August 26, 2012

Interview with Fitz & The Tantrums

Fitz & The Tantrums, a six-piece band based in Los Angeles, California, have come a long way since the release of their debut album Pickin' Up the Pieces about two years ago. This soul-influenced funk/indie band has garnered national media attention with their throwback tunes and have been traveling around the country playing shows and major music festivals, such as Outside Lands! The group played an energetic, hour-long set that had everyone at the main stage on their feet and dancing. No matter the venue, these guys really understand how to get the crowd moving, and every show they perform is truly a blast.


Two members of the band, drummer John Wicks (left), and sax/flute player James King (right), were kind enough to take some time and chat with me after their set! Read below to see what these two skilled musicians had to say, and listen to the band's soulful cover of "Sweet Dreams."

Fitz & The Tantrums - "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)"

ON TOURING

John: A lot of us, James in particular, have done touring prior to being in Fitz & The Tantrums. So I think really, to be honest with you, the only guy that was kind of new to it was Fitz himself, he had never been in a band that had toured. To his credit, he kind of hit the ground running and was really a road dog from the start, even when we were just in a van or in a car, and it was a little bit rough but he handled it really well. We’re kind of road dogs as it is. The thing that’s been really surprising has been the quick rate of growth that we’ve had, playing for these size crowds, just insane.

James: We definitely all have toured in different situations. For myself, I’ve been in that level of kind of the van to tour bus, but like John said, to come and play for 20-30,000 people at big festivals on main stages, we’ve done a lot of those in the last year and it’s always humbling. Coming here today is just no different. That never gets old.

ON FESTIVAL PLAYING

James: You perceive it a little differently [than playing smaller venues], but I think that the intent is always the same. It is to get everyone, from the front to the back of the crowd, into it. You have the same challenges with a small club to a big festival. Sometimes, you just have to put yourself in the right mindset. And it’s one of those things that if you really, really give all of yourself to the show, then people will respond.

John: From a drumming standpoint, it’s a different thing. Like James said, you still want to put the same energy, whether it’s 10 people or 10,000. But, when you’re playing in an outdoor venue like this, you actually have to taper down the amount of subtle things you do because they don’t really translate, ‘cause people can’t really hear that stuff. It’s kind of more of a meat-and-potatoes style of playing that translates to the back of the crowd. The other thing is, you get so freakin' amped up when you see that many people that you have to be careful that you don’t wear yourself out after the first song. Because if you go out there with guns blaring, sometimes, by the end of the first song, I’m just like, “Oh my god, I still have an hour to go.”

ON MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENTS

John: [laughs] It might’ve been today! Bless his heart, we had a guy that we totally fed to the lions today. Unfortunately, our keyboard player had some family issues that he had to attend to so we had a last minute sub. And this guy came in and he did such a great job, but at one point, he started the wrong song, and it was just like, “Woah,” and I was looking at him and it’s that moment where you’re trying to figure out, are we going to go with him and start this new song?

James: That’s when those years of touring come in handy.

John: That’s right!

James: ‘Cause we look at each other and we know what we’re going to do. When something like that happens you just have to run with it, and the less experienced musician might have responded, “Ah, I’m just going to start it myself and maybe everyone will follow me,” but you really have to be a psychic and all come in together.

John: Right. But as far as the most embarrassing thing that’s happened, Fitz saying the wrong city we were in. That’s happened once or twice.

James: Yeah, that “Hello Cleveland” thing is never good.

John: [laughs] Yeah, we were in Spokane or Seattle and he said something like that. So we got booed there for a minute and then you try to win ‘em back over, cause you don’t want it to seem impersonal. But I think that was a month into our tour, and you’re just delirious. It’d be like going to San Francisco and saying, “Hello L.A.”, it’s like the worst possible thing you can do.

ON THEIR UPCOMING ALBUM

James: I’d say [the new album] is a lot different. We touched a nerve with people when we first came out because we harken back to this classic sound. We came in around the time when a lot of other people were looking to that era of music, which is good, the timing was perfect. Of course, that’s a sound we’re all into. For the next record, those production techniques haven’t gone away, we’re still trying to get classic sounds, but it’s more kind of looking back to stuff that we came up listening to. So that would be classic 80s. It’s a different kind of retro thing, I guess. We have a lot of the same elements as the first record, but there’s this whole other palette of sounds that we have to work with in our heads, and we’re excited that we get to use those on the next record.

John: The common thread between the last record and this next record is the songwriting. Fitz, before we even started writing for this record, set the bar and said, “Look, no matter what, every song has to be able to stand up on its own and not lean on a single, and it’s got to be all killer, no filler.” And when you’ll be able to listen to this record soon, you’ll see, that it’s the same as the last one, it’s all great songs. And I don’t think there’s any ones that are there for filler.

James: That’s really a litmus test for all of us, we’re musicians that have worked in a lot of different genres. And, like right now [Beck is performing in the background], Beck is playing “Lost Cause” and it’s the test for a musician like that. Can you play one of his songs on the guitar by itself and will it sound good? Will it sound like a song? And of course, for him, the answer is yes. For us, I mean the challenge in that is not having any guitar players, but would these songs make sense, say, if a pianist was sitting at a keyboard and singing by himself? I think so. And you know if the song is there, if the picture’s there, then all we have to do is show up and play the best we can. That’s really a challenge and a blessing at the same time.

ON THEIR MUSICAL BACKGROUNDS

James: John and I are both style hoppers, we listen to anything and everything. We’ve studied all different types of music. And they do seep in. Of course, you can’t go crazy and go and play thrash metal to our music. But yeah, you definitely can take pieces of yourself, that’s why we work as a band. It’s not just like, Keyboard Player A, Drummer B, we actually work together as musicians with like-minded taste.

John: James and I both came up playing jazz music mostly. It’s kind of a funny thing that happens with jazz musicians, there’s two camps; you hit a crossroads and it’s the point where you go, either that you enjoy the athleticism that’s involved with that style of music and the sheer technical facility that you’ve acquired from that music, that’s very very difficult. But some guys, I can’t speak for James but I know him well enough that he sort of shares this with me, that sort of lost its sparkle for me. I got tired of music feeling like an athletic event. I started to take more of an attraction, I don’t want to say simple music, but music that was less notes and more heartfelt. Sort of go that route. All of my favorite drummers are guys that didn’t play that many notes, and technically were not that great, but they were so heartfelt so we went that camp. I have the utmost respect for the other camp, which is to try and take it to the next level technically and play just amazing stuff, and I’m always blown away. A lot of those guys end up being true innovators. But, I couldn’t do that anymore.

James: I think where that line exists for me is, at a certain point, when you’re studying jazz and going further into it, there comes a point where you’re playing to an audience of musicians, or are you playing to an audience of your peers and people who you can actually change their perspective a little bit? If you’re playing to an audience where, like John was saying, you’re trying to take it to the next technical level, athletic level and intellectual level, that’s awesome. I have the utmost respect for that, like he said. But you’re playing to a room of saxophone players, drummers, bass players. There’s a time and place for that. But you couldn’t do that at a place like Outside Lands, you have to connect. That’s been the goal with this band from the beginning and with the next record, I think it’s really going to happen.

Noelle Scaggs of Fitz & The Tantrums performing at Outside Lands

Photos by Rachel and Olivia Fidler 
Click here to see all of Write To The Beat's photos from Outside Lands!

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