Interview: Fitz & the Tantrums on Coachella crowds and crying on stage

After years and years of what Michael Fitzpatrick calls “failing,” Fitz & the Tantrums are finally having good years. In fact, 2012 is already shaping up to be their best. 

As of today, the soul-rock band is officially part of the 2012 Outside Lands music festival lineup in August. This week, the six-piece is in between weekends playing at Coachella, the kickoff to their spring tour. That stint segues directly into stints opening for Dave Matthews Band and recent Immaculate Noise interviewees the Flaming Lips and performing at major festivals like Bonnaroo and newly minted The Great Googamooga in Brooklyn. Palladia is airing concert film “Fitz and the Tantrums: Live at the Metro” starting this Saturday (April 21). All this, and the band will be releasing their second effort for indie Dangerbird later this year.
Fitzpatrick and his cohorts – co-vocalist Noelle Scaggs, saxophonist/flutist James King, bassist Joseph Karnes, drummer John Wicks and keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna – have exhibited an astonishing devotion to the road and to the social mechanics that normally destroy bands half their size. There”s just a rare commitment and collection of talent that has resonated with fans, beyond just their outta-nowhere hit “Moneygrabber” from their debut “Pickin” Up the Pieces.”
Below is an abridged interview I had with Fitzpatrick at the end of this winter. For aspiring bands, it”s almost a check-list or outline of what it is to slog, and to succeed in slogging.
Immaculate Noise: You guys are such a large group to tour with. It”s such a serious act to hit the road with that many people.
Michael Fitzpatrick: Yeah and it was a lot of hard work and sacrifice and all of us broke and stressing. And some of us had the kids and my drummer has two baby girl twins and we”ve got another guy with a kid on the way. And it was just very, very stressful times, because we all could feel that there was this electricity happening, this magic, this thing, but we weren’t making a penny.
We finally just kept pushing it and pushing it until it finally caught up where we were actually starting to actually to be able to make a little bit of a living from it. But that’s been a really recent development for us, as a band, is that we can actually pay our rents from it now.
Being on an indie like Dangerbird Records, and being a touring band, you don’t have to put out records every one-and-a-half or two years. You”re a live band. It”s very interesting that you are on an indie label. Is that where you”re going to stay for your next effort? What are your plans?
Yeah. I mean, it”s a mixed bag. All labels are businesses, so, at the end of the day, they have to make decisions for themselves as businesses. But Dangerbird and [owner] Jeff Castelaz were the only label that were brave enough to take a chance on us and they reaped the rewards of taking that chance. They”re family and they understand who we are and why we”ve been successful and they don’t try to f*ck it up. They don’t try and get in the way of what we”re doing.
But their health as a label is also contingent on the success of the records and you guys were still climbing up.
Yeah. [“Pickin” Up the Pieces”] only really started to catch fire in January of 2011, when we got a little bit of spark at radio.
Then we decided to go five, six weeks out on the road in the middle of January and February to every coldest city in America, never a day above freezing… doing no less than three to four shows a day: drive to a radio station in the morning, no roadies, no techies, nobody, load in our own gear at the radio station, play five songs, make friends with them, go to the next radio station and do it again. Go to the indie record store, play an in-store there and, basically, clawed our way and demanded that people paid attention.
And at a time when not too many bands want to be out on the road, which opened the room for us to have space to be like, Hey, we”re a new band, pay attention to us. And we would leave each one of those radio stations and they would add the record. It was old-school, backbreaking hard work, meet and greet, shake-everybody’s-hand moment for us that we could really see the A to B to C develop with that.
Did you ever put a cap on the amount of time that you”d spend on that kind schedule?
No…We”ve maintained that schedule for 16 months. I mean, we don’t have to play four shows anymore, but there’s still a lot of times, especially when we go to bigger cities, where we have to run over here and do a satellite radio station session and then run over here and do some webisodes, something.
