It's been a quick three years since Los Angeles-based soul-pop group Fitz and The Tantrums' delightful single "MoneyGrabber" raced up the charts and made a splash in the contemporary world of rock 'n' roll.
Fronted by the tall, charismatic singer-songwriter Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick, the six-piece powerhouse boasts an indie soul-rock sound with a new wave flair, a dance-beat vibe and a heavy dose of old-school R&B via the Motown and Stax catalogs.
Touring nearly nonstop behind the infectious hit and their debut album, "Pickin' Up the Pieces," Fitz and The Tantrums wowed audiences and critics across the country, from elite indie-rock festivals like South by Southwest in Austin to popular late-night TV shows like "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and the "Conan O'Brien Show."
Over the last few years, the band developed a solid reputation as a super-tight, energetic, audience-interactive act.
"MoneyGrabber" and the funky follow-up single "Don't Gotta Work It Out" enjoyed national radio airplay as the band's fan base expanded from coast to coast.
"Our live performance has evolved over the years," says saxophonist, keyboardist, guitarist and backing vocalist James King, one of the group's founding members. "We've got hundreds of shows under our belt now. We pride ourselves on having a live sound that feeds off of the crowds, and we've had time to play around with our stage show, making it its own beast."
King and Fitzpatrick initially launched Fitz and The Tantrums as an organ-based songwriting project in 2008. By 2009, they'd recruited vocalist Noelle Scaggs, keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna, bassist Joseph Karnes and drummer John Wicks into the lineup.
For a young band, they developed a sophisticated style very quickly, mixing elements of '60s power-pop, '70s-era AM Gold, classic disco, '80s British synth-rock and blue-eyed soul. More a finely tuned collage than a jumble of influences, the band's sound clicked with listeners and worked very well on stage with audiences.
"We've learned what works and what doesn't," King says. "We never worry about reproducing the albums; we just want to play well and allow the songs to come to life with the audience that's there."
King and Fitzpatrick grew up at the same time in Los Angeles. They attended the California Institute of the Arts together during their college years in the late 1980s and early '90s. Both were avid music fans, and both greatly appreciated the classic American musical styles.
"I learned a lot by osmosis," says King, who grew up in an enthusiastic musical family. "My father played jazz guitar, but I favored the keyboards and wind instruments over the guitar early on."
King picked up the flute at age 9 and the sax at age 11.
"I'd already messed around with the violin, piano and guitar," he says. "Both of my parents were musicians, so I never really had any doubt that I'd play, as well. I was a scrawny kid in middle school, so picking up a sax and making that big sound was appealing. It was my own bullhorn in a way."
Along the way, both King and Fitzpatrick became quite fluent in the sophisticated musical vocabulary of jazz and soul. Both were well versed in classic and contemporary rock 'n' roll, too.
"I was into everything from the Beatles to Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations ... from Louis Armstrong to Debussy," remembers King. "I sourced everything. I looked up to Charlie Parker as a soloist while my friends were looking up to Madonna as a pop star."
Fitz and The Tantrums released their earliest tracks in 2009 on an EP titled "Songs From a Breakup, Vol. 1" (recorded at Fitzpatrick's home studio in Los Angeles).
In 2010, they issued their first full-length album, a carefully self-produced collection of tightly arranged original titled "Pickin' Up the Pieces." The hit singles and the deep cuts demonstrated the band's love for dance music with a soulful vibe.
"At that point, we knew how to play off of each other very well, and the rhythm section was locked in so well that we never have to worry about anything," King says.
Last year, when Fitz and The Tantrums returned to the studio to make their second album, "More Than Just a Dream," they had more than a few new musical ideas up their sleeves and a healthy sense of confidence, as well.
"The pressure was definitely there to put this record out," King says. "We had to record it in a short amount of time, between tours, but we were all chomping at the bit to put something new together anyway. We were ready for the work."
There's a heavy dose of synthesizers and modern production tricks on the new collection. The cheerful hand claps, melodic verses and lush keyboard work of the upbeat lead single "Out of My League" remind the listener of the poppiest new wave of MTV's earliest days (think Human League, Echo and the Bunnymen, Howard Jones).
"A lot of people got turned on to us for that Motown-referencing sounds that we put forward with the first record," King says. "I'm sure that some audience members dropped off as a result of 'More Than Just a Dream,' but, for the most part, people have been pretty welcoming. I think you just have to plow forward and hope people come along for the ride. You can't worry too much about what people might say or write about it."
Produced by Tony Hoffer (Beck, Foster the People, Suede, Belle and Sebastian), "More Than Just a Dream" straddles the neo-soul and modern pop side of the band's playful personalities. The melodic and call-and-response interplay between Fitz and Scaggs works nicely throughout the collection.
King and his bandmates have equal opportunity to contribute ideas for song arrangements, lyrics, rhythms and instrumentation, he says.
"We do all have our say. It depends on the song. Some members can claim more ownership here and there, but everyone takes part."
King found himself in a newly expanded role as the auxiliary multi-instrumentalist along the way.
"I've had to really pick up the guitar for this new album, and I had to brush up on some keyboard chops and push things to the limit," he laughs. "It's kind of a tightrope walk every night.
"There's no doubt that the sound of the songs on this new album went a little more synth-driven," King adds. "That aspect developed quite a bit. We knew that if we'd just gone ahead and made another record that sounded very much like the first one, we were going to feel kind of stagnant. We had to bring a lot of our other influences to the floor to make this record."
Fitz and The Tantrums' most recent single, an instantly catchy whistler/dance-rocker titled "The Walker," references the "Silver Lake Walker," a colorful fixture in Fitzpatrick's old L.A. neighborhood. King's quirky baritone sax solos and accents provide balance to the gleam of the synth-based production.
Another example of the vintage-meets-contemporary balancing act on "More Than Just a Dream" comes on "Get Away," a groovy tune with a ska-tinged rhythm and loads of rich, echo-laden organ.
"This album seems to be doing what we'd hoped it would do," says King. "A big part of that is how we interpret the songs live - how we put forward the idea and intent of each song on stage, without simply reproducing the track as it is on the album. We want to translate them well to a live-show setting. It takes some tweaking and fine-tuning, but, thankfully, we're able to do it."
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