What a difference a few months can make.
Back in February, which is when the Black Sheep first booked them to play here this coming Saturday, Fitz & the Tantrums were still a much-buzzed but little-known band out of Los Angeles. "Breakin' the Chains of Love," an infectiously bitter soul-scorcher that placed No. 2 on the Indy's year-end music list, had impressed high-profile indie tastemakers like PopMatters and Alternative Press. But out in the real world, the group remained largely unrecognized, despite its individual members having routinely recorded and toured with artists ranging from the Black Eyed Peas to De La Soul.
All that's rapidly begun to change. In April, Rolling Stone ran a feature story on the Tantrums, hailing their infectious pastiche of soul, funk, pop and New Wave influences, and heralding them as its "band to watch."
A week later, the Tantrums pulled into Austin, Texas, where they'd played five SXSW shows a month earlier, and packed the 1,200-capacity La Zona Rosa with fans who knew the words to every song. As an editor of the online Chickster ("Hip Chicks in Austin") magazine put it, "I've never seen so many white men in their 20s and 30s dancing at a show."
Turns out the Black Sheep may well be the most intimate venue on the band's current tour, which also includes stops at Denver's Bluebird Theater, New York City's Central Park SummerStage, Milwaukee's Summerfest and the West Coast's Sasquatch Festival.
All this from a band that, when it began touring in earnest two years ago, was happy to get audiences that numbered in the dozens.
So what went right?
"It was truly a word-of-mouth thing," says Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick, who studied experimental film at the California Institute of the Arts ("a very useful degree") before hooking up with producer Mickey P and going on to engineer albums for artists like Mt. Sims and Ladytron. "Touring across the country the first year and a half, we were playing for five, 10, 50, 75 people, over and over. But then those people would bring two or three people with them to the next show. It was just the old-school approach of hitting the pavement, meeting people, and making a deep, lasting connection with fans."
How to be a millionaire
The morning I speak with Fitzpatrick, he's just gotten word from a Facebook "super-fan" that the band's "MoneyGrabber" video has reached a million hits. Which, when you think about it, is basically the 21st-century equivalent of a gold record. Just not as lucrative.
Fitzpatrick is all too aware of that disconnect between fame and fortune. "It's always weird because, when you're on the inside of it, you're in a van driving 12 hours to this place, seven hours to the next place. It's like 23 hours of slogging for an hour of glory. [Laughs.] But it's been pretty crazy to be part of something like this. You know, we've gotten to do everything we've wanted to do."
Well, maybe not everything, at least not yet. But they're signed to one of the indie world's most coveted labels, Dangerbird Records, which is home to prestige acts like Silversun Pickups and Minus the Bear. Their debut album, Pickin' Up the Pieces, was arguably among 2010's best, a perfectly crafted and eminently danceable collection of soul-pop originals. The band even shows up on the soundtrack to Russell Brand's Arthur remake, performing the title theme that was originally crooned by yacht-rocker Christopher Cross.
OK, let's try to forget that last bit.
Better to focus on what Fitz & the Tantrums do best, which is to deliver impossibly tuneful, irrepressibly soulful music that just happens to be laced with an undercurrent of personal venom. Improbable as it may seem, the band's sweetest successes emerged from a pool of acrid bitterness.
Consider, for example, this song opener: "Don't come back anytime, I've already had your kind / This is your payback, money grabber." Not exactly the feel-good sentiment of the summer.
"We wanted to create this juxtaposition between the way the song sounded and the lyrical content," explains Fitzpatrick. "The funny thing is how many people post on our Facebook page, like, '"MoneyGrabber" is my wakeup, get-up-and-go in the morning song!' And I'm like, 'Have you listened to the lyrics?'"
Apart from the political sentiments of the Staple Singers-influenced "Dear Mr. President" — "It ain't enough to pray / When you got no place to stay" — most of Fitzpatrick's songs stem from his hostility toward the ex-girlfriend who, ironically enough, transformed his life through a single act of postpartum generosity.
In what the singer describes as a "momentary respite from our no-talking policy," said ex called one morning to let him know that a neighbor was unloading an old church organ for $50. The instrument was in Fitzpatrick's apartment by nightfall, and "Breakin' the Chains of Love" was written before sunrise. With no premeditation, the future frontman had written the first in a series of angry young songs that would become the core repertoire of the soon-to-be-formed Tantrums.
