They’re one of the hottest indie pop and neo soul bands in all of music.
This Friday, Fitz and the Tantrums rock The Anthem in Southwest D.C.
“Anybody that’s seen us play live knows that we really put on a super high-energy show,” frontman Michael Fitzpatrick told WTOP. “We’re never standing there like wallflowers. It’s full-tilt the whole time.”
The “Fitz” said he always has a great time playing in the nation’s capital.
“D.C. has been such an amazing supporter of this band since Day 1,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’ve done so many nights at the 9:30 Club, sold out every time. … I couldn’t wait to get back to D.C. to play at The Anthem. It’ll be our first time there.”
Born in Montluçon, France, in 1970, Fitzpatrick moved to Los Angeles when he was 5.
“Like a lot of musicians, you’re kinda just born with it in your bones,” he said. “Much to my parents’ chagrin, I probably drove them absolutely nuts, but from the second I was born, I never stopped singing in the house, driving everyone crazy on road trips.”
While he doesn’t come from a family of musicians, his relatives are avid music fans.
“My dad is a crazy classical music and opera fanatic — he listens to it at Volume 11,” Fitzpatrick said. “Then I had an older brother that turned me onto some awesome new wave, classic rock and hip-hop.”
He honed his craft by studying vocals at the L.A. County High School for the Arts.
“That’s really where I dug into my love of music,” Fitzpatrick said.
In college, he briefly dabbled in filmmaking at the California Institute of the Arts.
“Growing up in L.A., you’re forced to think, ‘Maybe I wanna be in the movie business!’ So I went to Cal Arts for filmmaking, not realizing that it wasn’t about Hollywood moviemaking. It was all very experimental filmmaking like Sam Breckenridge.”
“But it turned out to be an awesome learning experience and has helped to really inform all of our music videos, all of our visual presentation of the band,” he said.
More importantly, he met future bandmate James King in a subterranean hangout where creative students gathered on campus.
“That’s where we originally met,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s such a phenomenal multi-instrumentalist. Obviously, first and foremost, he plays every saxophone known to man. … I knew I wanted the first record to really rely on saxophone, so I gave him a call and we started working up those first songs together.”
It was also King who suggested Noelle Scaggs to join as the co-lead vocalist.
“I said, ‘We need an amazing female vocalist to counter me on these songs,'” Fitzpatrick said. “He had just done a hip-hop tour with her … so she was the first person that he said we should call. It just all worked. You don’t know if your voices are going to blend well together, but it just worked instantaneously.”
Thus, the band officially formed in 2008, bringing in Joseph Karnes (bass guitar), Jeremy Ruzumna (keyboards) and John Wicks (drums and percussion).
“It can be hard to find the right pairing of people with the right amount talent, similar style and commitment,” Fitzpatrick said. “This was just one of those magic moments: six phones calls, we were in a room, we played one song and walked out of the room.”
He immediately called The Hotel Cafe in L.A. and booked the group’s first gig.
“A week later I walked in and said, ‘We’ve got a show next week!’ Everyone was like, ‘We’ve played one song!’ It was just magic. I could tell. It sounded like we’d been playing together for years. We played that show a week later and haven’t stopped playing shows and touring since that day almost 11 years ago to the day.”
But it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll, or in this case, neo soul.
“We had been in so many bands before, all had struggled, busted our butts but could never really catch a break,” Fitzpatrick said. “For me personally it was almost 10 years of abject rejection, total rejection from the music industry, having to guilt trip 10 people to come to our show.”
They got their break when their EP was recommended to Adam Levine of Maroon 5.
“It all sounds like some made-up fairy tale,” Fitzpatrick said. “Somehow this tattoo artist was visiting form New York, picked up our CD, took it back to New York. Adam Levine walks in, he says, ‘Adam, you gotta hear my new favorite band, Fitz & The Tantrums.’ He plays it, Adam freaks out, he starts tweeting about us, and we start talking.”
A week later, they were performing at an L.A. club only to spot Levine sitting on a couch around the perimeter of the stage.
“He gave us a high five and left, then two days later we got the offer to open up for Maroon 5 on this huge college tour,” Fitzpatrick said. “We were all losing our minds like, ‘This is amazing,’ until we realized, ‘Oh, this is going to cost us a lot of money to go out on tour and keep up with these big tour buses.’ Everybody just dug deep, we almost went broke as a band, but we just rallied. I put all my savings into the band.”
Turns out, it was the best decision he ever made.
“That was the first thing that took us from a local or regional band to being on a national level,” Fitzpatrick said. “People were in the early days of Facebook posting, ‘Yo, I just saw this band, they’re coming to the Northeast soon, you gotta go check ’em out.’ It just spread like wildfire.”
The exposure landed them their first record deal with Dangerbird Records to release their debut studio album, “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” (2010).
“We made that record in my living room for like $20, literally, just with one crappy mic that we were all one-by-one layering,” Fitzpatrick said. “That record is what put us on the map, so I can never listen to it in any other way than as the thing that made all my dreams come true.”
Next, they wrote 40 songs in 30 days and switched labels to Elektra Records for their second album, “More Than Just a Dream” (2013). It featured a pair of No. 1 alternative hits, “Out of My League” and “The Walker,” the latter featuring a signature whistle.
“I’m always trying to start a little vibe, a little ditty,” Fitzpatrick said. “I played this little keyboard line and had this beat going and I just started whistling. … I was like, ‘Wait. That’s like annoyingly catchy.’ … I knew the whistling was going to annoy the crap out of everybody but get stuck in their head. Then we just tried to build a song around that.”
He created another earworm for their third album, “Fitz & The Tantrums” (2016), only this time it wasn’t a whistle, it was a clap for the smash hit “Handclap.”
“I walked into my friend’s studio, Sam Hollander, and said, ‘I’m tired of letting my brain get in the way. Just give me the cheesiest horn sample you can give me. Now give me a crappy old drum beat.’ …. Sam and I just looked at each other and we wrote that song in 15 minutes, start to finish. About seven minutes into writing it, I knew this was going to be the biggest song we ever had.”
His original scratch track was the one the band ultimately used for the recording.
“That’s on the record that people have heard a gazillion times now,” Fitzpatrick said. “I tried five times to recreate it with an expensive mic in a fancy studio, but I could never capture the same energy, I think because there was so much elation and relief knowing I had that song.”
Now, they’re touring the band’s heartfelt fourth album, “All the Feels” (2019).
“The bigger the song you have, the more this albatross, this monkey on your back [where] everyone at your label is like, ‘I don’t know, is it ‘Handclap’ though?’ … At some point, I had to let all those expectations go and just make a record we were proud of. I’m more proud of this record than any one before.”
What about this record makes him the most proud?
“There are so many important messages from dealing with stress, anxiety and depression to wanting to feel more connected to your friends and family in a digital age when we’re all staring at our phones 24/7,” he said. “Just wanting to put out those positive messages, while acknowledging we’re all human and there’s a struggle for all of us everyday to keep our heads above water.”
He credits this uplifting outlook to becoming a husband and father of three.
“I was in one of the darkest places I had ever been. I had put all my energy into reaching my goal, then you reach your goal and you realize it doesn’t do what you think it’s going to do. At the end of the day, you can’t hold your career and success and spoon it at night.”
“I was feeling very detached from my world, from my friends, from my family. You’re a traveling nomad in a different city every day. It’s a very bizarre lifestyle, so for me to meet my wife Kaylee [DeFer] and have our kids and start a family, it really saved me and grounded me and gave me more of a purpose than ever.”
Hear my full conversation with Michael Fitzpatrick below: