Fitz and the Tantrums New Album: James King Talks 'More Than Just a Dream'
Fitz and the Tantrums is an award-winning sextet out of Los Angeles that can't be defined by one genre. Fitz and the Tantrums' first album, Picking up the Pieces, released in 2010, reached number 1 on the Billboard charts. Fitz and the Tantrums sophomore LP, More than Just a Dream, was released May 7. Here to tell everyone a little bit more about just what Fitz and the Tantrums is, is resident saxophone and everything player, and founding member, James King.
Evan Almeida (EA): Starting off can you list the names of everyone in Fitz and the Tantrums and their respective instruments?
James King (JK): Sure, I’m James King and I play the saxophone, and keyboards and guitar and miscellaneous percussion instruments in the band, I’ve always got my little Starship Enterprise setup on stage with me. Our drummer’s name is John Wicks, our bass player is Joe Karnes, our keyboard player’s name is Jeremy Ruzumna and our singers are Noelle Scaggs and Michael Fitzpatrick, also known as Fitz.
EA: So I understand that you are a founding member of Fitz and the Tantrums, how did the band come to be?
JK: I am! Fitz was a friend of mine from college and we attended the same high school actually, and I knew him as a film student who was always playing hooky from his film classes and spending time in the music department. So, he had started a number of different bands with friends of mine in the music school, we didn’t really collaborate together until after school was done. He called me into record on a bunch of his projects and I was no stranger to going over to his house and just over-dubbing horns all the time onto different things.
Around 2008 he called me to play some saxophone on a few songs he had written, and those turned out to be the seeds of the band, Fitz and the Tantrums. We both agreed that the songs turned out really well and we were asking each other, “What are we going to do with these?”
Fitz mentioned that he wanted to get a band together around this and asked me who I knew. I recommended Noelle [Scaggs] as a singer, and we mutually knew Jeremy [Ruzumna] as a keyboard player because we were all kind of in the same sing. At the time we had a different bass player named Ethan Phillips, he stayed with us for part of the first record and then he decided to leave to go work on a project that he had been cooking up, so we got Joe Karnes on bass really early on in the band and he was a perfect fit and has been with us ever since. That’s basically how it unfolded, we had orbited each in the music scene in L.A., and we all kind of knew each other or had played with each other to some extent. Once we had gotten the full personnel together everything just kind of clicked and we played our first gig within one rehearsal, and we were off to the races after that.
EA: What was your musical background like?
JK: I was raised by a jazz guitarist father and a classical cellist mother, so I was just immersed in quality music all of my life. Being 60s kids themselves, my parents introduced me to everything from: the Beatles, to the Doors, to James Brown, Stevie Wonder and everything that was great. In addition to the jazz training and classical training I started at age five, I also started learning guitar, violin, piano, and settling on the flute when I was about 9-years-old and I never put it down. I added the saxophone when I was about 11 or 12 and I’ve been playing ever since. I went through really intense musical training privately and attended LA County High School for the Arts for my last two years of high school, and that was the real natural segue into the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) where I went to get my bachelor’s degree in jazz performance.
It was a very open sort of school and there was a lot of cross-pollination that occurred between various departments, I was: Playing in the dance department, scoring movies in the animation department, and I was really involved in the world music department, which was comprised of: African drumming, and Indonesian gamelan. I was spread all around and I tried to absorb as many things as I could at that time. Of course being the age that I am, I was into all different kinds of music: from early MTV type bands and New Wave (like DEVO and Missing Persons), to mid-to-late 80’s Alternative (They Might Be Giants, and the Smiths), to the 90s where I got into hip-hop (A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul) and I just kind of absorbed everything.
My first gigs out of school were mostly jazz gigs, playing everything from coffee houses to corporate events to jazz clubs. At that time the kind the whole “swing-revival” thing was going on so there were many venues open to me. I also ended up playing in a lot of Salsa and Cuban bands, expanding my blues style with them, playing a lot of Latino clubs. So throughout my entire musical career I’ve always tried to be very versatile and spread it around as much as possible and it’s led me to play with soul artists, and hip-hop groups, rock groups, you name it.
EA: Listening to your first album, Picking up the Pieces, I hear a lot of traditional blues influence, particularly I hear a lot of great sounding dominant 7th chords and hexatonic scales. Is this a conscious effort put forth by the band while writing? Or who writes the music?
JK: Of course! That influence is just the undercurrent of any popular music style that you can trace back to the blues, so that’s definitely in there.
EA: Well you hear it a little bit more in Fitz and the Tantrums than, say, Ke$ha?
JK: Oh absolutely! That’s just turn that pop music has taken lately, I guess. We had that sort of 60s soul sound in mind when we formed the record, Fitz was writing songs that were harking back to the Motown dock sounds and naturally you are going to hear the blues lines that harken back to that, we utilize that style a lot.
