A Band Blends Eras, Minus Nostalgia


July 18, 2013

Michael Fitzpatrick—"Fitz" of Fitz and the Tantrums—is lucky he can sing at all. Fifteen years ago he was in a car crash, smashing his throat into the steering wheel. "I lost my falsetto," he said. "I could no longer sing softly. I have to sing all-out forte or not at all."


His all-out belting and the none-too-timid singing of Noelle Scaggs have been the constants in this up-and-coming band, which has mixed 1960s soul and '80s new wave in shifting proportions.


The band built its original following in Los Angeles dance clubs, first getting national attention with the 2010 recording "Pickin' Up the Pieces." Touring now for their album "More Than Just a Dream," released in May, Fitz and the Tantrums have been breaking into the mainstream. The band is opening a number of shows for pop singer-songwriter Bruno Mars this summer and has made recent appearances on David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel.


Fitz and the Tantrums started out with a '60s soul sound informed by subtle '80s influences—with nods toward British bands such as the Style Council. With their new release, the band reverses the formula: Their new-wave sensibility is now the main course, with soul as a seasoning. For all his admiration of Motown and Stax, Mr. Fitzpatrick said he remains "an '80s baby."


Combining the eras isn't an entirely new pairing—much of new wave already had a '60s groove going. But new wave originally incorporated soul elements to temper the very new with the old. Soul rooted the new music in a tradition that was very much at odds with the musical technology of the moment—synthesizers. Soul heated up the chilly robotics of synth-pop.


But the technology of the '80s is no longer hypermodern. Synthesizers of the era now have a distinctly vintage quality—like a computer that displays orange type on a black screen. (Listen, for example, for eight-bit electronic arpeggiations on the Tantrums song "The Walker" that sound as if taken from a Pac-Man game.)


In combining aesthetics of varying vintage, the risk can be that you get a game of musical dress-up. Rock critic Simon Reynolds, in his book "Retromania," wrote, "Bands can do 'nostalgia layering' of sonic garments from different eras." He warned that all too often the exercise is thoughtless or clumsy and ends up like kids raiding a costume trunk, pairing a leather jacket with a Laura Ashley sundress, Doc Martens and a fedora.


The bands, such as Fitz and the Tantrums, that succeed in melding vintage sounds into something new are the ones that avoid slapping disparate elements together and instead alter the elements by fusing them. "We wanted to do a modern take on our influences," Ms. Scaggs said. "It's about not doing everything verbatim."


One of the most effective ways in which Fitz and the Tantrums combine the styles of different eras is in the juxtaposition of the studio ambience typical of each time. In '60s soul, one hears the natural echo of a live-band sound bouncing around inside the recording studio, an effect amplified with copious reverb. But two decades later, in the early days of drum machines, the favored studio sound wasn't just dry but desiccated.


"I love displacing different sonic signatures," Mr. Fitzpatrick said. It is a skill he honed making his living, in part, as a recording-studio engineer before organizing the Tantrums. And so a song such as "Out of My League," the lead single from the new album, alternates crisp, choppy, electronic hand-clapping on the verse with an ocean of reverb on the chorus.


The choice of which instruments to mix and match has been key to creating Fitz and the Tantrums' mix of eras. The baritone saxophone, together with the reedy keening of an old electric organ, were essential soul ingredients in the band's first full-length release.


Saxophonist James King landed a barrage of rhythmic punches with the sort of gritty oomph heard on Martha and the Vandellas' "Heat Wave." But on the Tantrums' sophomore effort, the instruments that proclaimed the band's soul bona fides have moved to the background.

"On this record," said Mr. Fitzpatrick, the band had to "broaden the vocabulary of the instruments we used." On the band's newer material, Mr. King is more likely to be playing a keyboard loaded with '80s synthesizer sounds, a shift instrumental to the band's changing sound.


It is the sort of shifting mix that modern audiences naturally get when they put their iPods in shuffle mode, "Listeners are diverse in musical tastes," Mr. Fitzpatrick said. "They're used to hearing contrasts in eras."