To a music listener, the term “working musician” means being a member of a band (or, maybe, a songwriter or producer). But to most musicians, the term means something else entirely: a session player. Most people making a living as musicians are constantly hustling from studio session to gig to studio session, in each case earning scale (or a multiple thereof) – ”which doesn’t sound like much, but it’s stable freelance work. To actually form one’s own band, make a record, and go out on tour, it helps to be very young and very naïve, or else really believe in the music, because that already-limited stability completely evaporates.
Every one of the six members of LA’s Fitz and the Tantrums has been a session player. So when Michael Fitzpatrick – ”who has always been known to his friends as Fitz – ”got hold of a vintage organ, wrote a song called “Breaking the Chains of Love,” and called up some musician friends (starting with saxophonist and longtime friend James King) to form a band, this was no small thing. Give up steady paychecks to start a soul band? Let’s put it this way: the Tantrums are hardly old, but they’re not teenagers, and they’re certainly not naïve. So the late-2008 leap of faith that led to 2009’s Songs for a Breakup Volume 1 EP and the band’s debut full-length, Picking Up the Pieces, last August says more about what the band thinks of their music than any story Fitz might tell comparing the organ he found to One-Eyed Willy’s treasure map in The Goonies (I’m not making that up).
Fitz and the Tantrums love making their own modern version of Memphis soul. The organ is, admittedly, essential to this; Jeremy Ruzumna plays backing chords on a Nord Electro 3 (emulating the prized “vintage” organ Fitz has at home), freeing bassist Joseph Karnes to funk up the rhythm section without being showy. They and drummer John Wicks create the controlled chaos at the root of Fitz and the Tantrums’ songs. Yet while the rhythm section is all 1970s soul-funk, James King’s saxophonic harmonies (and occasional solos) recall the instrument’s heyday in the 1980s.
But Hall and Oates this band is not (though King, Fitz, and vocalist Noelle Scaggs did appear on the web series Live from Daryl’s House in October). King’s playing, and the male-female vocal trading of Fitz and Scaggs, aren’t smooth like 80s-sax revivalists of late like Destroyer and Gayngs. This band pops. (For more evidence, look no further than the Daytrotter session they recorded just last week.)
And boy, does their working-musician past inform their present. They’re all first-rate players, and since they know what they’re giving up to give Fitz and the Tantrums a go, they’ve been on their grind since their LP dropped, making sure anyone who might love them gets to hear them. The music business is a business, and no one knows that better than session players. So they want to be heard by any means necessary. A tattoo artist became such a fan that he recommended them to Adam Levine of Maroon 5 while Levine was under the needle. Dutch journalist Guuz Hoogearts loved their record so much he passed it on to one of Holland’s biggest DJs, 3FM’s Gerard Ekdom, who for weeks played “Money Grabber” at the end of his show. That’s not to mention the HTC G2 ad in which they scored name-placement, their Christmas 7″ “Santa Stole My Lady,” or their multiple television appearances (most recently the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, last Tuesday). They even re-envisioned Christopher Cross’s “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” (written by Burt Bacharach) for the soundtrack to the Arthur remake. Their self-promo work ethic is like that of the most enterprising rappers!