But we”ve literally taken the approach that we have not said no to anything, whether it be somebody”s bedroom blog with 10 readers or if it”s a major publication or if it”s a music site that has live performances and they don’t have that many followers. We”ve done every single thing. We have not said no to anything.
And it”s been exhausting for sure, but it”s like get two fans over here, got 100 over here, get five there, and when you put them all together, it actually started to amount to something.
How, as a musician, does that wear you down, though? How do you even still have a voice?
It”s very taxing, especially because the kind of music we”re doing. We”re singing full voice, top of our range, belting forte the whole entire time and then we put in this extra element of this incredibly physical show, where Noelle and I dance, we hype up the audience. You know, everyone”s giving it their 1,000 percent.
There were times I think we did like 36 shows in a row without a day off, where we were literally crying on stage. Noelle had a bad case of laryngitis the first time we went to Boston. And she was crying backstage, because, when it”s your instrument, it”s like it”s heartbreaking.
And this crowd sang her parts for her. And every time I mention it, it gives me chills. And it was just this beautiful moment where she just played tambourine. She was crying on stage and they”re singing her parts for her, one of those moments where it”s like, “Okay, this club of 500 people, they know every word to every song. They know her parts.” How do these people even know who we are? How did we get 400, 500 people to come out in the dead of winter to come see…? It was pretty cool.
And it”s very telling. And you”ve alluded to the fact that this is, like, a young man”s game, making it difficult to have a family life. You”re great entertainers. Is that how it”s always going to be for you guys? Is there a point where like you”re hoping that it slows down where you”re not on the road half the days of the year?
I don’t know. We love playing live. There’s something magic that happens when you put the six of us together that is undeniable, even to the presence of each other, when we”re by ourselves in a room. T
We”re not 21 years old, but I think that’s also given us all a more mature approach to this, which is that we”re still pretty down to earth people. We”re humble. We do a meet and greet after every single show on tour, where we”re stay and we”ll shake hands with everybody every single night, even if we”ve done three shows that day.
What happens when crowds are 10,000? 20,000?
We”ve done that. We did it at Lollapalooza [in 2011]. We did it at Austin City Limits in front of 40,000, and we stood there and signed until every single last person got their picture or shook our hands or got to tell us a story of what the song meant. It”s extremely exhausting.
I think it keeps us humble. It reminds us of what that connection is with people, because we are appreciative. You know, it”s so hard, so challenging to make a living from music these days and to sustain yourself. It”s the way that musicians are forced to kind of make their money now. For us, I think it”s been good because we are more mature. We”re all in our late 30s, besides Noelle.
We”re just really trying to like savor every moment, because, as quick as you go up is as quick as you can come down. We feel like we”ve had it be fast but yet slow and steady. We”re not [artists] that were like nobody and then their trajectory was like vertical incline. Because, to me, that’s a huge expectation to have to live up to after that. We creeped our way to 115,000 records, but it”s 115,000 records. That’s over a million records in the ’90s. It really is.
And when it comes to recorded material, obviously, being on the road and being as physical as you guys are, taxing in that regard, what does it look like when you go into the recording studio? And now that you have a full-length record, do you have your own expectations for what a sophomore set looks like?
Well, because we”ve been on the road so much and because we are a new band, we had to force ourselves to write some songs on the road, so that we could play the length of [setlists] that we wanted to, to be worthy of a headline slot or headlining our own tours.
I think we want to evolve the sound. I”m not sure what that’s going to look like or what, but I think it”s always about great songwriting and every song has to be like melodic and just have amazing songwriting at its core.
I think we get frustrated when people [categorize] us as “throwback” or “retro.” To me — where we have obviously a lot of Motown influence — I think it”s so much more than that, honestly. It”s Talking Heads, it”s ABC, it”s a little bit of hip-hop, a little bit of indie rock. It”s way more influences than just saying that we”re like some soul revival band.
