Zach Daniell is wiped out.
It's the night before Thanksgiving and the 18-year-old New Yorker has just flat-out sprinted through lower Manhattan with his 16-year-old girlfriend Kiki Fausel, his sister, and some friends. Bounding and pounding, they make the frenzied one-mile dash from Washington Square Park to a concert at the Blender Theatre at Gramercy in about 15 minutes.
Daniell and his crew have busted out because they're convinced that headliner The Medic Droid has already launched into its set. The Phoenix electro power-pop duo is in town tonight with L.A.'s hip-hop/nerdcore sensation Hyper Crush and it promises to be a big show, despite rumors of an al-Qaeda plot to bomb the NYC subway system.
Daniell and Fausel are particularly fond of The Medic Droid — in no small part because they first hooked up at the band's gig at The Knitting Factory in May — and were worried they'd miss some of their favorite tracks, like "The Killer Anna" and "FScene8."
Luck's on their side tonight, as they've arrived at the Blender Theatre to discover The Medic Droid isn't going on for another 45 minutes.
Shit. At least they got some exercise.
Chris Donathon, 23-year-old vocalist for The Medic Droid, has heard stories from fans like Daniell and Fausel about how the band's music has affected their lives.
"Kids have told us, 'I met my girlfriend 'cause of this song,' or, 'Your song saved my life,'" Donathon says. "[Our music] makes people feel good and they say, 'Every time I hear it, it just makes me happy and I just wanna start dancing and I just don't care.' They've just got this connection to it."
And he's heard about said connections in cities from Utah to the U.K., as Donathon and guitarist/keyboard player Hector Bagnod have been on a non-stop touring blitz across North America and Great Britain over the past two years, opening for such marquee-level acts as Kill Hannah, Escape the Fate, A Cursive Memory, and The Blackout.
And they're bringing with them a sexy and infectious dance groove that's driving a lot of kids wild.
As other Valley electro-oriented pop bands, like Peachcake and Get Down! To Brass Tacks, have taken their synthesizers into indie and post-punk territories, the boys of The Medic Droid have a different kind of tune. It's a catchy fusion of '80s-style synth and pop with elements of New Wave and hard rock, capped off with a foul-mouthed and occasionally androgynous frontman singing catty lyrics through a vocoder.
Their gigs are rowdy dance parties that have attracted screaming teens and 20-somethings of both sexes, particularly scene kids, emo brats, and MySpace users. And the song they wanna hear is "Fer Sure," a sassy electronica jam that became a MySpace phenomenon and launched The Medic Droid to international renown. They know all the words by heart and sing along en masse, particularly the chorus.
"Pulled up at a stoplight/Did drugs on the dashboard/Look at the mess we made tonight," Donathon sings. "Kick off your stilettos/Kick off your stilettos/And fuck me in the backseat/Fuck me in the backseat."
During gigs, the singer becomes Chris "Fucking" Donathon, a ribald, over-the-top persona who says or does anything — stage-diving, dishing playful insults, even lifting his shirt to show his nipples.
Outside their hometown, the off-the-chain affairs tend toward raucousness. As for The Medic Droid's gigs here in the Valley? Not so much. It may owe to the fact that The Medic Droid has played fewer than a dozen shows in Phoenix since forming less than two years ago.
Before there was the band, there was just the song. In late 2006, Donathon enlisted Bagnod's help to create "Fer Sure" and posted it on MySpace. Within months, it had been heard by millions. After a pair of follow-up songs got an equal reaction, the pair took off on a wild ride of success.
But it might be a case of too much too soon. Though they've enjoyed the past two years of relative fame and fortune, both Donathon and Bagnod admit they're feeling burnout from touring for nearly a year straight.
"Since we started playing shows on the road for almost a year, we haven't had time to fall back and catch ourselves," Bagnod says. "It feels like everything took off so fast, and we wanna have everything catch up to us again and not feel so pressured all the time. It's more than just stress. It's like a very overwhelming feeling. We aren't happy."
Chris Donathon and Hector Bagnod are like brothers from another mother. BFFs for life.
