'Indie-soul-pop' sextet Fitz and the Tantrums will be performing at DeLuna Fest, set for Sept. 21-23 on Pensacola Beach. / Brian Pritchard/Special to GoPensacola.com
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“Don’t come back, anytime, I’ve already had your kind/This is your payback, Moneygrabber...”
With those words providing the anthemic chorus on Fitz and the Tantrums’ sweet, soul-drenched single “Moneygrabber,” the L.A.-based sextet — singer/keyboardist Michael Fitzgerald, singer/percussionist Noelle Scaggs, horn/wind player James King, bassist Joseph Karnes, keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna and drummer John Wicks — grabbed the zeitgeist and broke through to radio airplay coast to coast. It was the culmination of tons of work, including tours with Maroon 5 and Flogging Molly and TV appearances on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “Conan,” as well as popping up on singer (and inspiration) Daryl Hall’s popular web series, “Live From Daryl’s House.” With a sound that mixes classic Stax/Motown-era soul with a taste of ‘80s slickness, the band will hit DeLuna Fest just ahead of the release of its second full-length album.
Bassist Joseph Karnes discussed the band’s roller-coaster ride to success in a telephone interview.
Q: Fitz and the Tantrums has found a lot of its audience in the alternative/indie rock world, but your sound stands out as quite different from a lot of what you hear on those sorts of playlists. Talk a bit about that.
A: Our first record was definitely very influenced by Motown/Stax kind of soul period of stuff, but we wanted to mix things up and not just do a pastiche of that kind of stuff. We didn’t want to do a direct copy, and we wanted to mix it with some of those ’80s influences that we all love. It’s kind of a hybrid. We call it “indie-soul-pop.” Basically, we’re a pop band that writes songs that are reminiscent of Motown stuff.
Q: At the same time, there is a bit of a neo-soul movement going on at the moment. What do you see as your band’s place in that?
A: There’s been a movement going on for a little while. It’s something we are tied to because of where our influences come from, but Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, for example, are one of the best bands out there, and make some of the best music, but theirs is a little more traditional-sounding; their homage is a little more authentic. We want to take that sound and change it up and try to do something new that you haven’t really heard before. Sometimes that comes across in subtle ways, and sometimes, like with this new record, things are going to change quite a bit.
Q: You mentioned ’80s influence. What are some of the ’80s acts that inspire the Fitz and the Tantrums sound?
A: Hall & Oates, the Style Council, ABC ... bands like that, that came from their own version of a soul place that turned it’s on its edge a little bit. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Q: One of the many things your band is noteworthy for is that it doesn’t include a guitarist. Talk a bit about that choice.
A: I think when Fitz was first putting this project together, he’s a piano player, so it was very natural that the first songs were on piano or organ, keyboard-based. He made a conscious decision at the time to do something a little different, set a challenge for ourselves to do something that didn’t have guitar in it. In particular, I think he was maybe a little tired of hearing guitar in stuff. And when the songs were being demoed up, by the time they got to where they got fleshed out, it was like, “oh wow! This sounds great! We don’t need a guitar.”
It’s been a fun challenge for us to do it that way, to try to fill it out with a bass, a drum set, a keyboard and one horn. There’s only one chordal instrument in the band — the keyboard — so it’s a fun challenge to make a large sound with so few instruments.
Q: Talk a bit about what having two singers and the male/female vocal dynamic brings to your band.
A: All the songs on the first record, almost all of them, are songs about relationships and everything that goes along with that. The amazing chemistry that Fitz and Noelle have together, on stage in particular, is electric and kinetic, but it also tells the story of the songs. The interplay when we’re on stage, the dynamic between males and females in general, all of that is played out on stage in a fun way. To have a couple of people be able to work a crowd that way is amazing.
Q: Obviously, your instrument, bass, is a key element of a soul sound. What do you enjoy about playing this kind of music?
A: Traditionally, this kind of music is very bass-forward stuff, so it’s a joy to play. I think that’s one of the main elements we take from the soul period is that rhythm approach, having very massive bass lines. It’s just really fun to do that. And not having guitar in the band, there’s a little bit of freedom there on my part to kind of represent. It’s a dream band for a bass player to be in. There’s a lot of space with these guys. Everyone is an amazing musician.
