Interview: Fitz and the Tantrums (Los Angeles)

Fitz and the Tantrums

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of LA darlings, Fitz and The Tantrums. Their insanely dance-able soul/funk blend had me hooked long before I saw them in concert. But the great thing about them is you don’t need to be a fan to enjoy their live shows. The Tantrums on stage are a group that never stops moving; a power locomotive of dancing and drums and tambourines. And bass.

I caught up with the band’s bassist, Joe Karnes, as he was re-stringing his bass before sound check in Carrboro, North Carolina. Karnes joined the band in 2010, after covering shows for friend and former bassist, Ethan Phillips. Don’t be fooled by his late arrival, though; Karnes has recorded and toured with an impressive lineup of artists, including Colin Hay, Five For Fighting, and John Cale. (I may have gushed briefly over that last one during our talk…)

But past be damned: Karnes is enjoying his current spot with The Tantrums, and the crazy ride they’ve found themselves on for the last year; including Chaos Theory, ritual sacrifices, and what it’s like to live on “the next level.” The Tantrums will be at the Metro in Chicago this Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, November 22nd.

So how is the tour going so far?

It’s going  amazing. We’ve really been happy with the shows and the turn out, it’s just been really fun. One of our favorite ones was Nashville, which was a great crowd, but it was kind of like a surprise every night. Even at venues where we’ve never been, it was great turn out and great enthusiasm from everybody.  Every show was kind of special.

I heard that people from Nashville take their shows very seriously.

I’ve heard actually, being from Los Angeles, you hang out with so many music industry people there, in LA as well as Nashville, there’s a sense of “Oh, show me what you got.” And I’ve heard about that from Nashville, but I’ve never seen it. What I’ve seen is amazing audiences of music lovers who really just give their full attention and their love; we always have a great time when we go down there.

And that’s all you can ask for from a crowd.

Oh, without a doubt.

I caught your show in Milwaukee, this summer, and you guys have amazing chemistry on stage. Is there still that same group atmosphere on tour?

Yeah, it’s actually probably never been better. I think we’ve all figured out how to live in close quarters with each other, and everyone’s just really professional and real fun, and we have a great time together. And the end result of our seemingly Groundhog Day days, each kind of the same but a little different, the end result is always a great show. We can look to each other and know that everyone’s has each other’s backs on the stage and is giving their full energy; the crowds respond to that, and it’s hard to have a bad time.

And the great thing is, coming from an audience member, that’s so obvious. Being such a solidified group, have you developed some kind of superstitious pre-show rituals? Anything moderately cult-like?

Well aside from the chicken sacrifices that happen about 45 seconds before we go onstage…

Right, well of course I’d heard about that.

Everyone just gets really focused; you know, the singers do lots of vocal warm-ups and John (Wicks) gets the drum pad out and just warms up for that half hour; the main thing is just getting ourselves  kinda wrapped around that fact that we’re gonna play, getting warmed up and…

Preparing for battle.

Yeah, exactly. We all gotta jump around a lot, so we gotta take care of ourselves.

But we don’t do like a big huddle or anything like that.

No Almost Famous kind of moment?

Haha, no, I think the last time we did that was Lollapolooza. Most of the time, we just know what we do, and we go out there and we do it. But at the time, Lollapalooza was the biggest crowd that we had played for, and we were so pumped to be out there; we knew that it was the culmination of all of the festival touring at that point for us. And there were like 25,000 people by the time we were going on stage, so at that point we had a nice huddle, like “All right guys, let’s kill this one.”

So you weren’t involved with The Tantrums at the band’s inception, but when was the first time you heard their music and what did you think of it?

I’d been aware of the first EP, just through friends of mine and bands that I was working with, but I hadn’t heard the CD, I’d just heard of it. The first time I heard it was when Ethan, the original bass player, called me up to ask me to cover him for a couple gigs. So I put it on and I was like “Aw, man! This stuff is bass bombing!” and as a bass player I could really sink my teeth into it, and I had no idea it would resonate so well with so many people. I just knew that I liked it, and I didn’t have a band like that in my world of playing.  I hadn’t had, you know, a nice, funky band like that for a while, so that was really refreshing as well.

Well, I saw that you worked with John Cale, who is definitely on my idol shortlist, but the band dynamics must be so different. What’s it like playing with him as compared to The Tantrums?

Well I think you hit the nail on the head with the ‘band dynamics’ because with John, we were backing players. You know, we were there to serve John, and because of that we got a lot of freedom to play and to do what we needed to do musically, but it was definitely John’s band. Whereas, with [The Tantrums], this is our thing; it is a band. That feeling, of being more invested in something, is so much more rewarding. It’s something that I think all of us have always wanted. As a musician, that’s what you want: you want a band, you want to be in a band. And that’s the dream.

I’ve had bands, but I’ve also been freelancing and doing work for other people. And I’ve enjoyed that as well, but there’s nothing more satisfying, dynamics-wise, than being part of a band and being able to call the shots and say “Hey, I’m gonna try this weird thing out tonight” or “Let’s change this arrangement up.” And when there is a good show, I mean, I always felt good doing a good show with John, but when you do a good show with this band, you can be proud of it on a higher level because there’s more of you in it.

And being part of that kind of “family” band dynamic, not gonna use the word “cult” again, but…

Haha, is there something you’re not telling me over there?

That’s an interview for another day… But what’s the experience like to not only play with people that you love, but to have achieved a point of fame that you’re playing three consecutive sold-out shows in Chicago?