They come from vastly different upbringings, but it feels like they could've been separated at birth.
Donathon was born in Florida but bounced around the country after his mother divorced his drug-addict father (who was convicted of murder after a drug deal gone bad). He lived in Tennessee and Sacramento with his mom and older brother before finally moving to Arizona. He longed to be a vocalist since his days as a loner latchkey kid singing along to Rocket Summer and The Starting Line in a homemade recording studio he built in his closet.
With all he's been through, Donathon has a remarkably positive attitude.
"It's a matter of it helping me realize certain things, what's important," he says.
Meanwhile, Bagnod was raised in both Bagdad, Arizona, and Prescott in a "traditional Mexican family." He got guitar lessons from his father (who played Spanish and flamenco style), and an older cousin from Mexico taught him how to shred on Metallica and Nirvana.
The story of how they came together is very much "meet cute."
In 2003, Donathon was working at a Fry's in Tempe as a stock clerk. He and Bagnod were looking to join a band, but neither could find one that matched their particular musical interests of post-hardcore and pop-punk.
One evening, Bagnod came into the store and saw Donathon wearing a New Found Glory T-shirt while coming off shift.
"He ran in because he forgot to clock out, and we caught each other," Bagnod says. "And I was like, 'Hey, you play anything?'"
Donathon remembers having to fib a little.
"Yeah, I lied and was, like, 'I play guitar,' just because I wanted to squeeze into a band somehow," he says. "And we got together and started jamming."
Their bro-mance flourished as the pair discovered a mutual love for oldies, '50s rock 'n' roll, and '80s pop like Michael Jackson, Queen, and Prince.
Donathon moved to Sacramento shortly thereafter and got married, returning to the Valley in 2005 after a bitter divorce. He approached Bagnod about collaborating on some "electronic and energetic" dance music that was rowdy and pop-oriented. With the assistance of members of pop-punk band Good With Grenades (of which Bagnod was a member at the time), they recorded what would become "Fer Sure."
The song was a fusion of the pair's assorted influences, from '80s dance pop to the post-hardcore sound and rowdiness of bygone Texas band At the Drive-In.
Bagnod worked the synth and guitars, with Donathon's voice filtered through an auto-tune vocoder as he sang feisty lyrics and made catty taunts at his scene-kid friends, girly-pants-wearing emo hipsters, MySpace users, and Internet slang.
He even smacked up drag queen/electro-pop vocalist Jeffree Star with a taunt so obscene it'd make Howard Stern blush.
"This is Chris Fucking Donathon, and don't get mad, Jeffree Star, 'cause I made you snort a lot of my cum while I fucked you in the ass," he vamps in the spoken intro to the song.
The irony that both Donathon and Bagnod have the same style as those being made fun of in the song is not lost on them.
"We're talking about scene kids that wear tight pants, straighten their hair, put on makeup, like piercings, whatever," Bagnod says. "We can make fun of it, but I also wear tight pants and straighten my hair. So it's funny."
The song was merely a fun side project for the pair. Donathon explains he had something of a "don't give a shit" attitude about it, and the song reflected that.
"I've never really considered myself a songwriter. I was just gonna join other bands and I'll just have this for, like, something on the side — just to mess around and be creative and have fun," Donathon says. "It was about making simple songs, and [not worrying] about production or anything."
"Fer Sure" was posted on a MySpace page Donathon reserved for The Medic Droid (a reference to The Empire Strikes Back, owing to his geekdom), and the pair told a few friends about it. They figured only their immediate social circles would be hearing the song.
Within a week, Donathon's then-girlfriend was swamped with positive MySpace messages about the song. By the end of the month, it was getting more than 50,000 listens per day at one point.
"I was really weirded out by it. She was freaking out about all the plays, and I was like, is that good? It may sound stupid, but I really didn't check out other bands' pages to see what was good about plays."
Bagnod continued to collaborate on songs, posting new ones every few months, such as "Keeping Up with the Joneses" and "FScene8." Each one hit big, particularly with teens. Although The Medic Droid's fan base includes all ages, the majority skew young, between 14 and 20.
