Don't Call It a Throwback: Fitz and the Tantrums Have Benefited from a Shift in their Sound

It would be easy to think of retro-leaning rockers Fitz and the Tantrums as a throwback. When the band came together in 2008, frontman Fitz had put the group together to record "Breakin' the Chains of Love," a song he had written on an old electronic organ. It sounded like a soul tune from the '60s, and the resulting full-length debut, 2010's Pickin' Up the Pieces, had a Motown-inspired sound that suddenly caught on, thanks, in part, to the fact that it sat well with the burgeoning dance/soul revival that was in full swing at the time.

"When we first met Fitz, he had set the compass with that Motown sound," says drummer John Wicks as he sats backstage at Lollapalooza this past summer a couple hours before the band would play an invigorating set in front of a crowd that numbered in the thousands. "He had put an EP out. Actually, that's why I got the call. I had worked with Bruno Mars and Cee-Lo and was recommended to him because I had done those records."

When it came time to record the band's follow-up, last year's More Than Just a Dream, the band decided to head in a different musical direction. It turned out to be the right move as the New Wave-inspired album continues to deliver successful singles.

"It was also a conscious decision to not be pigeonholed as a Motown-type act," says Wicks of the approach the band took for More Than Just a Dream. "When we started playing, there were lots of other people who were [playing Motown-inspired music]. You had Mayer Hawthorne and even Adele and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. There was a scene but we noticed there was a ceiling as to where you could go with it. We made a conscious decision to try to broaden our audience. We brought in our other influences and didn't try to deny them."

Those "other influences" include pretty blatant references to the '80s. The album is heavy with synthesizers and sounds like it was recorded a couple decades ago. Wicks says that, given that band members are in their 30s and 40s, embracing the '80s came easily.

"We're all products of the '80s and the benefit of that is that we're able to play those '80s synthesizers without irony," says Wicks. "We all grew up listening to it. I think the audience responds. When you're doing it ironically, it doesn't have the same punch. I think we can play this music more honestly."

While initial sessions for More Than Just a Dream took place in Fitz's living room, the group's initial success enabled it to record at a proper studio (the Sound Factory) with veteran producer Tony Hoffer, who had worked with acts such as Beck, M83, Depeche Mode and Phoenix. The album's first single, "Out of My League," was a song that singer Noelle Scaggs sketched out and then took to Fitz. It commences with perky synthesizer riffs and the phrase "more than just a dream" is repeated over and over. The song sounds like something that could've been a hit on commercial radio in the '80s. Of course, it would all be for naught if the band couldn't pull everything together for live performances. But as the band has proved on countless trips to town (last year's show at House of Blues was a bona fide dance party), it can deliver live too. Of course, it helps that the band has a compelling frontman in Fitz, a guy who knows how to work a crowd.

"The thing I like is that he's supremely confident out there," says Wicks when asked about the band's dapper singer. "I've played as a sideman with a million different artists, ones who are confident and ones who aren't. As a drummer, you feel like you need to compensate for the ones who aren't. I don't play like myself when I do that. I tend to over play. With Fitz and Noelle, I don't need to do that. The thing I think is really cool about Fitz is that he's awkward. He's David Byrne-esque in his dancing. That gives everyone in the audience permission to lose their inhibitions. I see it. I see everyone open up. It's really a fun thing. I think having that beautiful awkwardness gives people license to do that."

And no, the band hasn't yet started thinking about its next studio offering. Wicks says the group is having so much fun on the road, heading to the studio isn't yet a priority.

"[All we know is] that it will probably be another big departure," he says when asked about what direction they might take. "I think that's what we would like to do. We're so busy with this, and we have a new single, 'Fool's Gold,' that we still have to service. When I first joined this band, I thought radio was dead. I was wrong. We're living proof of that."

Fitz and the Tantrums with Big Data

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6, Masonic Auditorium, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $28.50-$37,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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