June 28th, 2011 | Published in Featured
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will kick off its 2011 Summer in the City concert series on July 6th by welcoming Fitz and the Tantrums for a free—yes free—concert. Just be sure to wear your dancing shoes.
The church organ-based neo-soul band from Los Angeles has been heating up the charts since the release of its first full-length, Pickin’ Up the Pieces, late last year. The sextet has also had songs featured on hit television shows and in commercials. Named a “band to watch” in the April 2011 issue of Rolling Stone, Fitz and co. toured with Maroon 5 and appeared on all the talkies—including The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, and Conan O’Brien. Not a bad run for a group that’s only been around for three years and doesn’t feature a single guitar in the lineup.
But founder Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick says it hasn’t all been easy. During a phone chat with The Cleveland Sound, the vocalist spoke of the rigors of the road and emotional strain of separation from family and friends. Having a disc reach #2 on the Billboard “Heatseekers” comes at the cost of relentless travel—of countless gigs, guest appearances, and promotional stops. But Fitz concedes the work is finally starting to pay off. Now everybody wants a piece of the “Moneygrabber” songwriter and his friends. Indeed, TCS caught Fitz and friends winging through the mountains of Pennsylvania on a Friday afternoon overbooked with phone interviews—each of which has been pushed back because of lousy reception in the mountains.
“Can I call you back?” the singer asks. “I’ve got this guy asking some mad questions.”
Call back? For Fitz? Hey, no problem. We’re patient and can wait our turn. We play it smooth—like his band’s hip, funky throwback soul sound. The Tantrums—fronted by Fitz and songbird Noelle Scaggs—also includes Jeremy Ruzumna (keyboard), John Wicks (drums), James King (saxophone), and Joseph Karnes (bass).
THE CLEVELAND SOUND: Hello, Fitz?
MICHAEL “FITZ” FITZPATRICK: Hey, so sorry about that.
TCS: No problem, I understand.
FITZ: It’s like, one drive through the mountains and the whole day’s schedule gets shot. Because nobody can call me for thirty minutes.
TCS: You’re on your way to Pittsburgh?
FITZ: On our way to Pittsburgh, yeah—I’m looking at this glorious building, and some very ominous thunderclouds. There’s a thunderstorm expected the moment we walk onstage. So it should be an interesting one!
TCS: Yeah, I saw your schedule. A couple days ago you did Dayton, Ohio. Now it’s Pittsburgh, then you’re on to New York. And of course the reason I’m calling—you’re playing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next week.
FITZ: Love it.
TCS: Should I call you Fitz, or Michael, or….
FITZ: Ah, well. It’s Michael Sean Fitzpatrick. But there’s too many Michaels in the world; everyone’s got a dad or a brother or five friends named Michael! So all my friends from a very young age just started calling me “Fitz” or “Fitzy,” and that’s where the name of the band evolved.
TCS: Yeah, I wasn’t sure what you prefer being called. And you mentioned the madness with all the phone calls—it’s been a busy year for you guys, what with the tour and television appearances. Do you have any down time at all?
FITZ: We have very limited down time. I’ll definitely say it’s one of the all-time marathons I’ve ever tried to do in my life. But at the same time, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We feel—as a band—so blessed to have these opportunities. And we’ve had a lot of magic serendipity around this band. But it’s also been totally in conjunction with blood, sweat, and tears to the umpteenth degree. It’s been a time of those two things together, so we…at the beginning of the tour, we did day after day of freezing places like Minneapolis, and it’s like, minus twenty-five degrees…Portland, Maine, at minus fifteen. We don’t have a crew or anything and we were doing three shows a day. Show up at a radio station in the morning, show up at the next one in the afternoon, go to a record store, do an in-store, and then go to the show. And we do a meet and greet, which we do after every single show, where we’ll just go talk to people, sign CDs or take pictures and do…whatever people want. And it’s been crazy—but we’re definitely seeing the rewards of all the hard work. For sure. Now that we’re getting into the…I mean, we’ve been pushing this band up a hill for like, three years, and since August of last year it’s been nonstop. And since January it’s been an insane, feverish pitch, and we’re all definitely feeling the effects of it. But at the same time, everyday knowing things…everyday, seeing those rewards. But our drummer has two baby girls who he’s watching grow up, away from them. People are away from their loved ones. It’s a very emotional thing, because it’s all coming with a lot of personal sacrifice for each of us, to tour with the band.
