Fitz, Leader Of Pop Band Fitz And The Tantrums, Talks About Their New Album, Let Yourself Free, Their Hit “HandClap,” And Writing Their Songs

Fitz and the Tantrums
FITZ AND THE TANTRUMS (Fitz, second from left)
(photo credit: Lindsey Byrnes)

For the past decade, the band Fitz and the Tantrums have had widespread success on pop & alternative radio, as a popular live group, and on YouTube with their lively and entertaining videos. Perhaps best known for their fun, worldwide 2016 hit “HandClap,” they have now released five albums that are full of high energy, danceable, upbeat and witty songs.

Fitz and the Tantrums consist of six members—lead singer Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick, co-lead singer Noelle Scaggs, saxophonist James King, bassist Joseph Karnes, keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna and drummer John Wicks. Five of the band members have been together since 2008, with Karnes joining a couple years later.

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Fitz of the band Fitz and the Tantrums, about how he wrote their hit “HandClap” (with Sam Hollander).

The band has just released their new album, called Let Yourself Free (on Elektra Records). This album contains 12 songs that carry on the group’s joyful spirit, dance party vibe and positive attitude. Two of the leadoff tracks are the radio-friendly “Sway” and “Moneymaker,” with other key cuts being “Silver Platter,” “Steppin’ On Me” and the ballad “Someday,” which ends the album.

Fitz and the Tantrums was formed in Los Angeles in 2008, when lead singer & main songwriter Fitz teamed up with longtime friend James King, and they soon recruited soulful, charismatic singer Noelle Scaggs to share the lead vocal duties. The pairing of Fitz & Scaggs has been a solid one-two punch for the band, with the other members providing a dynamic, full-band sound.

The band released their first album, Pickin’ Up the Pieces, in 2010 on the independent label, Dangerbird Records. After their single “MoneyGrabber” caught the attention of music fans and label execs, they signed with Elektra Records and subsequently released their second album, More Than Just a Dream, in 2013. This album featured their #1 alternative hits “Out of My League” and “The Walker,” which have been certified platinum.

Here’s the video of Fitz and the Tantrums’ single, “Sway.”

Then in 2016, the band released their self-titled third album, Fitz and the Tantrums, which became their best-selling record due to the hit pop success of “HandClap.” The single is so catchy, fun and upbeat, that it has been featured in numerous films, TV shows and commercials.

In 2019, Fitz and the Tantrums released their fourth album, All the Feels, which included their singles “I Just Wanna Shine” and “123456.” In addition, Fitz released his solo album, Head Up High, in 2020.

Besides their studio recordings, the band is known for their high energy, party-style live shows. For the past decade, they’ve been headlining their own concerts, or opening for major artists. The group will be launching a new tour in mid-January, playing many cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Nashville and Atlanta.

Fitz and the Tantrums Interview

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Fitz. He talks about the band’s early singles, their hit “HandClap” and their new album, Let Yourself Free.

DK: I read that you were born in France and grew up in Los Angeles. How did you get started with music and writing songs?

Fitz: My mom’s French and I was born overseas, and then I moved here when I was small young boy. I’ve loved music since I can remember. From the time I came out of my mom, I wouldn’t shut up (laughs). I was singing and singing. I just had music in my bones. Now, I see it with my three boys—they all have music in their bones.

I had this early love of music, and I went into musical theatre and did stuff like that. Then I went to a high school for the performing arts, and I was in their singing program. Music has always been part of my life, and for the longest time I thought…this will be my destiny. I’m going to do this and be a success in music. But it took a good 15 years of hitting the pavement and getting rejected, before finally making that moment come true.

Here’s the lyric video of Fitz and the Tantrums’ song,

DK: I read that early on, you worked as a sound engineer for a producer. Did you want a career as a recording engineer, or was this a job to earn money while you pursued your artist career?

