The first thing you notice at a Phat Cat Swinger show, before a note blasts into the air and the stage turns into organized chaos, is the attire. All 11 of the members of the ‘little-big band’ are dressed in their finest suits and dresses. They wouldn’t look out of place in an early 1900’s jazz club, filled with smoke and whiskey. It’s no surprise that the band’s first gig in a Disney Park was centered around Dapper Day. They fit the bill.
But then the music starts and the group, led by Marco Palos (founder of Phat Cat) and Mark Kopitzke (lead vocalist), exerts more energy into the performance than anyone could expect. Bouncing between classic swing tunes, Disney classics, originals and lovely ballads, Phat Cat Swinger showcases thoughtful arrangements, excellent musicianship and infectious optimism. That’s made them a staple at California Adventure’s festivals, including the upcoming Festival of Holidays.
While those characteristics stand out about a Phat Cat Swinger, I’ve always been struck about how authentic the experience is. Maybe that feeling is due to Disney Parks being so carefully on script that a show with some spontaneity stands out. More likely, the genuine smiles during the swing-turned-rock show and the musicians waiting to talk to fans and take a photo with them after the set emit the heart of the band.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Marco and Mark ahead of Festival of Holidays and chat with them about how the band started, playing at Disney Parks and much more! A few of the answers have been edited but you can hear the whole interview here.
How did Phat Cat Swinger get it’s start? Was it always the goal to play some originals, some Sinatra, some classic Disney songs, and, of course, Christmas songs?
Marco: How far back do you want to go? I had been out of high school for a couple of years. Will (affectionately known as The Sheriff) and I were hanging out a lot that summer, listening to music, as he was about to graduate. We got into a music video with this Spanish pop star and then we went to go see Big Bad Voodoo Daddy in concert at the Orange County Fair. We’re like, we could do this.
So we started, and mind you, that was 2002, so as far as the world of mainstream goes, swing had already started to fade out. And I said, “you know what, everything always comes around and by the time that this comes around, we could be in a really good place.” So that was 20 years ago.
We literally sat down and thought out a lot of different things. Now, I know Will’s version of this story might vary on certain details because he’ll remember things that I don’t and I remember other things, but we sat down and made this list, we had a huge list that included some covers because we didn’t have original music at the time.
We thought, you know, let’s start writing some music. The first song I think I wrote was Phat Cat Swinger which is on our first album, and I wrote that with a friend of mine, Leah, who was one of the singers. We did that over a few nights and eventually we found the formation of the band. Because as much as we love Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, as well as others like Royal Crown Review, and wanted to carry that energy, we didn’t want to replicate them. So, we wrote our own songs in our own style and recorded our first demos with this little program from Best Buy in our drummer’s home kitchen. We made this demo that we would sell at shows so we could raise money to buy equipment. Little by little, we just kept building it up and we went from there.
Our first big opportunity was with this lady who was a director at a hospital and she told us that we had something really good, that we should start charging more so that we could do bigger things and people would take us more seriously. So we started doing that and we found ourselves going to different places – we got to open for The Coasters, if you remember the oldies music, “yakety yak, don’t talk back.” That was fun. We got to open up for Royal Crown Review.
At the time, Dirk, the bass player for Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, was mentoring me and he pitched our demo to management so we could open for them. And he said, “If you can make a full CD, you guys can open for us.” So, we got to work. That was when we started writing all the songs and made it a mission to write original albums. When we presented that to them, that was when they let us open.
Two years after Phat Cat started we got to open for Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. When we saw their reaction to us, we thought, this is cool. Then we were watching them in the audience and Scotty stops the show. He is like, “Hey, so how about Phat Cat Swinger?” Everyone cheered! Right in the middle of the House of Blues there in Downtown Disney actually, where it used to be. That was just a very special moment and pushed me to keep doing what we were doing with the band.
On the albums, we’d only put one cover per album to add something relatable… As we go on, we start discovering that people want to hear covers, they love the originals, but they want to hear covers. We started doing a couple of covers that we liked. We did Mack the Knife, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy covers, Squirrel Nut Zippers and different songs but we weren’t going to put them on our albums.
We made a second album, Swing in Evolution, which is where Dance, Dance, Dance comes from. That was a song that I’d been working on since 2006 and it took me years to finish. Our singer at the time, Tim, helped write the lyrics. That second album was a very collaborative effort amongst the bands. The cover was Ain’t Got No Home, which was a song that we were doing in our shows.
