Michael Fitzpatrick of Fitz and the Tantrums on Instruments and Inspiration

In the best possible way, Fitz and the Tantrums sounds like music you already love. With propulsive drum machines, shout-along choruses and huge horns — and combining the sounds of ‘80s new wave, soul, Motown and R&B — the band scored big with the gold-certified single “Moneygrabber” off Pickin’ up the Pieces (2010). And more than five years later, that single is still in high rotation on FM radio. The band’s follow up More Than Just a Dream (2013) included the gold-certified singles “The Walker” and “Out of My League,” prompting two years of touring.

Now the band is back with the single “HandClap,” which is climbing the Billboard charts with its sultry, funky vibe. With the release of Fitz and the Tantrums, the band’s most recent album, just over a week away, Michael Fitzpatrick spoke with Reverb about the evolution of the band’s creative process, the Conn electric organ that jump started their formation, and how he overcame writer’s block to create what could be the band’s biggest and most personal album to date.

I've heard that you bought a Conn electric organ and wrote “Breaking the Chains of Love” that very same night. Is that true?

Definitely. That was the beginning of everything. Getting a new instrument, especially one like that, that's got lots of ghosts and spirits living inside of it, was super inspiring. And it coincided with this moment where I finally stopped trying to sound like anybody else and sing in the way that made me feel the best. The song wrote itself in like five minutes. As a songwriter, I've only had that experience maybe two times in my entire life: that song and our new single "HandClap;" it was like this lightening in a bottle moment.

Did you write "HandClap" on the Conn as well?

No, that one was just this fiery moment of building a great drumbeat that made me want to dance, and laying this groovy bass part over it. It just all flowed from there.

Was that an organic drum part or a drum machine?

No, definitely a drum machine. I’m a huge fan of mixing and matching lots of weird different drum sounds from as many different eras as possible into one weird hybrid drum sound.

What’s your go-to drum machine?

Basically I have this all happening inside the computer; the drum program I use all the time is Maschine. It has a control surface that's like the old MPC drum machines from the '80s; they made all those hip hop beats with drum pads. But the main thing is that you can have a collection of every drum sound you've collected and load them up as your own personal, eclectic drum kit and build from there.

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I read that "HandClap" was a breakthrough for you; that you had been creatively blocked prior to writing that one.

Yeah. The crazy thing is that for the second record, More Than Just A Dream, we got off of the tour, went into the studio and wrote 35 songs in 40 days. Boom. The record was done. That record was such a huge success for us that we just toured endlessly. When we got off the road, it was like, "Okay. Let's get to it. It's going to be the same way as the last record." And that was not the case.

It just wasn't flowing at first. Maybe it was a combination of fatigue and exhaustion and feeling disconnected from myself. The nature of touring is such a weird thing, where you're in a different city every 18 hours. That can be a really decentering sort of thing. In that first couple months of writing, I just was not excited by anything I was coming up with. I was wanting to evolve but didn’t know how that was going to take shape or what it would sound like.

It was in the fourth or fifth month of hitting that wall and going to bed just on the verge of tears because I wasn't finding that inspiration. I finally had this breakthrough moment with "HandClap," where it wrote itself in minutes. I went into the vocal booth, sang it, came out, and we were all dancing in the studio because we could feel that kinetic energy, and were so excited by it. And that vocal, that scratch vocal take, is what ended up on the final recording because you could feel my excitement because I could feel something was happening. I took a deep breath and said, "Here's a compass for what we want to try and do on this record."

What else did you do differently?

We tried to collaborate with outside people; to bring in a fresh set of ears and eyes that could sort of be one more prism that sort of refracted the lights in a slightly different way.

Who did you collaborate with?

A good friend of mine by the name of Sam Hollander and some others. We used these collaborators to have these conversations before we dug into songwriting, to say, "Well, what are you experiencing? What is going on in your life right now? You've had all this success with the record, but you've been touring. You've gotten married. You have a child now. What are the things that you, as a human being, are experiencing?" It was almost like a therapy session.

I don’t hear any guitars in your music -- why not?

We really try to create as big of a sound as we can without guitars."

We started the band with no guitars. We have maybe one song where James King, our saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, picks up a guitar. We really try to create as big of a sound as we can without guitars. And what that's done for us is put more emphasis on the bass, drum and rhythm section. A guitar can take up a lot of space sonically, so this creates an amazing pocket for the vocals to sit in.

