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More than a dream

Fitz and the Tantrums’ drummer John Wicks talks favorite gigs, his new addiction and living in Missoula


Fitz and the Tantrums were really supposed to be a temporary collaboration. Singer-songwriter Michael Fitzgerald had already written a number of retro-soul songs, including “Breakin’ the Chains of Love,” and he just needed some good musicians to bring them to life. After lining up co-vocalist Noelle Scaggs and saxophonist James King, he recruited session drummer John Wicks, who brought in other session musicians, bassist Joseph Karnes and keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna. Five years later, Fitz and the Tantrums have appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel” and “Conan,” played shows in the largest venues in the country and toured with Flogging Molly and Maroon 5. Now the band is touring in support of its latest album, More than Just a Dream, which combines a much different flavor—heavy synth, big 1980s crescendos—with Fitz’s usual R&B style.

The success has been a whirlwind, making Wicks all the more appreciative of his new home. The drummer moved to Missoula a couple of years ago with his family, establishing a base for when he’s not on tour—which isn’t very often of late. Perhaps that’s why he was so happy to catch up with the Indy while on tour in Cleveland, eager to talk about Missoula and life with a band on the rise.

Fitz and the Tantrums’ first show was at the Hotel Cafe just a week after its first rehearsal. From what I read, it was Michael Fitz’s way of challenging the band.

John Wicks: It’s one of the things that Fitz and I really relate well with each other on. My modus operandi growing up and playing drums was always to start a band with a show already booked. And seriously, in the five years [Fitz and the Tantrums have] been a band we’ve had a total of maybe eight rehearsals. That wouldn’t work with just anybody. But Fitz kind of let me make a few of the calls to put the band together [with session] musicians and at that time we had no plans of being in a band. We just thought Fitz had some cool songs and we’d play a show and that’d be that. But before we knew it we were out on the road with Maroon 5, opening for them two months after starting the band.

Fitz and the Tantrums includes drummer John Wicks, second from left, who now lives in Missoula.
  • Fitz and the Tantrums includes drummer John Wicks, second from left, who now lives in Missoula.
Before Fitz and the Tantrums you recorded as a session drummer with musicians like Donavon Frankenreiter, CeeLo Green and Bruno Mars. Name a few of your favorite projects.

JW: I moved to Los Angeles from Seattle with my wife, Jenna, with the idea of getting session work. Honestly, it was a long slog before the phone started to ring. But once it did one of the dream gigs I got was CeeLo—playing on his record. It was the thrill of a lifetime.

The second one that really kind of gave me the feeling that I had arrived was I got to do this record with a guy called Chocolate Genius. He’s not well-known like Bruno Mars or CeeLo but he’s another incredible songwriter. I had been listening to him for years, in Seattle, and I had always wanted to play with him—I’m kind of like a stalker of his. I had found him in LA and was sending him things I had written saying, “Can you please just write lyrics to this?” [He laughs.] But he was always so nice. And then, out of the blue, he called me for a couple of gigs and then I ended up doing his record called Swan Song. I was playing drums and he was singing and the moment was so powerful that I was literally crying while I was doing the tracking to one of his songs. Here was this guy who I hold in the highest regard and just his voice coming through the headphones as I was playing ... I felt like I had finally done what I set out to do.

What got you into playing music?

JW: I was really lucky. I grew up on Bainbridge Island, Wash., just off of Seattle, and I had an amazing band teacher named Allan Villiers. He was like a second father to me—I had an incredible father so I didn’t need a second one—but this guy was such a great, giving, enthusiastic person and he recognized that I had this need to play music. He kept feeding that, giving me records to take home and listen to and was always pushing me. My senior year in high school we got to tour around Europe and I remember the exact moment: It was about 2 a.m.and we were playing a festival in Germany. There were all these other great jazz groups playing and I realized that music has provided me an avenue to go see a whole other country. And I couldn’t think of another way I wanted to spend my life.

Fitz and the Tantrums have two studio albums. How do you see the two comparing?

JW: The musical compass of the first record was pretty much set because Fitz had already recorded most of it at his house. It already had that sort of Motown, retro-soul feel to it. And so we came in and added a couple of songs in that style and it was great. We toured that record for almost three years straight, but then, you know, after almost three years you’re a band, you know? And it was no longer solely Fitz’s project anymore. He had to deal with five other voices and five other egos, five other creative needs. So the second record is much more of a representation of all of the other voices saying what they needed to say musically. We realized if we stayed in that retro-soul vibe we’d be pigeon-holed and probably not be able to grow, so we purposefully departed from that in the second record.

Your wife is from Missoula, but what brought you guys back?

JW: We had twin girls in Los Angeles and we didn’t want to raise them there, frankly. I love it for my career but I much prefer the quality of life and the quality of people in Missoula. When I started to travel as much as I do it was sort of an easy choice because it really doesn’t matter where we live. When I am home, I’d rather be in heaven. [He laughs.] I consider Missoula heaven.

Do you still do session work?

JW: I would love to say that I diversify, but the band has blown up so much that I really don’t have time to do anything else. Honestly, I would love to meet some musicians in Missoula but I haven’t had the chance to do that. When I’m home I’m pretty much a hermit hanging out with Jenna and the kids. I’d love to be playing around town. The main thing I want to do is teach. In Seattle at one point I had something like 47 private drum students. I would love to teach kids and adults when I am home—someday, when things calm down.

I hear that you run something like 20 miles a day.

JW: I’m obsessed with running. It’s actually overtaken my obsession with drumming. When we first moved to Missoula I was indoctrinated into this group of trail and mountain runners that run every Sunday as a group. I got hooked. I do about 100 miles a week and between 10 to 20 miles a day. During tour, though, we have a really high-energy show that lasts for about two hours, so if I go out and run 17 miles and try to do a show it’s pretty exhausting.

Today I did 10 miles in Cleveland. For me it provides a way to stay sane out here on the road. It’s giving me a much more intimate look at the places we tour through. I owe that to the running community in Missoula, built around Runners Edge and Run Wild Missoula. I always liked running but I didn’t know just how much.


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