The first time I chatted with Fitz & The Tantrums was during the epicenter of SXSW 2011, and the lead-singer duo – Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs – were lying in different positions on a carpeted stage in an underground conference room at Mellow Johnny’s Bikeshop in the Warehouse District of Austin, Texas. An earlier showcase was thumping away upstairs before they were set to go on, and both musicians looked utterly gassed after nearly eleven shows in four days and a week-long European tour starting the following week. However, less than an hour later, they’re on stage giving the performance that landed them their first record deal with Dangerbird for their album Pickin’ Up The Pieces and proved their Motown pop sound belonged on a much bigger stage.
What was originally a week-long European tour became a year, taking the indie-pop band across the continent, talk-show circuit, and the late-night closing minutes at rock clubs. As their fall tour ended in 2012, Fitz and Scaggs locked themselves into a house in Silverlake and cranked out “35 to 40 songs in a month, month and a half.” The goal was to write a song a day, ravaging their creative mines for everything that could possibly be hidden within them. Ultimately, they turned to the outdoors, writing about the L.A. life they saw from their living-room window. The result: the song “The Walker” about a hipster walking down the street in their hilly neighbor – which stands as one of the gutsier and finer songs from the fruit of their labor, their new album More Than Just A Dream.
The album, which is out on Elektra Records this week, is the band’s sophomore feat, and, with its ‘80s sound, proves that Fitz & The Tantrums have evolved beyond the Motown pop that blazed their earlier success, and into anthem-esque tracks and synthesizer sounds. Their opening single “She’s Out of My League” epitomizes this, leading the new album like a general, and is followed by the crooning “Spark,” and smooth-as-a-breeze-from-your-window “6am.”
Two years since our last meeting, I sat down with Fitz and Scaggs on the bustling Four Seasons patio in the maelstrom of yet another SXSW to discuss their new album, new ’80s sound, and the drive to make a sophomore hit.
Did this new sound we hear on your latest album come about unexpectedly, or was it part of the sophomore plan?
Michael Fitzpatrick: Oh, for sure.
Noelle Scaggs: We definitely didn’t want to be stuck in a box of being a vintage soul band. We can do so much more and we really wanted to bring forth a record that represented how we play live, where anything goes, yet still keep that Motown vibe and niche we began with. We really wanted to explore the ‘80s.
MF: We’ve become a bit of a weird hybrid. For us, there were a few sleepless nights trying to decide what to do next.
You’ve toured with some huge groups like Maroon 5, Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings, and Flogging Molly. How did this help?
MF: It lined us up to do the record. Both of our records really. Without touring with those bigger acts, none of what followed would have been possible. It also planted some seeds in places we never would have been able to plant them. The more you play, the more people you reach. The size of the audience doesn’t matter.
NS:We were also playing shows at the beginning where we didn’t even have enough songs to fill out a set, so it taught us to be creative onstage with our performances.
MF: And also come up with some really unique covers of popular songs, like the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” and Racontuers “Steady as She Goes.”
Why the ‘80s influence on this album?
MF:That was always kind of in the background on the first album. It was more ‘60s on Picking Up the Pieces with the 80’s in the background, and now we’ve pivoted and switched it up. But we don’t think about that stuff when we’re trying to write a record. That’s what leads to those sleepless nights we mentioned earlier. Instead, you just try to make the best song, make them as good as possible. We didn’t want to just be a retro or throwback band in people’s description of us anymore.
NS: We wanted to make a record that turned us on and if it turned us on, hopefully it would excite other people. We’re not doing this for a few hits—we want 20-year careers.
How do you get along so well, considering you’ve toured for two to three years straight, churned out a new record in a few months, and are set to do it all over again?
[Noelle Scaggs laughs]
MF:You’re family. You love each other. You drive each other crazy.
NS:There are times where you have to take a break. There were a few weeks off where you get home and don’t talk to anybody in the band for the whole time you’re back unless it’s an emergency or go on vacation. You just turn off your phone.
MF:A lot of times everything else around us is changing and the only things that are consistent are her, me, and the other guys in our crew. Every few days it’s a different city, a different hotel room, a different crowd. That can be really disruptive to your mind and creativity.
Was there a fear of a sophomore slump with this album?
MF: There’s a pressure to deliver, sure.
NS:That’s why we kept writing and writing and writing, hoping to strike gold.
MF:And hopefully we have.