Fitz of Fitz & The Tantrums takes a moment to chat how he creates music for a band that looks as good as it sounds -- right down to how you write the name.
When Michael Fitzpatrick’s friends started calling him Fitz to differentiate between other Michaels, how did they know it would make a killer name for a front man with a band rejuvenating a retro sound? Fitz & The Tantrums (FATT) played at Mercury Lounge on May 28th before hitting DC and Philly over the holiday weekend. I sat down with the guy who started it all through the acquisition of an old organ from a fire sale (using a tip by an ex-girlfriend of all things, very fitting). The band opened with the first song written on the instrument, “Breakin the Chains of Love” with a fast and furious tempo that immediately rocked the packed space. There were calls for audience participation throughout the set, from shout outs, getting low to jump on cue and even a “Hi Mom and Dad” for Fitz’s parents in the audience. Two encores were offered to the adoring crowd, ending with “We Don’t Need No Love Songs” -- from you Fitz, oh yes we do.
You’ve described the sound as “soul-influenced indie pop". Why is embracing the indie pop label important to your band?
I don’t know how important it is, but the music is definitely not just a pastiche of that era. I say it has influences because sometimes things are not perfectly true to form to that period of music. I took liberties. I have a lot of other musical influences -- not consciously but I’d say more subconsciously -- which influenced my songwriting. And I didn’t want to just do something that sounded exactly like an old Motown or Stax record – I wanted to do something different and challenge myself. We did our whole record in my living room to see how great of a sound could we come up with, doing it with a do-it-yourself approach.
I’m a huge lover of pop music – my quest in life is always to write a perfect pop song, the kind of song you hear once and before the song is even over you are singing along with it. I think people gave us the label of indie just because the production and the songs have a little more of an edge than some of those older songs so that’s where the three labels came from. And I’m fine with them because they pretty accurately let you know what the sound is.
From the five-song EP to the full length CD, you rejected the notion that you go from home to studio but did you bring in some other studio toys to make a bigger sound?
Not really, my feeling was that we had such magic in that first EP and we got such an amazing response. I’m a big believer of if it isn’t broken don’t try and fix it. I pretty much already had all the tools I needed. I had found this organ and I had gotten this piano that I had learned to play piano on as a child out of storage. Those are the two moorings, the two real anchors to my songwriting. I always start on one of those two instruments.
There's also the limitations of money and equipment -- we had we had and we made the best of it. We had such a great response with our EP that when we went to make the full length, we thought why go to a fancy studio and spend a ton of money when we made a record here already. My living room is more familiar, when the guys come over and everyone’s tracking they can just hang out. It’s where I live – it’s got a home vibe so when you’re there there’s no pressure of time that you’re spending money. You can take a break, sit in the back yard go down the street for coffee, come back and keep working.
Where do the lyrics come in during your song writing?
For both the EP and the LP I wanted to create a juxtaposition between these songs that sound happy, that make you want to dance, that have a feel good energy coming from them but when you listen to the actual lyrical content it’s pretty angry, acerbic -- it’s got attitude. That started with the EP, we named it Songs from a Breakup Vol. 1 and the full length is called Picking Up the Pieces. I always start with a melody that gives me a feeling or a chord progression and from there a lyric or a word will come out and a clear picture of what the song is about comes to me. Then I’ll sit down and write the lyrics.
Sounds like you’ve been dumped many times – have you ever dumped somebody?
Oh yes, I’ve been on both sides… it’s always been my cross to bear as I’ve had a lot of unsuccessful relationships or that ended up not going very well by the end. So for me there was always ample inspiration and that’s obviously a universal thing. All of us are trying to find connection and your hope or your fantasy is sometimes greater than the reality turns out to be. And it’s learning to differentiate between what is my imagination and what’s the reality.
What I like about all those old soul records is there tends to be a lot of these songs sung by women that are demanding respect or saying I don’t need you anymore – but not from a male point of view. So I wanted to give men their mantra, their song to sing.
