Assuredly, it is the expert craftsmanship of seasoned musicians that can make a song sound as effortless as the way Fitz and The Tantrums does it. Catchy not only in the hooks, this band’s music and lyrics have a way of infecting the mind, body, and soul. John Wicks (drums and percussion) and James King (saxophone, flute, keyboard, percussion, and guitar) are two of the six faces behind Fitz & The Tantrums. Before hitting the stage for their sold out Vancouver show, Wicks and King joined Pop Counter//Culture to chat about the ties between 2010’s Pickin’ Up the Pieces and 2013’s More Than Just a Dream, their journey since the band’s 2008 formation, and the band that had them weeping at Bonnaroo.
The latest album is called More Than Just A Dream. In the song, “Out Of My League”, that phrase is applied to a girl. Using it as the album name applies it to your career. Are there other facets of your life you can apply that phrase to?
Wicks: For me personally, I’m always hesitant to tell people what it means to each of us individually because the listener is going to apply it to whatever is in their life. I don’t want to spoil it for them. For me, that phrase “more than just a dream” means that dreams are great and we all need dreams, but there has to be the hard work to attain it. When I hear that phrase, the first thing that pops into my head is the hard work that goes in to it. We’ve all attained a lot of our dreams through this band, but it took a lot of hard work and sacrifice.
King: I’d agree with that. The whole ride has been, at every turn, astounding. We’ve come a long way. Six years. Every year has been better than the last. The work associated with that and also, it is kind of an expression of gratitude. We just hope to keep going.
This new album also captures that upbeat neo soul kind of sound. Was it a conscious decision to make the album quite consistent with the first album’s sound, despite the different stories you are telling?
Wicks: I have to say, I’m kind of taken aback because you’re honestly the first person that really hears the ties between the two. This new record, there’s a lot of conscious decisions made to try to separate ourselves from being in that neo soul box. I think regardless, no matter what, we’re still going to have tinges of [neo soul] just because that influence is in there and that’s what got us on the map. Adding all these layers of synths and drum machines, it was more of a conscious decision to cross over into different audiences and try to win over people that, that’s what grabs their ears. Also I think more of a reflection of the six of us, all of our voices are being heard on this record.
King: Touring this record has actually been challenging and a lot of fun for me as a musician because I have to, in addition to bring the saxophone on stage, I have to play the keyboard, the guitar, some percussion, and more singing than before. It’s made me a well-rounded player. I’m also slipping in saxophone parts that don’t necessarily exist on the record, playing that live and taking some of those lines so that when we see our live show, it’s more of a cohesive shift from the first record to this. We’re using real instruments and we’re adding different flavors to it.
Were there any songs on this album that was arranged or played in a certain way and when it came to the final record version, completely changed?
King: All of them, really. They all have to start somewhere and usually that’s with a little keyboard in a bedroom and whatever recording device you have. They have to take shape in the studio when we’re all there and inevitably, parts will get added. You have to consider what kind of textures you want from one song to the next and think of the album as a whole, programming the album as far as song order.
Wicks: That’s the fun part. I think if we just all brought completely fully realized songs to the table and said, “here we go,” it wouldn’t be any fun. We tour so much and we do so much that part of it, the creative part, has to happen when you make records. So if you don’t get to do that, mess around and mangle the songs, it would be a drag.
The band formed in 2008. In 2009 you guys were playing local shows and opening for Maroon 5. In 2010, the band released an album, and now 2014, you have a loyal fan base, a successful tour, and another album out. Experiencing it all first hand, was it as much of a whirlwind as it sounds on paper?
King: It sounds more like whirlwind because you’re really talking strength-to-strength, year-to-year, amazing things happening. The trajectory has fortunately been up so far for us. Especially with YouTube and the way young audiences get into music now, every Internet avenue imaginable, you see a lot of people coming out with explosive hits. They go boom and they’re in the stratosphere, and then, maybe they fizzle out. That happens a lot. We’re not headlining arenas or anything yet, but the trajectory has been slow and steady.
Wicks: I think that first year, I could say that was a whirlwind. Then we decided we have something that works here. People like it. Now you need to put in some work. You’re right, we opened up for Maroon 5 just a few months after playing our first gig. That was the whirlwind and some cool fortunate things happened. But then once we realized, that’s cool, we have something that works; now we have to put the legwork in.
King: In the beginning of any band, and we’ve all done dozens of bands individually, the thing that always stands out is that you have to learn how to be a band. You have to play together and figure out how to communicate with each other and what works and what doesn’t…We’ve played I don’t know how many shows. It’s got to be in the high hundreds and there’s no substitute for that. Only now, in the middle of this tour for this record, are we hitting another milestone in our show. We’ve tried and experimented with different ways of presenting the music and every chunk of tour goes by and you look back and think, “we do this song way better than we did six months ago.”
Do the memories associated with songs that you play way back when you first began touring, and playing the songs now, do those memories shift in any way or do you remember the same things every time you play a particular song?
Wicks: For me, fear. We’re all kind of on the fence on “do we really commit to this band?” We’re not making money. We’re all starving. I have kids on the way. That was scary. When I think back, what James just said about hitting another milestone, I think that milestone is just a sense of calm and confidence. We have a real show now, with lighting and wonderful sound people that make us sound incredible. There [is a] sense of, I don’t need to be nervous any more. For me, as the drummer, I feel just like a big elm tree back there now. Whereas before, I was like “um, is this working? I don’t know if this is working.” Everything felt fast. Now, I just feel calm, confident. That’s a good feeling.
King: It’s funny because there is so much going on. We have to engage the crowd and present our best selves every night. Underneath all that, you want there to be no association. Living the music. That’s where you want to get. So to answer your question about associations, specific songs, sure those exist. When we play songs from the first EP, sometimes I’ll go back to ’08 and think ‘wow, this was such a different time for us’. But really, it’s hard to present the same 17-20 songs every night and make them feel immediate for everyone, so you have to get into a space where it’s unique to that moment. This song, even though I know exactly what note is coming next, I’m making it special for this audience.
When you step out on stage now, basically what you see is a sea of camera phones snapping pictures. Have you gotten advice on how to deal with the criticism (partially due to the immediacy of technology and social media) that comes with being a public figure?
Wicks: I can’t say that I’m thinking about what they’re going to post online. For me it’s more of a feeling of, I don’t want to sound like an elitist, but I kind of feel sad for them because they could be watching it live, but they are watching it behind a camera. And then they have a beer in the other hand, so they can’t clap their hands. So you’re frozen. You are either going to spill your beer or you’re not going to get a good shot because you’re dancing and you’re limiting yourself. Get rid of [the phone] and get into it.
King: It’s funny, with the camera phone thing and the Internet thing, it’s a larger problem. It’s the modern age. People are forgetting how to interact and experience life. I think about Louis CK’s rant about cell phones and kids and how he hates it. I’m with that. I’m of two minds about it. If you were to ask me the same question a month ago, I would probably would have said I’m 100% against it and sad that kids can’t come to a concert and just experience it. But a funny thing happened at Bonnaroo with Little Dragon, one of our favourites bands, I found myself filming their last song.
Wicks: I feel guilty because I did the same thing. I felt really guilty about it. I was weeping because it was such a special moment. I really needed to film it on my phone. And then I re-watched it on my phone and it wasn’t the same. It kind of diminished it.
King: I realized in that moment that I’m really a part of 2014. I still feel like, I remember concerts that changed my life as a kid. When I was a teenager and I would go see my favourite bands, I could sing you what that guy did on my favourite song now, years later because it was etched into my mind. I don’t think I would have had that experience if there were camera phones back then.