by Britt Chester

Photos by Robert Pettus/PDP3 Photography| | @awfullybrittish

“Wake up! The van’s on fire!” yelled Andrew Lazare as the band’s van pulled over to the side of Interstate 10 – conveniently on a narrow-shouldered stretch of highway in New Orleans. Thankfully, no one was injured, although drummer Marshall Bjorling was asleep directly on top of where the smoke was coming from.

“We were on a bridge where everyone is flying past you at 70 mph,” said Cass Copsey, guitarist for the band. “When Marshall woke up and lifted the pillow, that’s when the flames started coming out.”

A little bit of Gatorade and some furious scurrying and the fire was out. No injuries.

Although these names used to be connecting to The Heritage, one of Winston- Salem’s resident funk outfits bred from open microphone events and mutual friends, the band went through a recent change: A cease and desist letter from Portland, Oregon-based The Heritage’s lawyer required they change their name or face legal action.

The members remain the same; Lazare still leads the vocals and rhythm guitar; Copsey on lead guitar; Bjorling on drums; Court Wynter on bass and Michael Kinchen on organ, it’s just a name change, which comes with an in-depth look at what the identity of the band was, is, and will be in the future.

Looking back on where Fat Cheek Kat came from – The Heritage’s album Systematically is the perfect milestone – a mutual satisfaction is expressed in the change of name. This marks a time for all of them to re-evaluate where they are, their relationship to each other and the band, and their sound moving forward.

The band was recently invited to play Last Band Standing, a benefit concert in Raleigh put on by Band Together NC, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit group that has raised more than $3.5 million for Triangle organizations, by a contact in Raleigh, Jim Graves. Having played in and around the Triangle for a while, Fat Cheek Kat was relatively known. The band trekked to Raleigh for the show, which featured two acts that Fat Cheek Kat has shared bills with in the past, and played a 45-minute set.

“That’s the shortest set we’ve played in years,” Bjorling said.

“We partially alter our set depending on the situation, and for that set we played nothing but original music,” added Copsey.

Wynter chimed in that even though the set was short, it usually takes up to 30 minutes for the act to get in the groove, but this show and the energy were just different.

“As soon as I heard the other bands, I lost confidence. They were that good. Every band was really good,” Wynter said.

In the end, though, Fat Cheek Kat rose to the occasion and won. Along with a check for $3,500, the outfit won a supporting slot on June 27 at the Red Hat Amphitheater for Michael Franti and Spearhead.

Lazare said that this will be the biggest show for Fat Cheek Kat – including the former Heritage imprint – and the first time the band has played an outdoor amphitheater. The Red Hat Amphitheater has a capacity of 5,500 people, and Michael Franti and Spearhead have sold out much larger venues.

Aside from live shows, the band is also working on releasing a new studio album, something that the money from Last Band Standing has certainly made easier. Working with Ryan Hsu at Ovation Sound in Winston-Salem, the band has already recorded and is preparing to release it’s first single from the album in the coming weeks. With a promotional video in-tow, the next step is to get back the final mix and approve for release.

Unlike the songs on Systematically, the freshman album from The Heritage, Bjorling said that it’s been great feeling comfortable and more matured in the studio setting. He also acknowledged that the new album has less solos for each musician, which is a natural progression for bands as they grow together and become more versed in each other’s musical language.

“As we’ve continued to introduce new music to each other, when someone is writing a song there is a new feel from new music and it’s being incorporated into the songs,” Wynter said.

One of the traits to look out for on the forthcoming album, whose name has yet to be released, is the cohesiveness of the band – the working together to produce a greater overall piece of music.

Also on the horizon for the band, at least locally, is an announcement regarding the now-annual Christmas show at Ziggy’s.

After winning YES! Weekly Best Local Band in the Triad, here’s to Fat Cheek Kat staying on fire – but keeping Gatorade handy in case it gets out of control.

(Full disclosure: Andrew Lazare is an editorial contributor to Yes! Weekly.) !