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Spotlite

SOUL-BARING

A Spotlite on FITZ from FITZ & THE TANTRUMS

By Tyler Malone

August 2011


There’s an old Arthur Conley classic called “Sweet Soul Music” that goes: “Do ya like good music? That sweet Soul music?” And it’s true: Soul music is good music. Listen to some of the old Motown records and you hear something special. The melodies may be simple, the lyrics may be uncomplicated, and the delivery may seem effortless–but the songs remain timeless. They capture something in the human spirit that can’t be defined, it can only be appreciated. Soul gets at the soul–if there is such a thing.

Great songwriting in any genre of music, at least to me, must do just that: get at the soul–if there is such a thing. There’s something to be said of a song that manages to be so simple and perfect that when you hear it you wonder how the hell no one had written it before. It moves you–maybe to tears, maybe to the dancefloor–but it moves you. If there’s one genre that defines that kind of song craftsmanship, that is Soul music. And the Motown era in the 50s, 60s and early 70s (which though I call the Motown era, I do not mean to dismiss all the great non-Motown songs and singers), was perhaps the greatest period of songwriting. It was an era of baring one’s soul.

I began the day a little heartbroken, due to personal matters I needn’t go into, and so needless to say I needed some commiseration. Who did I turn to for such empathy? I went straight to my iTunes to listen to the tracks of the three wisemen of Soul: Holland-Dozier-Holland. They always manage to make a listener feel less alone. They always say exactly what you needed said, what you wanted to say yourself. I then branched out to other Soul songs and songwriters. I ended up playing the ultimate soul-baring song, Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (written by William Witherspoon, Paul Riser and James Dean), and kept replaying it, over and over, until I stopped weighing my own heavy heart and began pondering what it is that makes a perfect song.

A few hours later, an hour or two before my interview with the singer of the recent Soul sensations Fitz & The Tantrums, I shifted from listening to old Soul music to listening to neo Soul music–specifically Fitz & The Tantrums’ brilliant debut Pickin’ Up The Pieces. It was an easy transition from the Motown classics to Fitz’s brand of hybrid Soul (which incorporates lots of other influences, feels new and relevant, but still has some of that special something contained in the old Soul classics). I got a lot of the same soul-satisfaction from these tracks as I had from those timeless tunes a few hours earlier. And I ended up listening to the fantastic “MoneyGrabber” on repeat, much as I had “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” earlier in the day. “MoneyGrabber” is so infectious that I’m surprised the CDC hasn’t put a stop it.

Fitz & the Tantrums are some of the newest stars in Soul music, and they really have got some Soul magic. A lot of that magic exudes from a man who goes by Fitz, the leader of the group, who is willing to bare his soul, while creating some Soul.

I spoke with him over the phone while he and his band were on their tour bus, and we talked about what makes a great song, the recent Soul music revival, the band’s meteoric rise to the top, and much more.

Tyler Malone: How’s the tour going?

Fitz: It’s going great. We’re in the bus right now. We just played a 4th of July show in Louisville, Kentucky, and now we’re headed down to Nashville–we’ve got a sold-out show in Nashville tonight, so that’ll be a fun one.

TM: Nice. So where’s your favorite place you’ve played so far?

F: Ever? Anywhere?

TM: Yeah.

F: Well, there’s so many. We got to play a hometown show at the historic El Rey Theater–that was an amazing place to play. Uhhh, hmm, when we were in Europe we got to play this famous venue called The Paradiso, which is just one of the most beautiful venues–it’s this old church that’s been renovated. All over the place. There’s been so many different places, because each city, you know, has it’s own unique kind of vibe and personality. Sometimes it’s a small, sweaty, funky little club, and sometimes it’s some brand spankin’ new place. It’s just a trip to me moving every day and having a totally different vibe from day to day.

TM: How was the show you had in New York in Central Park the other day?

F: Yeah, we played Central Park’s SummerStage which was hot and sweaty, but amazing. You know, New York’s been one of our most supportive cities since the very beginning, so it was great. And I have family there, so they were all there. It was just a special day.

TM: So I’m sure you’ve told this story a million times, but for our readers who may not be familiar, could you give us a brief rundown of how the band got started?

