November 15th, 2010 | Interviews

grace oh

Fitz and the Tantrums make soul music that actually sounds like soul music and deploy the same kind of flamethrower personality on stage that Sharon Jones uses on the front row every night. Singers Fitz and Noelle Scaggs met us at KPCC, just one studio down from Carly Fiorina, to discuss sweat, blisters and the underpowered applause of America’s middle class. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

Sharon Jones says that if you ever see her come off stage and she isn’t completely sweaty, you know that she didn’t feel it. Do Fitz and the Tantrums have a similar physical barometer?
Michael Fitzpatrick (vocals): I wish there was a day that I didn’t leave the stage drenched but Noelle and I … we get down on stage.
Noelle Scaggs (vocals): If I don’t leave with bruises or blisters from playing tambourine you definitely know I didn’t have a good time.
You’re the first person I’ve ever heard of who hurt themselves playing tambourine.
MF: You actually have to see this girl play tambourine because she might be one of the best tambourine players I’ve ever seen. It’s a real skill. She’s got crazy feel.
NS: I have to start working out the left arm because my forearm’s getting big on one side. It’s interesting.
When is the last time one of your bandmates did something so spectacular, you actually broke character and turned around to watch in awe?
MF: We did a show at the Casbah in San Diego a month or so ago. The ends of songs are the solo sections where Jeremy [Ruzumna] might be doing a Farfisa solo or something and he was just on fire that night. John [Wicks] just laid into the drums even harder and we were already at 100 percent and then Jeremy just started shredding. The energy was so electric that I started to uncontrollably laugh and I looked around and everybody in the audience was equally having the same experience. I’m actually getting chills talking about it! We were all simultaneously losing our minds at what he was doing in that moment. And the reason is—the way that the stage is set up at the Casbah, somebody can stand just next to the keyboardist on the side. I remember him telling me after—he was like, ‘We did “Rich Girls” and I’m playing the solo and I look over at this guy who just sort of looks back at me like, “Nahhhhh.”’ He was so angered by that moment that he was like, ‘I’m gonna show this guy!’ So the next song he just laid it all out.
After the show, did that guy come tearfully apologize?
MF: No. In fact, I thought we should hire him to always stand right next to Jeremy to intimidate him and make sure he brings his A game every time.
What do you do to start an audience cold? And why is waking them up important to you?
NS: We want them to dance and just have a good time because everyone who goes to a concert initially wants that. They want to be free and have a good time and scream and not care what other people are thinking about them and be silly. It’s really important for our fans to know that they can do that at our shows and have a good time.
MF: There’s not a lot of bands that give you that permission to go crazy or to have fun. We’re not trying to be the coolest band. We’re just trying to give you a great experience with great musicians—good songwriting but also a real show. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve had a fair amount of success. People come to our concert and they leave having had a real experience from the songs to just getting down. We ask people to dance their asses off and I tell them pretty straight out that if they don’t I’m going to come find them after the show.
Do you ever use reverse psychology? ‘You wouldn’t even be able to handle this. Just stand still, close your eyes …’
MF: No, but you know what? That’s a good idea. We’ll try that the next couple shows and we’ll let you know how it works.
Your parents are very musical. I know Noelle’s dad was a DJ, too. What one album do you think both your sets of parents would have loved?
MF: I’m not sure because my dad’s an opera Nazi. He only listens to opera and classical music. His modern taste in music stopped at Simon and Garfunkel. I hated that stuff growing up but I’ve actually really, truly grown to love especially classical music. I find it to be one of the few genres of music I can use to calm me down and work and read to and stuff like that. Noelle’s dad has the best and most eclectic taste in music.
NS: He likes to put on his vinyl records or have somebody do mix tapes for him and it’s really funny—normally with our family gatherings, it’s like all of the in-laws are there hanging out. It always has your standard Spinners cuts or your Temptations or some Barry White on there—all different kinds of soul stuff. Because I grew up with that stuff being played at the family gatherings, it’s just kind of like, ‘Is that the mix-tape from the ’90s?’ ‘No, it’s new! I just had it made for the barbecue!’
