Fitz & the Tantrums a modern fairy taleIn Los Angeles in 2008, Michael Fitzpatrick was just a guy writing songs on an old church organ. Now, three years later, he’s the lead singer/songwriter of retro-soul outfit Fitz & the Tantrums, a band that’s had a dizzyingly quick journey from DIY indie upstart to headliner, selling out shows across North America thanks to the success of their first full-length album, Pickin’ Up the Pieces and its irresistibly catchy lead single, “Moneygrabber.” Fitzpatrick spoke with WE over the phone on the road in L.A., giving us his account of this rock ’n’ roll twist on the classic Cinderella story.
WE: There’s been huge momentum for you the last few years.
Michael Fitzpatrick: When we started as a band, our whole foundation was a do-it-yourself approach. Nobody was really giving us the time of day in any shape or form. We just hoed our own road and started playing out before we even had songs to play out. And just really developed our own fan base organically. In L.A. there’s not really a music scene. There’s an industry but not really — it’s not like a Boston or a Chicago that’s such a music town. But we quickly caught on with people, our live show, and just released the record on our own and just kept plugging away by ourselves.
Has it been this way since you started?
One of the things about this band is it’s just had this magic around it since the outset. Even from the formation of the band, a lot of times it can take a lot of phone calls and trying out people to find the right people in the band and this was literally the five people we called and that’s the band that’s here today, which is never the case. And each one of these guys is a true talent in their own right. And there’s something that’s magical happening when you put the six of us together on stage or in a room or in a studio. I think we had played 10 shows when Flogging Molly, the Irish punk band, bizarrely enough asked us to go out on the road with them. We had played 10 shows and we were standing out on the stage at Red Rocks in Colorado, one of the most famous venues in all of America, in front of 10,000 people just going, “how did this happen?”
So, did that launch you to your next big break?
Adam Levine, from Maroon 5, was going to get a tattoo from his favourite tattoo artist in New York City and the guy had found out about us through our NPR station in L.A., Googled it and bought the record. So, when Adam walked in, he said, ‘Adam, you gotta hear this new band. Fitz and the Tantrums is my favourite new band in a long time. Adam hears it and apparently Adam doesn’t like anything and he flips out and a week and a half later we’re opening for Maroon 5 on their college tour two falls ago. It’s just been one crazy opportunity like that after another. At the same time, we were a do-it-yourself band, self-financed, self everything. These were really amazing opportunities as well as major stresses for us [like], “how are we even going to pull this off?” We can’t say no to Maroon 5, but to go out on the road following a major act like that costs a lot of money. It was really, for every one in the band, putting their blood, sweat and tears and personal sacrifice into making these moments happen.
When did it start to turn around?
We went to SXSW that year and somehow got on the short list of being one of the buzz bands of that year, whatever that means. Everyone congratulating us and yet we were broke, outta money, outta resources. Sort of at the wit’s end of what we could do on our own. And, having a minor coronary in the process. We had played a show for Dangerbird Records the last night of South By and then flew home and the label president asked me out to coffee the next day and said, “You know, I just believe so much in what you guys have done on your own, you didn’t wait for anyone to give it to you, you just went out and took it. I want to be in business with you.” That was a huge change for us. As a band, we had to all of a sudden not be completely in control of our destiny. We had partners now that we had to be in line with. But, at the same time, we went from being the band and two managers to a whole team of people which was really incredible. The record came out last August and it just kind of caught fire. We got lucky! We were invited to do Jimmy Kimmel, and Carson Daly, and Conan, and just all these amazing opportunities one after another. It culminated with us going out on tour this past January. We called it the Coldest Fucking Tour Ever. We literally were in every coldest city in America following Snowpocalypse as it was named by the news outlets. Never a day above freezing. No roadies, no nothing, doing three shows a day... But we were able to sell out the entire tour pretty much.
How did SXSW go this year?
We were able to go to SXSW this year being the sort of fairy tale story, what SXSW really should be about: discovering unsigned artists, not just ego-stroking and releasing of bands that already have a record deal’s albums. That was a really cool moment to come full circle and come back to the SXSW community and Austin and people so happy that that kind of story can still exist within the constructs of SXSW. It’s just been a wild ride. For me, personally, every single dream has come true. But, at the same time, it’s a lot of work.
What’s your background?
I was always a singer, my whole entire life. I went to a high school for the arts, studied singing. Went to college and figured I’d study film, decided I’d have the genius idea I’d study experimental film. There’s a real industry and a lot of job opportunities for that! (Laughs) And that’s where I met one of my band mates, James King, our saxophonist, and put together my first college band, went into the studio and I recorded my vocals and that was the first time I heard my vocals with the rough takes, with the mixer and what the engineer was doing, and I was hooked. I pretty much called my dad and said, “I know you just paid for four years of college for film-making, but I’m going back to my one true love, which is music.”
Did he support that?
I grew up in an arts family. My dad used to be in arts education and then worked in museums, so I was very, very fortunate to have parents that back the idea of being an artist. I could tell you he regretted it in my 20s when I kept coming back to him for handouts because I couldn’t pay my rent that month, but it’s all paying off now, in theory. (Laughs)
What music did you listen to as a kid?
I grew up with parents who were classical music freaks. And opera freaks. And my dad’s kind of a fascist. When he’s home, you can’t listen to anything else in the house. So the one concession I could get driving to school in the morning was I could talk my mom into putting the oldies station on. That’s where I first got introduced to soul music. And, as a singer, just the harmonies and background vocals, I just loved it and I loved the emotion of the songs. To this day, hands down, it’s my favourite period of production. As a student of songwriting, I’m obsessed with what makes a song great. It’s the magic behind what makes for a catchy song, where before it’s even over you’re already singing along. Just to me those songs were some of the best examples of that. One of the secrets is background vocals and hand claps. That’s a sure way to have a hit song.
Fitz & the Tantrums plays Monday, May 30 at Venue (881 Granville), 8pm. Tickets $17 (RC, Z).