2014 Artist Survey: Fitz and The Tantrums

John Wicks on the Ferguson Shooting, the Ice Bucket Challenge, Grimes, Mark Kozelek, U2, Selling Out, His Celebrity Crush, and 2014's Most Annoying Song

Jan 06, 2015 Web Exclusive
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For Under the Radar's 12th annual Artist Survey we emailed some of our favorite artists a few questions relating to 2014. We asked them about their favorite albums of the year and their thoughts on various notable 2014 news stories involving either the music industry or world events, as well as some quirkier personal questions.

Check out our Best of 2014 print and digital issues for answers from alt-J, Camera Obscura, Chromeo, The Dears, Death From Above 1979, Deerhoof, The Drums, The Flaming Lips, Glass Animals, Hookworms, Sondre Lerche, of Montreal, Ought, Owen Pallett, The Rosebuds, Strand of Oaks, Teleman, Sharon Van Etten, The War on Drugs, Warpaint, Woman's Hour, Wye Oak, Zola Jesus, and others.

Here are some answers from John Wicks of Fitz and The Tantrums.

Top 10 Albums of 2014

1. Little Dragon: Nabuma Rubberband

2. Flying Lotus: You're Dead!

3. Boards of Canada: Tomorrow's Harvest

4. Young Fathers: Tape Two

5. M.I.A.: Matangi

6. Beat Club: Faces

7. I Am Dynamite: Supermegafantastic

8. St. Vincent: St. Vincent

9. HAIM: Days Are Gone

10. Azealia Banks: Broke With Expensive Taste 

What was the highlight of 2014 for either you personally or for the band?

The highlights of 2014 for me were the experiences of being at home with my twin daughters on their first day of kindergarten, and running in The Rut 50k mountain race in Big Sky, Montana.  Musically, I was just pinching myself watching our songs climb to #1. It was surreal.

What was the low point of 2014 for you?

The low point of 2014 came on this last bit of touring. My daughters were having to deal with their first bully at school and I was unable to be there for them. Simultaneously, I got a severe case of food poisoning. It was an awful feeling of being sick, trapped, and helpless that was pretty tough.

What are your hopes and plans for 2015?

My hope for 2015 is to feel like an artist. I want to create, practice drums, and collaborate with my band.

U2's new album was downloaded for free into millions of users' iTunes accounts without their permission. Was it a wonderful gift to music fans or an invasive action that devalues music? Also, which artist, other than you, deserves to have their album automatically downloaded to half a billion people more than U2?

To me, the only thing that devalues art is when the artist makes crappy art! Was the art made with conviction and heartfelt intent or did you phone it in? Is it a truly original piece or do I hear or see a hundred other things like it everywhere I turn? I have not listened to the new U2 record but I'd be willing to bet that I'm not going to hear the same passion and hunger that I hear when I put on their Boy or War records, and that is what devalues it. Throwing a lot of money at something does not guarantee great art or great anything. In fact, usually I find the opposite to be true. But who knows? If and when I hear it, maybe I will love it. I hope so.      

We need to choose our battles a little more wisely. I equate the free music on the computer to getting a free CD sampler with the purchase of a magazine, or getting unwanted junk mail in my mailbox. It's not that invasive, it's just a minor inconvenience. Get over it, just throw it in the trash. Would I like to see a different band receive the huge paycheck that I'm sure U2 got from Apple for doing this deal? Yeah! U2 doesn't need the money. Bands we've toured with like Beat Club and I Am Dynamite who have paid their dues should be able to focus on their music, tour, and be a little less worried about making their rent when they get home. But what good does it do me to fault U2 for bucking the system and figuring out how to get big paydays? I only hope that they are doing something positive with all of the tools at their disposal.

Did you take part in the ice bucket challenge? If not, why not?  declined due to animal testing issues, was the grief she got for that deserved?

I did not do the ice bucket challenge. I pride myself on being a pretty staunch animal rights advocate so it humbles me to say that I'm not educated enough on the animal testing track record of the ALS Foundation. I have, however, witnessed firsthand the effect that ALS has on both a person stricken with the disease and on the friends and family surrounding and supporting that person. It's brutal and terrifying to witness.