Donathon says he thinks kids latch onto their songs because of the popularity of MySpace among teenagers, as well as the band's attitude and lyrical content.
"That's what I was making fun of, mocking the whole MySpace lingo," Donathon says. "It was about parties, drugs, sex, Internet, MySpace, all what teenagers are into."
Daniel Werner, an A&R rep for Epic Records (the band's distributor) says he's impressed at how they've reached scene kids, emo types, and their ilk.
"The Medic Droid, to me, I feel like they are speaking for a whole huge group of kids that have had very little representation in pop culture for the last several years," Werner says. "People who are genuinely different and see the world differently, kids who are trying to be different and creative, have lost a mouthpiece. It's hard to find people who speak for you. The Medic Droid does that."
After their songs started getting notice online, Bagnod says, an "insane amount" of managers and labels made contact.
"We didn't know anything about the business," Bagnod says. "We just wanted to write music. That's all we knew. We didn't know booking agents; we didn't know labels. We didn't have any clue about that stuff."
A friend in the recording industry helped land the band a gig opening for Enter Shikari at NYC's Bowery Ballroom in September 2007. Donathon first tried out his alter ego during that debut gig. Bagnod and Donathon decided to become an actual band and scheduled several gigs in New York and Los Angeles, where they'd also meet with agents and labels.
Tim Ervin, a 19-year-old from Whippany, New Jersey, was in the audience at the Bowery for the live debut of The Medic Droid.
"There were maybe 20 fans there who knew who The Medic Droid were. It was a pretty packed show, but most people were there for Enter Shikari," Ervin says. "But by the end of the night, they were really into it. It was something new that they were excited about."
The Medic Droid feel they're better known outside the Valley.
"It is funny. We could be in another state and we've gotten recognized at the mall — like, people will recognize us. Here, I could walk around the mall all day and nobody's gonna come up and say, 'What's up?'" he says. "We got recognized on the beach at 1 in the morning on a pier in L.A. We were just walking with some friends and I had my hoodie up, and these kids stopped, ran back, and asked if we're The Medic Droid. We weren't even on tour there."
The Valley didn't get a chance to experience The Medic Droid until a month after their Bowery gig when they opened for nerdcore rapper MC Chris at the Brickhouse. And though they've rocked clubs repeatedly on both coasts, they've played fewer than a dozen shows in their hometown.
"Dunno," Donathon says. "Local shows are usually pretty like dead, pretty standstill. It's definitely nowhere near what it is overseas or Denver, or Dallas, Portland, Florida, or New York. It just goes off. It's insane."
How insane? Ben Collins, who runs The Medic Droid's record label, Modern Art Records, tells some tales: rabid fans breaking down a security barricade in Detroit, tossing blow-up sex dolls around the crowd in different cities, or audience members with bloody legs from getting pressed against the stage in DeKalb, Illinois. For some shows, the dance floor is almost a mosh pit. Fans will also rush the stage and climb aboard and dance away.
After gigs, Collins will play a game counting the various barrettes, wallet chains, or bracelets that have been ripped off by the grind machine that is The Medic Droid's crowd.
So why ain't this happening in the PHX?
Collins says the crowd sizes are comparable between Phoenix and other cities; it's just that local crowds are far more subdued. (It's not just an Arizona thing, either, because Tucson shows are pretty rowdy).
"There's the high-pitch feel to Phoenix shows and stuff, but not the raw, sexed-up vibe of other cities," Collins says. "The screams are louder, the reaction is bigger."
That includes seeing some ambisextrous action, be it boy-on-boy, girl-on-boy, or girl-on-girl. It's all fed by The Medic Droid's sexy electronic hooks and crotch-pounding bass.
And it includes Donathon's occasionally having kissed a boy or two in the past. Collins says of his friend, "Chris is straight, but he's also . . . adventurous."
When the vocalist has Chris Fucking Donathon switched on, he'll sometimes skirt androgyny (regularly glamming up his model-quality looks in guyliner and foundation) but always dishes the rambunctious attitude on the microphone. Not to mention flinging himself around stages, making offensive jokes about religion, sticking his hands down his pants, and using them for rude gestures.