You’ve also talked about the collective energy of a band, whether it’s your own or others – obviously FATT have it. Do you find it’s building from the beginning of the band or is it something more fluid?
There was an instant magic from the beginning. Putting bands together can be a challenge sometimes. I started the EP with James King, the saxophonist, and we were saying how we're going to put this together. He recommended Noelle Scaggs and this drummer John Wicks, who said you got to get this bass player Ethan Phillips and this keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna. We went into that rehearsal space that first day and we could have gone and played a show. It just clicked.
Now we’ve been together for a year and a half, with a lot of touring and playing – there’s definitely an evolution to it. We know each other better after touring when you're spending all your time together. As people we’re getting closer but musically night after night it just becomes second nature. It becomes that pure intuitive connection between us, where I don’t have to look at them to know what is happening. Sometimes somebody will spark a moment or an energy, John will pick up the drum beat and we’ll all collectively rush to this energy which leads to this frenetic moment. But it was always there from the first second and that is not always the case. I’ve had many other attempts with bands that have not come together. So I look at that as a divine moment – when it works it works. It just clicked.
Up until this deal with Dangerbird we were doing it all on our own and that’s a hard row to hoe. Every time I wanted to give up or say I can’t do this for one reason or another opportunities just coming -- serendipity beyond my wildest imagination. Everything in the universe was saying you have to continue this.
Absolutely, the FATT story has been one break after another, from opening up for Maroon 5 as well as Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and now the full length CD – what are your summer plans and after that for the band?
The record comes out on vinyl as well as hard packaging on August 24th, so we’re sure to do some hometown party for that. We just got off a tour through the south with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, which was amazing – everyone in her band and she was so welcoming. We had a great response. Up until the record we’re focusing on being regional in LA; we will be doing a residency every Thursday in June at Spaceland. We are bringing in special guests and doing some unique things for each one of the nights. Mainly we’re saving the energy for when the record comes out because once the record comes out we’ll probably be on the road a lot.
People know about us but there are a lot of people don’t know about us and I’m excited about once the record comes out on a broader stage. Right now it’s been one small little blog write up or word of mouth, facebook or one person’s twitter – you really see it travel through the internet. That was always a theory to me but then you see something that is your heart and soul happening like this, it’s incredible to me. There was this couple that saw us when we were playing with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings in St Louis and drove six hours down to Nashville to see us again -- I was so blown away that they were so inspired to see us that they were willing to drive to see us. That just floored me.
You moved from France as a little boy (at age five), was there a culture shock?
Not really a culture shock, no. I’ve always been an American, although I have a French mother and I’ve spent a lot of time over there with all my relatives. I’m mainly an American but I have one foot out the door. I’m both really. When I go there, I speak the language but I don’t get the subtleties of the humor. Being here, having a French mother and spending a lot of over time there, I don’t feel completely American either. I was this way from a very young age so it gave me a perspective on the culture between the two countries – and I love both for different reasons.
You’ve said you used to sing along to the oldies but did you do the high school musical route?
No, I went to a high school for the arts for singing and then I thought I wanted to be a filmmaker. So I went to film school and there I found the first guys to play music with -- once we went in and did a demo. It was the first time I heard vocals with the music in a studio and that was it, I never looked back.
Other favorites/influences you’ve listed are Talking Heads and Radiohead -- are there any new bands you’re listening to?
I love the Yeasayer’s new album. I was a huge fan of that first MGMT album. These guys that I know from LA that are doing quite well called Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros -- I love their record and the first time I heard them I knew they had something magical. I was entranced at the first time I heard them at an outdoor party in Laurel Canyon where the sound system blew and the music still captivated you.
Fitz & The Tantrums or Fitz and the Tantrums -- ampersand or and? Which do prefer and why?
I prefer the ampersand but when you go to do a website, all of a sudden you can’t use that symbol. Some people, when they write about us, use the symbol and some people write it out -- I like the symbol better because I like the iconography of the symbol and the way that symbol looks. I wanted the band name to clue you in to what the music was about and I feel like it definitely has a timeless feel to it.