When asked about The Fritz’s relentless touring schedule, vocalist and keyboardist Jamar Woods says that his phone speaks for itself. “If I type in a ‘U,’ the autocorrect will complete, ‘Unfortunately, we are booked that evening and can’t play,’” Woods explains with a laugh.
It’s a problem the band is happy to have. The Fritz relocated to Asheville from Florida, where its members met at the University of North Florida School of Music, largely for the mountain town’s central placement between major tour routes. Earlier this year, the dance-rock group took some rare time off from performing to record a new album, titled Natural Mind, which it celebrates with a hometown show on Saturday, Nov. 11, at the Asheville Music Hall.
The gap between this album and The Fritz’s last recording, 2013’s Bootstrap, reflects the investments the group has made in its live presence over the past several years. “We wanted to get our tour rig together: a reliable van with a trailer, the right equipment and road cases,” says guitarist Jamie Hendrickson. “Every single thing was paid for from touring ticket sales, and that takes a long time.”
Beyond financial development, Hendrickson adds, the band has become much tighter as a musical force through its constant performances. “We were so laser-focused on getting our live set together so we’d actually be good,” he says. That maturity has made The Fritz a regular presence on the regional festival circuit, with recent performances at Hulaween, Wakarusa and Catskill Chill.
Appropriately enough, the roots of Natural Mind took hold while The Fritz was on tour. During a two-week jaunt with Brooklyn funk act Turkuaz, the group became friends with guitarist and vocalist Dave Brandwein, who insisted on producing its next record. After hearing Brandwein’s work on the 2015 Turkuaz album Digitonium, The Fritz musicians took him up on the offer.
In January, The Fritz piled in the van for the 15-hour drive to More Sound Studios in Syracuse, N.Y., where the quintet put together all of Natural Mind over a frantic two weeks. “We really wanted [Brandwein] as a producer because he wasn’t personally attached to the project,” says Hendrickson. “We wanted that outside perspective of someone we really respected.”
As an added bonus for the live-minded band, More Sound Studios also offered sound engineering by Jason “Jocko” Randall, formerly of Boston reggae group John Brown’s Body. “[Randall] spent 10 years on the road doing front-of-house sound as he slowly acquired all of his equipment,” Hendrickson explains. “I’ve never seen anyone at his level of efficiency and knowledge of his gear.”
Although the resulting album is richly layered with warm synth pads and funky rhythms, the musicians made sure they could reproduce the songs onstage — even if it meant some members had to pull double duty. “There’s a keyboard part that Jamar couldn’t play because he only has two hands, so I did what I learned in classical percussion,” says percussionist Mikey “Spice” Evans. “I’ve got two sticks in one hand, one stick in the other, and I’m triggering individual notes on a drum pad in real time.”
Woods finds that the lyrics for Natural Mind wrestle with a different type of complexity. “I feel like our music has to reflect the times, but this band has to do so in a way that’s not preachy,” he says. The Fritz writes its lyrics collaboratively, and Woods says that the group sometimes struggles to find the right balance between social consciousness and feel-good dance music.
The band takes inspiration from the long-standing funk and soul traditions of politically aware lyrics, such as those on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” or Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Going On.”
“The song ‘Another Way’ is about as obvious as you can get if you look at the lyrics,” says Hendrickson, “but it fits the vibe — the chorus reminds me of a Curtis Mayfield thing.”
On that track, Woods sings, “But we are so afraid to say / What’s happening right before our eyes / And so we act as though it’s not our problem. … My patience seems to make no difference in the end / And now another child is gone, another friend.” The band says that plea for action comes from recent high-profile episodes of gun violence, particularly police killings of unarmed black men and the Pulse nightclub mass shooting.
“At its best, music is not just for people to tune out and enjoy themselves, but to feel connected with the world around them,” says Hendrickson. “We want people to realize that there’s way more holding them together than separating them.”
WHAT: The Fritz album release show with Swift Technique
WHERE: Asheville Music Hall, 31 Patton Ave., ashevillemusichall.com
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 11, 9 p.m. $12 advance tickets/$15 day of show.