He's like the long-lost son of Iggy Pop or Johnny Rotten, Collins says.
"No matter how dance-y they get, Chris is still a punker at heart," he adds. "What he's doing is still punk, just in a different way."
Epic's Werner agrees.
"To me, punk has always more reflected an ethos and an attitude, more than a specific sound," he says. "The kind of fearless don't-give-a-fuck attitude [Bagnod and Donathon] have in their approach to performance is more punk rock than a lot of artists who maybe call themselves punk or pop-punk."
Occasionally, the dude gets into some trouble. To wit: In Salt Lake City, while touring with Kill Hannah over the summer, management for the post-punk band threatened to kick Donathon off the tour for engaging in a water-gun fight onstage and drenching electrical equipment, Collins says.
"I was getting a lot of calls in the morning for that one," Collins says.
It's all just fun, explains Bagnod, which is why they keep gigs short and sweet.
"A good performance is coming out, pinning it in. Have a set short and good, and have people go, 'Wow, that's fun.' It's better having fans leave the show thinking, 'That was so fun.' Almost leave them still pumped, not leave them all drained — like after a crazy Mars Volta show, with 10-minute songs."
On Halloween evening, the six employees of Modern Art Records are busy moving into their new headquarters in Phoenix's downtown arts district.
Ben Collins, the label's co-founder, maneuvers around various shipping cartons and cardboard boxes scattered around the vintage 1912-era Roosevelt residence while heading to his corner office. (The new digs are much swankier than the dank Tempe industrial park where Modern Art was formerly housed, and are afforded by a major investment in the label by Epic Records).
The 27-year-old, who plays guitar in local hip-hop/rock combo Chronic Future, is eager to talk about The Medic Droid's rollercoaster ride to fame. (He's well-versed in such a subject, as Chronic Future burst on the Valley music scene as teenagers in 1996 with their snotty anthem "Scottsdale Brat" before getting signed to big-time deals with major labels shortly thereafter.)
"Hector and Chris are a phenomenon in a lot of ways," Collins says. "There are a lot of record labels out there spending hundreds of thousands of dollars just to try to get a band to the point that The Medic Droid got on their own natural energy and some well-placed maneuvers."
The band's near-overnight success, he says, was due to their being able to connect with fans through the first three songs and then go from there.
"They wrote three songs, and in many ways their spark was created just on that. So, it's a very rare story, I think, with a band to see something rise that quickly," Collins says. "I think it's a testament to things like MySpace and the digital world. You put a song up and it's really good, then it's just a matter of time before people catch on to it if they like it."
Around the time of their debut show in NYC, The Medic Droid was inundated with offers from major labels. Donathon says they were discouraged by the attitudes and insincerity of various major-label A&R reps and were reluctant to sign a deal.
"It just started getting to the point where we didn't care when someone wanted to talk to us," says Bagnod.
An online chat with a member of local thrash-rock group The Cover Up convinced Bagnod he should see what Collins had to offer.
"He was really cool, and we all just started talking music," he says. "We met up a lot and really started liking their idea of things and the mentality that they had to work with artists. They talk with you and not at you."
Ben Collins founded Modern Art last year with his wife, Anne-Marie Smart, and members of Chronic Future after they experienced frustration with the music industry. Chronic Future went through much drama with Interscope Records over contract issues and unpaid money in relation to the band's 2004 album Lines in My Face. Band members wound up getting day jobs to survive, and after putting out a self-funded EP, Chronic Future decided to start its own label.
Modern Art differs from other indies in that it is virtually autonomous. Recording titan Epic provides distribution, promotion, and plenty of financial backing, to the tune of six figures annually, but Collins says it's a relatively hands-off situation in which they call the shots and pick which artists they'd like to sign.
