A Tattooist And A Tweet Take A Band From Tiny Clubs To Tours

Jan 18, 2015
Originally published on July 25, 2015 9:57 pm

As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

The Los Angeles-based band Fitz and the Tantrums has been called a "genre-smashing" group — blending retro soul and R&B with indie pop.

In the six years since the band formed, they've had two singles top Billboard's Alternative Songs chart and one that's cracked the Hot 100.

It all started in 2008, when Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick got a group of musician friends together together for a rehearsal. He invited vocalist Noelle Scaggs. The two singers had never met before, but their voices instantly clicked.

"The crazy thing is that this collective of six people had never played together as one unit before," Fitzpatrick says.

The first song they tried together was a heartbreak power ballad called "Breaking the Chains of Love."

"From the first time we played it," he says, "it sounded like we'd been playing together for years."

"Our voices worked," Scaggs adds. "You know, it really worked immediately and I think after that first song when we looked at each other, all of those nerves all kind of went away."

That first rehearsal was so magical, says Fitzpatrick, that he left the room and called The Hotel Cafe, a famous singer-songwriter venue in LA, and booked a show. "[I] came back in the room and told everybody, 'We've got a show next week.' And everyone's like, 'Ummm ... we don't even have enough songs,' and I go, 'Well, we better get crackin'.' "

The next week, they did their first show at the Hotel Cafe. The young band --with Fitzpatrick and Scaggs on vocals, James King on saxophone and flute, Jeremy Ruzumna on the keys, Joseph Karnes on bass and John Wicks on drums — recorded the band's debut EP in Fitzpatrick's living room and put it up online.

Here's where things start to snowball. They did a few shows and ended up performing on NPR member station KCRW's show Morning Becomes Eclectic. A tattoo artist, visiting from New York, heard them on the radio and bought the EP.

Back in New York, Adam Levine from Maroon 5 came in to see the tattoo artist, who recommended Fitz and the Tantrum's music. "Adam proceeds to listen, starts tweeting about our music, we start having a little conversation with him via Twitter," Fitzpatrick recalls.

"I was like is this a drone? Or no, what do they call it ... a bot or something?" Scaggs says. "I was like, you know, is this his real Twitter account?"

"But it was actually him," Fitzpatrick says.

A week later, Levine was sitting in the front row at a tiny club show the band was doing. A week after that, the band got an offer to open for Maroon 5 on their big East Coast college tour.

"And that was just this crazy serendipitous moment, one of many that propelled this band forward," Fitzpatrick says. "And we kind of have never stopped since then."

The band has released two full albums, Pickin' Up The Pieces in 2010 and More Than Just A Dream in 2013. They've performed at huge festivals like SXSW, Coachella and Lollapalooza. Scaggs and Fitzpatrick say it's at venues like that when success feels tangible.

"It's funny, I still every show peek out behind the curtain and I'm surprised anyone's there to see us," he says.

All of the members of the band have been involved in many different music projects over the years, but Fitzpatick says there was a special energy with this group from the beginning — "like the universe was aligning," he says. "And, that said, there was also an incredible amount of back-breaking work.

"Our success was kind of like success by a thousand paper cuts, you know, it was just little by little by little."

"We feel blessed everyday that we get to do what we do," Scaggs says. "That's the break."

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

You're tuned to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. It's been a year now since we started our series My Big Break, bringing you stories of career-changing moments big and small. The LA-based band Fitz and the Tantrums has been called a genre-smashing group, blending retro soul and R&B with indie pop. In the six years since the band formed, they've had two singles at the top of Billboard's Alternative Songs chart and one that's cracked the Hot 100. Fitz the Tantrums got their start in 2008. Vocalist Noelle Scaggs was invited to sing at a rehearsal organized by the band's founder, Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick.

