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Fitz and the Tantrums: Serving the songs, not the rules

©Joseph Cultice
Fitz and the Tantrums (© Joseph Cultice)

Michael 'Fitz' Fitzpatrick talks touring, dreams coming true and breaking the no-guitars rule

By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music

Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick, leader of Fitz and the Tantrums, is calling from the tour bus. His Los Angeles-based sextet just wrapped a radio show in Columbus, Ohio, and is headed to Chicago for a concert the next night. Since breaking through in 2010 with their debut album, "Pickin' Up the Pieces," featuring the infectious "Moneygrabber," Fitz and the Tantrums have been road warriors, winning over fans one show at a time with their effervescent, shimmying performances, bolstered by the two-prong lead vocal attack from Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs.

If the foundation of "Pieces" was '60s retro soul, the group's new album, "More Than Just a Dream," out May 7, brings the sound into the '80s, but the trademark sassy dance beats and horns remain just as vibrant. MSN Music talked to Fitzpatrick about the long road to success, the price paid along the way, and the decision to break their own no-guitars rule on the new set.

MSN Music: The goal on this album was to push yourselves musically. Was there ever a moment when anyone in the band said, "Wait a minute, that may be too far outside of what we want to do"?

Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick: When we very first started writing for this record, there was definitely a moment or two where somebody in the band would be like, "I don't know if we can do that. Is that us?" The rule just became that we couldn't limit each other by saying that. We couldn't say, "This doesn't sound like us." ... At the core, this is still our record; it still sounds like us.

The band wrote 40 songs in two months. Why so many in such a short time period?

Because we were originally writing it for a very tight calendar to get it done. It was extremely intense and we were exhausted from the first tour, so it was just like trying to dig deeper than we'd ever dug before to get it done. I can't say that the process at every moment was sheer joy. There was moments that felt like it was drawing blood from a stone.

MSN Music: Stream Fitz and the Tantrums' "More Than Just a Dream"

Your melodies are uplifting, yet many of the lyrics, including on songs like "6 A.M." and "Merrygoround," express a lot of heartache. Does it bother you that some people might not realize that?

The first record, I was going through a break up. It was laden with sadness, anger, vitriol. It was always that sort of juxtaposition between this biting lyric and making you want to dance. On this record we widen the scope. It's not just about love and heartbreak, although there's plenty of it still on there. ... I get choked up every time I listen to "Merrygoround" because it's real. We're incredibly grateful. There's this amazing journey that's happening , but it comes at a price, too. There's children's birthdays that have been missed, there have been funerals that have been missed, there's relationships that have collapsed under the duress of just being gone all the time and all that's consistent is the six of us in the band, and everything else changes every day.

"Spark" talks about the band blowing up. At what moment did you realize you were going to make it?

For us, there's been a hundred smaller moments and then one or two big ones. I'd say the first one, we came back to L.A. after being on the road for a while, after we'd done [KCRW's influential] "Morning Becomes Eclectic." We played a sold-out show at the Echo. We got onstage and the audience sang every word to every song before the [first] record was even out louder than us. That was the first time the audience had ever sung back any lyrics or melody I'd ever written, so it was a huge moment for me personally just in terms of being a guy that had played a thousand s---ty shows to like your 50 friends that you guilt trip into coming to the show.

That must be very humbling and very powerful at the same time.

Honestly, it makes me emotional to even talk about because I picked up and put this dream down so many times and literally gave up on it more than once, but something inside me couldn't let it go and kept coming back to it. I finally decided that it wasn't in my fate or in my cards, and then it happened. It's a crazy journey to finally get it all happening. Every single one of my dreams has come true.

So what are the new dreams?

I'm an ambitious person. I want to rule the world. I want everybody to know our music and I want to play in a stadium.

MSN Music: Fitz and the Tantrums dance the night away in Seattle 

Radio didn't embrace you at first. In hindsight, is that a blessing because you had to learn how to deliver live and win over fans on the road?

We all take an enormous pride in the fact that we've busted our asses to get to where we are: Dead of winter for seven weeks straight, never a day above freezing, playing every little radio station, every little city, going to every indie record store and playing a show that night ... just doing the work. You can't sit on your ass, barring your being that one in every 5,000 artists that basically does nothing and becomes a sensation overnight. For the rest of us, it was hard, hard work, and it's still going on to this day. We're out on the road right now going to every city promoting the record. Now, even with the little bit of success that we've had, we don't take any of it for granted.

So much of your sound is rooted in the past. Is there producer from the past that you wish you'd gotten to work with?

I would love to work with Quincy Jones, circa 1978, Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall." It's one of my favorite produced records of all time, not to mention the songwriting. I love it so much.

On this album, you guys added in some guitars after purposefully avoiding them on the first record. Did you have any hesitation about breaking your own rule?

It just felt like on this record everything was up for grabs and every rule was meant to be broken. At the end of the day, you have to serve the song, not the rule.

How do you want people to feel when they leave one of your shows?

We want to have people just feel like they're high on the magic of music and seeing live performance. If we can give people a little bit of a break from every day, forget about whatever's going on and just dance and let go and go crazy with us a little bit, then we've done our job.

Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.

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