Interview: Joseph Karnes of Fitz and the Tantrums

Fritz and the Tantrums

Bassist Joseph Karnes talks about feeling more confident and at ease on Fitz and the Tantrums’ self-titled third album, always keeping the live show in the back of the mind, and building success inch-by-inch.

Are you home or are you out on the road now?

We are home this week. Yeah, it’s just leading up to our final round of production rehearsals and stuff, with all our new lights and things like that.

You’ve only been able to play a handful of shows so far this year, so only a couple of the new songs have been played live. How has that been going so far?

We’ve been so happy with the response to the songs live. We’ve been doing about two or three shows and we’ve done three of the songs from the record. I think people are starting to know “HandClap” a bit, the first single, so that’s nice to see, but the fun thing is to see the response to the other new material.

There’s one song called “Roll Up” and one that’s called “Complicated,” that is actually available now as part of the preorder or something like that. To see people’s reactions to songs they don’t know at all and to see how they’re connecting, by that second chorus people are singing along, and that’s really heartening for us.

I’ve always seen the live show as such a huge part of who you are and that audience participation, so that must be cool to see happen and fun trying these new songs out for the first time.

Absolutely. One of the things we’ve done with this record and the last one, More Than Just a Dream, they were written in the studio and we never had a chance to play them live before we started recording them. So, it’s really exciting to see.

We’ve always prided ourselves on the live show, like you said. We’re not the kind of band who wants to recreate it exactly. We want to make it pretty close to what’s on the record. We don’t want you to come in and go, “What song is that?” with some crazy funky arrangement. We like to give you what’s on the record, plus some extra juju.

We’re all really excited to get out there and start playing, not just these three songs, but trying out all the other songs from the record and seeing how people dig it.

I’m always interested when bands end up self-titling a record that is not the debut record, and this is your third record now. What was some of the reasoning why you decided to name it that on this one?

We tossed around a bunch of ideas of actual titles, but nothing really clicked. We were like, “Well, what about just self-titling the record?” We put out Pickin’ Up the Pieces in 2010, and that had its own vibe. It was definitely a solid thing, but again that was a record partly written before it was performed. Then you get out there and perform it and by the second record we really tried pushing the boundaries on that sound, on expanding the sound we started on Pickin’ Up the Pieces. So, that was its own brand of reinvention.

Then with this record, when I look at all the songs on the record it feels to me like it’s saying this is Fitz and the Tantrums. We’ve had a couple runs at records that we’ve been very proud of, but this one really feels like us. It’s kind of taking a stand and going, We’ve had a couple go-arounds on making records. We have a better handle on where we want to go. I don’t think this is as drastic a departure as More Than Just a Dream from our first record, but there’s that thing that really feels maybe this was who we were always trying to be.

Noelle was describing it as your most personal record that you’ve done so far. Is that kind of going along with what you’re saying?

Yeah, there’s definitely that, too. The first record was very personal, but it was very much a relationship thing. Like with most people’s first records, you’ve got a lot longer to write that record. The second record, while there’s a lot of personal stuff in there, it was also written very fast. We gave ourselves a month or six weeks to actually write the bulk of it.

Everything is personal in there, but this one was after five years of touring and going through so many life changes within the band personally, like babies being born, parents passing away, estrangement from our loved ones, and then reuniting through the topsy-turvy world of touring and having a family. When we got off the road there was definitely a lot of soul searching that went on, in particular I think with Fitz.

One thing I’m really proud of with this record is how deep it went with a lot of the personal struggles and demons he was going through. On top of it there’s still party songs, like “HandClap” and things like that, but there is a lot of depth and it is very personal.

Some of those songs we’re going to dive into more as we start touring more, and I’m really excited to see how that translates live. When he grabs onto a song that has a lot of emotional depth, when it comes to that he wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s a really exciting thing to see, even being in the band, to witness him make those kinds of connections. That’s one of those things that’s going to elevate the entire show that much more.

On the fist two records you draw a lot more from your retro roots and older influences, while this record is the most modern-sounding that you’ve done and as you were saying is more of your own sound at this point. Can you talk a little about that and what it was like finding your style a bit more?

Whenever we start to write a new record, we don’t know where it’s going to go. We know where we’ve been. One thing we always grab onto is our live show and what we want to accomplish with that, how much we want to create a vibe of freedom and letting people exercise their demons, for lack of a better phrase, and really let their hair down.