TCS: You spoke to my next question already—how the band has been going on for three or four years. And I know you’ve answered this many times, but could you talk about the church organ that became the impetus for the band at the beginning? Because you’d been assistant to a sound production engineer before then….
FITZ: Yeah, well, the whole genesis of the beginning of this band was not even a concept of a band. I was literally devastated, heartbroken, and…I’ve always said that at every lowest point in my life, music has come in to save me. And yet again I found myself in a place of despair, and I turned to music to not utterly lose my mind. And I got a call from the ex-girlfriend; we had a no-talking policy at the time. I saw the call on my caller ID and reluctantly answered the phone, and she said, “Look—I know we’re not supposed to be talking, and I wouldn’t be calling you except my next-door-neighbor has a family emergency. He’s gotta move today, and there’s this church organ in the basement. I don’t even know if it works. It’s massive, he’s selling it for fifty bucks, and there’s two other guys coming to see it in an hour, if you want it…. I just said, “Put the fifty bucks in the guy’s hand!” And I had five hours to find piano movers to move it that day, or else the landlord was gonna put it on the street. I finally found these lightly-shady Russian dudes who would move it, and got it into my house just as the sun was going down. I turned it on—all the lights went on…it’s just that sometimes you get possession of a new instrument that’s a whole new vocabulary….
TCS: A new voice for you.
FITZ: Exactly! It’s so inspiring. That—coupled with the fact that I was just dying on the inside—I just sat there, and it was late at night, and I had this moment where a song just sort of wrote itself from start-to-finish, in like five minutes. And that was “Breakin’ the Chains of Love.”
TCS: And that was from the EP [Songs for a Breakup]?
FITZ: Correct, and which we rolled over onto the LP as well. And that was a song for me that—I’ve been a singer my whole life, and I know from talking with others….you can sing different styles, and then the question becomes, “What is your true voice? What is your authentic voice?” I went to school at a public high school where there were archetypes. There were a lot of incredibly talented kids, and I was this skinny little white kid whose voice was cracking, and there were other kids that were sixteen, shaving their full beards, and singing like Luther Vandross right out of the gate.
TCS: So you were like Peter from the Brady Bunch with the….
FITZ: [Laughs] Exactly! I was so intimidated by it that it took me a long time to build up the confidence. I don’t know if it was just where I was emotionally, or because it was late at night and there was no one around…but it was like, “I love this kind of music—can I pull it off?” And bang—that song just came out of me, outta nowhere. And I had this moment where I was standing outside myself, as a music listener, going, “This is one of the best songs you’ve ever written.” And I love the way I feel when I’m singing this song.
TCS: And that’s why you decided to keep it for yourself?
FITZ: Yeah, it just felt like magic. And I knew right there that I wanted to have saxophone, and I knew just the guy to call—James King, who I went to college with and is one of the most sought-after saxophone players on the West Coast…hey, can you hold on a second? I’ve got to tell the next reporter that he’s got to call back.
TCS: Sure thing.
FITZ: [Two minutes later] Hello? Sorry ‘bout that.
TCS: No problem. So, you had “Breakin’ the Chains of Love” from the early sessions, then came “Moneygrabber” and Pickin’ Up the Pieces. I understand the album was recorded in your living room?
FITZ: Yeah. I mean, when we started doing this we didn’t have any money and nobody was giving us the time of day. We just had our passion and a will, and one crappy old microphone…just basically took all these adversities of being in a non-studio setting and turned those into a positive, which really helped define the shape of the record.
TCS: Then you brought in [co-vocalist] Noelle Scaggs, who had a singing career before. But she kind of became your female foil, creating a dynamic onstage with the two voices. Do you feed off each other, the guy / girl chemistry, what with a lot of your songs being about relationships?