It’s nothing short of a dream come true. You know, this is the culmination of all of our collective years of being professional musicians. It’s such a crapshoot out there, and there’s so many bands out there that are great, great bands, that don’t get the recognition that they deserve.  We’ve had a lot of serendipity on our side, as well as making the music that we do and making our live shows something to talk about. But it’s really beyond words sometimes, you kind of have to think to yourself each day that “Wow, this is really happening,” and just open your eyes and look up to see what’s going on around you, because it happens so fast.

And make sure someone’s around to pinch you.

Yeah, well selling out three nights at the Metro… it’s such an iconic club. The first time we went there, just getting to play and selling it out was amazing. But to come back and do that again three times is just a whole other level. It’s always surprising – and gratifying at the same time – when you realize that there are that many people out there who want to see what you do; that you help make happy by playing your music. 

On that other level, do you guys have any plans for keeping shows fresh for those that are going all three nights?

Well, we focus on each day at a time, but there’s things we’ll try to do, even if it’s just changing the set list up a bit each time. But that’s a fun challenge to have in front of us, because we recognize that there are people coming for at least two, if not all three, shows. Gotta give some love to the super-fans.

Personally, I was a pretty big fan of the Eurythmics (“Sweet Dreams”) cover.

Yeah, we’ll definitely be doing that one. It’s become kind of a staple for our show these days.

Speaking of songs that are new, you guys have been playing the new single “Wake Up” around a lot. Are there plans to hit the studio once the tour is through or have you been working on new songs on the road?

Oh yes. In our current set list, there are a total of three new songs that haven’t been recorded yet. We went into the studio just before this tour, you know, locked ourselves in a room for three days and got a little crazy musically; really pushed our boundaries. And it was write, write, write. We came up with a bunch of ideas that are really fun and you know, we’re gonna do it again when we get back for a couple days and then in earnest probably work on the record February – March, and try to get it finished around then if we can. 

I can only imagine what kind of crazy stuff goes on in the studio with you guys, based on the energy you have live. Is there a formula for the way you guys record, or is it more Chaos Theory*?

On this particular round, it was much more Chaos Theory, except for the few things people came in with. John has some beats that he’s always wanted to put down, and at sound checks we’re always recording little ideas that we can jam on. That’s where most of our writing has been this year, it’s about the only time we’ve had. So we’ve worked on a couple things we’ve liked, so for now the most part is just to sit it down. We usually start with a nice drumbeat, and then whoever has some kind of chord progression or is feeling it will put something down and everyone else puts something down on top of that.

We’re really trying hard not to limit ourselves stylistically, just to see how far we can really push what we’re doing. We really want to make something new out of soul music, while still paying homage to the Motown sound that we love and accentuating some 80’s pop influences. We tend to listen to a lot of electronic music, so we’re trying to incorporate all those elements too, trying to see how much we can push what we already do and make it into an even more unique sound. A lot of it’s about that challenge.

One of the great things about your music is that it blends all those different genres together. Looking to expand that towards your interest in electronic music, are there any artists you guys are thinking about collaborating with?

What we’re really excited to do is just get all of us in a room together with ourselves. We haven’t really thought about collaborations for this particular record, though that’s something we would definitely love to get involved with. The last record was mainly written by Fitz, with a few songs that are co-written with a couple of band members. We’ve been on the road for 15 months, and there’s something that happens when you’re touring together and you’re playing and you see how people react to different songs; you get an idea of what sort of show you want to put across. So, I think what we’re really excited about is just writing with each other and seeing what we can come up with collectively. There’s nothing off the table; if someone writes something elsewhere and brings it in and it’s undeniable, that’s fine. Really, we’re excited to get together with ourselves. 

Do you guys have any idea as to when the new album will come out?

Well, we have hopes for it to come out in Fall, but we’re not going to put anything out if it’s not ready. Our goal is to record about 30 songs and then pick 10-12 that are an amazing album. And if we can do that in two months, great. If it takes us a little longer to get the sound that we really want, it will take a little longer. But we definitely want to keep cranking stuff out right now, because we’re feeling it right now.  It’s just too much fun.

Ride the wave.

Riiiide the wave, ride the wave.

Okay, Desert Island question time: If you could jam with one musician, alive or dead, who would it be? I know you’ve played for a lot of people, but have you ever had that “dream jam”?

Oh… I have many “dream jams.” That’s a tough one to think about since there’s so many styles I want to do. Because of where I come from, personally, if I could be in Led Zeppelin, I think that would be the most fun in the world.  But there’s also a lot of people out there I’d love to collaborate with now, I love this band tUnE-YaRdS, they’re making great music.  But the other person that always comes to mind is Stevie Wonder. His style is something I’ve really immersed myself in over the years, and that… would be insane. So Led Zeppelin and Stevie Wonder.

Because they go so well together!

Don’t they though? I’d like to see that concert.

So on that note, if you could only listen to one artist for the next year, who would it be?

I think the easy answer would be Stevie Wonder again, just because it’s so deep and it makes you feel so good. But then there’s the easy answers, like The Beatles! They’ve got so much material, you can’t possibly get bored. But then it’s also like, how about Radiohead? I could listen to Radiohead non-stop all the time.

But sometimes you just gotta dance.

Sometimes you’ve just gotta dance. So yeah, I’ll say Stevie Wonder.

Great answer. So any last things you’d like to get off your chest that we haven’t touched on? 

Oh, just to let everyone know to come down to our show if we’re coming to your town because… we’re gonna give you everything we’ve got. We’re aiming to give you what’s, hopefully, one of the best concert experiences you’ve ever had in your life.

*”Chaos Theory” is a theory of mathematics and refers to dynamical systems, which are highly sensitive to initial conditions in which small differences yield vastly diverging outcomes.

Thoughts?

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