For all the serendipity that ignited the flame that is Fitz & the Tantrums, it’s the years of dues-paying that put frontman Michael Sean Fitzpatrick in his enviable position as the next hot soul man.
Fitzpatrick, who presides over the blue-eyed, skinny-tied retro-pop that’s tugged at the hips and the heartstrings of audiences everywhere, only seems like an overnight sensation who, a year and a half after the birth of his band, will see its debut album “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” released on Aug. 24. Truth is, he spent years on the inside looking out, a studio hand and recording nerd who served an apprenticeship with producer Mickey Petralia, engineering albums and soundtracks and writing for commercials.
- ||| Photos by Laurie Scavo
“I’d always been a decent singer, but I got frustrated by my inability to play piano by anything more than by ear,” he says. “I took piano lessons when I was 32, and it opened up a whole new vocabulary for me.”
It also set the stage for the lightning strike of inspiration. An ex-girlfriend called one day to tell him a neighbor was selling an old church organ for $50. Would he be interested? “I told her, ‘Buy it, I’ll give you the 50 bucks later,’” he remembers. A few hours and some backbreaking lifting later, he owned a ’60s-vintage Conn organ “that just consumes my living room.”
“I sat down and wrote ‘Breakin’ the Chains’ in five minutes,” Fitzpatrick says of the 3-minute nugget that quickly put the Tantrums on the map. “That was the catalyst for me — it all crystallized right there. It felt right, it felt organic, and there was nothing forced or posturing about it. In fact, I don’t even know where that song came from — I just know I’m still waiting for the next song that comes to me in just five minutes.”
Like the Fitz & the Tantrums work that would follow, the first single is about love gone wrong, a venerable theme that goes hand-in-hand (so to speak) with his crack band’s stylings. The quintet’s first EP “Songs for a Break Up, Volume 1″ rekindled the Motown sound in the fondest of ways, and the forthcoming album, even with its broader array of arrangements, still snaps with the kind of singles (“L.O.V.,” “MoneyGrabber” and the title track) that ought to crackle from AM radios instead of iPods.
“It’s my favorite era of music, sonically and songwriting-wise,” Fitzpatrick says. “But while nothing excites me more than that period, I didn’t want to make music that was a carbon copy.”
Fitzpatrick, who grew up in L.A. and attended the High School for the Performing Arts (singing) and CalArts (film), thanks his lucky stars for friends like co-writer Chris Seefried, and at how quickly his guitar-less band came together. It was his college friend, the saxophonist James King, who recommended singer Noelle Scaggs and drummer John Wicks, and it was Wicks who tapped bassist Ethan Phillips and keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna.
“It was literally like five phone calls, one rehearsal, and we could have played a show that night,” says Fitzpatrick, whose onstage interaction with Scaggs (as well as King’s blaring solos) keeps the sets lively. “What started out on a pretty amazing level a year and a half ago has now become an intuitive thing. We’ve developed our live show into something that goes outside the indie-rock norm, or that too-cool-for-school [pose].
“Being up there with Noelle has taken my performance to another level. I’m just proud and confident to play with guys who have this level of musicianship.”
Early support from the likes of Mark Ronson, Maroon 5 and KCRW-FM helped the band get some good early tours — Fitzpatrick is still amazed that “we had played only 10 shows, and here we were standing in front of 8,000 people at Red Rocks, with a stiff wind blowing straight in my face.” This spring, the future got brighter when they signed to Dangerbird Records.
The L.A.-based indie imprint had been embracing a strategy of signing mid-career artists (Minus the Bear, Hot Hot Heat) but deviated for Fitz & the Tantrums. “Fitz is a unique thing,” label chief Jeff Castelaz says. “I love the guy, and he’s created so much around his band in such a short period of time.”
“Pickin’ Up the Pieces” was recorded in the living room of Fitzpatrick’s house in the hills above Spaceland, with his own Pro Tools rig and abiding by the engineering philosophy, “How can I touch this track as little as possible?” Fitzpatrick says.
He adds: “It was not an ideal space, but instead of fighting the plaster walls and wood floors, I just put the mic in the middle of the room, and it made the record sound big. For somebody who spent a lot of time honing his craft as an engineer, I’m happy with how organic and warm-sounding it is, because it never touched tape.”
And, of course, the home recordings kept expenses down. “I would never have been able to make the album for as little money as I did, or the way that I did, if I hadn’t spent all that time as an engineer,” he says. “It’s all sort of happened the way it’s supposed to.”
||| Live: Fitz & the Tantrums play tonight and next Thursday as part of their Spaceland residency, and then play July 15 at the Hammer Museum as part of the free, all-ages Also I Like to Rock series.
||| Download: Trade your e-mail address for an mp3 bundle from Fitz & the Tantrums:
||| Watch: The video for “Breakin’ the Chains”"