October 24, 2013

Courtesy photos

Fitz & the Tantrums

Fitz & the Tantrums play Portland’s State Theatre Saturday

By Ray Routhier
Staff Writer

The trick to making credible new music that has a definite ’80s sound – vocal echoes, drum machines, peppy synthesizers – is to do it as earnestly as possible.

So says John Wicks, drummer for the rock band Fitz & the Tantrums. He and his bandmates come by an ’80s sound honestly, even reverently.

Unlike many younger folks who only recently discovered Style Council or Depeche Mode on some “oldies” radio show, Wicks and his band mates are in their 40s and grew up with the music. They also grew up with an appreciation for Motown and soul, something they share with a lot of ’80s bands.

The members of Fitz & the Tantrums also worked as session musicians or sound engineers for years, learning the business and seeing what works and what doesn’t.

And judging from the success of singles like “Out of My League” and “MoneyGrabber” on radio and the band’s frequent appearances on network TV, an honest ’80s sound works.

“We can honestly say we’re playing it without any irony, and a lot of people can’t,” said Wicks, 42. “It was definitely a conscious decision for us to go for that sound, to use drum machines and synthesizers the way they were used then.”

Fitz & the Tantrums will be putting their non-ironic sound on display Saturday at the State Theatre in Portland. Their latest album, “More Than Just a Dream,” came out earlier this year and the single “Out of My League” got to No. 1 on the Billboard alternative songs chart.

The band has been a darling of TV talk hosts, maybe because most were teens or young adults in the ’80s. Earlier this month, the band was on Ellen DeGeneres’ daytime show one day, and on Conan O’Brien’s late night show the next.

“Well, for my own ego purposes, it’s pretty sweet being on those shows,” said Wicks. “I can get on Facebook and say, ‘Hey, all you people who have been watching me struggle since third grade, I’m on with Jay Leno tonight.’ ”

The band’s look, at least on videos, is very ’80s as well. Lead singer Michael Fitzpatrick often sports two-tone (brown and blonde) hair, with bangs pulled over to one side. Noelle Scaggs is often dressed in mod attire, and her soulful vocals back up Fitzpatrick’s leads. The band even has a sax player, and most of the band’s six members play more than one instrument. Most have percussion listed among their credits on the latest album, so you can guess there’s a whole lot of rhythm going on.

“MoneyGrabber” was the band’s first hit a couple years ago, and has been played at Occupy Wall Street events. But Wicks said the song was written by Fitzpatrick after a bad romance with someone who was out for his money. Still, Wicks says the band members agree with a lot of the Occupy Wall Street ideas, and they’ve played the song live for Occupy events.

“I almost don’t like to tell people how that song was written, because to me the great thing about music is that everyone interprets a song differently. It can mean so many different things to different people,” said Wicks.

The band formed in Los Angeles about five years ago. Fitzpatrick had worked as a sound engineer for many years before deciding to form his own band, and most of the other members were longtime session musicians. When they first formed, Wicks said, members thought it was for a few fun gigs around Los Angeles.

“None of us ever thought this would become so big,” said Wicks.

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or

Fitz & the Tantrums

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