Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bonus Q&A with Fitz & the Tantrums

Photo courtesy Dangerbird Records

Here is more from my interview with singer/keyboardist Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick (center) of Fitz & the Tantrums.

Tell me about the band’s recent sold out show at the El Rey Theatre in LA.
That was amazing. It was our homecoming after doing a whole western United States tour. We sold out in Seattle [too]. It was just a great time. Then we came home and sold out the El Rey, which was over capacity. We had booked that space awhile back. We thought, ‘is anybody even going to come?’ People were so into it.

Do you tend to see a lot of younger people at your shows that might be just getting into this style of music?
Yeah, it was pretty amazing at the El Rey to see in the front row – teenage Latino kids, the early ‘30s KCRW/NPR-type hipsters, a bunch of young women, an old Vato dude and a couple in their early 50s that probably grew up on that music. It’s been a really amazing experience to see how many different kinds of people are into it. For older people, it takes them back to a period of music they loved. I think we’re been getting a lot of young fans because they’re appreciating good songwriting. Everybody in the band is such an amazing player. When we play live, we don’t just play the record. We really try and make the live show a unique experience, where we’ll take 16 bars and the organ player will just be playing a crazy Farfisa solo. It just has a real electric life of its own and I think for younger people, it’s an introduction into soul music. I love electronic music and stuff with programming, but for people who have listened to just that, hearing something that feels more organic is very exciting and interesting to them.

The fact that you’re real musicians playing real instruments helps you stand out as well.
I hope so. From the response that we’ve been getting, it’s crazy. When you’re playing onstage in your happy, freeform moments, all the sudden the drummer will play a monster fill. The song was supposed to end, but because he’s feeling it, he decides, ‘I’m going to take everybody to 110 percent.’ All the sudden, we’ve got to go there with him. It just created these electric moments. There’s been times onstage where I’m laughing uncontrollably. I can’t believe what’s happening. As a listener, I’m getting excited. Then I’ll look at the crowd and they’re right there with us being excited by that moment.

Last year, the band opened for Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings on New Year’s Eve in Washington D.C. Did you do other shows too?
Yeah, we got asked to go out on tour with them last spring throughout the south. For us in the band, we all love them so much. They’re really the people that are most responsible for bringing that music back into style and consciousness. For us to be out on tour with them was such an honor…as a performer, I learned so much from watching Sharon because she is such a bad ass. She owns that crowd. I felt a lot of affinity with them as well…it’s so great and inspiring for us to see that you can do the thing you’re passionate about. If you have a lot of tenacity and heart, hopefully people respond to it. Being out [on the road] with them was so much fun.

On a whole different tangent was the Maroon 5 tour. How did that come about?
We have been so fortunate to have all these crazy, serendipitous moments. Adam Levine was getting a tattoo from his favorite artist in New York, who was in L.A. a few weeks before and heard us on KCRW. He said, ‘Adam, you have to hear this new band I’m crazy about.’ A week and a half later, we were out on tour with Maroon 5 playing colleges on the East coast. They were so welcoming to us and it was a big break…because of that experience, we have this whole network of college kids we connected with that follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We definitely take an old school approach. After every show, Noelle and I sit down at the merch table. We want to meet every single person because we feel so fortunate to have this experience and opportunity. To be able to go out and meet people in person and see their raw excitement, if it’s the first time they’ve seen us play, has been really rewarding and a great asset to connect with them on a personal level.

What was the inspiration behind “Rich Girls?”
That and “Moneygrabber” definitely [touched upon] that experience where you think you’re in it for one reason and you find out the other person has a different agenda. They’re more concerned with what they’re going to buy you. In the moment, it was a heart crusher…the other day, I was going through a bad relationship moment and devastated. I walked into the studio with the guys, feeling like I didn’t have anything to say. We came up with this idea and it just lifted me right out of my mood. I was like, ‘guess what? I’ve got something to sing about today.’

Then there’s “Dear Mr. President,” which has a socially conscious vibe.
As with everybody, the intense thing about what’s been happening economically is it’s been this universal experience for all of us. It’s been a big stretch for me personally and everybody in the band: how to survive when all the sudden the bottom drops out of everything.

What exactly are you saying in the French section of “News 4 U?”
I’ve got news for you/This is the end of our story/You’ve broken my heart for the last time/Now when I walk the city streets at night/I look at the stars and the moon and the cars that pass by without you.

Can you tell me about your previous music background?
I’ve been a singer my whole life. I went to a performing arts high school. I studied vocals there. I was pretty shy as a kid and my voice hadn’t really changed. These kids had already matured vocally. And it was so intimidating for me. It was a great experience to be there. After college, I focused my attention working in the studio with Mickey P who did Beck’s “Midnight Vultures” and a Fields record. I worked with him on Ladytron’s “Light and Magic.”

Writing “Breakin’ the Chains of Love” was the catalyst for the band and album, right?
It felt amazing to sing. That was the first moment I felt like I had permission to be myself and it all came together. When you’ve been singing your whole life, you can sing lots of different styles. Then the question is, ‘what is me? What is authentic to me?’ This just rang so natural. It set the compass for the direction the whole record would take.

Where did you and sax man James King attend college together?
We went to Cal Arts [in Valencia]. I actually studied experimental filmmaking there and made friends with James. After I wrote that first song, I knew a couple things: I wanted to make a record without guitars, there had to be saxophone and a female vocalist singing co-lead, harmonies and backup with me. I called James, who is so talented. We instantly said we have to put this in a live setting.

I read an interview where you cited Britney Spears’ “Toxic” as one of your all-time favorite pop songs.
I’m a lover of great songwriting and am always obsessed about what makes for an amazing song. I always try and aim for that every time I write a song. Some people might hate [“Toxic”]...I used to work with this folk band The Chapin Sisters on their demo [and got them to cover it]. Once we arranged the harmonies, they realized the song was so magical. It actually became one of those most played songs on KCRW. To me, that’s the test of a great song. Can you play it on one instrument and sing it? If it stands up there, it stands anywhere.

Tell me about the video for “Winds of Change,” where you do a bit of acting.
When we started out, we didn’t have any support, any record deal or money. We came up with this simple idea and made the video for $800. Me and the co-director took about 500 pictures. It all came together and worked nicely. We couldn’t even afford to do playbacks. We took inspiration from Bob Dylan [“Subterranean Homesick Blues”] and did lyrics on cards. We put in so much work and we were editing it and found this cool pacing that worked with the rhythm of the song. It turned out a lot better than we thought.


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