'One minute you're on Top of the Pops, the next you're at a funeral'

They dress sharp and they party hard - even when the odds are stacked against them. Dave Simpson has a cigar with El Presidente

It's midnight at York University, and El Presidente are seducing the crowd with turbocharged funk and rock. Suddenly, white tuxedoed singer Dante Gizzi raises an arm aloft and waves it from side to side. Moments, later, the entire crowd are doing the same. It's like seeing Queen at Live Aid.

"That's actually the first time I've done that," admits Gizzi later, a collapsed heap of sweat-soaked tux, shiny brogues, big ties and Scots bonhomie. "Maybe I should try it every night."

He might as well, because everything else seems to be going right for El Presidente. At Christmas, they played a sold out gig-party at Glasgow's vast Barrowlands; they saw in the New Year playing to hundreds of thousands at Edinburgh Castle. They recently won Most Stylish Band in the Scottish Style Awards and topped that off with the Best New Band award from Edinburgh's influential Radio Clyde - last year won by Franz Ferdinand.

North of the border, "El Pres" is a household name, and the same seems to be happening to the band in wider Britain after endless touring and riotous slots at T in the Park and Glastonbury have seen the quintet dubbed "the Glaswegian Scissor Sisters".

Tags like that can be a help and a hindrance. "I'm not actually that bothered," sighs Gizzi. "We've got girls in the band, we're glamourous ... but we're sleazier!" He clearly models himself on an cross between Che Guevara, a Columbian drug dealer and Prince, the latter having fascinated Gizzi for years.

The gleaming tux is only one of the Glaswegian-Italian's stage props: others include leather jackets, Scottish flags, scarves, Cuban cigars, a mask and, on occasion, drag. Gizzi sees the band as following a long tradition of pop heroes from Marc Bolan to George Clinton.

"At the moment there are endless morose singer-songwriters," he sighs. "It gets so tedious. The whole point of being in a band is being lost. There's nothing like being in a crowd, seeing someone going absolutely crazy and thinking, 'This is bloody amazing.'"

El Presidente's party vibe has been maintained through tremendous turmoil. Their latest anthem, Turn This Thing Around, is about rescuing a situation. Last May, second single 100 Mph (follow up to the acclaimed Rocket) went top 30 while El Presidente were rocked by personal disasters, not least when Gizzi lost both his parents within the space of a few weeks.

"It threw me big time," he says. "My dad passed away and I had to do a video shoot the next day. I agreed, but didn't account for how I would feel afterwards. I'd lost my mum a few weeks earlier. One week you're on Top of the Pops, the next you're at a funeral."

The band's public profile dipped, but he found respite in touring. "Being on the road helped because I didn't have time to think. It's still very fresh. I saw my dad the day before he died and he was morphined up and I've never seen him looking so ill. But he had the Glasgow Evening Times and there was a full double page review of us. My Mum kept all the cuttings."

The room is full of noise but seems momentarily silent. He looks at his bandmates. "As much as I hate them," he laughs, "I absolutely love them. The band got me through it."

Gizzi taught himself to play guitar by sneaking back into his parents' house when they were out, instead of going school, which after three months brought his shocked mother a visit from the authorities. He formed his first band, Gun, aged 15. Gun had a few hits - notably a cover of Cameo's Word Up - but ended up demoralised and £2m in debt. Gizzi "got lost" for a while - awash with drink and drugs - but is not a man to be kept down. Writing songs on a cheap sampler - "200 seconds memory per song, so everything had to be direct and catchy" - he debuted at Glasgow's King Tut's Club.

"I was terrified. I felt like a stand-up comic. But that's where the cigars came from. I had to do something during the solos so I just started puffing." Gizzi, who lingered at the back of the stage with Gun, realised he could lose his shyness within a fantasy persona. By this point, he'd also begun working in Glasgow's Bistro Du Sud and the cafe became a focal point. Musicians - opera-trained keyboardist Laura Marks, Irish ex-pat guitarist Johnny McGlynn and "pretty boy bassist" Thomas McNiece - simply wandered in.

"The first time I met Dante was in the bistro, after somebody told me he was looking for a female drummer," says Singapore-born Dawn Zhu, who plays drums in a cocktail dress. "I just loved [Prince's percussionist] Sheila E. There's something so sexy about a female drummer," says Gizzi.

"Thank you!" smiles Zhu.

"I didn't mean you," sniggers Gizzi.

Their chemistry was part of the appeal when M-People star turned A&R guy Mike Pickering saw them at a gig after becoming fascinated by their posters. "They looked like something from Day of the Dead, these kids with dresses on, stripes across their noses," he remembers. "They were all over Glasgow and I just thought it was great, revolutionary. They looked like they could have their own TV show."

That may come, but at the moment the odd appearance on other people's programmes is enough to excite. "I was gobsmacked when I saw Simon Le Bon come over when we were doing GMTV," he smiles. "He goes, 'Killer single, great suits, girl drummer!' To think those songs were written on a shite sampler at my mum's."

Gizzi thinks about his parents a lot. Once, before a gig in Dublin, he saw two bicycles called "Presidente" and "Rocket", an image that he captured on his mobile phone. "Mum's doing. She's still around," he smiles.

· Turn This Thing Around is released by One/Sony on February 6


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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