members did, outside of Fat-Suit, last year and it was over two thousand. A lot of these gigs will be well paid, so it’s amazing and it says a lot about what Fat-Suit means to them, that people will occasionally dep out good gigs to play or go on tour with Fat-Suit.”
This summer the band set off in two cars and a splitter van to play in Holland, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Ukraine and the night before they were due to drive to L’viv in Ukraine, they were sitting in a pub near the Poland-Ukraine border consulting news websites to determine whether they should continue into what was effectively a war zone. They did and while one of the gigs they had arranged, in Lutsk, was cancelled at the last minute out of respect for a large number of local casualties being sustained in the fighting in Donetsk, they received an overwhelming welcome.
“Ukraine’s a huge country and the furthest east we went was still six hours’ drive from Kiev, which is about nine hours from Donetsk,” says Murphy. “We never felt in any danger but the reception we got for coming to play to these people was amazing. One club manager, who spoke no English, put on this enormous spread that wasn’t part of the fee because he wanted to thank us.”
Perhaps more amazingly, there were no fall-outs among the band, despite travelling four thousand miles together over two weeks, and they returned to complete production on the DVD of tour footage that accompanies Jugaad.
The new CD is barely off the presses but already plans are being laid for the next project which, says Murphy, will highlight Fat-Suit’s traditional Scottish elements in fiddlers Mhairi Marwick and Laura Wilkie.
“Our bassist, Angus Tikka and drummer, Mark Scobie also play with the Scott Wood Band, who are shortlisted in the Trad Music Awards in Scotland this year, so we’re keen to show the different directions Fat-Suit can go off in,” he says.
And considering that the final track on Jugaad was rehearsed, sight unseen, and recorded on the same day, this is a band that, despite the challenge of getting everyone together in one place at the one time, really can produce the goods on demand.