So many of the songs always, even the super emotional songs, sound sonically more positive than the lyrics might lead you to believe. Part of that is really to have that cathartic experience that we like to provide for everybody and hopefully everybody joins along with. So that’s always one thing we start out with, how is this going to translate live.

It’s an exciting and frightening prospect when you start to write a record because we can kind of do anything. So many songs and ideas are written, and we spend a long time writing. Ultimately, there was a lot of difficulty and writer’s block getting in there. When “HandClap” came, that one came kind of early, like a few months into the writing. I remember when Fitz played it for us and it was like, “Oh dude, that’s really exciting.”

When you get a song like that, who knows how it came about, other than let’s create a nice upbeat song that’s going to have a lot of crowd participation, which is one of the hallmarks of our live show. Then you get that song and you go, “Oh, OK.” It took a while to find the benchmark of what we wanted to make this record.

There’s a bunch of other songs that didn’t make the record that are really solid, good songs. At the end of the day you’ve got to come up with a cohesive record, so you end up picking songs that go together well and tell a story. But, it starts with landing the one, like when we got to “HandClap,” that this is kind of where we want to go. Then as a few more songs get written, you’re like, “Well, this one I’m really digging. This is a little bit more of the direction.”

Then, you do a final push of songwriting until we have like 12 songs or something, where you’re like, “We’re really feeling good about this. Now let’s try to top these.” That’s kind of an insight into the process a bit.

Did the fact that “Out of My League” and “The Walker” were such huge hits, was that ever in the back of your mind as you were working on the record, either as a guide to capture that same feeling or to try something a little different than what those songs did?

Well, there’s always that. We’re very lucky to have had those songs and have two hits on our record that connected with people. That’s always in the back of the mind somewhere, but the most important thing is to write a song that you like. Hopefully, it will connect with people.

It’s like I said before, it’s in the back of our mind when we start writing, the live thing. When we play “The Walker,” as soon as we start playing it so many people know it now that you just see the whole crowd in unison start pogo dancing. They start bopping by the second beat of the song. It’s that feeling. Seeing that it’s like, Wow, if we can have more of those moments in our show, let’s try to do that.

That’s more I think where it comes from, rather than trying to chase a hit. Once you try chasing a hit, it’s a dangerous path. You just got to come up with something you dig and you hope your fans are going to dig. That’s more of what we’re writing for. We’re writing for ourselves and we’re writing for our fans.

We write for our fans to kind of give them the show they expect and we would like to give, and then we write for ourselves to try and guide them along to some new territories that we’re interested in. Hopefully, they will come along for the ride, you know?

The last record opened you up to such a whole new audience and now your music is in commercials, movie trailers, sporting events and all that good stuff. What’s that transition been like, being that you started out as this local L.A. band doing things D.I.Y.? Has that been an adjustment period for you?

Although it seems kind of fast, it’s something we’ve been working towards for a long time. As fast as it happened, it wasn’t overnight. It’s not like we had some song that just shot up the charts. “Out of My League” has the record for it taking the longest time from when it got on the charts to when it reached No. 1. It took 36 weeks, so that whole time you go inch-by-inch, day-by-day.

That’s one of the things that will hopefully contribute to the longevity of the band is that we weren’t just a taste of the day or an overnight sensation. It was something that we built together with our fans by getting out on the road. All the extra stuff, all the wonderful radio support we’ve gotten and the commercials and all that stuff, it helps get us into the zeitgeist, but there was no one thing that was a catalyst.

We never got too blown out, I think. We didn’t oversaturate the market too much. Maybe “The Walker” got to that point after a while, but then we took a break and removed ourselves from the spotlight so we could write a new record and give the public a break. Everyone needs a break [laughs]. I love a bunch of songs, and I love to listen to them over and over again, but at a certain point you got to have a rest so you can come back to them later and still enjoy them.

Being that you’re known for having minimal guitar, like you had it only on one song on the last record, as a bassist how does that impact your role? There’s no guitar to bounce off of or feed from, so a lot of the riffs you’re the one who ends up carrying them then.

It’s been a really fun challenge. At times it was like a power trio vibe, even though we had four instrumentalists up there. With James, our sax player, we were both playing off of each other when he would play saxophone. By the time of More Than Just a Dream we had a lot more layers going on, so then he starts playing more keyboards and a little bit of guitar, and the role starts to adjust back into a more traditional thing.

But, it’s really fun. It’s fun to have the freedom when it’s time, but then it’s also fun to provide a huge bed of solidity to let everyone else have their moments as well. It’s a dream gig for a bass player, to be able to do this. I’m very happy.