We realized that we needed to do more covers to get other gigs, so we were adding covers – a lot of the Sinatra stuff came from when we were getting wedding bookings because with every wedding booking we would learn whatever song the couple wanted their first dance to be. So, Fly Me to the Moon came that way, The Way You Look Tonight came that way, Beyond the Sea came that way. A lot of those songs came because of our wedding gigs so basically it just kept evolving.
That was the reason the album is titled Swing in Evolution, because we felt Phat Cat continued to evolve over the years. It started as one thing, it’s now something we didn’t expect it to be, but we’re liking it and so we’re going to continue going in this direction. That represented us in the sense that we were always going to be evolving and we stuck to that. Moving forward, let’s allow ourselves to keep evolving. We don’t have to be stuck in this one thing that we were.
In the beginning we wore zoot suits chains and fedoras and everything. Then it just evolved to let’s just be whatever we want to be. Let’s not be what people think we should be.
That period of the band lasted about five years. We got to go to Germany, which was a fun experience and there’s a video on YouTube. We started wanting to go and do more and tour but there were also opportunities coming for Douglas, our singer. He got on this TV show, and so again, the band was at a fork where we started splitting and going in another direction. We brought a third singer, Curtis, and that era was only about two years long.
Was that around the time you started playing shows at Disneyland Resort? How did that come about?
Marco: Douglas did the first Disney performance. I had always wanted to perform at Disneyland. I just didn’t know how to get in. I kept asking, we kept getting rejected. Finally, what happened was Dapper Day. I reached out and asked “Have you guys ever thought of having an after party? Because I’ve got a band for your party.” And he goes, “Actually, your timing is perfect. This is gonna be the first year that we’re going to do the after party.” So we got to play!
That was when I got the Disney Booker to come look at us. He comes in while we’re playing, I Wan’na Be Like You. That song’s so full of energy, then we play another one and he comes up and says, “Marco, I love it. We’re gonna be in touch.” And that was it!
That was, I want to say, 2013 because it wasn’t until 2014 that we finally got our booking at Downtown Disney. Things were different in the way that Disney would bring bands in. You basically had to pay your dues in Downtown Disney, and I think you still do, but it’s a little different. We paid our dues for about three and a half years before it finally paid off. Somebody came and saw us and liked the work ethic in all our band members.
They said, “Everybody’s setting up and making the stage look clean – making it look like a professional production. We realize that this particular schedule is demanding but we appreciate that you guys treat this like a million dollar gig.” And I said, “Well, it very much is to me, regardless of what it pays, because I see this as an opportunity to get into Disney.” He goes, “Oh, you wanna play in the park? It’s good to know that, I’m going to keep that in mind.”
The following spring was when our first Food and Wine opportunity happened. That was eye-opening for us because we looked at gigs differently before that. We got weekdays, we played a random Tuesday and Thursday and had like 14 days in two months, which for us was a lot. And we slowly started observing how things operate within Disney and we started adapting some of those things to the way that we operate as a band.
We had about two years of the band before another fork in the road, different career goals and paths and everything. So the band takes on a new formation and in this formation, we’re trying to discover ourselves and figure out how to do this. Even after the split, Disney offered us and asked if we were okay, if we could still do this. Look, we’d been there x amount of years and gone through a few different separations and everything. The band always continues and we are absolutely ready for whatever opportunity. So they offered us seven days a week for nine weeks, which we had never done.
We’re mind blown. How are we going to do this? Okay, let’s do this. Again, in observing how Disney does thing, we brought in more members to have backups because we knew seven days a week was going to be nearly impossible. Somebody could get sick and if you only have one person per band member you’re out, right? And then Disney doesn’t have a concert. So, we brought in more members and started rehearsing and we built the show up and did nine weeks. 63 days. That was the wildest thing we’d ever done.
When we were done, we were so fit. We’d never been in better musical and physical shape in our lives. That was intense. And that was the last time we did seven days a week because it was intense. It was a great growing opportunity. After that season we kept evolving and we were in the process of trying to find the right singer. We had a couple of great singers come in, but they didn’t always match with how we saw Phat Cat Swinger.
How do you see Phat Cat Swinger?
Marco: It’s never about one person. As I hope you guys see, and I hope this always comes across. It’s never about one person, it’s about the unit. It’s about the full band, all of us collectively being Phat Cat Swinger. I kind of envision it like, you know, Voltron back in the day, all the pieces come together to create the big one, right?
