RuPaul’s Drag Race: Battle of the Seasons is coming to Tampa and Orlando March 31 and April 1. And while drag performers Adore Delano, Bianca Del Rio, Jinkx Monsoon and Sharon Needles are just some of the high-wattage star power fueling the tour, it’s the accompanying band Cary Nokey that’s receiving more and more attention.
The band is the brainchild of songwriter, producer and performer 8-Bit, also known as Rob Fusari. It came about after he painfully parted ways with Lady Gaga.
“It was like a slap across the face,” says 8-Bit. “I put every cell, every vein, every drop of blood I had into this project, and then it just seemed to turn its back on me.”
8-Bit is referring to Gaga’s groundbreaking first album, The Fame, on which he’s credited as a producer.
“We would sit at breakfast and go through Vogue, Cosmo, Vanity Fair and cut out images and editorial photos and articles of clothing and how she should look and pose.”
Back in 2006, though, Gaga was known strictly as Stephanie Germanotta. 8-Bit was songwriter and producer Rob Fusari who had embarked on a quest to find a “female version of the lead singer of The Strokes.”
“When Stephanie Germanotta walked into the room—let me rephrase that—when she sat at the piano and played her song ‘Hollywood’ that she wrote, it was like time stood still,” 8-Bit recalls.
“This is air that I breathe. This is why I’ve done this. And put up with all the B.S. and had to do the projects I didn’t want to do to get to this point. To help and mold an artist like this.”
But in 2007, 8-Bit says Gaga turned her back on the co-writer of “Paparazzi” and four other tracks from The Fame, including “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich.”
“It hurt like I’ve never known before. It wasn’t about the money. It was about being on the ride,” he says. “It was about helping build the train and ‘Can I get a seat? I want to enjoy it.’ I wanted to be in the background just for you. That was the part that I couldn’t understand. I had to stop. You don’t always get an answer in life. That’s when I moved on. That took some years. If that makes me someone who dwells, so be it. And when it did, Cary Nokey was born.”
For 8-Bit, musically in a turbulent stasis since the split with Gaga, the need to release new music became a case of “Now or Never,” a high-energy track—along with “B Who U R” and “American Dream”—from his newly released album Journal8.
“I have music that the world needs to hear—or a portion of the world—and I’m not going to wait for another Gaga,” 8-Bit says.
But in between, a lot of time passed in waiting to tell those stories.
“I did not take one record-label meeting after Gaga’s success. I felt a little lost after Gaga,” he says. “Was I supposed to be doing this again? How can I go into a record label—after I just produced Gaga—to take another artist in there, that wasn’t as good as her, and say ‘Check out my new artist.’ I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t endorse it. If I couldn’t find something that wasn’t just as good if not better—and I needed better—how am I supposed to show my face at a record label?”
Those labels had gotten to know him by writing and producing hit songs like “No, No, No” and “Bootylicious” for Destiny’s Child as well as tracks for Whitney Houston and Kelly Rowland.
“You have to accept in the role that I’ve been in for years as a producer and writer that once you write or develop that song for another artist you have to let it go,” 8-Bit says. “You aren’t the one there to accept those accolades. It took me a little while to get used to that because I had to understand it’s not about the writer or producer.”
Even so, something was different with Gaga, he said.
“Although I had written for Beyonce and Will Smith and Jessica Simpson and Britney, there was a love-back thing that happened even if it was … silent,” he recalls. “And I know this sounds strange, but there was a mutual respect that always happens in a creative relationship. You come to expect it. You don’t have to send me flowers. You don’t have to mention my name at the Grammys. It’s not what I mean. It’s a mutual unspoken respect. I don’t feel that respect was … It didn’t click with Gaga. And that’s when it all started to change with me.”
8-Bit admits he’s still a fan of Lady Gaga, but that his experience with her is still painful.
“I felt like that was the first time somebody really turned their back on me. I mean literally,” he says. “I was like ‘I’m over here.’ I’m not here to complain or dish on her or the project—I have nothing but love—but I’m here to say that was the key to Cary Nokey that turned in me that said ‘Oh! Stop the presses! We’ve got a problem.’ Not a problem with us. It was an internal problem.”
Now that 8-Bit has taken flight with RuPaul’s Battle of the Seasons Tour, audiences are getting experienced with the interactive approach of Cary Nokey, which derives part of its meaning from the expression “carry no keys in life.” (“That’s how I feel about my sexuality and individuality,” 8-Bit said.)
Cary Nokey is not yet a major record label act. 8-Bit says it’s because the band’s sound is too creative.
Last year, Cary Nokey opened for singer and Drag Race favorite Adore Delano in New York City, where he lives. The producers asked him to open the upcoming Battle of the Seasons tour, and eight months later, 8-bit and his troupe hit the road, reaching the tail end of the North American tour at 9 p.m. Tuesday, March 31, at the The Ritz in Tampa and 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 1, at The Plaza in Orlando.
“Cary Nokey is always evolving, and hopefully that will always be the case,” 8-Bit says. “It will never find home. In life you never really want to reach the finish line. It’s evolving only. I started in hip-hop and R&B, and moved onto electronic dance music and then gospel and then pop music. I was born into a rock time—when I loved Led Zeppelin and Rush—and progressive rock groups. I came from a mother who wanted me to love Liberace, and thus I do love Liberace because I was so born into it.”
And 8-Bit says his mother essentially raised him as a daughter.
”So I’m very in touch with my feminine side. So if you take all these things, it’s constantly shifting. There’s all these different elements that keep spiraling around into creating this thing that you see. I see it change from night to night on the stage, and it changes in front of my eyes. Is that scary for me some nights? Yeah, it is. I might have a great show one night and the next night I’ll perform completely different and ask, ‘What the hell? Why?’
“Sometimes you have to let go of the wheel.”