Fitz & the Tantrums make Aspen debut
ASPEN – Much is made of the fact that Fitz & the Tantrums, a Los Angeles soul sextet in the midst of a rocket-like lift-off, lacks the guitar. “I’m tired of the guitar as an instrument,” Fitz, the band’s lead singer, said. “In the live setting, it’s always there; you always see it. So I wanted a band with no guitar.”So let’s focus on what they did have. Fitz had an ex-girlfriend, albeit one with whom he wasn’t speaking, back in early 2009. The ex had a neighbor. The neighbor had some apparent money problems, which leads us to the key possession: a church organ that he needed to unload for the bargain price of $50.Fitz declined to pick up the phone when he saw it was his ex calling. But when her name came up again and again, he figured it must be important. In Fitz’s world, a guy looking to get rid of a keyboard for pocket change counted as important.”I said, ‘Put the $50 in the guy’s hand right now,'” Fitz recalled, speaking from his home in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood, not far from his native East Hollywood. To make sure his prize didn’t get away, Fitz had to line up piano movers on the spot; he wound up with “these shady Russian dudes.” By that night, Fitz had a church organ to add to his collection of synthesizers and Fender Rhodes electric pianos.Fitz had grown up in a strict household – one that was especially strict when it came to music. His dad was a classical freak, and only classical and opera were permitted in the house. But the rules loosened slightly once the family stepped out the door.”The one concession I could get was, going to school in the morning I could put on the oldies station,” said Fitz, who prefers the one, shortened name to his common-sounding given name, Michael Fitzpatrick. “When I heard Motown, I was hooked. I was a singer, and those harmonies and background parts just got me. I love songwriting, and that was the best songwriting period ever.”By the time Fitz got his church organ, his dreams of singing stardom had mostly faded away. As a student at the Los Angeles County School for the Arts, Fitz was scrawny and insecure, his voice still cracking. “There were these kids who, at 15, had voices like Luther Vandross and were shaving their beards,” he recalled. The few college bands he had played in weren’t even worth mentioning. Any remaining creative dreams were being channeled into his work as a sound engineer, and the piano lessons he took. But putting his fingers to the organ, alone, late at night, woke something in him, immediately and completely.”It was like a new drug. Everything I touched felt like an idea, a little ditty,” he said of sitting at the organ for the first time. One of those ideas was more than a ditty; it was a full song, “Breakin’ the Chains of Love,” which tapped into Fitz’s latent love of old-school soul. “The song wrote itself in five minutes. I’m still waiting for another five minutes like that.”Fitz got more out of that first session than just one song. He found a musical direction.”It was the first time I felt like my voice was authentic and natural. That set the compass for the band, and my style as a singer,” he said. “I wrote the 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.”Inspired, and nearing his mid-30s, he wasted no time. He called on James King, a musician friend from the California Institute of the Arts, where Fitz had studied experimental filmmaking. King brought his sax and the two worked up “Breakin’ the Chains of Love.” King, too, saw promise in the song, and in the singing style Fitz had hit upon.”We could just tell, there was this energy. We made five phone calls and that was the band,” said Fitz, whose six-piece Fitz & the Tantrums features bass, drums, keyboard, saxophone and two singers. Fitz did some more writing and found that he wasn’t the only one enthused by his new path. “As soon as I wrote those first two or three songs, I played them for my friends, for music snobs, and they said, ‘You have to do this. This is your thing.’ That was different than anything that had happened to me.”After the first band rehearsal, Fitz booked a show for a week and a half later, at Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe. In the interim, the group worked up a set of seven songs. After the initial burst of six shows, it became evident that Fitz was onto something, as Fitz & the Tantrums were signed to opening slots for soulsters Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Maroon 5 and Flogging Molly. The band is still riding that early shot of momentum. Last month they appeared on “The Tonight Show.” Fitz & the Tantrums haven’t played Aspen yet, but they have two prominent dates ahead here: They make their local debut on Sunday, June 5, headlining at Belly Up, and they return in September for Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival, on a bill with the Zac Brown Band and Michael Franti.Following a well-received EP, “Songs For a Breakup: Vol. 1,” Fitz & the Tantrums released their debut album, “Pickin’ Up the Pieces,” last August. The album, which kicks off with “Breakin’ the Chains of Love,” openly embraces blue-eyed soul – horns, smooth production, romance, finger-snapping rhythms, a black female singer, Noelle Scaggs, flanking Fitz. At times, the closest touchstone is Hall & Oates; Fitz’s voice can have a close resemblance to Daryl Hall’s. It’s a niche Fitz is happy to occupy. “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. People are hungry for authenticity,” he said. But as much as admires Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, he isn’t aiming for the same retro effect. Fitz claims a big influence from the collection of ’80s records he inherited from his older brother, and he aims to build that into the soul foundation.”We don’t want to make a pastiche of Motown,” he 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.”On stage, too, the band seeks something that audiences won’t quickly forget. Fitz & the Tantrums dress and coif for their shows in a manner that reflects their music – a little Aretha Franklin, a little ’80s New Wave, a lot of movement. To get the effect Fitz aimed for, though, something had to be sacrificed: In concert, Fitz doesn’t play the keyboards, focusing instead on showmanship and singing.”I decided early on we wanted to be a show, a performance, a spectacle,” Fitz said. “So I didn’t want to be a hunkered down, looking at the black and whites. We wanted to be great frontpeople.”Perhaps because his success is fairly late, and so unexpected, Fitz has a full appreciation for the band’s accomplishments. The group comes out to meet the audience after every show. “I’m not 22, and nobody else in the band is either,” he noted. “We’re trying to appreciate it as it happens. It’s not glamour; it’s planes, trains and automobiles. But it’s rewarding.”Possibly the experience Fitz is most grateful for – after the purchase of the church organ – was an appearance on “From Daryl’s House,” Daryl Hall’s popular webcast. Fitz & the Tantrums appeared on the program last October, and Fitz says the response has been enormous; he calls it “a huge benchmark in our career.””I’m not as bad-ass a singer as Daryl. But tonally, we have similar voices,” he said. When the taping concluded, Fitz was greeted by an expert on the subject – Hall’s mother. “She said, ‘You sound just like my son.’ I said, ‘Can I get a witness?’ Because, his mom is saying that?”firstname.lastname@example.org
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