"We've really been crankin' here," says Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick, frontman for the Los Angeles-based indie/soul sextet Fitz and the Tantrums. By "crankin'," he means working on a new studio album, the band's second, which is tentatively scheduled for a mid-2012 release. Fitzpatrick is speaking from his cellphone in Los Angeles, where he and the gang have been squeezing in studio sessions and enjoying some downtime before heading back on the road for a headlining tour.
Since the Tantrums' debut smash, Pickin' Up the Pieces, was released in 2010, the band literally hasn't stopped touring, bringing their old-school, Stax-influenced ruckus to devoted legions across the country. They make it look easy; Fitz and his gorgeous diva backing vocalist, Noelle Scaggs, harmonize and flirt while the band behind them kicks around dusty grooves like rocks on a dirt road. But being a Tantrum is a demanding gig.
"We did a winter tour last January and February where we were playing three shows a day, every single day, for five weeks straight," Fitzpatrick says. "And just since January alone, we've played over 200 shows. In the 14 months since the record came out, I can't even count the number of shows that we've done."
Yes, these guys have a work ethic as old-fashioned as their sound. The project originally started innocently: in Fitzpatrick's living room, with the rich-voiced singer banging around on an old upright piano, an instrument that has come to define the Tantrums' sound: organic, slightly archaic, and mighty soulful. But it became clear rather quickly that Fitzpatrick's songs refused to be confined to solo keyboard pieces. After calling up an old pal, saxophonist James King, the project suddenly transformed into something bigger. In no time, a band came together: Scaggs, drummer John Wicks, bassist Ethan Phillips, and keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna were all contacted in a rapid-fire series of phone calls and recommendations.
In December 2008, the band played their first local gig, a springboard into a frenzy of activity that still hasn't let up. For most bands, it takes years and years of hard work to rise from living rooms to late-night TV and top-tier music festivals. Fitzpatrick and the Tantrums sped up that process by compressing several years' worth of dedicated focus into a marathon recording-touring-promotional sprint.
"We've had a lot of good luck and good fortune, a lot of crazy serendipitous moments," Fitzpatrick says. "But at the same time, it's been in conjunction with working our freaking asses off! Three or four shows every day, radio station in the morning, radio station in the afternoon, playing an indie record store in the evening, then going to the show and playing, selling our own merch, and doing a meet-and-greet every single night. Doing every single interview, whether its somebody little bedroom blog or a local newspaper. I mean, we have clawed our way through everything, so it feels very rewarding to know that the hard work is paying off. But it's just like I was saying the other day—two years ago, I would have killed to have any of these opportunities. This summer, we got to Lollapalooza in front of, like, 25-30,000 people. We played Austin City Limits in front of, like, 40,000 people. We get to tour the country, and people show up, and they know our music and they're singing along to our music. It's crazy!"
With only one proper album to pad their set list, it's safe to say Fitz and the Tantrums could play their hits (like the infectious stomper "MoneyGrabber") in their sleep.
"We're all hungry to get new songs in there," Fitzpatrick says. "I'm surprised that I'm not tired of playing these songs. But I love them so much and have such a good time playing them, and when you have an audience that's as into it as our fans have been, it's just hard not to stay connected to it.
"Our live show is very high-energy; it's extroverted," he continues. "Noel and I are singing, we're harmonizing, we're dancing, always trying to engage the audience to be the seventh member of the performance. It's always about the creation of music. It always has that unique signature of just playing live, and there are moments when something magical will happen. Somebody in the song was supposed to stop and John, our drummer, will give a big fill and just take us to a whole other level in the song. And everyone sort of has to hold and keep going with you. Noel and I will look at each other and say, ‘Oh my god, do you hear what these guys are doing right now?' and we'll start laughing and look at the other guys, and they're smiling. And we'll look out at the audience, and they're having the same experience where they're like, ‘Holy shit! This thing just went to 11!'"