Let It Ride: An Interview with Fitz and the Tantrums’ Joe Karnes

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Joe Karnes is one of the founding members of Fitz and the Tantrums and the bassist for the neo-soul pop band. Contributor Justine Beed caught up with him to talk about their new record, More Than Just a Dream, their upcoming tour, and the band’s whirlwind journey.

Note from the Interviewer: You’ve probably heard Fitz and the Tantrums’s “Out of My League” and “The Walker”. Listening to them, you’ll be bobbing your head, shaking from side to side while listening to its tinny, retro, neo-pop sound. Those songs leave me smiling and dancing, mirroring how I was feeling while talking to Joe.  He’s a happy-go-lucky kind of guy that seemed to really love what he was doing, laughing in an earnest way and epitomizing the authentic musician all the way through the interview. Read it all the way through — this guy’s talking about a band’s dreams coming true.

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Stanford Arts ReviewHow do you imagine people listening to the new record?

Joe Karnes: Hopefully with a smile on their face! We just want people to enjoy it and come along for the ride with us. Our live show is so engaging and upbeat, and that was definitely a thought in our heads when we were all writing this record. We wanted to write songs that would hopefully translate live. So many of the songs we just want people to feel like, “I can’t just sit here and listen to this, I gotta dance in my living room or I gotta rock out and sing in my car.” If people decide to have a flash mob moment in the subway while they’re listening to our record we will not be mad.

Could you talk about sources of inspiration for the new record, More Than Just a Dream?

I think the biggest source of inspiration that we had for this was differentiating between the two records. The first record, Picking Up the Pieces, was very heavily influenced by the Motown era and the sixties sonically, with an eighties undercurrent in there for some of the beats and melodies we used.

For this record we tried to flip that narrative and put the eighties influences a little more forward and expand our sonic palette by adding things like synthesizers. Because the last record was basically limited to organ and piano, bass, drums, some tambourine, horns and vocals, with no guitars or other keyboards, we definitely wanted to branch out.

The biggest inspiration that we had was that we took away all the limitations we had previously put on ourselves when it came to writing this record. We told ourselves in the writing process — we wrote about 30 to 40 songs in the course of like a month and a half — no one is allowed to say, “This doesn’t sound like Fitz and the Tantrums.” That gave us a lot of freedom to chase whatever muse, whatever the song was asking for, so we pushed it.

There are some songs that were way out there and some songs that are a lot closer to what the last album was. But I think our biggest inspiration was that we could draw from whatever we wanted to. It’s hard to pinpoint one specific thing because it just goes to show that it’s an amalgamation of all the influences that we each of us have: from 80’s soul to Marvin Gaye.

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What’s your favorite song to play on the new record?

Personally, my favorite song to do is “6AM”. There’s something about it, especially on the bass end; it’s one of my more proud moments on it. I also think its one of the songs that best blends what we were doing on the last record and what we’re doing on this record.

Fun fact on that one, that was a song we had written when we touring for Picking Up the Pieces, something that we had thrown into our live repertoire and had been playing for a year or two, and then we got in the studio. Fitz and Noelle were so used to singing it so we put the entire track down and they went into two vocal booths facing each other.

What you hear on the record is the first take…live…one pass, all the way from the top to the bottom.

There’s this whole end section where they’re riffing off of each other, going back and forth. That was something we didn’t do live, we would just end the song at a certain point. On the recording, though, we had a longer extended part.  And they just naturally did this thing that was playing off each other and I remember sitting in the booth thinking, ‘Oh my god, listen — that just happened.’

Just for safety we tried one or two more passes, but everyone in the room was like, “Just take that magic moment and let it ride”. That song in particular has a special place in my heart.

I also love doing “The Walker”. Even before it was a single, as soon as we start with that whistle and start the beats people would get this sparkle that would come into their eyes and everyone kind of starts jumping together.

The Walker” music video kind of embodies the effect your music can have on people — what’s it like to work on the music videos overall?

“The Walker” music video had been a treatment that the director had come up with and we all were really engaged with it. Most of us grew up in LA and some of us live there still. And when you come down here all the traffic and stuff can be a little maddening, and it was really fun to play off of that and try to hit on the different types of people you’ll meet on the street.