You’ve got this just unstoppable force. That’s how I believe Phat Cat Swinger is represented on stage when we all come together. Granted, every member brings a different dynamic to the band. Some of them, maybe their thing is to be chill.
For example, Vitor, our guitar player, he’s the most mellow guy who lives up to his last name, Vitor Melo, he’s just the most chill guy. But he’s such a rock star and he throws it out there and he’s got this unique sound. But then we have Gage who is also kind of like chill, but he’s got this quirkiness to him and he comes out there and he rocks too, right? Or when we have Lakshmi or Hannah on bass, they each have their own dynamic. This year we’re going to introduce Andy.
So everyone has their own character that they bring to the band. That’s something that I encourage, to literally just shine. Because if anything, if you don’t partake, you’ll be the awkward one on stage standing out like a sore thumb. We encourage every member to dress to the nines, to look their best, to get up there and give it their all.
That’s kind of where it’s gotten to from that original garage band to now. Mark introduces it sometimes, as the esteemed feline institution. This thing that I look at some days and I’m thinking wow, this is pretty cool. It’s a very special opportunity.
That other day Disney posted their first holiday announcement on Instagram and that it was going to start November 11th. You scroll to the end and there’s a picture of us. That was a big deal to me because when you see what Disney posts it’s always like an ad or a photo, right? I don’t know, maybe ours is ad worthy, but to me it was this was an actual photo taken from the actual show by an actual Disney photographer and we were included in the post. We’re not a Disney band, right? We are contracted by Disney. That, to me, was mind blowing. I’d never seen anything like that. So, it was very special. Even if it were to get removed, I know that it happened and it’s affirmation that we’re doing well, and we’ve come to a very good place. Every moment where we could have quit because of the breakups. I kept pushing and saying there’s more for us. We just have to keep trying.
I think about it, it’s like 20 years of being faced with countless opportunities to quit. It’s not like we do this for the money. Yeah, we can kind of take care of our living with it, but it’s not enough to be the only thing that we do. So, most people would’ve probably left for a higher paying career. But here we are doing something because the payoff for us is in seeing what brings people together. That’s kind of the abbreviated rundown because it could go longer than that!
I’m sure. A lot of hard work! You touched on when you started performing at Disneyland Resort – what is it like playing in front of a crowd at the parks versus a show out in the real world?
Mark: I guess going onto the Disney property and meeting the Disney audiences, even if it’s not our fans or people who know us, it always feels like family by the end of the first set. There’s something about just being in the parks and everyone’s there to really have a great time. It always ends up being magical. Not that we don’t have fun at our outside shows, but it definitely feels different. When we were walking on campus the other day to do a rehearsal it was like, “Oh yeah, okay. We’re ready to be back doing the Festival of Holidays.”
I think last year’s Festival holds a special place for a lot of people, coming out of the pandemic. It was kind of a reintroduction to live music and live entertainment for a lot of guests, myself included. What was that experience like and was it a return for the band, as well?
Marco: Over the pandemic we had this idea to do the Phat Cat Swinger show on YouTube – our Instagram season one, YouTube Season two. That was our way of keeping people together and trying to put something positive out, right? That helped us because then there was somebody else filming it and streaming live shows. They helped us get our first show out of the pandemic. When we announced that, we sold out the first day in less than like 12 hours or something like that. So we added a second day and then that one sold out within 24, 48 hours or so.
It was so great to like feel that, and what was cool was that a majority of those people who bought tickets were people we met at Disney. Again, that goes to show that Disney has really become a place where we meet friends who are diehard fans that we really appreciate and enjoy seeing. I looked out in the audience and I would say 80 or 90 percent of the people were from Disney, which was amazing. We were excited when we finally got the call to come back and go full force.
I told the band and everyone got really excited. I don’t know how it was for everyone else. But I felt emotional about it because I can breathe knowing that we’re going to finally be able to get back on stage. Now granted, there were some restrictions to what we could do on stage with state guidelines and whatnot. We had to modify some of our choreograph but we didn’t care because we were just happy to get out there and play again.
When we got out there, especially the first few shows, I got watery eyed every time. I think I even cried once or twice, especially during that selfie moment we do, because those are super special for us. I don’t care if anybody makes fun of selfies, but later you get to look back at all of those photos and relive the joy and the feeling of those seasons that we’ve spent together. Those times that we just got together and sang songs, danced and just forgot about everything else. We’re here in this moment together, sharing the energy and creating and being happy.
