L.A.-based neo-soul pop group Fitz and the Tantrums are having a breakout year with their sophomore effort, More Than Just a Dream (Elektra, 2013), and it’s more than they thought was possible. Consisting of Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs on lead vocals, saxophone player James King, bassist Joseph Karnes, drummer John Wicks, and Jeremy Ruzumna on keys, Fitz and the Tantrums are a veritable success story for musicians in their thirties without a banner year of mainstream success to their name.
Snagging a couple of minutes at the Commodore with James King and John Wicks in between sound check on the eve of their Vancouver show, it was clear that the band was more than Fitz and Noelle, something that can get lost in translation. King and Wicks were kind enough to open up about their jazz guilt and how their success sets them apart from other bands.
Vancouver Weekly: Let’s talk about live shows. Fitz said, “Everyone can steal your music, but they can’t steal your live show.” It’s a great phrase, considering how well-known you guys are for [them]. How do you maintain the energy when you’re touring so much?
John Wicks: This is the easiest gig I can imagine. The show is high energy, and I look like I went for a swim when we’re done, but we have it so sweet right now. We have an amazing crew. It’s the first time in my life where I have someone else setting up my drums for me. Being away from my wife and kids can be debilitating and draining, but because it’s an easy gig, if I’m going to be half-assed for an hour-and-a-half when the rest of the twenty-two hours are cake, then I need to re-shift my priorities. Also we’re playing for bigger crowds, and as soon as I get up-stage and look out, it’s not hard to get the adrenaline going.
James King: All the stereotypical things people talk about being on tour are true. You forget what city you’re in, it’s easy to eat bad, but that time on-stage is the high point of every day.
VW: More Than Just A Dream was informed by touring, and it was different from where you guys were coming from on [your previous album, Pickin’ Up the Pieces]. How much of this pop direction was a band effort?
JW: All of it. The only rule we had was that nothing was off the table. Everything was conscious. We were writing this for sing-along choruses, for bigger crowds like you said. It was a goal to get bigger and better – a more broad audience.
That’s the tough part because we have punk rock guilt. It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially where James and I come from musically, which is jazz. You’re usually playing for two drunks at the bar, and you’re going home feeling good because you’re playing jazz. It was tough to do that.
VW: “6 AM” is one of my favourite songs off the album. How did that song fit in?
JK: That one was was written when we were touring the first record, and it straddles both albums stylistically. It came out as soul, but as we played it more and more; we used it as a springboard of how we were going to get the second record to sound. You can hear it in the production, but [“6 AM“] is pretty much a soul song you could play on the piano or guitar.
JW: I look forward to that song every night. It might be my favourite.
VW: You guys have had previous experience in bands. What makes [Fitz and the Tantrums] different from all the rest?
JW: It’s a success. I say that not speciously because it’s a major difference. Everyone handles that differently in this band. I’m still looking behind me to see if they’re clapping for someone behind me.
JK: We’re super fortunate we’re all involved in the creation of it. None of us are hired guns, so we take pride and stock. We depend on each other, so there’s no slacking off.
VW: Do you think you will reach the point where you decide it’s not logistical to shake hands with every radio DJ or stand behind the merch table for a two hour long line?
JK: As a band, even if the music isn’t as retro as it used to sound, the ethos is still retro. We want to connect with people. We want to deliver a performance that people can feel in their bodies. It’s harder when you’ve got a forest of camera phones during your hit because you want to connect and not just be blasted out on Youtube an hour later. We’re fighting the good fight as far as keeping music relevant as a visceral experience.