How does this family history in music show up in Fitz and the Tantrums? What’s the biggest opera influence on the new record?
MF: I’m terrible with names. I couldn’t even tell you an opera. I’m more into the classical stuff of Ravel or Mozart. Obviously this band and these songs are rooted in a time period and a genre but it’s not a pastiche. We didn’t want to make something that was so authentically true to the form that we always had to adhere to certain rules. I think everybody nowadays is a very eclectic music listener.
Everybody in the world or everybody in the band?
MF: Especially in the band but yes—everybody now has been given the permission to be able to put two completely diametrically opposed songs on a mix tape together. We play music that’s definitely rooted in soul— Motown, Stax, ’67 AM radio—but my older brother was really into ’80s music so I have a lot of that in my subconscious. Noelle is a huge Thom Yorke and Radiohead fan. I loved that first MGMT record. Everybody in the band is really into Major Lazer right now. I think it’s not a conscious thing—it’s a thing that just comes through your subconscious.
NS: I think it allows you to be who you are as well and not feel like you have to be the singer who you grew up with. You kind of create your own personality. That’s what music is about—just really being creative from the aspect of how you absorb the world.
So absorb the world and reinterpret it based on your own personality? The artist as prism?
NS: Yeah—it’s all through your eyes. Every single individual sees something differently. You connect on a lot of levels but I may take a situation in a way that he wouldn’t. I could be offended by something that he would never be offended by or vice versa. It’s just seeing the world through your eyes, and you just hope that people can connect with it some way.
MF: One of the cool things about music is that you can sort of escape conscious thought in the creation moment. You’re not so premeditated. You’re feeling it and doing it and a lot of times those other influences are just coming through without being so aware that you’re in that moment of like, ‘Oh, well now I’m drawing from this.’
You also said, ‘What I like about all those old soul records is there tend to be a lot of songs sung by women that are demanding respect or saying, you know, “I don’t need you anymore!”’ But it’s not from a male point of view and so you wanted to give men their mantra. What made you want to do that and what is the mantra?
MF: I was going through a long drawn-out breakup and I was kind of losing my mind. Music has always been that place of solace—a place to put all my energy into. Rather than fester in the pain, I’ve just put all my energy on a near obsessive level just to get over the breakup hump. The first EP was called Songs for a Break Up, Volume One.
Sort of a pessimistic title?
MF: I just thought it was a pragmatic, realistic title for the course of me and relationships. I don’t know what the exact mantra is. I thought that having a male perspective was kind of a more interesting thing that you hadn’t maybe heard too much of—but also I wanted to really create this crazy juxtaposition between these songs that sound very happy and up-tempo but when you actually listen to the lyrics … I don’t think there’s a single happy lyric in the entire EP or LP. It started off as healing from one breakup but it just became an amalgamation of all these different experiences. ‘MoneyGrabber’ is obviously about a money grabber and somebody who at the end of the day, I was just like, ‘Really? Is that what you’re really interested in?’ That was a real shock to me that that was the agenda for somebody. I was reading somebody’s post about it and they were like, ‘I woke up this morning and wanted to feel happy so I played this song six times before work.’ And I was like, ‘Really? That’s the song that makes you feel happy?’ But on a musical level, it’s fun. That bridge is one of my favorite moments, especially on a production level. When we started making this record we had no money, no deal, no nothing. The only way that we could get this done was by doing it in my living room. Once we actually finished doing South by Southwest and Dangerbird stepped up and offered us a deal, we said, ‘Why change anything? Let’s just keep doing what we’ve been doing.’ There’s no pressure. People can go sit in the living room and chill out, eat a sandwich, come back, laugh—and the room itself has really inserted itself as a real character in the sound of the record because we don’t have more than one or two inputs at a time and one old, old crappy mic. Something I learned from Motown was that perfection on a technical level doesn’t mean vibe or a great energy or personality. Part of the magic of those older records is that they were all tracking in the same room so there was bleed on every single mic. I think necessity dictated a certain course of action.
How does the production on this record reflect your personality?