The focus is on Phoenix musicians and bands with breakthrough capability, like the other three bands currently signed to Modern Art, each snagging the spotlight in its own way. Miniature Tigers' infectiously sing-song indie pop has been blowing up big-time on college radio nationwide; electro-pop group Back Ted N-Ted generated major buzz at last year's South by Southwest festival in Austin, and its founder Ryan Breen (who also serves as Modern Art's in-house producer) remixed songs for Imogen Heap. And hardcore band The Cover Up recently starred in a commercial for Australia's Commonwealth Bank.
But are there any advertisement deals in the works for the Medic Droid?
"Chris has asked me, 'Ben, can I get a MAC Cosmetics endorsement?'" he jokes.
Inside the Green Room at the Blender Theatre on Thanksgiving eve, the members of the Modern Art Records posse are doing the kicking-back thing. While Chronic Future passes around some Maker's Mark and tunes up before they take the stage to open for The Medic Droid, Bagnod's busy brushing his teeth and applying cologne. He's also getting some confidence-builders and advice on hooking up after the show.
"You're so hot, Hekti," says Chellise Michael, girlfriend of Chronic Future vocalist Mike Busse. "You see how ready you are for tonight? You are so prepared to kiss a girl with a clean mouth."
"You're the most gorgeous boy," adds Anne Marie Smart, wife of Ben Collins.
"You guys are just saying that," Bagnod says sheepishly.
Some of The Medic Droid faithful might disagree, Hekti.
Although Donathon tends to get more of the adoration, there are plenty in the band's largely teenage fanbase who are enamored with Bagnod. Take "BeautifulMiseryandMe," for instance. The high-school-age YouTube user stated "i love hector bagnod" on her personal page on the video-sharing Web site.
It's not the only thing you'd find on YouTube relating to the band, as close to 3,000 videos devoted to The Medic Droid are posted on the site. There's shaky and pixilated bootleg concert footage, clips of fans filming themselves with webcams singing along to songs, and even D.I.Y. music videos, like an almost five-minute clip of stick figure ninjas re-enacting the lyrics of "Fer Sure" word for word.
When they aren't online, The Medic Droid's fans are demonstrating their devotion at shows. Besides antics like climbing on each other's shoulders and singing along en masse, they occasionally offer "gifts" to Donathon and Bagnod. The singer says the handmade bracelets and handwritten letters he's been given at the stage door have been nice. He's not as appreciative of the thongs and panties occasionally tossed onstage.
The Tom Jones-like action has also led to a few humorous moments, like when Sean-P, the guitarist for The White Tie Affair, placed a proffered thong on Donathon's head at a gig opening for the Chicago power-pop group quintet during the summer.
"He was onstage dancing with us, walked over, and put them on my head while I was singing," Donathon says. "I was like, 'Dude, like really, get away.'"
Thankfully, he adds, the unmentionables hadn't been worn.
With all the panties being served up and the band's getting on marquee-level tours, it's no surprise some fans think the band mates are major playas. While relaxing at the Bikini Lounge in downtown Phoenix the night before leaving for their current tour, Bagnod and Donathon discuss how they're perplexed by such misconceptions.
"People will ask us, 'What's it like living the rock star life?'" Bagnod says. "I'm like, 'What are you talking about? I live at home with my mom.'"
Despite the band's whirlwind of success, neither feels like a rock star and each is humble about everything that's happened. Which is why, Donathon says, it feels strange when girls start crying while talking to them.
"When girls come up to take a picture, they'll be shaking and stuff and they get teary-eyed," he says. "I always feel nervous when they do that 'cause I remember as a kid getting emotional when I met my favorite bands."
And fans usually get emotional when describing how much The Medic Droid's songs mean to them. So it comes as no surprise that said connection is one reason many were disappointed with What's Your Medium, which was produced by Breen. Most of the eight-track EP consists of The Medic Droid re-recording and updating "Fer Sure" and their other MySpace hits, and that's drawn criticism from their hardcore fans. Some hated the lack of new material, others though it was too slick and polished, lacking the "raw" feel of the original songs.
Donathon chalks up the disappointment to those fans' attachment to the original versions of the songs and hating the changes that were made (such as dropping the über-cheeky dialogue from "Fer Sure"). He also admits to rushing into recording the album in order to get it out as quickly as possible, since it'd been eight months since they'd released anything.
