After seeing their high-energy show last Thursday at the Hammer Museum, I was really excited and intimidated to have the chance to interview Michael Fitzpatrick, the frontman of Fitz and the Tantrums.
I had contacted Mike’s management late last week and they set up a phone interview. The problem with phone interviews is they are a bitch to record so rather than misquote I have paraphrased. We dlipped from English to French and back.
I began to ask him about the music style of the band, which is an original mixture of old and new sounds, as I was curious how he came up with this style.
Fitz told me about his love of the 60’s – 65’s AM radio music, his preferred period in songwriting and raved about Motown being definitely his favorite period in music. Having always loved the way the records of this time sound, he wanted to do something heavily influenced by that period but he did not want to do a pastiche or an exact copy of it, so he came up with something ‘not completely true to the form’, but rather ‘with a modern twist’.
When I asked him precisely about this modern twist and what were his modern influences outside of Motown, he said that his tastes were in fact very eclectic. Having been a singer for his whole life, anything with well-executed harmonies is a major inspiration for him, but the first name he gave me was Radiohead (he is a huge fan), and then the first album of MGMT, and Bjork. He added that any great pop song is his guilty pleasure, any song that you can already sing along just after hearing it for the first time, any song that brings this kind of magic.
Fitz is a very friendly guy over the phone and he does not hesitate to give details and examples, so to illustrate this, he said he produced a cover of Britney Spears’ toxic, sung by the Chapin Sisters, which he said turned to be amazing, with three-part harmonies and an acoustic guitar.
The no-guitar band is a quite rare and original thing, and he said it was a conscious choice since the beginning, from the first song that he wrote for the EP and then moving on to the record. Fitz said it has always worked, and had never worried about it, still he thought he could still bring a big and powerful sound without any guitar. Actually, he noticed there is something different about the space of the song without the guitars.
He added that people who hear the record or hear them live don’t notice it (I agree, you have to really think about it to notice) and then began laughing when saying that the only people who seem to be upset about the absence of guitars are guitar players!
But he is a piano player, he always gravitates around it and composes on it so his keyboard was the main catalyst in developing this reworked Motown sound.
As they had no money, their first EP ‘Songs For A Break Up: Volume 1’, a five-song collection, was recorded in his living room, which turned out to be a great place to be creative. Their upcoming record, ‘Pickin’ up the pieces’ will be released August 24 on Dangerbird records, and will have 3 songs from the EP and 7 new ones, but will completely be in line with the EP. ‘A couple more avenues to go down’ he said, and the sound will even be a little bit bigger, which seems hard to imagine.
The song ‘Breakin’ the chains of love’, came naturally together very quickly, like a magical moment of inspiration, and started everything that followed.
He had this massive organ in the middle of his living room he had just got for $50 from his ex-girlfriend, as he was in the middle of a terrible break-up, was extremely depressed, and needed to put all his energy into something creative. I have no difficulty to make Fitz talk about this, actually he wants to talk about this magically revealing moment when music became a healing thing and that song came about in just 5 minutes: ‘I sat down that night and was so excited about it, everything crystallized and I knew what I wanted to do’. ‘Breakin’ the chains of love’ was just the beginning which set the compass for what the sound and the record were going to be.
But what about the theatrical aspect of the show? The Smokey Robinson’s suits, Noelle’s elegant dresses and their audaciously executed moves on stage? It is part of the whole project and their desire to give to the people a total experience, an attempt to write the best songs, and a will to give 150% during live shows. Fitz insisted it was important for him to start looking as the part they are playing, and to make people really appreciate the aesthetic of this music.
Putting on a live show as they do, with extraverted and sharply dressed performers on stage, is one of the reasons they have this ascending success, he recognized. People are here to see a band that takes the time to craft their musicianship and their appearance! I totally agree, as I have experienced it last week!
Fitz is very eager to explain everything and you can tell he is totally enjoying the experience, being on stage and talking about the ‘magic that just happens when they all come together’, describing the ‘instant electricity’ when they play their music.
It all went very fast for the band, since their debut in December 2008, they have been fortunate to be on the road and to play a lot of shows, and as Fitz noticed, the more they are playing the more they become confident in each other and realize that a real performance, where people see them interact with each other and the public, is what really matters for their audience. They effectively ask people to participate with them, to sing along and to jump around.
Fitz is still very excited about his last performance at the Hammer museum as he said he did not go to bed till 4 am this night! He remembers going to the free shows last year at the same place and felt in love with the great looking atrium inside the museum. So going there, just one year later and being on the stage was an extremely ‘special moment’ for him. Their performance there was truly exhilarating, and I believe him when he said they ‘played their heart out’ with ‘no pretension and without trying to be the coolest band on Earth’. This is an important point about this band, authenticity is hard to fake, and they are not fakers.
And Fitz is fine now, he said his devastating break-up was a while ago, so I guess music was a true healer. His parents share their time between New-York and Paris, where Fitz was born, and his sister lives in Paris. He speaks a perfect French although he modestly told me his vocabulary was limited, which is absolutely not true from what I have heard!
Survival in the music business is hard, and the band still have to find other ways to earn some money, but with so much professionalism, and an effervescent success, they have all the rage to continue their rise to the top.
They are playing at the Sunset junction fair at 4pm on August 22nd, and Fitz, with the same friendly tone he had adopted from the beginning of our conversation, told me to come and say hello, and I certainly will!