Given the fact that his former girlfriend had just acted as the deus ex machina for a new career, I ask if a song about making her "god damn pay" isn't just a little bit, you know, uncharitable.
"Uh, yes and no," says Fitzpatrick. "It was an on-again, off-again thing that ultimately kept going and going. But yeah, without that organ, I'm not sure the band would exist. Because it was that moment that really permitted me to write that first song and find myself as a vocalist. I mean, just so many things happened in that one moment, and I just don't know that we would even be here today without us having had that one moment happen."
So now that the pieces have all been picked up, the war's over, right?
"Oh yeah, we've made amends and we're civil now. And she's an actress, so I think she likes the attention of knowing there's a couple songs out there about her."
Rebirth of the cool
Once Fitzpatrick found a way to channel his angst into something more useful, the next step was to find a band to take them from the church organ to the club circuit. So he got hold of his old art-school pal James King, a "saxofonista" who gets calls to play on Christina Aguilera albums and had spent years touring with Big Daddy Kane and De La Soul.
"I told him we need to find an amazing vocalist, and he said, 'There's one girl you gotta call.'"
Luckily for all involved, Noelle Scaggs said yes. The frontwoman for a fairly obscure L.A. soul band called Rebirth — who were nevertheless championed by BBC Radio 1 DJ Gilles Peterson and Philadelphia dance-music hero King Britt — Scaggs is a powerfully engaging vocal accompanist. She also ups the Tantrums' glamour quotient considerably.
"Noelle has been a very sought-after hook-maker for a lot of hip-hop artists," says Fitzpatrick. "She actually worked with the Black Eyed Peas, singing on some of their stuff. And Jeremy Ruzumna, our keyboard player, was in Macy Gray's band, and wrote a lot of her first hit record. And John Wicks is like a super-sought-after session guy known for getting just amazing vintage drum sounds, and he wrote a song on Bruno Mars' new album."
Bassist Joseph Karnes also does session work and has a side project called Pedestrian, whose members have played with Gnarls Barkley, Alanis Morissette and Damien Rice. All of which would seem to make Fitz & the Tantrums the modern-day equivalent of Toto. So how come they don't sound like that?
"Well, you know, there's two parts to the L.A. music scene. There's the industry, and then there's the rest of us."
Fitzpatrick says that, other than Wicks, all the Tantrums are native Angelenos.
"We tend to be nicer," he deadpans.
L.A.'s music industry, on the other hand, can be a mixed blessing. "A lot of times you get called to play on somebody else's record, and you secretly can't stand it. And that's the sort of thing that's made all of us in this band work so hard. Because, you know, we have not made any money. We've been busting our ass for almost three years now, and, you know, the potential to make a living from this band is on the horizon, but we're not there yet."
But they're close. "We were in a van for several years, and finally just moved up to a bus in January," reports the lead Tantrum. "I was so excited — We're in a bus! — and then it was like, 'Oh shit, eight of us living in what's basically one long hallway.' You realize once you do that, then you no longer stay in hotels, you're sleeping in a little bunk bed. You're changing cities every day, and the one constant is this little bubble that you've created for yourself."
Soul sonic forces
So what makes one hour of glory — actually more, since the band's shows go longer, and they've been known to play three of them in one day — worth spending half your life on a bus? Catch a Fitz & the Tantrums performance, and it becomes instantly obvious.
At SXSW this year, they put on one of the most amazing shows I've ever seen, combining classic R&B showmanship with fresh indie-pop instincts. They're easily the hardest-working band in show business right now, with a combination of power, precision and panache that's tough to beat.
They also don't have guitar solos — or guitars at all, for that matter — which turns out to be surprisingly refreshing. And it makes sense. Aside from musicians like Steve Cropper and Leo Nocentelli, who generally focused more on rhythm than lead, the guitar part is usually the last thing you remember from a classic soul song.
"The guitar can take up so much of the sonic landscape," says Fitzpatrick, "and I think, for me personally, I was just kind of tired of the guitar as an instrument. Whenever I sit down and write a song, it's always on the piano or the organ. I'll never sit down and write a song on the guitar.
"And I think you're right, on most of the soul songs you never really hear a lead guitarist, it's always just a rhythm instrument. And that gives you this really nice pocket for the vocals to sit in, and puts more of your focus on what the bass line and the keyboards are doing."