"We got really stressed out during the recording because it felt like we put ourselves on the spot to get something out," Donathon says. "I think we let the feeling of being worried about what people were gonna think and it took over. It wasn't fun to record, so it probably wasn't fun to listen to."
However, he admits, "the albums are still selling, so apparently, if there are some kids [that are unhappy], there's still plenty more that aren't."
Although they constantly laud Breen for his producing talents, Donathon and Bagnod plan on doing the next recording themselves. They're also planning on taking time and having fun with it, adopting the same "don't give a shit" attitude of "Fer Sure."
But they aren't in a hurry to start working on new material just yet. Right now, Bagnod says, getting off their two-year rollercoaster for some serious vacay is in order, before they burn out.
Or break up? Collins has repeatedly told New Times there's "little chance" The Medic Droid will be calling it quits after wrapping up their last dates of the tour, including this weekend's show at the Clubhouse Music Venue.
"It's been crazy being put on fast-forward without being able to catch up. We both never thought it would go like this ever. We never thought we'd play on the other side of the world," Bagnod says. "Some bands have been together for years and years and they learn about how to deal with all this. What most bands would do in five years, we've had to do in one or two."
"We wanna get back into why we started this," he adds. "We didn't start this to get Lamborghinis or be on MTV. We started this because we like to write music and have fun. Right now, after touring for a year straight, we aren't happy."
Donathon is a bit more dramatic, however.
"Right now, I'm in such a fucked-up place. If we continue doing what we're doing now, if we keep going at the same pace, I'll explode," Donathon says.
Chris Donathon is pissed and looks like he's about to start swinging.
With his hands balled into fists and screaming obscenities, he's all up in the grill of the Blender Theatre's stage manager, who just pulled the plug on The Medic Droid halfway through its Thanksgiving eve set.
Donathon has been sick for most of the tour. Thanks to a bout with the flu, the cold weather, and constant smoking, he's lost his voice the past three nights straight. The band easily could've canceled. But because NYC is a hotspot for The Medic Droid's fan base, Donathon put pressure on himself to perform. (He also had regained most of his voice.)
To compensate, fans were invited onstage to dance and fill in on the mic for few songs while the singer rested, but that didn't last for long. After four blond girls sing an extremely off-key rendition of Madonna's "Into the Groove" (the band's only cover), security went going nuts over insurance liabilities.
Donathon begs for one more song ("Fer Sure") to send the crowd home somewhat happy, but he's denied. As a large African-American bouncer herds the audience out, fans begin repeating the song's chorus of "Fuck me in the backseat!" and "Don-a-than."
Ben Collins chalks up Donathon's near-fight and aggro behavior to his frustration at not being able to sing ("It's like taking the strings from a guitarist") and, more importantly, being burnt out from stress and worn out from touring constantly over the past year.
"Part of the allure of this band is what happened tonight, that with Chris Fucking Donathon, anything happens with this kid and they feel that and know it. And tonight anything did happen," Collins says. "As their managers and as their friends, it's up to us to look out for Hector and Chris and make sure things don't do too far. It's at the point right now where they need to go wrap up this tour, go home, and take a long break."
Things are calmed down by the time members of Chronic Future and The Medic Droid are loading their gear into vans and trailers parked outside the stage door. Standing across the street from the hotel where the late Dee Dee Ramone crashed, the now-mellow Donathon's got a 40 of Budweiser and is holding court with a dozen fans.
Zach Daniell and Kiki Fausel share their story with the drunken singer. He's back into Chris Fucking Donathon mode and replies with good-natured sass.
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"You guys are both fucking gay. Totally cheesy," he says. "Love it. Love it."
Donathon's also assuring his fans that The Medic Droid's next show in Gotham won't end as badly.
"We'll be back again, and next time, seriously, next time we're gonna have the [vocoders] going. I'm gonna be singing, I'll even be spinning the mic around," he says. "It'll be crazy."
"I'll even fuck the sky," he adds, falling to the sidewalk and humping the air.