I first heard Fitz and The Tantrums when I was living in LA. I’d inevitably always get stuck in traffic, and therefore spent a lot more time in my car, listening to the radio than I do today. This was 2013, and the band’s single “Out of My League” was on constant rotation across nearly every Top 40 station. The track was undeniably catchy—a fusion of neo-soul with classic pop hooks—and I found myself turning it up every time. But if Top 40 is usually a turn-off, or something of a hidden guilty pleasure, Fitz and The Tantrums is not your average pop group—they’re hustlers.
After years of struggling to make it in the music world, Michael Fitzpatrick started a band with Noelle Scaggs, James King, Joseph Karnes, Jeremy Ruzumna and John Wicks. With hits like 2010’s “MoneyGrabber” and “Out of My League,” the group established itself quickly as a major force in the world of pop standards. But despite their meteoric success, they continue to work as hard now as they did as when they were starving musicians.
With their latest release, a self-titled third album, Fitz and The Tantrums deliver another signature set of immediate, accessible songs. But this album also shows the band’s maturity and willingness to experiment with different sounds and genres. Lead single, “HandClap,” is a poppy mix of ’80s dance with R&B, while anthemic ballad “Burn It Down,” shows the band’s softer side; tracks like the reggae-tinged “Roll It Up,” showcase the band’s determination to not be boxed into any one category, helping cement their their place as true pop artists, whose real skill lies in songwriting.
We sat down with Fitz and Noelle ahead of their performance on Good Morning America to chat about overcoming writer’s block, the power of pop music and being Beliebers.
On the new full-length album:
F: I think this was our most challenging record we’ve made to date, and it’s turned out to be the most personal and emotional record to make.
N: I think this record, for me, is really showing people, ‘Hey, we’re not just this one-trick pony, and you can’t box us into just being a soul band, or being like this new-wave nostalgic band anymore.’ We’ve always written conceptual records and this is just the next era of that record and this growing period.
On the recording process:
F: We were exhausted [and uninspired] by other music we were hearing out in the world. We found ourselves in a real writer’s block moment—the first real writer’s block moment this band has ever had. So it was a real challenge at the beginning. The first four or five months of trying to write this record were dark days. I was going to bed on the verge of tears every night. It wasn’t really until we opened up to working with outside producers, collaborators and songwriters that we broke through. When there’s the six of you in the room, you know each other, you know each other’s go-to creative things, and bringing in outside influences was almost like putting a prism into the room and refracting the light in a different way, or even kind of like therapy sessions. Being on the road for this many years, it’s sort of like you’re a free-floating entity. We’re like nomadic [musicians], and I think it took a minute for us to sit still in our own skin and let our roots sink back into the ground and reconnect with who we were.
N: It was especially hard being the unit that we are, where we have pretty much done everything ourselves. There’s this pride that hits and then it’s kind of like, ‘Well what will people think when they see another writer on there?’ Will they think we can’t do this or that we’re phony?’ You have all these different fears that are wrapping into your project before you even really start it. So I think when we actually started working with other songwriters and allowed ourselves to have fun, it did relax us. It gave us that ability to relinquish control. I don’t think we’d be sitting here right now had we not taken that step. We’d probably still be working on the record for another year and a half.
On loving Justin Bieber:
F: Noelle and I are both huge pop music lovers and we’re on a mission to prove that pop isn’t a bad word. I think this is maybe the most exciting time for pop music in a long while. I never thought I would like a Justin Bieber record and yet that record is banging. That song that was written by Ed Sheeran, ‘Love Yourself,’ is like the epitome of a great song in its most simple form. You’re just like, ‘This is Justin Bieber and I love it. Don’t tell anybody, but I love it.’
On the value of pop music:
F: We’ve always been a band that prides itself on melody and great craftsmanship of songwriting. That’s what pop music is: great songwriting. Anybody can put four chords together and write a shitty melody, but the idea that you can write a song that before it’s over, you’re singing along to it—that’s no joke. We’re only like seven shows into our tour, our record just came out, we’re playing our new songs for people and just watching that connection with the audience, and that they’re already singing along, they’re already connected —you can’t deny that moment is magic.
On key tracks off this album:
N: This is a very personal record. You’re looking at songs like, ‘Burn It Down,’ where we’re discussing having a wall built for your entire existence of relationships that have affected intimate relationships, friendships and you don’t know why it’s there—it’s like a protection element. And then you have songs like, ‘Place For Us,’ which are really about community. That entire song is about every single person having a connection to each other and having a place in this world, whether or not you feel important or invisible. ‘Get Right Back’ is another pick-up song, coming from feeling completely down on yourself, not knowing where you are, and then picking yourself back up.
On the difficulties of making record:
N: There was a lot of doubt that came in personally for everyone. It’s like bleeding yourself dry for ideas and then realizing they’re not working, but not knowing why they’re not working because you aren’t exactly sure what wasn’t inspiring you in the first place. Or thinking you’re writing gold and discovering it’s not. I think it’s every artist’s nightmare to have that experience, because it does carry on into your life like, ‘I’m a failure and I can’t do it by myself anymore.’ You have to fight a lot of pride in order to actually get the album done. But I think it’s a great experience because even for myself, figuring out that pride is not always the thing to jump on in your creative space is actually a healing thing. Now I can make those mistakes and be completely okay.
On their musical backgrounds:
F: I went to an arts high school for singing and then I thought, ‘Oh I want to be a filmmaker, screw this music.’ So I went to film school. In film school, I hooked up with four dudes from the music department and they had a studio at the college where we went in and recorded our first demos. This was my senior year of college and that was the first time I had that studio experience with all the layers coming together. I laid my vocals, they pressed play and I was like, ‘Woo!’ I called my dad and I was like, ‘I know you just paid for four years of film school, but I’m going to go be a musician.’ He was just like, ‘What the fuck!’
N: I wasn’t necessarily sure if I wanted to be up front in the performance realm. I loved performing, but I was way more into the business side. I wanted to be like the Diane Warren of music—I wanted to write songs for other people. I wanted to be a music publisher. I wanted to administrate people’s publishing, teach people about their commodity and how to make money in the business of art.
On their favorite music:
F: I love everything from pop music to Led Zeppelin to EDM. As I’ve gotten older and really focused on this band as my life, I really became fascinated and obsessed with songwriting. So to me, it doesn’t matter what genre a song is if I feel like I’m listening to a song that is just great melody, a great story and I’m connected to it emotionally, then I’m in.
N: I grew up with a lot of funk, disco records, and the doo-wop period, like Temptations stuff. My dad was a DJ, so I had access to a lot of records when I was growing up. Later on, we moved from Hawthorne to South Pasadena with an aunt of mine, and she had everything from James Taylor to Ella Fitzgerald. Somewhere in high school, I got really into heavy rock stuff, so I was listening to Tool, Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down. From there I got into the hip-hop world.
On their purpose:
F: We’ve never tried to be the coolest, hippest band in the world. People use the word ‘party band’ a lot with us, and sometimes it feels a little minimizing to what we do. But at the same time, if we as a band, can give somebody 30 minutes of joy listening to our record, or that ability to sort of change the molecules in their room of the house —I feel like that’s the biggest gift you as a musician could ever hope to give anybody or achieve.
N: Every single time I get on stage, I ask for people to have that one moment of joy. You go to concerts, you pay to see people because you want to let go and have a moment of happiness in your life. So, for me, even with the record, I want people to give themselves to the music as much as we’ve given of ourselves in writing it.