While Stax, Motown, Philly and Northern Soul are all part of the Tantrums' musical vocabulary, those influences are modulated through the prism of their own experiences, as were David Bowie's on Young Americans in the '70s, and Martin Fry's a decade later on ABC's Lexicon of Love. Fitzpatrick is clearly determined to follow in that tradition, and seems pleased when I mention the degree to which the spoken-word breakdown and overall arrangement of the Tantrums' "News 4 U" sounds like an homage to ABC's early "Poison Arrow" single.
"Totally," agrees Fitzpatrick. "Trust me, it wasn't conscious, but I'm definitely heavily influenced by that whole period of music."
Still, the singer reserves his greatest praise for the taller, blonder half of Hall & Oates, whom he describes as an idol and "one of the baddest-ass singers of all time." It doesn't hurt that the blue-eyed soulman invited the band to do an episode of his popular Internet show, Live From Daryl's House.
"He and I traded verses on 'Breakin' the Chains of Love, and then afterwards I came into the kitchen, and his mom was there. And she called me over and said, 'You sound just like my son.' And I was like, 'Can I get a witness?'"
For the Tantrums, being featured on the monthly show also meant access to a demographic that would have been unlikely to stumble upon them doing in-stores at Amoeba Music and playing trendy L.A. clubs like Spaceland. "We've gotten so many fans because of that one show," enthuses Fitzpatrick, "more than Conan, Carson, Leno and Kimmel combined."
Another inspirational encounter for the band was with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. "There were so many great performers from the soul movement, from Otis Redding to of course James Brown," says Fitzpatrick when asked about his onstage role models. "But for us, the artist we were lucky enough to go out on tour with was Sharon Jones, who's one of the best performers of all time. And that for me was like a master class, just watching her own that crowd every single moment of their entire set."
A year and a half later, Fitz & the Tantrums are doing the same.
"Every show we put on, we leave the stage drenched in sweat, near to the point of passing out. Because every time, we want the audience to be the seventh member of the band."
And while artists may no longer be able to echo the infamous 1969 Columbia Records ad claiming "The man can't steal our music," the Tantrums do have something that can't be pirated.
"From the way we dress onstage to the performance we give, we want to give people a full experience," says Fitzpatrick. "And I think that, going back to what we were saying about nobody buying records anymore, the one thing you have — the one thing you better have — is a kick-ass live show. People can steal your music, but the one thing they can't steal from you is your live show. So you better make people want to come see you."
For Mexican songstress Ximena Sariñana, who's opening for Fitz & the Tantrums on their swing through Colorado, finding a place in the U.S. market involves all the usual difficulties associated with cultural assimilation. There are language hassles, different sets of social mores, and the general discomfort that comes with any transition.
While Sariñana isn't about to up and leave her native country, she is attempting to transfer her enviable success to American audiences. She's recorded with Jason Mraz and Mars Volta's Omar Rodríguez López, and all but one track on her self-titled second album, which is slated for August release, will be sung in English.
The singer-pianist responds with hesitant optimism to inquiries about how it feels to put herself on the playing field that everyone wants to conquer. But when asked what the easiest thing is about making the transition, she quips, "The easiest? I don't think there is an easiest."
Not that she has much choice in the matter. Sariñana, 25, says she was already infatuated with music at the age of 2, when she was taken to see Ella Fitzgerald perform in person and was so struck by it that she went totally silent. As a child, she'd go on to perform in musical theater, film and Spanish soap operas.
Her first album, the Spanish-language Mediocre, came out in 2008 and earned four stars from both Rolling Stone and Time Out. Unlike the ultra-glossy pop albums of so many one-time child entertainers, Mediocre champions contemporary jazz of the cool and collected variety, with Sariñana drawing out words in a warm, feminine croon. It's not especially original or mind-shattering, but it's not disposable, either. Ximena, on the other hand, has a considerably more beefed-up production feel than its predecessor.
In the time that she's grown serious about spreading her music internationally, Sariñana has noticed some interesting cultural differences. Audiences in the States, she says, tend to be more reserved than those in Mexico, who are wildly enthusiastic and responsive. And since success in the United States is so much more predicated on heavy touring, she's been spending a hefty amount of time on highways. Still, her sets continue to be a half-and-half mixture of Spanish and English songs.
"Spanish is such an important part of who I am," she says. "Audiences nowadays, especially young people, are more open to hearing stuff from different countries than ever before. People actually enjoy and thrive off of other languages and cultures."