Deep into the recording of his band's sophomore album (and Elektra Records debut), More Than Just a Dream, Fitz and the Tantrums frontman Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick suffered through "many, many sleepless nights." Battling a frenetic, air-tight recording schedule, he and his bandmates attempted to experiment and mature sonically, pushing the indie-meets-Motown style of their 2010 breakout, Pickin' Up the Pieces, in more eclectic directions.
But Fitzpatrick sounds energized and de-stressed in the present, driving to an L.A. studio for "one final tweaker session," with insomnia thankfully in the rear-view.
"At the end of the day," he says, "I can sleep at night knowing we made something we're really excited about."
While Fitz and the Tantrums haven't totally abandoned their retro-soul leanings on More Than Just a Dream, due May 7th, they've certainly expanded on that template, blending their trademark style with electronic, new-wave and hip-hop influences. After wrapping their last major tour in February 2012, the band jumped head-first into a rehearsal space, writing a jaw-dropping 40 songs in a "delirious" 30-day sprint before entering Hollywood's Sound Factory studios with producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Phoenix). Fitzpatrick credits Hoffer – who helped whittle down their sprawling demos to a trim 12 songs – for guiding the band's blending of "the organic and the synthetic."
"For us, it's our second record," Fitzpatrick says, "and we wanted to grow into our sound, as most bands do on their second record. And with that ability to take chances and experiment, we quickly realized the first rule of thumb was that nobody could say that anything was off the table. We couldn't say, 'That doesn't sound like us!' We're just going to write songs, write as many as we can, and take as many chances as we want."
Among other goals, the group was determined to avoid being pigeonholed for having a throwback sound.
"It'd been a long while since we'd made the first record," Fitzpatrick says, "and we'd obviously grown a lot as a band and as people. We wanted to show people that this band was more than a 'retro band.' We'd all gotten a little bit tired of that one moniker that kept getting applied to us. To me, obviously, there was obviously a lot of Motown, retro-soul influence to (the first record), but there was just as much Eighties influence, indie-rock influence, new-wave and hip-hop all mixed in. That first record was that kind of hybrid, and on this record, we just wanted to push it even more forward and take even more chances, and it just required a lot of experimentation."
The resulting album ventures in unexpected directions. Fitzpatrick cites new track "Out of My League" – with its blend of vintage organs and Eighties drum machines – as representative of that change in direction: "On the first record, it was always like the Sixties was in the foreground, and there was a layer of Eighties behind it. But on that song, it's reversed: The Eighties influence has kind of come to the foreground, and the Sixties soul is kind of layered behind that." He describes live favorite "The Walker" as another crazy stew of influences: "It's a nice mixture, with a funky sax breakdown and a nice Eighties clap sound – it reminds me of the Beastie Boys' first record."
But the album's emotional centerpiece is the climactic "Merry Go Round," a heartfelt track inspired by the disillusion and disconnect of the band's grueling three-year tour cycle.
"I actually have a heard time listening to that song," he says. "I get so emotional. There was a thing where the record and the band was starting to have all this success, and every dream I've ever had has come true, and you're so excited. But then you're a traveling nomad, and you don't have a connection to a city or a home. When the band started exploding, it was all hands on deck, and it's 'go, go, go.' You may be in Australia on Monday, on New York on Tuesday. The ride was extremely overwhelming and fun and exciting, but totally disconnected from any kind of sense of regular life. "
On Pickin' Up the Pieces, most of the songs began as demos with Fitzpatrick alone in his apartment, tinkering with an old piano. But on More Than Just a Dream, the goal was to write and record in a more collaborative style – one reflective of the six-piece band's high-energy live show. Everyone contributed to the songs, from show-stopping co-vocalist Noelle Scaggs to drummer John Wicks, who experimented endlessly with drum sounds, sampling and layering his own kit on several tracks.
Fitzpatrick likens that whirlwind approach to an iPod on "shuffle."
"Nobody listens to one kind of music," he says. "With shuffle mode, anybody can go from a Bon Iver track to a Major Lazer track to a Zeppelin track, and nobody kind of bats an eye anymore. Our tastes are just as diverse, and it was about how to let all of those influences seep through onto the recordings and still have it feel true and organic."
Despite his occasional uncertainty about taking the music in new directions, the singer knows it was a smart move.
"There was many a night where I was just sitting there with the wheels turning, wondering if we were making the right choices," Fitzpatrick says. "But you can definitely hear the progression. It's not the same record at all. It's still us, it still has the spirit of who we are, but there's also a lot of growth in it."