With a niche style and barely an album’s worth of indie recordings, Fitz and The Tantrums have made an impressive splash in their three years of existence.
The L.A.-based retro soul sextet has broken into radio, played the late night shows, toured with Maroon 5 (judge that as you will) and provided songs for primetime TV.
Now, booked to perform Feb. 3 in Georgia Street’s Super Bowl Village, the band faces a high-pressure moment. After 15 months of touring the U.S. and Europe, they’ve blocked out the next three months to record their sophomore album for fall release.
“It’s going to be interesting to see where we take it,” says Noelle Scaggs, co-vocalist and onstage foil for frontman/bandleader Michael Fitzpatrick.
“We’re going to have to write 40 songs before we can even get 10 for the album. You don’t want to fall into that pocket of being the band that could only do one album, so we definitely want to keep the same focus that we had on writing great songs that can stand on their own.”
The Tantrums began as a solo project for Fitzpatrick, a singer-songwriter who engineered with producer Mickey Petralia (Beck, Flight of the Conchords) and whose chance acquisition of a vintage organ inspired a batch of ’60s-style original tunes. With help from saxophonist James King, whose baritone blast still anchors the band’s wall of sound, he assembled a five-song 2009 release, Songs for a Breakup Volume 1.
When the EP sparked a buzz, Fitzpatrick enlisted some session veterans to play live shows and work on a full-length album, 2010’s Pickin’ Up the Pieces. The lineup grew to include keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna, drummer John Wicks and bassist Joseph Karnes, whose funky bounce recalls Motown studio legend James Jamerson.
And then there’s Scaggs, a singer and writer who spent the previous decade fronting a prog-R&B band, The Rebirth. Joining a new project with an already established sound presented a challenge for her.
“I was trying to figure out where I could fit, because I’m not a backup singer,” she says. “It’s just trying to find the balance between myself and him without interfering with what’s going on.”
Most of the band’s output has been recorded at Fitzpatrick’s home, using analog equipment and old school techniques to capture a classic ambience rooted in ‘60s pop, but filtered through the lush Philly soul of the ‘70s and perhaps even the New Romantic scene of ‘80s Britain. Fitz knows the tricks, Scaggs says, such as having her stand across the room from the mike and record multiple layers of vocals to create a huge sound.
“He has this magical way of making it turn out the way we had it in our heads,” she says.
Scaggs’ biggest impact so far has been on stage, where she dances, plays tambourine, counterbalances Fitzpatrick’s early-MTV persona, and generally enhances the group’s visual as well as sonic appeal.
“As we progressed as a band, that really became part of the show, that male and female dynamic,” she says. “It just took on this kind of Ike-and-Tina vibe.”
Also a fan of Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell tunes, Scaggs co-wrote the only duet on the first album, title track “Pickin’ Up the Pieces.” For the second album, she expects all the bandmates to add more of their own flavors.
“We have a lot of different influences that end up unconsciously getting melted into the pot,” she says. “I think with this record we’re really going to expand upon that.”