Q: What was special about “Moneygrabber” that you think caused it to grab the zeitgeist?
A: I think it comes right out with a really fun chorus that everyone wats to sing along to. I think that lyric, “don’t come back, anytime,” it’s somthing that can empower people who are going through something in a relationship that they may not enjoy. So there’s that.
There’s also the fact that the song came out during the financial crisis, and all the Wall Street debacle that was going on, so it could be that it took on another meaning at that time. I’m not sure, I haven’t done a poll or anything to see if that’s what people are celebrating when they sing this — “give us our money back, Wall Street” — but think all of that combined put the song on the map.
Q: Of course, the video grabs attention, too. Talk about making that video.
A: It was really a great video to make. The main concept was to try to bring the album cover to life; the blues and reds with the sharp black background. It was made on a budget, and the director just did an amazing job with it. It showcases the band and has beautiful imagery.
Q: Has the short time since “Picking Up the Pieces” was released been a bit of a rollercoaster ride?
A: It’s a total rollercoaster ride. To think back to a year and half ago, around Jan. 2011, when radio really started to pick up the single, a lot has happened, watching the audience grow — if you don’t look up and see what’s going on, it can really feel like a rollercoaster. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work, and I know we’re all incredibly grateful for whatever success our band has found.
Q: What are some of the moments you’ve experienced where you’ve looked around and said to yourself, “I can’t believe this is happening to us”?
A: I think Lollapalooza (2011) was a big one for us. We played on the main stage, but it was early on Saturday after a huge Friday night. We played at like, 2 o’clock and were like, “hopefully, people will show up.” There are a lot of great bands on a lot of stages. By the time we got on stage, there was a field of, I don’t know, 20-30,000 people, all really into it. That was a big moment for us. After the single started to hit, seeing that it was connecting with this many people was a big moment for us all. That was one that stood out for me, realizing that people care and want to see this band. I have a lot of gratitude.
Q: You mentioned you were working on your follow-up album. How’s that coming together?
A: The (new) record is in the can. We’ve been working on it all spring and into the summer. I think you’re definitely going to see a lot more of those ’80s influences. We’ve expanded our sonic palatte, I think that’s one big thing. We’ve added some synthesizers, there’s actually a little bit of guitar on a couple of songs. We really enjoyed the process and the challenge of limiting ourselves, trying to do as much as we can with piano and organ and bass and saxophone and drums and vocals and tamborine, but in writing this newest batch of songs, we said, “let’s see what these songs need, and let’s have fun and expand our sound and try to push our music and our sound forward.” I think it’s a lot more of the ’80s side as opposed to the ’60s side of our sound. We’re very happy with it, and we hope everyone else will be, too. It’s a really fun, high-energy record.
The last record was made before we were actually touring heavily — there were shows, but nothing on too grand of a scale. After you spend two years on the road, you start to see, “All right, we need THESE kinds of songs. This is a vibe that we want to put across.”
So I think that had an influence on where we wanted to take this; what kind of experience we wanted to provide for people that come to our shows, which is a highly interactive, dance-heavy good time. We want people to walk away with a glow, and feel like they saw something really great that will take them away from their daily worries, if only for a couple of hours. If we can do that, we’ve accomplished our goal. That’s kind of what we’re going for with this new record, too.
Q: Are you playing some of the new stuff live?
A: There’s one or two that we’ve been playing over the last year that we’ll continue to play, but we’re holding off on the rest until we start our fall tour in October. We actually have to go into a highly intensive rehearsal period and see how the actual performance works out. It’s going to take a second for us to actually wrap our heads around how to pull it off live.
Q: DeLuna Fest will be your first time playing Pensacola. What can we expect?
A: We’re very excited to be there. We haven’t played Pensacola before, or that area — I think the closest we’ve been is Mobile. What you’re going to get is a high-energy show. We’re going to do everything you can to help you shake your inhibitions and join us, because we need the crowd’s participation as much as the crowd needs us to put on a good show. The crowd is like a member of the band.
With a sound that mixes classic Stax/Motown-era soul with a taste of '80s slickness, Fitz and the Tantrums will hit DeLuna Fest just ahead of the release of its second full-length album.
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