Fitz: I was always going to be an artist. But I went through many years of being rejected by the music business. I couldn’t get anyone to listen to my music, or show up at my shows. So finally, I got scared and desperate and I was like…I can’t keep scrounging pennies every month to pay my rent. I’ve gotta find a way to actually make money from music. So I hit up this producer I knew (Mickey Petralia), and asked if he needed any help. I kept calling him for a year, and finally he said, “Alright, you can come over.” Then he saw that I knew what I was doing with recording music and using the computer and being creative. So he said, “Oh, you can stay.” So I worked with him for a few years, helping him with other people’s projects. It paid the bills, but that only reaffirmed to me that if I was going to work in a small studio with no windows, it better be for my own music. And that’s what pushed me to try again to make my own music, and it ended up being Fitz and the Tantrums.

DK: How did you form Fitz and the Tantrums, and connect with singer Noelle Scaggs?

Fitz; I was writing the first couple songs, trying to craft what I wanted the band to be. I was trying to make a cohesive set of songs that harkened back to one of my favorite periods of music—‘60s soul music. Also, I tried to put it through a little spin, to see it through the lens of those British Invasion bands of the ‘80s. And then put a little hip-hop spin on the way the beats were constructed. When I did it, I played it for some of my toughest critics and they were like, ”This is your thing. I’ve never heard you sound more authentic than when you’re singing like this. You’re not trying to sound cool or grungy. You’re just singing.”

Then I brought in my college buddy, James King, on saxophone. We started building some of the songs with horns. Then we looked at each other in the studio, saying, “We have to play these songs live.” And I said, “I definitely want a female counterpart to sing with me. Do you know anybody? James said, “There’s one person you’ve gotta call, and that’s Noelle Scaggs.”

Here’s the video of Fitz and the Tantrums’ hit, “HandClap.”

A week later, after making some phone calls, we’ve got six of us together in a room and we played a show. It felt so immediate and it sounded like a record already. Then we played a show at Hotel Café, and the rest is history, because when we started playing live, there was a crazy reaction to what we were doing. We played five or six shows, and then all of a sudden Maroon 5, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings and Flogging Molly offered us tours with them. That’s when I knew…something different is happening here. So I was able to leave my day job and go on the road, and we went from being a local band to a national band.

DK: In the early years of the band, you had success with your singles “MoneyGrabber,” “Out Of My League” and “The Walker.” Can you talk about this period?

Fitz: “MoneyGrabber” was going to be on our independent label’s release of our first album, and they weren’t sure which song would be a single. But we had been playing these songs from the record, and every night we’d finish the show and people would say, “Man, what’s that ‘Money’ song? That thing is amazing.” So the label said, “Alright, we need to shoot a video for ‘MoneyGrabber’.” So we put that out and we got traction with some radio stations who added it. Then this alternative station in Seattle added it, which was a big deal, and that changed the course of what was going to be a small independent release with no radio, to suddenly getting so much attention that the label had to scramble and give us money for a tour bus, instead of a van. We needed the bus so we could wake up at 7:00 a.m. every morning and play at radio stations across the country.

That was the foundation for the band, and then we made our second album. Now there was more expectations, but I also wanted to show people that we were more than just a Motown sax band. ‘80s New Wave music was also a big influence, so I wanted to bring that in. And that’s when we put out ‘Out of My League.” Noelle brought me the beginning of this idea, and it became “Out of My League.” And I thought this song had everything I loved about New Wave and that it would help us break into alternative radio.

Here’s the video of Fitz and the Tantrums’ single, “I Just
Wanna Shine.”

We finally got signed to Atlantic Records (which evolved into a deal with Elektra Records), and the head of the label said, “Do you really want this song ‘Out of My League’ to be the single?” And I said, “Yup.”  So he said, “Alright, then go make it better.” I said “What? This song’s already mixed and mastered.” But he said, “If you want it to be the single, go prove it to me. You need to make it better.”

Then I went back in the studio with the producer for three days, and we tried all this stuff. But then we cracked the code of what was missing in the song, and I was like…Holy shit—he was right. He pushed me and the song was better. Then we released the song and (top L.A. station) KROQ played it. And then every alternative programmer got behind the song and it went to number one alternative in Billboard. After that, we put out “The Walker “ as a single and it also went to number one alternative.

DK: In 2016, you released your single “HandClap,” which became your biggest hit. Can you tell the story behind writing ‘HandClap”?

