A Conversation With Fitz And The Tantrums

In 2010, Fitz And The Tantrums made their debut album with Pickin’ Up The Pieces. Whether the modern R&B album went triple platinum is inconsequential. Storming songs like “MoneyGrabber” put the band on Leno, Kimmel and Conan, and the soulful sound and fashion-forward sight of singer/songwriter Michael Fitzpatrick—with backing vocalist pal Noelle Scaggs and Fitz’s four additional members—made them suddenly ubiquitous. Along with that televised attention came constant touring. Nothing wrong with that. They sound like a tantrum, and their contemporary raw mix of Stax and Motown—with Fitzpatrick’s powerfully emotive vocals before it—was something to see. Now, they’re dropping their second album, More Than Just A Dream (Elektra), and the whole affair sounds as fast and hard as their live shows, with an odd electronic sheen to the proceedings. Fitzpatrick talked about his magnetic dream while driving to a studio session in Los Angeles.

I interviewed Daryl Hall the other day, and it came to pass that he dropped your name. He was mentioning how you were one of his faves, and how when you guys appeared on his Live From Daryl’s House, you impressed him by pulling out his very first single, “Girl, I Love You,” and singing that.
That’s hilarious. Yeah. That was an amazing day. I loved doing that, and he was so welcoming. When you do that show, they ask for songs of his that you might want to sing with him. Noelle and I figured that since everyone else always picks the ’80s hits of his, we’d go the other way, something more obscure. I knew his history and how he and Todd Rundgren were truly like the two first blue-eyed soul singers. Plus, I knew that the first single of his was totally rooted in Motown, so it just felt like the true beginning of his story.

So then, are you some sort of soul archivist/vinyl-collecting crate digger, or just an avid Hall fan?
I really am a lover of all soul music: Motown, Stax, Atlantic. I grew up with parents who were opera and classical fanatics. That was all they ever played in the house when we were growing up. The one bit of negotiation to their rule when I was a kid was that I was allowed to find and play the oldies station in the car while we were driving. When I heard the songs that I could best sing along to, the harmonies and such—really be a part of it—I became obsessed with soul from the ’60s. When I became a studio nerd and a tweaker and learned how to make records on my own in my living room, I just went back to that period and felt even more I love. I do love all music, though, and that we do have crate diggers in the band. Know what’s weirder? In my free time, I almost never listen to music anymore. You need to find a quiet space if you’re always on the road or the studio. Since I drive a lot in L.A., I’m either in silence or listening to NPR. That grounds me and rests my mind. I can’t listen to music casually.

I can appreciate that. There’s not much information about you and your musical past—bands, background vocals, anything. You’re not a kid, yet you seem to have popped out of nowhere. Is there a secret cabaret band or hair-metal act in your past?
I hated hair metal. I used to steal all of my brother’s new-wave albums, especially the New Romantic stuff. I did have bands in college, but you know what? I could not get arrested in the music biz to save my life. Nothing. Since all of that was pre-internet, there really is no incriminating evidence.

Quick aside: If you inherited your brother’s New Romantics albums, did the blousy shirts or pantaloons come with them?
I wish. One of the elements of this band is that we try to include elements of our personal style. We can’t help it. Noelle and I are clothes-shopping junkies.

Since we’re on the fashion tip, one more question. The white streak in your hair—was that inspired by the Damned’s Dave Vanian, the Cramps’ Bryan Gregory or Cruella de Vil?
None of the above. It’s natural, a genetic trait. A lot of my relatives on my mother’s side of the family have it. I just happen to have been lucky enough to have it come out in the center of my head. So many people think it’s some pretentious Flock Of Seagulls hairdo, but it’s all me.

Hey, I paid good money back in the day to maintain that level of pretension.
That said, if I had to align myself with any of those three people, it’d be Cruella.

There’s a lot of mythologizing as to how quickly it all happened for you, for Fitz. That all its members came together after one person called another person, and so on. Is that overdramatized?
Less than two weeks—nothing overstated at all. James King, who I went to college with, and I were working on songs that we loved. He recommended two people, then they recommended two people. That took two days. We rehearsed for two days. Nailed those songs down cold the first time out. I think that Noelle, I and the rest of the band were just in shock hearing the harmonies and the way it all gelled. Honestly, if we had thought about it, we might not have hit the stage so quickly. It was synergy for all of us, to say nothing of the fact that we had honed our individual crafts for years before this. When you consider that we booked and played our first gig within a week and a half of first meeting—not bad.

Is that a thing for you, doing stuff like that fast and hard?
When I’m in a studio, I’m not the technical guy or the neat guy. I’m messy, sloppy, quick and don’t label things. But I get it done. You know what, though? Maybe it’s because everything comes together so easily with this band that I can move through things quickly. Honestly, everything before this band was me putting round pegs in square holes. This is nothing but round pegs and bigger round holes.

Man, that doesn’t sound right. Do you feel as if the new album wouldn’t sound as it does if it weren’t for the fact that you guys toured relentlessly after the first one dropped? I saw you three times in the span of a year.
You could say that. We pretty quickly built up a reputation for putting on high-energy and dynamic shows. But with this album we wanted to close the gap between how we sound live and what the record sounds like. The first one didn’t have that. Our shows are a hot sweaty dance party—the church of music type of thing.

You wanted the new album to reflect the mess. You do a song called “Merry Go Round” where you infer how damn wearying the road is, and how miserably disconnected it makes you from the rest of the world. That’s no kind of party. That’s a pretty fascinating song to have, such a dour wrought emotion for a band that revels in the joy of the party.
You’re spot-on with that observation. It’s the ultimate in writing about what you know straight from the middle of being there. Look at it this way: I’ve waited my entire life to achieve this goal and have been playing music for 15 years with very little attention paid to what I did. Suddenly this. Every dream I’ve ever had came true. We’ve headlined festivals and been on Leno. Wow. Still, there was this period, after a while, where you become a nomad. You lose all connection to family, friends, your lover. Being a vagabond is a real tricky lifestyle. There’s a learning curve to the process. It makes you sad and confused. I have a hard time listening to that song. Very emotional. I know this is the way it works, but it totally threw me.

Here you are looking to duplicate or emulate the live sound. But more so than the last one, this record is layered, sequenced, electronic, even broader. Did a bit of boredom set in with your usual R&B-based sound or were you just fucking around?
Both. There’s a bunch of people in this band with diverse tastes. We wanted a challenge. We could have made Pickin’ Up The Pieces 2 and played it safe. My intuition said that wouldn’t have been the right call. We just kept experimenting and wrote tons of songs. We went far to the left, far to the right. The rule we had when we were recording was that no one was allowed to say that doesn’t sound like us. There’s plenty of through-line from our last record, but we really did want to go about things differently I’ve been following a lot of the online chatter about tracks that leaked—people are mad, disgusted and overjoyed. I can’t believe people are having a conversation about us, period, let alone some heated debate.

The R&B vibe isn’t on top on this album. It’s a layer. It ain’t the frosting—it’s the creamy middle.
Totally. And so many people heard the last album and thought “throwback,” but there was much other stuff happening, melodically, thematically. That album was more subtle about the kitchen-sink aspects of our sound. This time I think we’re bolder. Nothing subtle about it.

—A.D. Amorosi