While the laws of attraction aren’t governed to any time or place, Door County, Wisconsin, isn’t exactly the fairytale location where people are known to fall in love and start a band — unless you’re Ruby James and Stephen Cooper. The founders and couple behind the cheekily named WiFEE and the HUZz BAND (inspired by the sounds of Sun Records early rock ‘n’ roll, Motown soul and southern rockabilly) say it all began with a chance encounter on the northern peninsula in the summer of 2012. And it all hinged on one of the area’s most beloved attractions.
WIFEE AND THE HUZZ BAND
When: 9 p.m., October 14
Where: FitzGerald’s, 6615 W Roosevelt Rd, Berwyn
“When people ask us where we come from, we always say from the Holiday Music Motel,” says James. She’s referring to one of Sturgeon Bay’s oldest lodging establishments, which in recent years, has been usurped by a class of elite musicians, like Steel Bridge Songfest founder pat mAcdonald and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne, who have turned it into a kind of musical retreat. Here, ongoing collaborative songwriting events have helped churn out material for local and national recording artists.
“It’s unlike anything else in the world,” says James, who has been attending the intensive workshops since 2007, trying to gain momentum after a stalled career in roots and blues rock that started in her native Los Angeles and took her to other musical meccas like New Orleans and Austin where she had recorded with Will and Charlie Sexton and toured with honkytonker Rosie Flores. It wasn’t until the summer of 2012, she says, that the tide turned. While working as a bartender at a Door County resort, James met Cooper who had just wrapped a set at the venue with his jazz band. “We always say it was love at first hair sight,” jokes James of their matching retro-styled coifs that started a conversation. “Three weeks later we were engaged, and the band took off from there.”
Though the two were compatible in many distinct ways — she a former pinup fashion stylist, he the owner of a hot rod shop — in music they couldn’t have been more opposite. “We didn’t really know if we could write songs together,” admits James. While she had gotten her feet wet with gravelly West Coast rock scenes, Cooper had been living in Wisconsin working with an assortment of skilled Fox Valley jazz artists. “I was playing five to seven nights a week with trained musicians, so I had never been too involved in songwriting,” he admits. “When [Ruby] brought me into that scene of all these writers at the Motel, it was totally a collision of two worlds — the intellect side meeting with heart side — and I really think that became the magic of our band.”
The couple soon started working with mAcdonald on polishing songs and also assembling the full package with a voluminous ten-piece band, including a full horn section, that offers a nostalgic throwback sound many have classified as “new vintage.”
“Ruby and I love all those Motown sounds so there’s familiarity, but it’s also new; it’s us. We want you to hear that bass line and tambourine start with a groove that gets you even though you may not know what the song is.” Since forming four years ago, WiFEE and the HUZz BAND have released the jukebox-ready “Songs of Eternal Love and Immediate Satisfaction” and shared the bill with Eric Burdon and the Animals, Alejandro Escovedo, Southern Culture on the Skids and Wanda Jackson, while also enjoying a monthly residency at Chicago’s Untitled Supper Club.
Where the future takes them is anyone’s guess, but then again nothing about the group up until now has been very conventional. Within the past year, the coupledom of Ruby James and Steve Cooper has also dissolved, but James avows, “we are still keeping the band going” — as well as the name. “WiFEE and the HUZz BAND feels like a marriage anyway. It’s been a hard push, but we have kept it together and here we are. We are still committed to putting on great shows.”
Selena Fragassi is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.