EA: There is a very pronounced change in style and sound between the soulful, Picking up the Pieces, and the much more indie-pop sounding More Than Just a Dream, was this intentional?
JK: Yeah, I think so. It wasn’t really a conscious effort to make a “soul” retro album when Picking Up the Pieces was first embarked upon, those were just the songs that Fitz had written about some getting out of relationship experiences of his, so he was putting his all into that production. It just kind of ended up sounding like a retro album, which wasn’t the intention in the first place. As we toured it, of course, we came with a really clean image of skinny ties, and suits, so the image was already there with the retro sound, and it was kind of a no-brainer for people to kind of tie us into a lot of retro acts that were coming out at the time, like Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones, and Mayer Hawthorne, so we just fit into that scene.
Coming into the next record, More Than Just a Dream, there was a concerted effort on the part of everyone in the band to try and kind of shake this pigeon-hole retro label that we had been put in by a lot of the press and a lot of the fans. They wanted more and more of this 60’s sound, which is definitely in us and influences all of our work, but we really wanted to showcase all of the other influences that we had growing up in an era where synthesizers were just starting to be used in an interesting way. We have a lot of New Age, pop, influences in the band.
Being on the tour bus for so long after the first record, we started influencing each other’s listening. John would show us a Major Lazer track, and Jeremy would give us some interesting Prince-sounding tracks, and like I said about myself, I have so many sounds in my head from my upbringing and my training that there weren’t any borders on what I was willing to play. So we decided to include those influences on More Than Just a Dream and try to break out of this 60s box that we had maybe created for ourselves.
EA: More than Just a Dream was just released on May 7. What kind of reception have you been hearing about your sophomore album? Is there anything that you’d like to say about the album that the average listener may not know?
JK: Well, the reception has been pretty dang good. We’ve gained a lot of new fans with this album just from having more of a mouthpiece, by being signed on a major label (Elektra Records), who showed it to a lot of people that had never heard of us before. Among our older fans there is kind of a split between people who would have preferred to hear Picking Up the Pieces part II, there a lot of people that were very disappointed that this wasn’t another retro-60’s soul album and the other group of people that have followed us since the beginning and loved our sound and are willing to take the journey with us.
We’ve heard it both ways. Personally I’m just taking all of this feedback and just rolling with it, I’m still a sax player at heart but I’m welcoming the opportunity to play all of these other instruments on stage and incorporating these other keyboard sounds that Jeremy couldn’t entirely cover, being one guy, so I picked up some of those parts on keyboard. I picked up the guitar on one song, which seemed like sacrilege to people that knew about our fierce no-guitar policy on Picking up the Pieces. Even with the new changes, the band is still super energized to go out and play this record, and it’s been exciting so far. I’m sorry, you asked about the reception of the album and what else?
EA: Do you have anything you’d like to say about the album that the average listener may not know?
JK: Yeah, it was just a really fun recording process. Fitz has talked before about how we threw 30-40 songs into the pot to whittle down and improve, then figure out what we were going to put on the record. In the process of weeding all of those extra songs out, we were in a collaborative zone that we hadn’t been in before. The first album was largely written by Fitz with a lot of instrumental arrangement pieces contributed by myself, but it mostly Fitz’s record, his statement, which we all played on. This record (More Than Just a Dream) was more of a collaboration and you can hear pieces from all of us on the songs.
Noelle Scaggs contributed a lot of the lyrics on the songs, and the actual songwriting, for example, on the single Out of my League, she was definitely the primary composer on that. Fun fact the album, it was just a blast to record, what else can I say? I did a lot of saxophone work on the album that is almost inaudible to the listener because it was mixed in and digitally affected to the point where you can’t even tell that it is a saxophone anymore. Again, you have some of the die-hard fans wondering where the saxophone is, but I’m still here and playing on the record, it’s just not as prominent as it was on the first record, however you can hear it more live on the shows for More than Just a Dream.
EA: Before I let you go, is there any advice you’d like to give to all of the band students of the world, who may be unsure as to whether or not their instrument can find them success in pop-music?
JK: Sure! Keep your ears open and your mind open; never discount any style of music. As a jazz saxophone major in college, I had no idea that I would be touring the world with hip-hop bands and a major pop band and all of these other styles of music, so keep your ears open and never discount anything.
EA: Well thank you for your time, James.
(JK): Absolutely, thank you.
You can follow James King @jkingsax. You can follow Fitz and the Tantrums @FitzAndTantrums, just look for the little verified check mark next to their handle, or you can like them on Facebook. You can find Fitz and the Tantrums on tour at their website. You can purchase either Picking up the Pieces or More than Just a Dream on the Fitz and the Tantrums website, iTunes, Amazon ... pretty much wherever they sell music, just try not to pirate the album, musicians have to make money somehow.