It was fun on this video to actually have a story and a narrative. We never really got to do it with the other videos we’ve done. For a video like “Out of My League”, the director came up with the concept and hinted to us and just made us say, “Oh, let’s play with that.” It’s fun and hopefully we’ll get to make another video for this album, and see where we can take it.

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How have you guys been preparing for upcoming tour?

Resting. That’s basically what we’ve been doing, aside from going to Europe for two weeks because the record just came out there.

We hit it pretty hard when we go out. We go out there with a bang. Doing shows and radio shows every city we go to. A lot of the preparation is rest, making sure we take care of ourselves physically.

We do have some fun things lined up, going back out. We already toured a lot of the country last year on this record. Now we’re able to play some larger venues, we’re able to up the game a little more with the lighting. It’s always exciting to see how much that adds to the show and can really change the dynamic so we can really play off of the different emotional levels that we’re trying to do musically.

There are a couple new little ideas in the works that were going to try to execute. We got some rehearsal next week for the Oakland show. If they’re any surprises…it’ll be really fun.

What has been some of your favorite venues to play?

One of them has got to be Red Rocks at Denver, CO: one of the most beautiful natural amphitheaters. It’s been iconic forever. That show was amazing.

The Greek Theatre in Berkeley too, I loved that.

I love the festival setting, too. We got to do Outside Lands a year or two a go. And to be able to play at Golden Gate Park, with all those trees around, gorgeous.

Any crazy stories from being on the road for past tours?

Even though we’re laid back people, we take the show very seriously.  Some of our more crazy stories are just going out there and playing for crowds that you don’t think are really going to dig you and then winning them over.

Any time people care, that’s crazy to me. You know, because this is all a dream come true for us.

What’s the atmosphere like on stage? What’s it like to get up on stage with the rest of the band and play?

It’s kinetic. It’s fantastic. We’ve been doing it for a long time now. We don’t really have to look at each other. We do so we can keep ourselves smiling and cracking up, but it’s like I could play blind folded and feel what everyone else is doing on stage. That’s really fun, to have that unspoken language.

We still leave enough room in certain songs where you gotta keep your head up a little bit, and we like using a little bit of improv and give each show its own special thing.  It’s amazing to be able to play with the same group of people for the last 5 or 6 years. There’s just something that happens when you play that much together, it becomes second nature.

The other aspect is the audience, which we really consider the seventh member of the band. They bring so much to the stage and they really dictate the show.

We come out and give 110%, but they bring the energy and make us go to 150%.

There’s this wonderful give and take that we really get off on. So when you come to our show, be prepared to really dance clap and sing along with us.

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You were one of the members who was with the band in the beginning — what was it like trying to get the band on its feet in the early days?

My first show was at the 3 Clubs in Hollywood, this tiny club. I remember doing shows in Fullerton to six people and then trying to branch out from LA and grow beyond our home base.

We did a show at a place called the Echo in early 2010 after we’d gotten a little radio play from a local station down here, KZSW. And all of the sudden there is a room full of people that I have no idea who any of them are and they’re singing all the words to the songs. That’s one of those moments when you think, ‘Are we really on to something here?’ Because you hope, you know, that people like what were doing. And in that moment you see that it’s connecting to other people.

Having grown up in Los Angeles, playing with different bands, I’ve been in bands that have been locally popular, but I’ll go off air and they’ll be 100 people in the club and I know 80 of them. But with this band, it was the first time where I was thinking, ‘Oh My God they’re 250 people out there and I know 6 of them and the rest I don’t know and I’m pretty darn sure that most of us don’t know them.’ So to watch that grow, to see all the hard work we put in on the road. Going to one city at a time and then going back to the same cities and watching it slowly grow… it’s kind of jaw dropping.

So far we’ve been slow and steady, because we’re picking up fans one person at a time and they’re telling their friends and they’re telling their friends. It’s been a homegrown operation. To get to the level that we’re at now, is just kind of mind-boggling. But we’ll take it.

Fitz and the Tantrums play at The Fox Theater in Oakland this Thursday, April 3.  For tickets and info, click here.

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