Michael Fitzpatrick is wowed by his indie rock 'n' soul band's whirlwind ascent from DIY upstarts in 2009 to South By Southwest's reigning fairy-tale royalty in 2011. If you haven't heard of L.A.'s Fitz and the Tantrums yet, you will. Judging by the retro-soul band's trajectory, mainstream success could be days away.
And, though it might be hard to get Los Angelenos excited about an old-school band, it's easy to understand how Fitz and the Tantrums managed to shake things up. Their modern twist on classic soul reflects Fitzpatrick's own affinity for Motown.
"I grew up with parents who were classical music freaks and opera freaks," Fitzpatrick recalls. "My dad's kind of a fascist, so when he's home, you can't listen to anything else in the house. The one concession I could get driving to school in the morning was I could talk my mom into putting the oldies station on. That's where I first got introduced to soul music."
Fitz admits he's living the dream, but even he can't believe his band's good fortune.
"When we started, our whole foundation was a do-it-yourself approach," Fitzpatrick says. "Nobody was really giving us the time of day in any shape or form. We just hoed our own road, started playing before we even had songs to play, and developed our own fan base organically."
A lifelong singer, Fitzpatrick says it was love at first listen and, obviously, an enduring one. Following four years studying experimental film in college, he returned to music after experiencing his first recording session with his college band. His love of soul music was fully realized in the studio.
"Once I got into being a studio nerd and being an engineer for a producer, I fell even more deeply in love with the way those records sounded," Fitzpatrick says. "To this day, hands down, it's my favorite period of production. As a student of songwriting, I'm obsessed with what makes a song great."
It's no accident that those ingredients have found their way into many of Fitz and the Tantrums' songs, which the band has effectively translated into live shows that have become the stuff of legend.
"There's something that's magical happening when you put the six of us together on stage or in a room or in a studio," Fitzpatrick says. "I think we had played 10 shows when Flogging Molly asked us to go out on the road with them. We had played 10 shows, and we were standing out on the stage at Red Rocks in Colorado, one of the most famous venues in all of America, in front of 10,000 people just going, 'How did this happen?'"
In late 2009, the band self-released its first EP, Songs for a Breakup, Vol. 1. Soon, they had an unlikely ally in Maroon 5's Adam Levine.
"He was going to get a tattoo in New York, and the guy had found out about us through our NPR station in L.A. and bought the record," Fitzpatrick recalls. "Adam hears it, and he flips out."
But the opportunities didn't come without costs. The band's DIY ethic went hand-in-hand with self-financing. By the time they became one of the major buzz bands at 2010's SXSW, Fitz and the Tantrums were running out of steam.
"Everyone was congratulating us and yet we were broke, outta money, outta resources ... sort of at the wit's end of what we could do on our own," Fitzpatrick admits.
But a major break awaited them. Their last SXSW gig was a show for Dangerbird Records. The following morning, the label's president called a meeting: She wanted to be in the business of Fitz and the Tantrums.
The band's first full-length, Pickin' Up the Pieces, came out a few months later. The single "MoneyGrabber" became an instant hit. It has a polished confidence, with soul flourishes that evoke the most exciting elements of pop. There aren't any guitars to be found, either. Brass, woodwinds, organ, and drums create wonderfully textured songs, equally at home on an old black-and-white variety show or at a hip dance club.
Pieces features an assortment of songs that feel at once familiar and freshly invigorating. The searing "News 4 U" would be at home in a Quentin Tarantino movie. The title track is stuffed with hand claps and flute, and offers a call-and-answer set up between Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs.
The success of "MoneyGrabber" led to featured spots on Jimmy Kimmel Live and the Conan O'Brien Show, as well as a sold-out tour earlier this year. The band made a return to SXSW a few weeks ago.
"We were sort of the fairy-tale story," Fitzpatrick says. "That was a really cool moment to come full circle and come back to the SXSW community and Austin, and people are so happy that that kind of story can still exist within the constructs of SXSW. It's just been a wild ride."