Fitz & The Tantrums' Noelle Scaggs Talks Soul Revival, Festival Gig Pressures and SXSW

Categories: Interviews

About a year has passed since Fitz & The Tantrums made their Dallas debut at the Cambridge Room at the House of Blues, fresh on the heels of a much-discussed, breakout South by Southwest performance.

From a pure output standpoint, very little has changed since that performance before a sold-out, 400-person crowd. But that, of course, is only part of the story. Over the course of the past year, the band's reputation has only grown, both on record and with their live shows.

That latter portion received a few significant hikes this past summer, as the band became stars of the summer festival circuit, playing Sasquatch!, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, among others, and thrilling audiences with their own brand of revivalist soul.

Meanwhile, the former has been bolstered by some serious support from independent radio stations, like Dallas' own KKXT-91.7 FM KXT, which have gravitated toward the Tantrums' output and highlighted it on their airwaves. Little surprise, then, that the station is using the band's return to Dallas -- this time in the House of Blues' much bigger main room -- to celebrate its two-year anniversary.

In anticipation of that performance tomorrow night, we caught up with Fitz & The Tantrums' fiesty backing vocalist, Noelle Scaggs, to talk about the band's rise, the prevalence of the soul revival and the age-defying entertainment that her outfit provides.

Obviously, I'm calling to preview the upcoming Dallas show, but I was down at ACL this weekend, as were you guys. How did that go for you?
It was great! Amazing crowd as usual in Austin. It actually cooled down -- we were really happy with the weather. It was really humid. It worked out where we were coming from Colorado, and we thought it was going to be about 94 degrees of just heat. It was a really good show.

You guys have been hitting the festival circuit pretty hard that past couple years. Do they all blend together? Is it hard to distinguish one from the other? How is that working out?
The days in general start to bled together a little bit, but every experience has been really cool. Since the festival circuit started, we've been pretty much non-stop. Everything from Bumbershoot to Sasquatch, to your smaller ones in Portland, it's just been a really great honor for all of us to have been invited. When we did Lollapalooza, I think that was the largest crowd we've ever played in front of.

How big was that crowd?
I want to say around 30,000 maybe.

That's pretty impressive! Last time I saw you in Dallas, I saw you in a 400-person room. It was sold out, packed and enthusiastic for 400, but that's not even 1,000. Do you feel like you have to bring something different to those two -- the festival of 30,000 versus the crowd of 100? How does that affect what you do onstage?
We do the same show no matter the size of the crowd. There's always going to be a lot of energy when we perform live; that is just how we've established ourselves as a band. We have so much fun playing together that it's kind of just an after thought. Doing Lollapalooza, we had just come back from Australia where were playing for a 150- to 200-person room because it was our first time being there, and then we did Splendor in the Grass in front of 10,000 people, and then we got to Lollapalooza and there was 30,000. You pretty much do the same show you would do for anybody. I think you get a little more nervous when it's a smaller crowd because of that intimate setting where, like, your mom's there. It makes you a little more nervous than it would if you were in front of thousands of people, because [in a big crowd] you know everyone is looking at you but you can't single out one person. Your focus is a little bit different. It's a wider range of view. Maybe that's just me personally, but I always get a little bit more nervous when I'm around smaller, intimate crowds than I do when I'm around huge crowds. It's weird.

I was reading an interview with Michael and he said something in it about how Austin seems to be a special place for you guys. Did that add to the ACL performance?
Absolutely. Every time we play in Austin its always special, almost like when we play here in L.A. in front of our home crowd. Had we not taken that trip to SXSW, I don't know if we would still even be a band, if we would have been able to keep supporting ourselves financially. We all loved the music but, at the same time, developing a career and wanting it to move forward, you have to make tough decisions based upon how far you want to take something. It may not necessarily be heading the way you want it to, and you are putting yourself in the hole by doing so. When we took that trip to Austin, we were hoping things would work out and, if it doesn't, then we'll revamp and decide where to go.

You're talking about South by Southwest in 2010, right?
Yes.

What was the status of the band at that point? You hadn't been signed to Dangerbird yet...
Yeah, we hadn't been signed on to Dangerbird yet. We were basically a do-it-yourself band and we were doing shows wherever we could. We were promoting the EP as best as we could, with Michael financing us with money that he had made throughout his projects. It was basically us just grinding it out.

You were able to get an official showcase, at least.
Yeah, Jeff [Castelaz, founder of Dangerbird] had been hearing the buzz surrounding us, and he wanted to give us the opportunity to perform after a showcase for their organization for childhood cancer awareness. We agreed to do it. After we performed, Jeff had all these people coming up to him and asking him about who we were -- more than any artist who was actually signed to the label. His wife said, 'You'd be stupid not to sign this band.' The next day, Fitz gets a phone call and Jeff wants to meet him for coffee. They sat down and Jeff was like, 'I want to sign you guys to a record deal, because I love what you guys have been able to do on your own and I can see the work you're putting in and I really want to be there to support you guys.'