That was very emotional, it was very nice to be back and in front of the Disney fans and meeting new people too! Every season we meet more new people who heard about it or were curious. Maybe they see the schedule and they made it a point to be there. Some family who’s vacationing from the Midwest and they love it. And then they’re spending two of their three nights watching the show because they love it so much. It’s so fun to see that.
Mark: It was my first Festival of Holidays because I had just started with the band in 2020 and did a couple of Food and Wine festival dates and then we had the lockdown, right? So coming out of the lockdown I was so excited to be back doing shows with Phat Cat Swinger. So it was like, “oh, this is my fifth show, my sixth show, my seventh show after the lockdown” and I was just loving it! Then all the band members told me, “Well if you like this, you don’t know what’s coming with Festival of Holidays. That holds a really special place in our hearts and we love it so much and you can tell fans really do.” I was like, “Okay, got it. Sure. How am I gonna love this even more than I already do?”
But then when we finally were doing the show rehearsals and then opening night. Oh my gosh. The energy was… And I’ll admit that I wasn’t so much into Christmas before, but now, I look forward to the holidays so much more. Because I’m like, “Oh, alright! That’s the holidays at Disney.” So my Grinch heart, you know, grew three sizes.
Also, what’s really cool about the selfie moment is I’ve been going to Disney a lot more than I used to in the last few years. You kind of go with whoever you’re with, your family or with your significant other. But I love the shows with Phat Cat, because it’s more of a communal experience. Everybody gets together and they party and they sing along and it’s nice to have those sort of moments of community, especially after the lockdown. That’s something really special I wasn’t expecting at the shows.
Yeah, you could definitely feel that. I mean, no matter when you guys play, whether it’s Food and Wine or outside of Disneyland, but last year was really special. Leading up to this year, how are rehearsals going? Any teases for us?
Mark: We are so excited especially now since I know what’s coming. Yeah, we’ve got our show. We’ve got some new Cats to introduce to you along with our regular members. So we’re very excited about that and they’re excited too. And we may have a couple of surprises for our show this year. I’ll let Marco decide if he wants to say part of that!
Marco: Sure. Well, when we first wrote the show it was meant to be either a closer of the festival leading into World of Color or an opener, with World of Color as the main act, so to speak. Originally the show was 45 minutes, Well, one of the years they needed to split the timeline and they asked us to do split it in half.
We didn’t want to do the same show twice, we like to keep things different. If you’ve seen our Food and Wine show, you’ll notice that every set is different. When I first was in a group at Disney as a cast member I noticed it was the same show every day, five to six times a day. I understand the concept behind that because you want to give everybody a chance to experience the show. But I wanted to create an opportunity for people to want to come back and not miss a show. If you get to see the same show 10 times then the guest will just catch it at seven o’clock. But if you only have two opportunities to see it and each one of them is different… Well, then you’re going to want to come back for the other one, right? That’s why we do different sets every time.
When they originally asked us to do that, we didn’t have enough Christmas music for set two. Set two has the grand finale but, to me, that one always felt the least Christmas-y. We did as best as we could and I always thought it was a fun set but I feel like now we’ve really rounded out the show with what we’re adding to it. We already added a new song last year in Holly Jolly Christmas, where we have everybody sing along with us.
This year we’ve added something new that will really, really round out the show. It’s two new numbers. I won’t say where they’re at, but come check it out and see .
Awesome! Before we wrap up, favorite Disneyland Resort ride?
Mark: I mean, I had never gone on Rise of the Resistance. Recently, when I’ve been going with my girlfriend, that’s one of the first things we do. We go on Rise of the Resistance and I’m just all about it. I’m the biggest Star Wars nerd, so I always like to wander back to Star Wars land throughout the day. It’s like, “Well you don’t know what you want to do? Okay, well why don’t we just walk through Galaxy’s Edge, we don’t even have to go on any rides.”
Marco: I love the kiddy rides. I love Goofy’s Sky School but the one I really love, if I were to go to the park and I only had time to do one ride, I would go on Toy Story Midway Mania. Good memories for me and it’s fun. It’s one of those rides that makes me laugh. Goofy’s Sky School especially, I’m always laughing at that. Those are the ones that immediately come to mind but I really love the other ones. And I have not yet tried Spider-Man or Rise of the Resistance. If we were to pick one for both parks, I like Big Thunder Mountain. I think that that would be my favorite there.
Thank you to Mark and Marco for taking the time to talk! Phat Cat Swinger will be performing at Festival of Holidays on Wednesdays through Saturdays on the Palisades Stage, generally at 6 and 7:15 PM.
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