Band to Watch: Fitz and the Tantrums Put a Modern Spin on Motown - Rolling Stone
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Band to Watch: Fitz and the Tantrums Put a Modern Spin on Motown

The six-piece Los Angeles band also draws on soul and New Wave influences for their eclectic sound

Click to listen to Fitz & the Tantrums’ “Pickin’ Up The Pieces”

Who: Fronted and founded by studio engineer-turned-belter Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick, this proudly guitar-less sextet of soulful Angelenos throw a sparkling pop gloss on a familiar Motown sound thanks in large part to the powerhouse vocals of sultry singer Noelle Scaggs.

Sounds Like: On their debut album Pickin Up the Pieces, Fitz and Scaggs trade classic he-said/she-said stories of hearts done wrong and love done right while the Tantrums skronk and strut behind them like fresh escapees from the Stax/Volt vault. The heavy melodic lifting is done by keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna and Fitzpatrick’s college friend, saxophonist James King (says Fitz: “we’re trying to reclaim the coolness of the instrument” in a post-Kenny G world), and as a result the band is crisp and nimble, able to pivot from the political funk of “Dear Mr. President” to the widescreen Sixties balladry of “Tighter” with nary a snare fill or horn bleat out of place. But it’s far from pastiche: the minor-chord organ runs of “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” and especially, the knockout hooks of  “Moneygrabber” cherrypick bits of Britpop and angular New Wave, exploding past their influences into full-blooded, radio-grabbing glory. “It’s a reflection of the naturally eclectic, diverse taste of everybody in the band,” Fitzpatrick says. “We’ve all been around the business for awhile – we’re not 21 years old! We just want to write great songs.”

Organ Transplant: The 39-year-old Fitzpatrick grew up in Los Angeles, attending a high school for the performing arts where he remembers himself as “a skinny white kid with a voice that was still changing and cracking, surrounded by kids who, at the age of 16, had full beards and were singing Luther Vandross.” Intimidated, he studied experimental film then spent a number of years helping producer Mickey P craft records by Beck and Ladytron. But in 2009 he received a call from an ex, who violated a rigid “no-talking” policy to tell him about a neighbor who needed to unload a church organ for $50. Thanks to some “shady Russian piano movers,” Fitzpatrick had the organ in his apartment that night. By morning, he had written Pieces stand-out “Breakin’ the Chains of Love” – and finallly felt comfortable uncorking his formerly modest pipes. “I immediately knew it was the best song I’d written,” he says. “I could astral plane out and hear myself, like, ‘wow!’ Not bad!” Also in the vision? A full band, in suits, with a female vocalist. Five phone calls later, the Tantrums were assembled. “Something magical happened when you put the six of us in the room together,” Fitzpatrick marvels. “We could have played a show that same night.”

Soul Brothers: Fitz and the Tantrums got early career boosts thanks to two rather prominent members of the white soul-singing brotherhood. Explains Fitzpatrick, “Adam Levine from Maroon 5 was in New York to get a tattoo and his favorite tattoo artist had downloaded the record after hearing us on [Los Angeles public radio station] KCRW. He told Adam, ‘you gotta hear this band.’ A week and a half later we’re opening for Maroon 5 on their college tour.” Another early adopter was the original blue-eyed crooner himself, Daryl Hall, who invited the band to perform on his popular web-series “Live From Daryl’s House.” “It was pretty special,” Fitzpatrick says of the day he spent trading verses with Hall on Seventies classics. “I walked back into the kitchen of his big old house in upstate New York and his mother was there. She said, ‘Fitz, come over here. You sound just like my son!’ I was like, ‘Can I get a witness!’ It was pretty trippy. We’ve had so many serendipitous moments in the life of this band.”

They’ve Got the Funk: While radio and late-night television have embraced them, the Tantrums do their best work on the road, converting “wildly diverse” crowds with their high energy sets. “Our style of singing, there is no 50 percent delivery of it,” Fitzpatrick says. “Noelle and I do not stop singing, dancing, asking the crowd to participate for the entire show. We must burn thousands of calories a night.” Effort aside, the real draw is the sexual tension between Fitzpatrick and Scaggs, whose on-stage relationship veers wildly between flirting and fighting. “It has its own, real-time moment to it,” Fitzpatrick says. “Sometimes I think I’m walking over to her in conflict and she’ll pull me closer and it becomes incredibly sensual. Or I think we’re being sexy and she’ll suddenly shove me across the stage.” The only downside to the elaborate performance? The wardrobe. “Oh, it’s a challenge to wear a suit everytime you play,” Fitzpatrick says, laughing. “My suit is dripping after every show – we did a five week run of boiling clubs and I was lucky to get to the dry cleaners twice.” He pauses. “Let’s just say the funk is a deeply felt experience for all of us.”

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