MICHAEL FITZPATRICK: That was the crazy thing - is that this collective of six people had never played together as one unit before. And we played that first song, "Breaking The Chains Of Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAKING THE CHAINS OF LOVE")

FITZPATRICK: From the first time we played it, it sounded like we had been playing together for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAKING THE CHAINS OF LOVE")

FITZ AND THE TANTRUMS: (Singing) I said, oh, what a lovely day. Breaking the chains of love. I'm hoping that you won't find a new love.

NOELLE SCAGGS: Our voices worked. You know, it really worked immediately. And I think, after that first song, we kind of looked at each other - all of those nerves all kind of went away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAKING THE CHAINS OF LOVE")

FITZ AND THE TANTRUMS: (Singing) Oh, can't you see, can't you see that you're mine? 'Cause I know that, baby, you're mine.

FITZPATRICK: And that first song and that first rehearsal was so magical that I walked out of the room. I called the Hotel Cafe, which is this famous singer-songwriter place in LA, and came in the room and told everybody, we got a show next week. And everyone's like, um, we don't even have enough songs. And I go, well, we better get cracking. The week after that, we did our first show in front of 50 of our closest friends. And it was crazy. Like, we were such a young band. We had literally done, I think, six or seven shows, and we had actually done a performance on the LA-based KCRW station.

(SOUNDBITE OF KCRW BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST: Fitz and the Tantrums live on KCRW - great way to wrap up our workweek, you guys are blowing up the spot.

FITZPATRICK: Well, thank you. Thank you.

SCAGGS: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST: Sounds terrific.

FITZPATRICK: And there was this tattoo artist visiting from New York. He heard us on the radio, flipped out, bought our little EP that we had done in my living room, put up by ourselves on the inter-webs, and went back to New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAROON 5 SONG, "THIS LOVE")

FITZPATRICK: Adam Levine from Maroon 5 was in New York, and that's his favorite tattoo artist. He goes to visit him for some work to be done on his sleeves, and he walks and the guy says, you got to here this new band, Fitz and the Tantrums. It's blowing my mind. I love it. Check it out. And so Adam proceeds to listen, starts tweeting about our music. We start having a little conversation with him via Twitter.

SCAGGS: Actually, I think I remember the tweeting situation with Adam Levine saying, you know, this band Fitz and the Tantrums is, like, my new thing. And I was, like, is this a drone? (Laughter) I was, like - or no, what do they call it?

FITZPATRICK: A bot. A bot.

SCAGGS: A robot or a bot or something? I was, like, you know, is this his real Twitter account, you know?

FITZPATRICK: And it was actually him.

SCAGGS: It was actually him.

FITZPATRICK: A week later, he was sitting front row at this tiny little club show that we were doing. And a week after that, we got an offer to open up for Maroon 5 on their big East Coast college tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WALKER")

SCAGGS: I think maybe Adam Levine heard that there was something really for thinking about the approach that we were going for.

FITZPATRICK: And that was just this crazy, serendipitous moment - one of many that propelled this band forward. And we kind of have never stopped since then.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WALKER")

FITZ AND THE TANTRUMS: (Singing) Oh, here we go, feel it in my soul, really need it, need it so good. Got to feel it. Oh, it takes control. Really need it, need it.

FITZPATRICK: All of us have been in many different projects. There was just a different energy that came out of this from the get-go. Like, the universe was aligning. And that said, there was also an incredible amount of back-breaking work. Our success was kind of like success by a thousand paper cuts. You know it was just little by little by little by little.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORE THAN JUST A DREAM")

FITZ AND THE TANTRUMS: (Singing) More than just a dream.

FITZPATRICK: I still, every show, peak out behind the curtain, and I'm surprised that anyone's there to see us.

SCAGGS: We feel blessed every day that we get to do what we do. That's the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORE THAN JUST A DREAM")

RATH: Noelle Scaggs and Michael Fitzpatrick from the band Fitz and the Tantrums. Their latest album is "More Than Just A Dream." You don't have to be discovered by a tattoo artist to have a big break. Send us your story - mybigbreak@npr.org - or share on Twitter, using the hashtag #NPRbigbreak. And you can see all of the stories from the past year at npr.org/mybigbreak. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.