Fitz And The Tantrums is a band that’s always on the go.
It therefore seemed fitting that, on the day of our scheduled phone interview, it took a few tries to reach drummer John Wicks, who was out for a run at the time.
It’s been that sort of breakneck pace for Fitz And The Tantrums since bursting onto the scene in 2010 with their debut album, Pickin’ Up The Pieces. Fueled by the hit single “MoneyGrabber” and nonstop touring, the Los Angeles band built up a huge following with its modern take on Motown-inspired pop and classic soul, as well as a reputation for fiery live shows. Led by charismatic co-vocalists Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs, the band’s concerts are a high-energy dance party.
Yet after making a mark with its neo-soul-leaning debut record, the band went in a slightly different direction for the follow-up album. More Than Just A Dream, released in 2013, features a more eclectic sound, toning down the soul and ratcheting up the synths in a blatant homage to ’80s pop.
Few bands would have the courage to tweak their sound so radically after just one full-length release, yet it’s hard to fault them after listening to the anthemic pop excursion that is More Than Just A Dream, which adds some different sonic textures yet still maintains a soulful heart under the New Wave gloss.
Thankfully, Wicks was nice enough to take a breather from his running to chat with me for a bit. The former session drummer (who has backed CeeLo Green, Bruno Mars, Money Mark and others) discussed settling into life with a band, playing outdoor festivals, and other Fitz-related topics. The transcription is below:
Hi, John. How are you doing?
I’m well, thanks. We’re in Columbia, South Carolina, right now. I’m an avid runner and I’m out on a run. This is one of the best running towns in the U.S., I think. It’s just so beautiful here.
Really? It’s very scenic out there?
Yeah, man. The trail along the river just goes on forever. Although last time I was on this same running trail, I almost stepped on an extremely poisonous snake, so there’s some downside to these trails as well (laughs).
Yikes—you’ve got to be careful! So, how’s the tour going so far?
It’s going great. We’ve been on the road for about three weeks now. We get a short break soon and then we start up again, and that’s when we’ll be seeing you guys in New York and New Jersey.
When you come to the New York City area, you’ll be playing the Governors Ball Music Festival. How does the band enjoy playing those types of large, outdoor festivals?
It’s very different. When you’re playing outside, it can sometimes seem like you’re playing in a vacuum. There isn’t that same kind of reverberation and immediate feedback from a crowd. There can be a real distance between you and the crowd, and there are no venue walls like there is for indoor shows. But some of the biggest shows this band has played are outdoor gigs like Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits and Bonnaroo. It’s pretty thrilling playing for large numbers of people. It’s a different kind of thrill than it is playing in hot and sweaty clubs. But they’re both equally cool.
You seem like a real working class band, and you built success up quickly and organically by playing a ton of shows and getting noticed that way. How do you feel that helps form a bond with fans?
Well, these days I think it’s the only way to do it, to be honest. The music industry is in such shambles now, that unless you’re willing to get in the van or bus and really go out there with a great live show, you’re kind of screwed, you know? Nobody’s really making money off of selling records anymore. So if you want to make a living doing this—which for me, was the goal since the third grade—you have to get out there with a great live show and be able to connect.
The degree of success we’ve had so far is largely from word-of-mouth. We put a lot of sweat, energy and commitment into our show every night. I think that “blue collar” mentality has been the key to our success so far.
Fitz And The Tantrums are unique because you don’t really have a guitar player, yet you still manage to have a really big sound. Can you discuss your thinking behind not using a guitarist?
It was definitely a conscious decision early on. There was never a want for a guitar or need for one. And to be honest, Fitz and I sometimes get annoyed by guitar players at practice, since they tend to be noodlers (laughs). But I think when we first started the band, the fact that we didn’t have a guitarist stood out a little bit.
You have the luxury of two great vocalists in the band with Fitz and Noelle. Talk about how their dynamic works.
The chemistry between the two of them is a huge part of the show. You feel like they could make out one second and punch each other the next (laughs). They’re both so charismatic on stage and such strong performers. As a drummer, it makes my job on stage really easy.
But I will tell you, another secret weapon that we have is James King, our saxophonist. Because we don’t have a guitar player, we were able to find a wonderful sonic space that he was able to occupy with his saxophone playing. And on the new record, he’s also covering keyboard parts and background vocals. The guy is brilliant.
John, I know that you personally have played with many different artists as a session musician. How did you first get involved with Fitz And The Tantrums?
Do you know the band called Dawes? Their piano player, Tay Strathairn, is a good buddy of mine, and also happened to be a good buddy of Fitz’s. When Fitz was looking to put a band together just for a couple of small gigs that he wanted to do in L.A., Tay gave him my number because he knew that I had the right kind of vibe Fitz was going for, which was that ’60s, Motown-influenced sound. I listened to the songs Fitz had written and they sounded great, so I said, “Sure, I’ll do a couple of gigs.” And what started out as one or two gigs, ended up blowing up so fast. We were out there not really knowing where this was going, but we just knew there was something magical happening. We could feel the energy and see the people responding really quickly to our music.
But to be quite honest, I didn’t want to be in a band at the time. I was doing OK as a session musician, and I liked the challenge of doing that. I didn’t think I wanted to commit to a band. And now it’s almost six years later, and I’m still pinching myself, that droves of people are turning out to see us play. It’s been a crazy fast ride, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
It’s interesting that things came together so quickly, since your band has the chemistry of a group that’s been together for a really long time.
That’s a real tribute to the musicianship in the band. I’m not the only session guy. Jeremy [Ruzumna], our keyboard player, played with Macy Gray for years and helped write her two biggest hits. James King, as I mentioned, is a great musician and was a first-call session saxophonist in L.A. It wasn’t tough to get that professionalism and that chemistry. At our first rehearsal session, we had literally played one song when Fitz grabbed his phone and went out in the hallway of the rehearsal studio and booked a gig. That’s after hearing one song.
Let’s talk about your latest album, More Than Just A Dream. The first thing that jumps out at listeners is that it’s not as heavily steeped in soul music as the first record, and there are some obvious ’80s pop influences. What was your mindset going into this album?
It was a very conscious decision to get away from that ’60s sound. Prior to us meeting Fitz, he had sort of found his inspiration with that sound. So, the musical compass had already been set before we had even met him. That being said, once we became an official band, then he had to deal with five other perspectives and musical influences. So, when we recorded this latest album, we didn’t want to get stuck in the same place and get pigeonholed, and it would be dishonest if we didn’t recognize everyone’s influences. This record is a much better reflection of all of the people in the band. All of the ’80s influences that you’re hearing are played without irony. We grew up in that time period, and they’re all genuine influences. When we were in the studio, it was just an automatic extension of ourselves.
That being said, with the way you progressed dramatically from your first album to your second album, where does the band want to go from here musically?
To be honest, there hasn’t been much discussion about it yet. We’re on the road constantly, and that’s sort of all-consuming. And we don’t write songs the way most bands do, where you all get in a room and write together. We each go to our respective home studios, and then write stuff to bring to the table and hope that the others like it. So, it’s almost a mystery until we all get together and play each other what we’ve come up with! I’ve got a few ideas now myself, but I don’t like to let it out too much. I like the element of surprise of springing it on my band members. But I think we might take the next album in a different direction still.
Fitz And The Tantrums will perform at Borgata Music Box in Atlantic City on June 6 and at the Governors Ball Music Festival in New York City on June 7. More Than Just A Dream is available now on Elektra Records. For more information, visit fitzandthetantrums.com.