What instruments do you use to compose?

I write on a piano. I've been a singer my whole life. I went to a performing arts high school for singing. And in tandem with the singing I would sit at the piano and write my own little songs. I'm definitely not the most proficient player but I use it as a creative tool for songwriting.

You recorded your first record, Songs For A Break-Up, at home. I'm guessing you’ve moved into a studio for your subsequent releases?

Now it's more of a combination; you can create some pretty amazing music in your bedroom if you want, and so we never stopped doing that. The first we made entirely in my living room. On the next record, and on this latest, a lot of the songwriting is done in my garage; I've made it into a home studio where I do a lot of the foundational work for the music. The songs are written and then we might go into a studio and develop it more from that point. But the crazy thing is that almost everything that we do at my home makes it onto the recording, and then we just build from there.

How else has the recording process evolved?

It can have its own trajectory from song to song. The last record, we wrote those songs so fast. Then we had two weeks of preproduction and then went in with a producer into a formal studio with my demos and built them from there. It was very compacted.

Because of how long it took to write the songs on this record, it has more of this “satellite” kind of energy. I wanted to collaborate with outside people, so that meant going to different places to do it. From our last record, our drummer moved his family to Missoula, Montana and Noelle moved to Nashville. So there were times when I would write a song, send it to John and he would record his drums in Missoula. He would send them back to me. Then I'd have James, our saxophonist, come over to my studio to lay his saxophone parts. So it was spread over a longer course of time and different pieces. And then we ended up using several different producers on the record as well, which meant going to different producers' studios to work. We were creating in these fits and starts in different pieces from different places and trying to bring this whole thing together.

Are you using any new gear for this process?

I’m searching for these interesting juxtapositions between an old, slightly out-of-tune piano and a hyper-real synthesizer, and finding where that friction is created between those two things."

I’m a huge Pro Tools guy. I always have been. There's this new drum program, called Maschine, and I use that so much. I love to use technology as a creative tool. There’s so many great virtual instruments. I've been a lover of synthesizers and trying to combine synthesizers with my old vintage piano forever. I’m searching for these interesting juxtapositions between an old, slightly out-of-tune piano and a hyper-real synthesizer, and finding where that friction is created between those two things.

What's your desert island synth?

I have a vintage Juno, but now I have this program called Sylenth that's just an amazing combination of synthesizer and sampler. On this record I would sing a note or a sound instead of trying to search for sound files that I wanted. I knew what I wanted, so I would literally just sing it, record myself singing it, and then put it into this program and play it on a keyboard as a synthesizer sound. Which was this really cool way to really create these hyper-personal sounds that nobody else had.

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What kind of synths do you own? Are you a collector?

I have quite a few. But for me, the moment of creativity is all about speed. I like to create, and I like to be very fast and loose with it. I have this huge collection of synthesizers and I might bring them out for a very specific sound. But I'm always playing; I’m obsessed with the perfect key for a song and the perfect tempo. And the amazing thing about technology is that I can have everything where the computer is, play everything virtually, and always change the tempo and the key of the song until I'm in the exact place I want. Then I might bring out some of those prized vintage keyboards to finally play over things.

You said that you went to a performing arts high school. Did you study music at university?

No, I went to film school and it was in my senior year of college that I put together my first real band. They had a studio at the university and we went in and recorded music. And then I went into the vocal booth, sang my parts and came back out. They pressed play and that was the first time that I had that experience of creating in a studio, of all the elements coming together to make one whole. I was hooked. I called my dad and I said, "I know you just paid for four years of film school. But guess what? I'm going to try and be a rock star." And he said, "What the fuck?" Luckily, I proved him wrong.

How does your background in film inform your music?

I love to create music that is a visual landscape; I use that film training every day because in this day and age, everything is connected with a visual element. It's how we approach our videos and our photos and all of that stuff. It's been a great resource for me on a daily basis.

Any visual artists informing or influencing your music?

Yeah, I love sculptural art and the use of light; people like Dan Flavin are huge inspirations. Flavin inspired a lot about our album cover. He was one of the first guys to use florescent tubes of light and wrap them in colored gels, but he used them in spaces to create these amazing light sculptures. Google Flavin: F-l-a-v-i-n. And you probably recognize a lot of it.

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