FITZ: Oh, for sure. She’s had her own career and been sort of the go-to girl for hip hop people for a long time to write a catch chorus. She sang on the Black Eyed Peas record. She’s an amazing talent, and I knew because of the nature of these songs—even though they sound happy—there’s a lot of bite to them. There’s a darker side of love. And again, at the start I knew we were going to have sax, we were going to have a female voice, no guitars in the band. And James King turned me on to her. She came in, and our voices just instantly clicked together. And as performers we just try to put on a very extroverted show. There’s nothing pretentious or ironic about what we’re doing. It’s just a celebration and a love of music. And we want the audience to be another…the seventh member of the band. And it’s really developed into something special with the two of us, where we feed off each other, we push each other as performers all the time. It’s pretty intense for us onstage. It’s developed into something that’s become a signature for us as a band.
TCS: Onstage you guys look sharp—you’re impeccably attired. A lot of bands just go with street clothes, which are comfortable playing in and I’m all for that, but you guys have a cool look going. Was the fashion sense something you brought to the band, or was decided after you took it on the road?
FITZ: I’ve always been a fashion whore, a little bit.
FITZ: And Noelle, she loves herself some vintage dress shopping. And it just felt like, we also wanted to—from everything else we do with an extroverted show, where we want the audience to sing and dance along, and call-and-response—we wanted our show to be a complete experience for people. And part of that was, we didn’t want to just show up in our street clothes. We wanted to put in the extra effort to look good. And it’s created this interesting phenomenon where people are coming to see our concerts and they’re getting…girls are going in groups to the vintage store and buying dresses. Couples are coming out, and the boyfriends put on a sixties suit and a skinny tie—and you can tell the girlfriends are loving it because he’s always wearing jeans and a tee shirt.
FITZ: It’s become an interesting experience in that way.
TCS: I think it must have been shortly after Pickin’ Up the Pieces came out that myself and so many others were exposed to the band through a television commercial….
FITZ: That’s right. We were really fortunate. There was this HTC phone commercial that became advertising for us, because at the end of it the guy stops everything and hits a button on his phone and says, “Play Fitz and the Tantrums.” And the record comes up, the music starts, and the commercial ends. And it was like, “When does that ever happen?” So that was a huge opportunity for us. And at the same time, it’s not like it moved mountains, either.
TCS: Sure. Because clearly you’ve been working it all this time, too.
FITZ: You know, what I’ve found with things like that, or being on Criminal Minds or Desperate Housewives, is that you have lots of little moments and big moments, and they all sort of collectively sum up to something happening. But we haven’t had that one thing that’s been like, a shot in the air.
TCS: Back in October or so I know you guys were on with Daryl Hall, on his Live From Daryl’s House Internet show. You guys made some applesauce, and did some of his songs from way back in his career, like “Girl I Love You.” Was that a fun time for you and Noelle?
FITZ: That was amazing for us. I’m a huge Hall & Oates fan. And for me, a lot of people have made a connection between the timbre of my voice and Daryl’s. And that thing all kind of came about—we were interviewed by a reporter in San Francisco, and he made the connection with the similarity of our voices. And I was like, “You’re not the first person to say it.” And the next week or so he was interviewing Daryl and he asked, “Daryl, have you heard of this new band, Fitz and the Tantrums? This guy sounds a lot like you when you were younger; you should check it out!” So I’m sure that peaked Daryl’s interest, because then we got a call to come visit. And it was a dream come true to meet one of my idols, a legend, and a great day to really try to pick songs that were out of the norm of his catalog. Ones that felt complementary to what we do as a band, and also we didn’t want to do like others who just came, you know, “Kiss on My List” or what have you. And he was so excited by our choices, because we literally picked the first song he ever did, and “Perkioman.” Ones that even the rare, diehard Hall & Oates fans might not even know about. And the experience was a magical day. We did the first take—which actually was “Breakin’ the Chains of Love”—where I sing the first verse, Daryl sings the second verse…we finished that song. Didn’t even rehearse them; we just played them. And I come back into the kitchen, and his mom and sister are there, and his mom calls me over, and she pulls me close and says, “You sound just like my son!” I was like, “Can I get a witness! Daryl’s mom!”
FITZ: And the crazy thing, I would say about that experience, and why I love that show, is that it has a similar sort of DIY approach that we’ve had as a band. And doing that one show garnered us more fans than doing Carson, Kimmel, Leno, and Lopez combined. Because the people going to our shows…it’s like, you do an episode and it’s on his website, and he’s got hundreds of thousands of people coming to his website every month. Just a static page, and people are coming just looking for a deeper musical experience. And we didn’t know the effect it would have until we did it. Then on the winter tour, every single city we went to, people after people at the merch table at the end of the show, they were like, “I found out about you because of Live From Daryl’s House.” I mean, whole families—moms, dads, the sixteen-year old daughter going to the first concert in her life, and the nineteen-year old son, all fighting for the CD. All turned on by the Live From Daryl’s House. That was a huge moment for us as a band.
TCS: That is a cool show, and I imagine—like you—I grew up listening to those guys. First because of my parents, because I was too young. Then the eighties came along and I was old enough to go by my own Hall & Oates records! I know you’re playing catch-up with interviews, so I have one more question before I let you go: Is it too early to consider what you’re doing as a follow-up to Pickin’ Up the Pieces?
FITZ: Well, you definitely can’t help as an artist to think about that kind of stuff. And the tricky thing is, you make a record and then you’re playing it for so long afterwards…it’s like the initial genesis of “Breakin’ the Chains of Love” was 2008. And as a band we started to heat up in a large capacity in January of this year, we went to Europe for the first time, we’ll be in Australia in a couple weeks. Then back to Europe. So there’s still a lot of promotion to be done for this record—but we’ve already added three new songs to the set. And we’ve got a smattering of other ones at home in the studio, at different levels of construction or fleshed-outness. And every night at sound check somebody comes up with a new idea, and somebody breaks out their phone and presses record. So we have a ton of ideas; it’s just our schedule is…we’re lucky if we’re home one week out of the month right now. And when we’re home, it’s just like trying to even get back to any sense of normalcy…and that’s the weird thing—when home starts to feel like the strangest place you’ve been. But I imagine hopefully in the fall we’ll get to do a little studio time and probably get to the next record in earnest in the spring. But it’s like, we’re just hitting critical mass with this record, so there’s still a lot of promotion left to be done, and spreading of this record. The second single, “Don’t Gotta Work it Out,” just went to Triple A radio this Monday, and we’re just pushing “Moneygrabber” on Hot AC, which is a different format. So it’s still in the growth stage; more people everyday are discovering us.
TCS: Yeah, because it’s a cool sound. Not a new sound—but you put a new spin on it. Sort of Average White Band and Earth, Wind and Fire meet Talking Heads. You’ve got the two voices, the church organ, bass, sax, even flutes—but no guitar. So we’ll look forward to hearing new music from you guys. But until then we’ll make do with Pickin’ Up the Pieces, and your stop in Cleveland at the Rock Hall next week. Should be a fun time, outdoor concert….
FITZ: Are we doing it outside? Usually it’s inside, no?
TCS: It’s for the Summer in the City series; I think it’s inside only if it rains.
FITZ: ‘Cuz last time we played Cleveland was the Grog Shop. Which was fun—a packed, sweaty little nightclub. It’ll be cool to come back; Ohio’s always been really special for us as a band. We played Columbus twice, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and just played Dayton the other day. First time we played Cincinnati, we sold it out—and that was a 600 seater. Grog Shop was smaller, but we sold that out. Did a couple TV shows with 101 in Columbus. So Ohio particularly has been a real important state for us, in terms of people just believing in this record.
TCS: Oh yeah, we’ve got a lot of enthusiastic people on the north coast. Well, thank you again—I’ll let you get on with your business it Pittsburgh, and we’ll look forward to seeing you at the Rock Hall.
FITZ: Love it, thank you. Look forward to it, brother!