Fitz and the Tantrums return to Jazz Aspen festival
If You Go …
What: Fitz and the Tantrums
Where: Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience, Snowmass Town Park
When: Friay, Sept. 4, 6 p.m.
How much: $250 JAS Deck; $75 GA; $10 kids
Fitz and the Tantrums began in 2008 with no guitar and a $50 church organ, the unlikely key ingredient for a band that’s led a national soul-music revival with an eccentric sound and electric live shows.
“I’m tired of the guitar as an instrument,” Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick, the band’s lead singer, said during a stop in Aspen a few years back. “In the live setting, it’s always there; you always see it. So I wanted a band with no guitar.”
No guitar, but he did have a growing collection of pianos in his Los Angeles apartment. Which is why, in early 2008, Fitzpatrick got a call from an ex-girlfriend telling him her neighbor was looking to unload a church organ for $50.
“I said, ‘Put the $50 in the guy’s hand right now,’” he said.
Adding the church organ to his quiver of synthesizers and electric pianos opened a new creative door for Fitzpatrick. He had sung (poorly) in high school, and goofed around in some college bands. But by the time he found the organ, he was working mostly as a sound engineer and giving up hopes of making music. The organ changed that.
“It was like a new drug,” he said. “Everything I touched felt like an idea, a little ditty.”
Among the early ditties was “Breakin’ the Chains of Love,” an old-school soul song, which later landed on Fitz and the Tantrums’ 2009 EP “Songs for a Breakup, Vol. 1” and its full-length 2010 debut “Pickin’ Up the Pieces.”
“The song wrote itself in five minutes,” he said. “I’m still waiting for another five minutes like that.”
Fitzpatrick called a friend, saxophone player James King, to collaborate on “Breakin’ the Chains of Love” and to work on the sound Fitz was exploring.
“It was the first time I felt like my voice was authentic and natural,” Fitzpatrick said of those initial collaborations. “That set the compass for the band, and my style as a singer. I wrote that song and it crystallized a couple things really quickly. Like I wanted to have a horn section and another singer, and a female vocalist, because the song was from a male perspective of scorned love, so I wanted that contrast. And I wanted a band with no guitar. … We made five phone calls and that was the band.”
The six-piece Fitz and the Tantrums has since then featured bass, drums, keyboard, saxophone and two singers. And those early sessions gave them a vision for what would become the world-touring band we know today, which opens the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience today.
He and the band recorded a few songs in their first sessions, and started looking for feedback.
“I played them for my friends, for music snobs, and they said, ‘You have to do this. This is your thing,’” he recalled. “That was different than anything that had happened to me.”
After a few months together, they booked their first show at Hollywood’s Hotel Café in December 2008. They wrote a half-dozen or so songs for the show.
The unique new take on soul music quickly caught on, earning Fitz and the Tantrums opening slots on tour with bands such as Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Maroon 5 and Flogging Molly. They debuted in Aspen in June 2011 with a show at Belly Up, and followed it a few months later with a main stage set at the Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival, where they return this weekend.
Dapperly dressed and coifed on-stage, with a sound that mashed up soul with more contemporary sounds, the band was a progenitor of the new soul revival that’s taken hold in recent years with artists such as Leon Bridges and Nathaniel Rateliff. But Fitz and the Tantrums is no purist’s throwback show. There’s perhaps as much ’80s New Wave in the sound as there is soul.
“We don’t want to make a pastiche of Motown,” Fitzpatrick said. “We wanted to see if there was something new to say about soul music. So it’s soul meets Style Council and Talking Heads, with some hip-hop influence in the drums. With an emphasis on pop songwriting — songs you want to sing over and over and can’t get them out of your head.”
The aesthetic that emerged from that $50 organ has, unpredictably, been embraced by the mainstream. The band these days plays the biggest festivals (such as Coachella) and venues (such as Red Rocks). Their second full-length album, 2013’s “More Than Just a Dream,” included the hit single “Out of My League” and “The Walker,” which Major League Baseball used as the theme song for the World Series in 2014. Though they’ve gotten more popular, Fitz and his mates have stuck to their vision for the band, and they’re proud to be part of the new crop of soul acts.
“I love the fact that there’s a new soul movement — no DJs, no backing tracks, just old-school musicians who know how to play and put on a show,” he said. “People are hungry for authenticity.”
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