By MIKE CHAIKEN
With a new major label contract, Fitz and the Tantrums could have done the same old same old that brought them success and the attention of the big guys.
But James King, the band’s sax player among other things, said the band decided to toss preconceptions about the neo-soul band out the window for its latest release, “More Than Just a Dream.”
Fitz and the Tantrums, which includes King, singers Fitz and Noelle Scaggs, keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna, bassist Joseph Karnes, and drummer John Wicks will show Connecticut what all the fuss is about when they open for Bruno Mars at the Mohegan Sun Arena next Thursday.
James, who was back home in Los Angeles for brief break after a long tour with the band, said when Fitz and the Tantrums headed into the studio to record what would become “More Than Just a Dream,” they decided to throw all constraints out the window as to what a Fitz and the Tantrums’ album should sound like.
The first full album from the band, the indie-released “Picking Up the Pieces,” had a more retro-soul feel to it, noted James. When fans listen to the new album, they’ll notice those soul/ R&B underpinnings they grew to love are still there. However, James explained, the band is utilizing more of the recording technology of 2013 and songwriting styles of the 21st century. However, there is also still a look back musically, as the band has taken on a premeditated 1980s’ spin to their original sound.
Simply put, for this record, said James, the band didn’t just want to take the easy route and offer up a “Picking Up the Pieces Part 2.”
“It incorporates our influences but it sounds fresh there’s still us in there,” said James.
The new sound also marks an evolution for the band, explained James. For himself in particular, as the band’s saxophone player on the first album, he has seen his role expand on the new album.
On “Pickin’ Up the Pieces,” with its Motown flavor and ear-grabbing hits such as “Moneygrabber” and “Don’t Gotta Work It Out”, the added kick of a saxophone on the songs was a “no brainer,” said James. He was able to play as part of a horn section, offer some brass harmonies, and add some soul to the songs. James said that funky horn sound found in old James Brown records had a huge influence on how he approached his sax riffs.
But as the band took on a 1980s flair, James said the role of a sax in the sound became a little trickier.
“You’re treading on a thin line,” said James. “You risk becoming that ‘80s shirtless guy… wailing away.”
Although he loves that sax sound of the ‘80s, said James, “I’m not that guy. That’s not the sound I’m going for.”
So the trick for James was to offer up his own take on that 1980s sound. He allowed himself to be influenced more by such 1980s new wave era bands as Missing Persons, XTC, and Tears for Fears as well as edgier stuff from that era such as early Morphine.
Not everything he tried to do made the final cut of the new album, said James. Some of it was weeded out in the end. But it was his attempt to keep pace with the band’s evolution.
James’s musical role now has evolved into other instruments, he said. He found himself laying down keyboard lines and playing guitar parts on “More Than Just a Dream,” which was not something he had done before. Live, he finds himself in a new role as a multi-instrumentalist rather than strictly the band’s baritone sax player.
“I’m stretching my abilities to service the music as best as I can.”
The 1980s has definitely been a hot influence on the top 40 charts. But James said what he thinks will set Fitz and the Tantrums apart is how much heart and soul they put into the tracks.
By all accounts, Fitz and the Tantrums’ live act has been one of the dimensions that helped build the band’s success leading up to “More Than Just a Dream.”
“Our live show has been everything for us in terms of success,” said James. “I don’t know how the last record would have done without the live show.” The live show helped build the band’s audience through word of mouth, said James.
Although the band’s recorded sound has evolved from the first record, as it hits the road to promote “More Than Just a Dream,” James said, “We didn’t want to leave that (live reputation) behind.”
So, as the band wrote the tracks for the album, James said thoughts of the live show were not far behind.
For instance, James said many of the songs have an anthem-style chorus that is perfect for fans to sing along. “That was no accident.”
The band’s songs are rife with hooks and that also is deliberate. “We pride ourselves on making a song that is memorable,” said James. Fitz and the Tantrums want to release songs that stick in your heads long after they were a big hit, just like some of the band’s favorite acts when they were growing up.
Fitz and the Tantrums, for an up-and-coming band, has secured a pretty sweet gig for the summer—opening for the red hot Bruno Mars.
“I can’t put it into words,” said James when asked how it felt to be opening for Mars. “I can’t think of a better person to work with.”
Fitz and the Tantrums recently had a special sneak preview of what it will be like opening for Mars. They played a stadium show—actually a private gig mounted by Google for its employees— in Las Vegas opening for Mars.
“He’s such a showman. His band is tight. He makes it look effortless up there,” said James.
When the band hits the road with Bruno Mars, James said Fitz and Tantrums’ mission is to win over as many Bruno Mars fans as possible.
“It’s never easy to open,” said James, noting most of the fans are there for the headliners and the opener is an after thought.
But Fitz and the Tantrums, James indicated, were ready for the challenge.
Fitz and the Tantrums open for Bruno Mars on Thursday, June 27 in a sold-out show at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The show begins at 7:30 p.m.
For more information about the show, go to MoheganSun.com. For more information about Fitz and the Tantrums, go to FitzandtheTantrums.com
Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver. com.
By MIKE CHAIKEN