MF: Dirty. Sloppy. Any poor mixer that has to deal with my tracks—there are no crossfades. I just really haven’t labeled a single track. It’s all done by Braille.
NS: It’s a mess. It just drives me crazy with him. I get on his Pro Tools and I don’t even know where anything is.
MF: But I know. It’s a secret control language.
NS: It’s insane. It drives me crazy.
Since the album has so many breakup songs, did you have a day when you woke up and felt great and happy and thought, ‘Well, that’s that. I’m better. There goes the record.’
MF: No, no.
So a bottomless well of sorrow?
MF: I’m a bit of a pessimist when it comes to that.
There’s a certain danger in writing breakup songs about people who may live within easy driving distance of where your band performs.
MF: Well, my ex who kind of spawned the whole thing—in the end I think she loved it, you know? She loved the compliment—she was all too happy to have people know that some of those songs were written about her even if they weren’t always in the most complimentary light.
‘Look how hard I broke this guy’s heart! He wrote a whole album about me!’
MF: Exactly—exactly.
Noelle, you said once that if you hadn’t gotten into music you might have been a lawyer. Fitz, how well would Noelle be suited for the courtroom experience?
MF: Oh, don’t get me started. This girl’s fierce. When she believes in something, she’s going to fight for it and she’s going to let you know. She is not a shy girl. I think actually being a lawyer would have been a very good alternate career for her.
NS: It was something that was always in the foreground for me. I always wanted to be involved in music somehow so whether it was entertainment law or something with contracting, that was always something of interest to me and it still is.
What was the last argument in the band that you can confidently say you won?
NS: The title was something I fought adamantly for. I thought Pickin’ Up the Pieces and ‘Breakin’ the Chains’ were very well-connected and you have to have a light at the end of the tunnel. Otherwise, what’s the point?
One review said the music you play ‘will always have its place.’ What place is that?
MF: Obviously, if you’ve been listening to music you know that there is a real resurgence of music that’s influenced by this era. Soul, I think, is back and back with a force. When Sharon Jones’ last record came out, it was like number 50 on the Billboard charts. It sold like 50,000 copies in no time flat, which I think really made people stand up. I think in this day of super-processed music … we’re on the backside cycle of so much electronic music, which I love, too—don’t get me wrong. But we’ve had so much of it and so many sub-genres of even that one category called ‘electronic music’ that I think people are really responding to the authenticity and the emotion and the musicianship. Like I was saying, when you come to one of our shows, it is the craft of music-making onstage with incredible musicians and there is a synergy and an electricity that happens when the six of us are together onstage.
NS: I think the topic of every song is based upon love and relationships and I think that transcends anything. If you listen to a lot of the songs, they’re all love songs.
But song number two—‘Dear Mr. President’…
MF: It’s actually a love letter to the president.
A tough-love letter?
MF: Yes. Obviously we’ve all been experiencing this economic meltdown and the insanity of that and the neglect and irresponsibility of the institutions that we have in place. We all know what they are. We’ve all felt personally the real ramifications of what that economic downturn has been. It’s been incredibly stressful for everybody. I’ve watched my parents go through it, I’m going through it, everyone in the band is feeling it—everyone I know in varying degrees. I voted for Obama and I’m a huge fan of Obama. But I think he’s sometimes a little bit too much of a politician. To his credit, he gets some stuff done and I think we hear a lot about his middle-of-the-road decisions, but he’s also been able to right a lot of the wrongs of the past eight years. I just wanted to say, ‘Do better. Do more. Think about regular people and their needs and not just how to navigate lobbyists and legislation.’ I’m just trying to hold his feet to the fire. Even though the New York Times or the Huffington Post five days ago said the recession is over, it sure doesn’t feel over to me or anybody I know.
Is this connected to ‘Rich Girls’? ‘Rich girls break your heart/poor girls take your money.’ Is that the erosion of the middle class?
MF: Every time I talk about that onstage, I always ask—‘Are there rich girls in the house? Poor girls in the house?’
Who cheers louder?
MF: It’s always, always the poor girls because the rich girls don’t want to let you know they’re a little bourgie. Noelle gets mad because I never give a shout out to the middle class girls—all three of them.