by Roy Kasten
(Note: Fitz & the Tantrums' Saturday, February 12, show at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room (6504 Delmar Boulevard, University City) is sold out. However, the group is doing an in-store performance at Vintage Vinyl at 4 p.m. That gig is all-ages.)
When Fitz & the Tantrums hits town for its show at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, the band will have the wind at its back. Though the LA-based outfit has been together for just a little more than two years, it has cracked the Billboard charts, toured with Maroon 5 and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and captured the imagination of retro-minded dance-music heads. (And, yes, anyone who still believes -- rightly -- that Hall & Oates should be filed under Soul.) The band's leader and songwriter, Michael Fitzpatrick (but everyone calls him Fitz), chatted with A to Z from a cell phone while on a tour bus rolling down the Northeast coast.
Roy Kasten: Take us back to your early connection to soul and R&B. What were the important records for you? Michael Fitzpatrick: I grew up in a household where my dad was a classical music freak. He would only let us have that in the house. The only concession was that while driving to school in the morning my mom would put on the oldies station. That's where I discovered all the great Stax and Motown artists. From an early age, I had a love affair with that music. Then, as I got deeper into being a musician, I began to appreciate the true awesomeness of the craft of songwriting on those records.
You worked as a producer and engineer in LA for a number of years. How has that experience carried over to the band and the album Pickin' Up the Pieces? I'm a self-taught guy who has made every mistake in the studio. It was good to just be in there and learn as much as I could. There are a lot of twelve- or thirteen-hour days. I had this moment where I thought, "f I'm going to spend this much time in a studio with no windows, it better be for something that I feel passionate about. When we started this band, we didn't have the support of anyone. We just had a desire to make music. We didn't have any money, so the only place we could make the record was in my living room. I approach engineering from a non-technical place, more of a thing about vibe and feeling. But I will get scolded by other engineers when they look under the hood.
What's the most technically incorrect thing you've done? There were times when I would just lay down a scratch vocal, and the mic was way too hot, the vocals were distorting. That's definitely a big no-no. But I listened back, and I'd try to re-sing the song four or five times, but I couldn't capture that first performance. Part of the reason the performance hit me the way it did was that the vocals had this bite and this edge. So I just left it in there. The beauty, the life of a song, is in the mistakes.
To go back to the craft of writing songs: Your songs aren't soul gallery portraits. Some of them -- "MoneyGrabber," "Rich Girls" [and] "Dear Mr. President" -- connect directly with the here and now. We didn't want to make a carbon copy. You can go hear a cover band do that. We wanted to see if we could bring something new to this genre. Can we add to the discourse of what soul music is, be a part of pushing it forward into 2010 or 2011? We weren't fascist about adhering perfectly to any Motown form. There are a lot of other musical influences, '80s influences, there's definitely a hip-hop feel to some of the rhythm sections. We worked hard at that, but we did it in a subtle and respectful way. "MoneyGrabber" Are you still skeptical of the guitar? I am. From the start I had a vision of a guitar-less band. I can say with confidence that we're one of the few bands with actual instruments, as opposed to synthesizers, that has no guitars that's on the charts. It does something interesting, creates new challenges. It creates a cool pocket for the rhythm section. The keyboard becomes one of the main rhythmic and melodic elements. And it opens up a great space for the vocal. It gives Noelle [Scaggs, vocalist] and I a great space to move around in the songs.
If Steve Cropper gave you a call, would you say thanks but no thanks? I don't know. We never wanted to be too hardcore about the rule. Trust me, at every show there's one guy who comes up and says, "You know what you're missing?" "Let me guess -- a guitar."
I'm genetically predisposed to being an awkward dancer. Any tips? I've been known to have some pretty awkward dance moves myself. One of the things I'm proud of with this band is that we put on a show. We're not a shoegazer indie band. We don't just play the record. And there's nothing hipster ironic about what we're doing. We just want to play the best show we can and give people permission to have fun.