John Wicks was already an established drummer before joining Fitz and The Tantrums, playing with Bruno Mars, Cee Lo Green, B.o.B., Chocolate Genius, and many more recognizable names.
It turns out his “funk, R&B, Motown sort of style” was exactly what Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick was looking for when Dawes keyboardist Tay Strathairn introduced them to each other, instantly hitting it off. The rest of the band fell into place rather quickly, and within six years, the sextet scored a No. 1 hit with “Out of My League” on Billboard’s Alternative Songs Chart, and “The Walker” can be heard just about anywhere lately, from TV shows to commercials to radio waves across the world.
Wicks has since made Fitz and The Tantrums, who are set to play Friday, May 9 at Penn’s Peak in Jim Thorpe, his permanent band, and it’s easy to see why once he gets talking about their energetic indie soul pop music and his integral role in it.
WEEKENDER: What was it like when the group first formed in 2008?
JOHN WICKS: We were all professional musicians and kind of hired guns prior to being in this band, and we were sort of used to being in the pressure cooker and learning songs very quickly with very little rehearsal, if any rehearsal. So the first gig went so well and people were kind of freaked out at this first little gig we did, and then ever since then it just took fire, but it’s a real tribute to the musicianship in this band. It just happened really quick.
W: As the drummer, you’ve got keep the beat to this really danceable music. How fun and challenging is that for you?
JW: That’s always been my goal is to do that. As the drummer, I like to focus on what’s specific to my instrument, and no one really has the power to make people dance like I do and my instrument does, so that’s always been my focus, is to make people dance and make people have a great time and forget about any problems they may have, and that’s the great thing about this instrument. I was a jazz musician for many years before moving to Los Angeles to try and make a go of it in the pop world, and one of the reasons I left the jazz realm is that I just was a little bit tired of the musical athleticism that is involved with playing jazz music. I loved it and it made me a very strong musician, I feel like, but I sort of missed the fun and the party aspect of it.
For me, that’s the best part. I get to play beats and look out and see a sea of people now moving to those, and it’s just the biggest rush you could imagine. It’s kind of a power trip, to be totally honest, but it’s a real rush, too.
W: The band is consistently described as a throwback to other decades. Do you feel like your music is a throwback in any way or do you feel like this type of music never really left but maybe just wasn’t as prominent in the mainstream?
JW: The cool thing about being a product of the ‘80s is that I can honestly say that we’re playing this music – it definitely does have that influence, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not ironic. And I think people can tell the difference when they’re at a live show, whether something is being played either tongue-in-cheek or with a wink and a nod or whether it’s truly something that’s visceral and played with intent. I think that’s the difference. None of us are kids in this band. We all grew up listening to that music and it’s a part of us.
There’s no irony there. It’s just pure fun and just letting it come out naturally, what we grew up listening to. In the studio when we were making this last record, I don’t think we sat there going, “Oh, we need this great ‘80s synth sound here.” It’s just like, “Oh, let’s play this.” It wasn’t calculated in that way.
W: So are you all writing songs together?
JW: In our careers, we were all writers prior to starting this band. I wrote a song for Bruno, (keyboardist) Jeremy Ruzumna has written Macy Gray hits, so we all kind of like go into our home studios and write sometimes close to complete songs, sometimes just little beats and bass lines, and then bring them to the table like that, sometimes fully complete, and we just put a little sugar on it and it’s done, or sometimes it needs a little bit more. Very rarely do we all just sit in a room together and actually write together. It works for us.
Most bands I don’t think are like that. Most bands, I think, will hash it out in a room, but I think because of our experiences as professional musicians, none of us really have the patience to do that. I don’t know if it’s for better or for worse, but it works for us.
W: So where does a song start for you?
JW: A lot of times for me as a songwriter, I’ll sit in my studio and just try to find some weird vibey sort of beat. It usually starts with some sort of beat and… that usually will inspire some kind of growth from there. I think Fitz is very much the same way. He looks for some weird sound that could be, I think, a mistake. Usually that’s where the best stuff comes from, when you make a mistake and you’re like, “Oh wait, what was that?” and that’s when you know something is really original. It’s not something that you heard someone else do or anything; it’s purely original. If you play off your own mistakes, that’s usually a good sign, I think, that you’re coming up with something that’s distinctly you.
W: When you’re performing on TV on shows like “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Conan,” and “Good Morning America,” how different is that type of performance than your regular setup?
JW: Those are messed up, man, because you spend the whole day just waiting around for three minutes of activity. It’s pretty intense. They’ll have you show up so early, like “Good Morning America” has you show up at 4 in the morning, as does David Letterman, to set up. Then you set up and then you wait and you wait and you wait and you wait and then suddenly someone rushes into the green room and says, “OK, you’re on!” And you’ve got 3 minutes to make the world happy and try to make a difference in your career, you know? It’s kind of a pressure cooker.
It’s funny. We just did the “Today” show and we got done and someone told me, “Well, you know 5 million people just saw you,” and I got to thinking. I was like, “Wow! I’m glad you didn’t tell me that before we started because I would have really freaked out!”
The most fun I’ve had doing those was Conan, who’s just a sweetheart and is exactly the person you see on TV, and Letterman. Letterman is just a huge fan of drums, and he and I hit it off on a personal level. I live in Montana, and he has a place out in Montana, so we were sort of comparing Montana stories for a bit, so those two were really a pleasure for me.
W: How did it feel to essentially be endorsed by Ellen DeGeneres with her Oscar commercial?
JW: That, to me, is an honor in the highest order. For me personally, the reason is she exudes the energy as a person and on that show that I would like to exude as a drummer. It’s just nothing but positivity, smiles, dancing, and having just so much fun, and to have her latch onto a song like “The Walker” was so validating for me because I would like to play drums the way Ellen acts, the way she is. That’s the vibe I would like to convey from the drums. So that was a real thrill for me that she really latched onto it and did that whole thing for the Oscars.
She’s such a sweetheart. She’s another one like Conan. She’s exactly how she is on TV.
W: Your songs are in so many commercials, TV shows, and other media. Is that how more people discover music nowadays?
JW: I think that is a big way that people are discovering. I think having that Shazam app and having it play in everywhere from Veggie Grill to the Gap and all those places and have people discover it that way is definitely a way that word is spreading, but I have to say the biggest thing that we’ve done so far, as far as media goes, is doing Daryl Hall’s show “Live at Daryl’s House.” We did that way back, and at the time it was not a syndicated show. He was just footing the bill and hosting these episodes online… Like last month, we were in Europe and had somebody come up from Holland and say, “I saw you on ‘Live at Daryl’s House.’” It just never ends, man. That show has, I think, garnered us more fans than anything else we’ve done, other than our live show. The live show and the word of mouth about the live show has really kept the momentum going.
W: Is there anything else you’d like to add before the show in our area this Friday?
JW: I’m a huge Jim Thorpe fan. My father is from New Jersey originally, but went to school at Bucknell… and I remember growing up he was always talking to me about Jim Thorpe. He was like this mythical person, and to be honest, I heard I was going to have this interview with you and I had no idea that there was a town named after Jim Thorpe. I was like, “Holy moly!” So last night I got on YouTube and started watching documentaries about Jim Thorpe, and I learned more last night in my hotel room than I have my whole life about Jim Thorpe, and I’m actually really thrilled to play there.
I’m really stoked to play in a town that honors such a great athlete like that. It’s pretty awesome.