F: Yeah, the band was born out of a moment where I was heartbroken and losing my mind. I had a no-talking policy with the ex-girlfriend, and so when she called me one day I declined the phone call. Later, I listened to the message and it said: “Hey, I know we’re not supposed to be talking, but my neighbor has a family emergency so he’s moving at the end of today, and he’s got this old church organ in the basement. He’s selling it for $50. I’m not sure if it works, but he’s got some guys coming to take it out. I know you’re a crazy keyboard collector and fanatic, so I just wanted to let you know that if you put $50 in his hand, the organ’s yours.”

So I got the church organ, moved it into my house, and I turned it on, and it all worked. Sometimes you get possession of an instrument that is so inspiring and has some sort of spirits already inside it. I felt like anything I did on it was a new idea or generated an idea, and I was definitely rife with a lot of hurt and pain inside, and I was ready to pour it out. I sat down that night and wrote the first song for the band (called “Breaking the Chains of Love”). That kind of just kicked off the whole thing.

I wanted to add amazing female vocals on there, saxophone and some guitars. I called up my buddy James King, who’s one of the best sax players on the West Coast, and he came down with all his horns and started forming horn sections. When it came to finding a vocalist he said that there was one person, and one person only, and said I had to call Noelle [Scaggs]. We pretty much made five phone calls, and had a rehearsal a few days later, and then it was pretty much on, and we’ve never really looked back since. It’s just been a crazy whirlwind of serendipitous moments with a ton of hard work, and putting the pedal to the metal for three years straight, just trying to build this thing little by little.

TM: And it’s been working, now you guys have really seemed to hit the mainstream. How does that feel? What’s like the craziest thing that’s happen since you’ve hit it big?

F: So many dreams have come true, from doing Conan to Leno, I mean just all of it. We’re getting to play in front of huge crowds now on the festival circuit. I mean just showing up in a city that we’ve never been to before and selling out a show of 6-, 7-, 800, to like 1,000 people, and having everyone singing along. It’s just all kind of mind-blowing.

TM: Have you met any famous musicians that you were in love with or that you really respected that you then got to finally meet? Any interesting stories?

F: We were lucky enough to be invited by Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates–he has this internet television show called Live from Daryl’s House–and he invited us out to his home in Upstate New York where he tapes the show. We performed some of his songs, he does some of ours, and we traded off verses. It was a pretty incredible day. He’s definitely such an amazing talent and singer. That was amazing. We got to tour with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and that was a real blessing and a great experience. But yeah, we’ve definitely been able to get out there and meet and even work with some of our idols.

TM: Is there any one idol that you would love to meet or work with but haven’t had the opportunity to yet?

F: A ton. I mean, Cee Lo. I dunno who else off hand. There’s so many. But yeah, we can just say Cee Lo if you just want one.

TM: I know you have a lot of great musical influences, but I’m wondering what’s your favorite song of all time? Do you have one? And what is it about that song that typifies great songwriting for you?

F: Oh, there’s too many. I’m really just a lover of great songwriting. I’ve always been sort of fascinated with that something that certain songs have where you hear it once and it gets in your head and you just can’t get it out. That’s why I’d say I’ve gravitated towards that period of songwriting from the late 60s–you know, Motown, Stax–they just had some of the strongest songwriting and melodies and backup vocals. And I’m also a lover of other stuff–I have tons of guilty pleasure pop songs that I think a lot of people sort of shun because it is maybe by some mainstream pop artist, but sometimes if I just listen to the songwriting and go: “God, that’s…”

TM: Yeah, I mean a well-written song is a well-written song.

F: Absolutely. I produced this one Carter Family style group called the Chapin Sisters

TM: That’s really weird, I actually have met them before through a buddy of mine. I absolutely love their cover of “Toxic.”

F: Ha! That’s what I was coming to. I started doing recording with them and they had done some traditional folk songs, and I said you guys have to do a cover of Britney Spears‘ “Toxic.”

TM: That cover of “Toxic” is the most amazing rendition of that song! I had absolutely no clue you had anything to do with that. Very cool.

F: Yeah, that was my idea! At first they looked at me like: “What?!?” And I said: “Listen to the song, it’s one of the best written songs.” One of the magic parts of that song is that the melody is so strong, but the chord never changes. It is the same chords from the verse to the chorus, but the melody is so fantastic. As soon as they started building the song in their style and with their eerie harmonies and stuff, it just really worked in this brilliant way.

TM: Yeah, that song is fantastic. I met them through Sam Sparro, who is an old friend of mine.

F: Oh nice, yeah, well, our drummer John and our keyboardist Jeremy have actually played a couple shows with Sam when he was doing a couple shows in LA and needed some guys to back him up.

TM: Nice. So I know you mentioned Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, and obviously there’s Amy Winehouse, etc. It seems like there’s a new resurgence of old school Soul. Do you see that as well? And does that excite you?

F: Yeah, absolutely there is. There’s obviously Amy Winehouse, but a lot of the credit for her can be given to Sharon and to The Dap-Kings because they were the band on that record and helped write a lot of it. Really the most credit overall should go to Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings because they’ve been doing it forever, long before anyone else was, you know, keeping that torch alive. And there definitely is a movement. There’s everyone from Raphael Saadiq to Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, The Plan B in the UK. I mean there’s a lot of people in the Soul movement right now, and I like that.

It’s funny, people sometimes go: “Is there room for that many?” And I go: “Well, shit, there’s about 10,000 bands all playing rock’n'roll.” And what I like is that everyone is doing their slightly different take. Black Joe Lewis is more of a blues version of that. Sharon is just a straight-up traditionalist. I’d say we are this sort of hybrid of Soul music, 80s, British Invasion bands like ABC and Style Council. We’ve got a little bit of Talking Heads, a little bit of hip-hop in there. So ours is really just this weird hybrid.

TM: I know I asked you earlier what is your favorite song, but I also wanted to ask you what is your favorite song of your own that you like to play?

F: I’d say my favorite is a track called “Don’t Gotta Work It Out.” I love the songwriting on it, and I’m especially proud of the production.

TM: I know you’re currently touring, but are you guys at all thinking about a next album at all? Are you working on any new material or is that far down the line?

F: Well, this thing just keeps getting bigger and bigger by the day. Today we’re actually on the highest position we’ve ever been on iTunes.

TM: Oh wow! Congratulations!

F: Thanks man. So we’re definitely busy. We’re booked solid touring until Christmas. But we’ve been coming up with tons of ideas during sound checks on the road. Someone will break out a phone and record whatever we’re jamming on. We have so many ideas, and though it’s gonna be a minute before we’re able to actually carve out some time to actually work in earnest on the record, we’re always trying to be creative and come up with new ideas and put them in the bank for when the time finally comes.

TM: Great to hear. Well, thank you very much for giving us your time.

F: No, thank you, brother. And um, we’ll be back in New York in the Fall in like late October or early November. We’re doing a show at Terminal 5.

TM: Sounds great! Well, we’ll see you there.

F: Awesome. I love it, brother.

Fitz & The Tantrums are a Los Angeles based band whose recipe for success is: six killer musicians, five dapper suits, irresistible songs, some serendipity and one vintage organ. Since their first show at Hollywood’s Hotel Café in December 2008, Fitz and co. have toured with Maroon 5, played to thousands at Colorado’s world famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre, shared the stage New Year’s Eve with Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, and performed on KCRW’s esteemed show, Morning Becomes Eclectic, all this on the strength of their stellar five-song EP, Songs for a Breakup, Vol. 1. For some bands, it takes a lifetime to build this success, but few performers deliver an unrestrained blast of soul-clapping, get-down-on-the-floor, moneymaker shakers like Fitz and the Tantrums. Now post-release of their debut full length, Pickin’ Up the Pieces, which has since earned them a 3 ½ star album review in Rolling Stone, the troupe is poised to get down in dancehalls across the universe.

LINKS:

Fitz & The Tantrums Official Site

Written by Tyler Malone

Photography Courtesy of Fitz & The Tantrums

Design by Marie Havens

Captions:

Page 1/Cover:

FITZ from FITZ & THE TANTRUMS, Photography Courtesy of FITZ from FITZ & THE TANTRUMS

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FITZ from FITZ & THE TANTRUMS, Photography by Samantha Kuppig / Courtesy of FITZ from FITZ & THE TANTRUMS

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FITZ from FITZ & THE TANTRUMS, Photography Courtesy of FITZ from FITZ & THE TANTRUMS

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FITZ from FITZ & THE TANTRUMS, Photography by Cara Robbins / Courtesy of FITZ from FITZ & THE TANTRUMS

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FITZ from FITZ & THE TANTRUMS, Photography Courtesy of FITZ from FITZ & THE TANTRUMS

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FITZ from FITZ & THE TANTRUMS, Photography by Brantley Guttierez / Courtesy of FITZ from FITZ & THE TANTRUMS

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