So I think we all have an idea that we want to push our sound, retaining what makes us good but pushing it forward a little bit to show people that that’s not just what we”re about.
As you evolved that sound, has there been an integration of new instruments or new singing styles? What does that mean from an instrumental point of view?
We”re giving ourselves no barriers, because we can always pull back the reins later on. But Jeremy has been collecting all these crazy vintage early synthesizers. I know that we would love to like do some serious string section work. James is expanding his palette. You want the song to be something and then the song is its own organic life form that will either accept what you try and put on it or it will shrug its back and it”ll fly right off. And it sort of tells you what it wants, and the more you fight it the more you end up with a piece-of-crap song at the end. And if you just embrace it and go with it, it usually kind of tells you what it needs.
So I think one of the things we want to definitely do is try and capture a little bit more of the raw energy, the electrical energy of what we do live in the recordings without making a live record.
Does that, do you think, depend, in part, on who you choose as a producer? Have you guys been producing on your own?
Well, I produced this last record with my mentor, this guy Chris Seefried. This next recordthere’s a potential to work with some producers, definitely we”ve been trying to meet a couple and vibe with them. At the same time, that’s definitely like my forte, so it might just end up that I”m going to produce the record. We”ll have to see.
Because, to me, I want a producer, if we”re going to bring in a producer, I want a producer that’s more than just a glorified engineer. I want somebody who produces, who is a musician themselves, who has the ability to play instruments or be like, “You know what, you guys are doing great here but just add that minor…” If we”re going to give somebody that much contribution to the record, they better have like the same skill set as us and be on par with us and be able to speak our language. I mean, some of these guys are pretty deep musicians and you cannot bullsh*t them. So we”ll see
As you go through and work with producers, however, you mentioned being painted into a corner, as a retro band or with that specific sound. Has that label or has that opinion ever been prohibitive, in working with the people that you”ve wanted to? Has it been prohibitive of any kind of growth on the road, has that label ever kind of knocked you down in any way?
No, because I don’t find that it has. I mean, because at the same time, we are influenced by soul music. It”s my favorite period of songwriting. It”s my favorite period of production. I”m a studio nerd and a tweaker in the studio, and I”m obsessed with the way those records sound, the first records that I was able to sing along to, and I”ve been a singer my whole entire life. On so many different levels and at different periods of my life I”ve just had this ongoing love affair with that period.
Is it requested that you do covers a lot when you do shows?
No, not really. The only time it”s been a little bit annoying is when people want to just put on the local soul band or whatever. I have a moratorium against that, that we will not do that. Everybody that we”ve taken out on tour has been completely stylistically different than us, because I like that.
So we like to mix it up, so that it feels like a nice diverse, eclectic mix to the show
For you, as a singer, how do you get better?
Well, I quit smoking.
Nice! Did you…
E-cigarette. I haven’t smoked in three weeks.
Hey, that’s pretty good.
That, and I”m just always challenging myself. I have a skill set as a singer. I”ve been a singer my whole life. Being on the road forever has only made my voice be like the best that it can be. But for me, the focus is like songwriting, like challenging myself as a songwriter, as a producer, to make sure that I like really push myself, evolve and write the kind of songs that I think are going to hopefully sustain us for a whole other record. I don’t want to suffer from the sophomore slump.
You know, it”s like, also, at the end of the day, I”ve done this for many years and had many, many, many failures, nothing but – honestly — failure in this business before this band. So I know that world better than I know this world.
You know the failure world better.
Yeah and being ignored by the business, nobody giving you the time of the day. So that’s why every moment for me now is like… it”s gravy. It”s just gravy. I just want to make sure that the one thing I adhere to was I didn’t do anything for any other expectation but myself and I just was honest and had like a belief in what I wanted to do. And that was the first time was the first time that I did that 100 percent organically and that’s when the music actually – and it sounds hokey –but that’s when the music actually kind of hit with people and actually started to do well.