Seeing so many people rally together with the ice bucket challenge in such a positive, fun way while simultaneously guiding people's gaze over to look at such a frightening disease is truly a phenomenon that I think is mind-blowing. I'd like to see the funds used to create more effective human-based testing methods that more accurately recreate the disease but I have a rough time faulting the thousands of people who banded together to help fight it.

The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri opened up a new national dialogue on police shootings and racism in America. Do you think anything will actually change because of it?

I'm not sure that this particular shooting opened up anything new. These types of shootings and the frenetic dialogues that follow have been going on for many years. Maybe it was a slow news week and the 24-hour news channels decided to focus on it because no celebrities had babies or got caught not wearing underwear while getting out of a taxi cab.

I was not shocked by the racial element of this incident at all. The fact that I wasn't surprised saddens me. What hit me the hardest was the strange report that Missouri residents were receiving advice on how to survive tear gas attacks from Palestine and Turkey. So if I take a second and ask myself why this particular aspect of the tragedy was what struck me as the most odd, I can only answer, "Because I'm arrogant, out of touch, and very lucky to be a white man in America." So do I think anything will change because of it? Yeah, I personally have changed. It's humbled me and forced me to look at myself and my country in a different way. Hopefully I'm a part of a larger ripple effect that is currently happening.

What's your craziest theory for what happened to the missing Malaysian Air flight?

I'm sorry, I don't have any crazy conspiracy theory on this.  I just feel terrible for anyone that lost family.

Mark Kozelek was criticized in 2014 for insulting his audience (calling them "hillbillies" for talking during his set) and for making fun of The War on Drugs when their sound bled over to the stage he was playing. What responsibility do performers have to be respectful of their audiences and fellow bands?

If I became upset every time someone talked while I played, or looked at me like I had six heads, I would've quit music a long time ago. Most of the time I was just happy that there was anyone else in the room besides a bartender and some drunk at the bar. I made a conscious choice to play that music then. When you choose to play music that is challenging or dissonant, or even just quieter dynamically, you are going to limit your audience and the venues you can comfortably play in. Later in life, I made a conscious choice to depart from that music and focus on playing music that has a broader audience and is much more accessible. Fitz and The Tantrums has reached a degree of success and exposure larger than I could have ever imagined. But there are still shows (especially festivals) where there are some people who are there to hear us and a lot of people who are there early just to get in good position to hear Eminem or whomever the headliner is later that night. Yeah, I notice some people talking or not really into us. We've even been booed and mildly heckled on occasion. I don't focus on them unless I want to channel some inner angst, but I'm not playing punk rock any more. I just search for the partiers and the dancers in the audience and focus on them and anyone else who is on board. I'm sure Mark Kozelek is great and just cares a lot about what he's doing and wants everyone else to care as well, which I completely understand. Unfortunately, we live in a time and a society where most folks have the attention span of gnats and usually just go to a show to record 10 seconds of a song on their iPhones so that they can post the clip online later and show their 100 Facebook friends that they are cool and went to a show. So if an artist wants a focused audience that doesn't talk or doesn't want another band's set to bleed over from another stage, it's going to be a tough day at work if he or she is playing at a festival.

I live in Montana so I'm not a hillbillyI'm more of a redneck, I guess. I can call myself that but if someone I paid money to hear play music called me that, I'd be a little put off by it. It depends on the artist and their history. For instance, back in the '90s one of my favorite bands to go see was Flat Duo Jets. They were this amazing "psychobilly" duo that had a constant dialogue with the audience. Insults, heckling, threats, you name it. It was awesome! But it was part of the vibe of their shows. The first time I went to hear Miles Davis play in '88, he played the entire night with his back to the audience. Did I care? Hell no! It was Miles, it's part of the deal, I knew what I was in for in those situations either before I walked in the venue or immediately got the vibe right from the first note. But if it comes out of left field and it's insulting to the people that are supporting you, it's gonna come back and bite you in the ass. People that come to Fitz and The Tantrums shows pay a chunk of their paycheck to be entertained, lose themselves and forget about any problems they may be having. I love giving that to them. If that means that part of the evening's party will include them talking and laughing with their friends, then cool. As long as they are having a good time, I'm doing my job as an entertainer.