Fitz: We were coming off of two successful albums, but now the pressure was on. We started writing for the third album, but I had no clue what to do. For about six months, I wrote everyday but I didn’t have one song that I thought was a winner. Then I showed up for my first session with (hit songwriter) Sam Hollander, and we had an immediate connection.

I walked into Sam’s studio and I was mad because I hadn’t written a good song in six months. When I got to the studio I said, “Give me a snare sound, give me a kick sound,” and I made this little beat. “Now give me the shittiest-sounding saxophone sample you can find.“ And Sam found a good one. Then I started noodling and came up with a very Yiddish sounding melody (he sings “da, da da da, da da da, da, ya da da da”  and laughs). Then I said, “Give me an upright bass sound,” and me and Sam looked up and he goes, “I can make your hands clap.” And we go, “Oh my God!” We looked at each other and clapped five times—”12345.” Sam is a lyrical savant. We’re just flowing with these rhymes, and we got the mood and vibe right. It felt good so we kept going. Then we finished the song and it happened fast. After we finished it I was so relieved, because after six months of struggling to write, I knew this was gonna be our biggest song.

Here’s the video of Fitz and the Tantrums’ hit, “Out of
My League.”

DK: I also like your single “I Just Wanna Shine,” from your All the Feels album (in 2019). What inspired you to write this song?

Fitz: I sat down with my good friend, Nick Long, who’s an amazing songwriter and guitar player. I wanted to find a way to say something positive and uplifting—putting a positive message out in the world that speaks to overcoming stress and anxiety and the demons we all have. The verses talk about having stress and the things I was dealing with…anxiety and depression. And then I thought…How do you shine a light on it, how do you lift yourself up? I wanted to have the chorus be the antidote to whatever pain I was struggling with, and it turned out to resonate with people. It’s probably my favorite song on that record.

DK: You and the band have released your new album, Let Yourself Free. Can you talk about making this album, and what your favorite songs are?

Fitz: With this album, I tried to be a little more judicious with how I spent my time. I didn’t want to write a hundred songs…I tried to take it down a notch. Instead of writing a song everyday, I tried to write two or three a week and really think about it and sit with them. I wanted this record to create a perfect circle back through all of our different influences, which is why this record has the most soulful Motown influences woven back into these songs since our first album.

I ended up writing about 50 songs for this record, and invariably the cream rises to the top. So you go from 50 songs down to 25, and eventually down to the 12 songs for the album. You hone the arc of the whole album. I’m super proud of this record. Some of my favorite songs are not the singles. There are songs like “Silver Platter” and “Steppin’ On Me,” and then there’s “Someday,” which closes the record. It’s a beautiful, simple duet ballad that Noelle and I do. I love the message of the song. It goes against the grain of what people know about Fitz and the Tantrums, which is being known for our fun party music. It’s more dark and a little sad, and about trying to do better someday. And as far as the more hyped songs, we’ve been playing “Moneymaker” live for a few months, and it’s exciting to see people singing along to it and getting a good reaction.

Here’s the video of Fitz and the Tantrums’ hit, “The Walker.”

DK: I’ve listened to songs from all of your albums, and there’s a consistent theme of the songs being full of energy, hooky, fun and danceable. How would you describe the Fitz and the Tantrums sound?

Fitz: I would say that it’s an amalgamation of six people’s influences, which is a lot of people. We want our music to be a celebration—a hot, sweaty dance party. We never tried to be the coolest band in the world. We love bringing joy to people. And having traveled and toured the world for almost 15 years now, we’ve had many experiences of seeing and meeting people, with them telling us how much a song impacted their lives or helped them. We’ve met parents who have a sick daughter who’s now recovering, and they tell us, “Our daughter was in the hospital six months doing treatments, and ‘HandClap’ was her fight song and champion song, that we played every day while she was doing chemo.” And we’re sitting there, with me and the dads in the band literally weeping as we’re meeting this healthy young girl. Seeing the power that the song had for her and her family.

You know, you write a song in the vacuum of your own studio or your bedroom, and you put it out in the world, and once you do that, it’s not up to you anymore. It’s how the world receives it or what it means to somebody. And those experiences have been imprinted on me…the power of putting a positive message out in the world, and what it could mean for another person who might be going through hard times.

Here’s the link to Fitz and the Tantrums’ site:

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima