Sometimes the stars align and the only thing asked of you is not to wreck it. In a way, that’s what happened to Fitz & the Tantrums. Founder Michael Fitzpatrick caught the cusp of the culture’s emerging ’80s neo-soul fascinations when he wrote the music and formed the band six years ago — or formed the idea of a band, really. Fitz had a gig before he had any bandmates. They only rehearsed once, but by the night’s end it was apparent to all they were onto something special.
“Everyone kind of had this floaty feeling when we got done with the gig, and we were looking at each other, like, ‘What the hell just happened,'” recalls drummer John Wicks. “All of our friends were there and everyone was coming up to us going, ‘That was one of the most amazing things we’ve heard.’ We kind of were like, ‘Did we just form a band?'”
They hardly had any time to answer that question. Flogging Molly’s manager was at that 2009 gig and invited them to open for the Celtic-punk rockers on their upcoming tour. Two weeks later, Fitz & the Tantrums were playing Red Rocks in Colorado.
A month after that, Adam Levine was getting a tattoo done in New York and heard an advance of Fitz & the Tantrum’s at-the-time unreleased debut EP Songs For a Breakup, Vol. 1. Levine asked his tattoo artist about them, and he told the Maroon Five singer that they were from Los Angeles. A week later, he was at a show and two weeks after that they were opening a stadium tour for Levine.
“We were like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ It was really freakish, and there was almost an element of guilt there because we honestly didn’t feel like we were a band,” says Wicks, the sole non-L.A. member from his home in Missoula, Mont. “We were still like, ‘Wait, are we really in a band, or is this just Fitz’s thing? What is going on?’ We hadn’t had that conversation.”
Not that it was even cut and dry. While Fitz may have confirmed they were in this together, “this” wasn’t much. They’d played some high-profile gigs, but they didn’t have a label deal. They weren’t making any money — and this was important because many of these guys were skilled L.A. session players. Wicks had just finished working on Bruno Mars’ debut and Cee-Lo Green’s The Lady Killer when he got the call. He had twin newborn girls to think about.
Fitz & the Tantrums did a 2010 South by Southwest showcase in Austin looking for a deal, and not a single label approached them. It was disappointing, but no sooner had they returned home when L.A. indie label Dangerbird signed them and released their 2010 debut, Pickin’ Up the Pieces. It reached No. 140 on the Billboard chart, driven by the minor surprise hit, “MoneyGrabber.” Even better, they were invited to appear on the informal web/TV show Live from Daryl’s House with Daryl Hall.
“We’ve done every late night show there is and a ton of TV stuff, but to date more people have gotten to know us from Live from Darryl’s House than anything we’ve done. And it’s freakish because at that time it was only online,” says Wicks. “I would say that is the biggest thing that has happened to us so far.”
After Pickin’ Up the Pieces‘ success, there was significantly more label interest in them, and they wound up signing a deal with Elektra. It was a little scary. Everyone had heard plenty of major label horror stories, but they took the plunge and came out smelling like rose water. They did their job by not allowing their follow-up More Than Just a Dream to simply be a rehash of the debut’s neo-soul sound.
“That first record — it was very much the Motown influence coming out with this ’80s vibe in the background. The juxtaposition switched, and now it’s much more of an ’80s influence up front with that Motown songwriting in the back,” Wicks says.
You can hear it in the ebullient piano ballad “Break the Walls,” which owes more to Steve Perry than Marvin Gaye, or the dancefloor-ready synth-pop of “Fools Gold.” More Than Just a Dream is an unapologetically pop album, from the big production to the glossy mix, and it has paid off with two chart-topping singles, the pretty “Out of My League,” with its echoes of British new wave acts like Echo & the Bunnymen, and the relentlessly infectious whistle-ode, “The Walker.”
“There was a very conscious decision on our part to get away from [neo-soul], and it was scary because we had a working formula with it. People really loved that first record,” Wicks says. “We had some haters out there. But the amount of hate compared to the amount of fans we’ve garnered because of the radio crossover is just no comparison. As much as we love that sound, we kind of had to break ties with that a little on this new record.”
As kids that grew up in the ’80s, the bandmates have an honest affection for the era and feel they can approach that sound without an ironic smirk. “We can honestly say we aren’t doing it tongue-in-cheek,” he says. “You can feel that in the live show and the energy.
Indeed if there is anything that truly distinguishes Fitz from most blue-eyed soul revivalists, it’s their intensity. Everyone really goes full bore.
“The calling card of the band is this complete high-energy show that is at 11 from the minute we start to the minute we end. I walk off stage completely drenched, like I went for a swim,” Wicks says. “Fitz came out of a theater background. You look at him onstage, and he’s very dramatic. Not only is [vocalist and percussionist Noelle Scaggs’s] personality magnetic, but [Fitz] is also extremely knowledgeable as to what makes for a good show from lighting to set design to color schemes.”
So far, it’s been a wild ride, and one Fitz & the Tantrums have enjoyed with a heaping dose of relish.
“We realize how rare it is what we have going. I think there is still an element of paranoia like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Someone is going to walk in and say, ‘Just kidding,'” Wicks laughs. “You never know when it is going to end. It could end tomorrow. And I’ve thought this on a regular basis, ‘Man, this thing could end tomorrow, and I would be so happy.’ What we’ve achieved is beyond my wildest dreams. ”