Posted September 7, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes

Fitz and the Tantrums’ John Wicks: Playing honestly

John Wicks
John Wicks

As the story goes, Fitz and the Tantrums came together in 2008. Frontman Fitz had written the tune “Breakin’ the Chains of Love” on an old electronic organ and recruited college pal James King to help him flesh out the song. King in turn recruited singer Noelle Scaggs and drummer John Wicks. Their full-length debut, 2010’s Pickin’ Up the Pieces, had a Motown-inspired sound that suddenly caught on. While initial sessions for the follow-up took place in Fitz’s living room, the group initial success enabled them 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 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. Backstage before the band played at Lollapalooza, drummer John Wicks talked about the band’s new sound.

How much has changed for the group in the past three years?
How do I put this without sounding elitist? When we played on a stage in front of a huge crowd [at our first Lollapalooza], it was one of the most surreal moments that we as a band have ever had. Seeing that many people in front of us singing along to those songs—we didn’t know how those people knew them. We have a big audience now. It’s not like we’ve gotten used to it, but we’re more comfortable. I feel more seasoned. It does provide one of those “I have arrived moments” when you get to be in front of that many people at a festival. It’s really affirming when you’re out there.

Talk about the sonic shift that took place between albums.
When we first met Fitz, he had set the compass with that Motown sound. He had put that 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. Once we became a band, Fitz had to deal with six people’s egos and influences. So, when it came time to record another record, this was the result. It was also a conscious decision to not be pigeonholed as a Motown-type act. When we started doing it, there were lots of other people who were doing it. 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. We’re all products of the ‘80s and the benefit of that is that we’re able to play those ‘80s synthesizers without irony. 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.

What are you listening to now?
I still go back to a lot of that stuff. The one record that did it for me was De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. Now, I listen to Major Lazer and a lot of the Diplo-produced stuff. I really like Lorde. I have daughters and I look to female artists who aren’t dumbing down. I want them focusing on strong female artists. Recently, there was a Nirvana tribute at the Hall of Fame inductions. They had Kim Gordon up there. I was like, “Girls come here. That is amazing.” They were like, “She’s weird.” I said, “Exactly.” Joan Jett was there. I’m always trying to push them toward stronger things. There’s a lot of candy out there. I like a good candy bar as much as the next person but I want them to hear the good stuff. If you give them four-on-the-floor and a female vocalist, they’re in. I’m trying to broaden it for them and me.

Have you started thinking about the next record?
Not really, other than that it will probably be another big departure. 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.

What makes Fitz so compelling as a frontman, do you think?
The thing I like is that he’s supremely confident out there. 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 it 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.

He used the music as an outlet for a breakup.
Absolutely. That first album was all about his breakup. This one has more of a positive vibe. Oddly, I live an idyllic life in Montana and I’ve been with the same woman for 18 years but I wrote the only angry song on the album. It’s really mean, about burning down a woman’s house. But the rest of the record is very fun.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.