"Weird Al" Yankovic was back in a big way this year. If he were to lampoon any one of your songs, which one would you want it to be? What would the "Weird Al" version's lyrics be about?

I would be honored. "Weird Al" is fantastic. He and his drummer "Bermuda" Schwartz are two of the most talented and giving people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. I'd want him to re-do "The Walker" as "The Stalker" and have him take on the ridiculous paparazzi and TMZ bullshit.

Which common criticism of your music do you most agree with?

Sometimes we sound almost too much like the record when we play live. We never lack live show energy, but I think sonically we could take some chances. Arrangement-wise we could do better and extend parts here and there to give some unforeseen twists and turns and showcase the strong musicianship in the band. It's a little bit of complacency on our part that we should work on.

What's the most uplifting or heartwarming fan interaction you've ever had?

Veterans and active duty military telling me that our music gets them through tough times and out of dark emotional places just turns me into mush. If I can provide any sort of reprieve or happiness for those folks I feel like I'm doing some good.

Who from your youth (such as a former bully, an unrequited love) do you most hope pays attention to the fact that you're now a successful musician?

Both my mother and father died way too early and never got to see the payoff from all of the years of starving, being singularly focused and dedicated.  I wish they could be around for this. They'd be happy for me and my family.

Which musician or celebrity did you most have a crush on as a child or teenager?

Joan Jett, still do.

Which subject do you wish you paid more attention to in school?

Painting and Art History.

Which well-known filmmaker would you most like to direct one of your music videos?

I would love Martin Scorsese to direct something using our song, "House on Fire."

This year Grimes scrapped her new album due to negative fan reaction to its first single and her unhappiness with it. How much should fan reaction/expectation play a part of your creative process? Have you ever abandoned a big creative project far into it due to your dissatisfaction?

If she scrapped her album because she was unsatisfied with it then good for her. If it was the label scrapping it or she bailed on it out of fear of failure then I feel sorry for her because at the end of the day it's her art and could stand as a benchmark of where she was as an artist in 2014. An album's worth of music can take a while to write and record and with any degree of exposure comes more people wanting a say in how you shape your music so they can feel ownership of it too. It's easy to get lost, especially if you are young. If Grimes was pushed to pair up with a bunch of "producers" and/or co-writers and when she came up for air it was something so impersonal and foreign to her then hopefully she learned to trust herself and tell everyone else to get the hell out of her head.

In which instance did you most sell out and compromise your music?

Before joining this band I was doing a lot of session work. There were times when I was called in to play drums on some seriously bad songs and had to feign enthusiasm and just put on a smile and tell myself, "Hey you're getting paid to hit things, just do your job, get your money, and go home." It can be tough to keep my emotions at arm's length. I admit that I suffer from a certain degree of "punk rock guilt." It's hard enough for musicians out there nowadays, why make it harder by calling us sell-outs? There are really only two ways professional musicians can make a living in this day and age, touring and licensing. Of course there are certain products and companies that we would never license our music to for ethical reasons. Aside from that, I would never call anyone a sell-out. That concept was lame to begin with but it really went out with the fall of the music industry.

Do you ever long for the days before the Internet and cell phones? If so, what do you think has been the worst side effect of those technologies?

I feel sad for the "cell phoners" because they could be watching it live, but they are watching it behind a camera. And then they have a beer in the other hand, so they can't even clap their hands. They're frozen! They are either going to spill their beer or they're not going to get a good shot because they're dancing. Get rid of the damn phone and get into it.

Which 2014 song most got on your nerves?

Katy Perry's "This Is How We Do." Ninety percent of that song is one note repeated over and over. Katy probably has a lot of haters out there but I'm not one of them. She can sing her ass off and has some great pop songs, but this song is just lazy. Write a melody, for God's sake!

www.fitzandthetantrums.com

 



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