At that point, was it the same touring line-up that it is now, as far as the size? What is its, a six-piece band?
We've always been a six-piece. The only thing that has changed from the beginning is our bass player. Our original bassist was Ethan Phillips, and he had another project that he had been working with for a while before he had even contributed to our band. He decided to go with them and he's been working ever since then. And then we got Joseph Karnes, who had been subbing out for Ethan for a lot of the shows. So, when it came down to finalizing who was going to commit to the group, Joseph ended up being the guy that we went with. It was a great decision, because he's such an amazing bass player and songwriter and just a really cool individual.

How did you get mixed up with Michael in the first place? How did the two of you come to start working together?
I was with a band called Rebirth for about 10 years, and I had just left it two years before. Then I had a conversation with Fitz about doing their first gig.

Had the songs already been written by then?
The songs for the EP had already been done. We had another singer named Maya, who's last name I cant remember, who had done a couple of the songs back-up singing. I'm doing pretty much all of it now. It was one of those situations where I was walking into something that had already been created and it was my first time doing something like that because I have always had my hand in the pot of the creative realm from the conception of every project that I had dealt with.

What was your relationship with Michael [during that time]?
I didn't know him at all. I hadn't even met him. I met him through our saxophone player James King, who I've known forever and who played horns on my other band's record. So, he recommended me. He knew that I had just left the band. We had just finished a tour together, so he called me up to see I was interested. He gave Michael my phone number and then, next thing I know, we are doing a rehearsal like a month or so later for the first gig. Now it's almost three years later.

At that point, what were your initial thoughts of the band?
I really loved what he was doing. It was a really cool take on soul music. It reminded me of certain things, like the Hall & Oates period. So I thought it would be something cool to see and try because I had never done something from this point of view. It had a little more of a pop feel. This is great songwriting. It's something I've always wanted to be involved in.

Is it fair to say that you are from more of a hip-hop/R&B background?
Yeah, I mean my last band was like Earth, Wind & Fire meets Roy Aires -- really deep into the area of that lost period of the 70s soul kind of thing. 2000. Fitz's stuff was a little more 60s....

I imagine, when it came time to work on Pick Up the Pieces, you had a little more influence than just the backup singing.

Yeah, exactly. It's pretty much a collaborative. I'm a songwriter. As much Fitz is a songwriter in his right, I'm more of a lyricist. When it comes down to the actual writing aspect, more than likely, I'll be the one writing the majority of the lyrics side of it. But the entire band has a full contribution to what we write. Jeremy, our keyboardist, used to write with Macy Gray. He's done the Grammys; he's done everything under the sun. We've pretty much all done things in this business. So we're all really well-versed in how to create together. You know, sometimes we're on the same page, sometimes we're not. But we always find that balance where everyone is happy and we're all moving forward.

I'm sure this is a question you've all been asked before, but what are your feelings on the idea of the whole soul Motown revival that is going on? There are certainly a lot of bands who are doing it these days. Is that a worry? Do you roll your eyes every time you hear about a new soul band?
No! I love hearing the fact that people are grabbing on to something that has had so much success as far as having the whole package. From the show to the actual music and songwriting, and taking pride in the musicianship from the recordings and not just throwing out garbage, and just having something to say. I really love that, and I really love that young people are grabbing on to it, and actually supporting the records, rather than stealing the music. It's a really cool thing that I'm seeing happen. What separates us from those bands taking on that retro revival is that we did our own modern spin on it. And no one is really doing what we're doing with that style.

How would you describe that modern spin?
If you listening to some of the songs, there's not a really strong Motown bass. The actual rhythm tracks have a little bit more of a hip-hop vibe to it. We are not even using guitars, which really affects the sound. From a soul perspective, you really have to have guitars for Motown-style songs because that is what a lot of the melody is driving off of. Because we don't have that, we're driven off the horn, which still gives us that old feel. Even getting into that whole James Brown era, you really start to listen to that whole brassy effect. I think, for us and the songwriting, when you're looking at Picking Up the Pieces, we've got that whole duet thing that no one is really doing. There's a lot of things we've been able to throw into the pot to create our own "fat sound."

Do you think some people are using you as an entrance point to some of that older music, that they might not have been familiar with prior?
I think we have, in some ways. I even credit Sharon Jones. We get people coming up to us and a grandfather will be like, "I got my son onto you guys," or a grandson. They just love it, like, "We're all here at the show together!" We've been able to cross borders.

Fitz and The Tantrums perform Wednesday, October 26, at the House of Blues

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