They certainly don’t mean to, but Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs—co-vocalists of the savvy neo-soul outfit from L.A. Fitz and the Tantrums—just naturally seem to bicker like an old married couple when they’re together for any protracted period. Recently, they sat opposite each other in their tour manager’s hotel room, his long, lanky form sprawled across a puffy chair, her lithe, feline figure curled over the bed. Calmly, jovially at first. But then he flipped his signature white-streaked bangs out of his eyes, casually lit a blue-glowing electronic cigarette, and the sparks started flying. It’s not really smoking, Fitz shrugs. What harm could it do?
Scaggs shakes her head, somberly. “No, it’s the equivalent of two packs a day! And you smoke out of that thing maybe five times a day!”
“Aw, it just gives you a little bit of a lift, is all,” her chum argues. “And I haven’t technically smoked in 25 days. Soooo….”
She’s not buying it. “But you’re still smoking!” she counters, folding her arms over her chest defiantly. “You’re still smoking the nicotine!”
“Yes, but I’m not taking in any carcinogens, so it’s a thousand times healthier,” he says. “Is it the healthiest? Well, no, but you know how it is in road life. You have your little rituals and things that you use to try to keep you sane when you’re traveling. It’s the nomadic lifestyle…”
Exasperated, Scaggs cuts him off with “You’re just a creature of habit!” And the two artists—who are not a couple, just good friends—start laughing at the absurdity of the career they’ve chosen, at touring the world in cramped vans and buses with four other musicians, preaching the gospel of their fingerpopping 2010 indie debut Pickin’ Up the Pieces initially to deaf ears, then to an ever-growing army of fans and even Fitz’s longtime hero Daryl Hall, who loved the sextet so much he featured them on his syndicated series “Live From Daryl’s House.” Now, the band returns with the adventurous follow-up More Than Just a Dream and a new label deal with Elektra. You could call it their road album.
There’s a spirited one-for-all, all-for-one gang mentality reverberating through Dream, from the opening New Waver “Out of My League” to the huge handclapping anthem “Break the Walls,” the Sanford-Townsend Band-ish “6 am,” a Hall and Oates-ebullient pop ballad called “Last Raindrop,” the piano-pounding sing-along “The End,” and a calliope-colorful closer, “Merry Go Round,” which equates show business with a dizzy carnival ride. It’s not the dress-suited, ABC/The Lexicon of Love-sleek R&B of Pickin Up the Pieces; it’s the picture of a group embracing a plethora of diverse genres and gradually arriving at its own definitive sound in the process.
“It would have been really easy for us to make a Pickin Up the Pieces Part 2—that would have been a really safe choice,” explains Fitz of the Tony Hoffer-produced Dream. “But none of us wanted to do that—we wanted to challenge ourselves and see if we could push the sound of all of our influences, let even more of them seep in. We busted our butt trying to make this record, and we wrote a lot more songs—over 30—because we wanted to be able to go over here and go over there, and then go really far out. And also, our lives had changed over the last two years, so you write about what you live, what you know—that’s why you hear this triumphant, here-we-are kind of affirmation. And honestly, that’s the way it felt—we started out and nobody would give us the time of day. But we just kept going and going to the point where we made a scream so loud, they finally had to pay attention to us.”
Producer/multi-instrumentalist Fitzpatrick, 42, first met Scaggs, 33, back in 2008, when she was recommended to him by the first official Tantrum, saxophonist James King, who also recruited drummer John Wicks (Wicks, in turn, recommended keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna and bassist Joseph Karnes). “And I’ll say this—Noelle and I have been to hell and back,” he says. Sure, they have minor disagreements now and again. “But we are supreme friends, and we have massive love for each other. When you’re on the road, the only thing you have is your unit—everything else changes every day. It’s a different city, a different hotel room, and everyone else you meet in your life is transitory.
“So the only things that are permanent are this thing”—he gestures to Scaggs, then back to himself —“the four other guys in the band, and our tour manager. It’s your family. It’s everything. You love, hate, drive each other crazy, lean on each other. I mean, we’ve had ups and downs, we’ve had family members pass away, we’ve had babies born, all these highs and lows through the years.” The camaraderie is difficult to describe, he adds. “Like holding a band member on the bus who’s just lost a parent, and they’re not even able to be home at that moment because we’re out on the road, doing this amazing thing. It’s just so surreal sometimes.”
“Surreal” is definitely the right word. Tantrum days become such a blur that Fitz once strolled through the entire Miami airport, thinking he was in Chicago. Scaggs has joyfully shouted “Hello, Boston!” when she was actually in Houston at the time. “And the worst was in Dallas, where I called them Houston, and apparently there’s a huge rivalry,” sighs Fitz. “And then I was like ‘Oh, come on Austin! It’s OK!’ So not only did I call them the wrong city name once, I did it twice. Ever since we did our very first show, I’ve gone out and done a meet-and-greet at the merch table every night. But that night, half of the reason they were in line was to give me shit and roast me! But for the number of shows we’ve done? I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more often.”
Ask Scaggs and Fitzpatrick about current relationships, and they roll their eyes, start guffawing. No dice, they say in unison. How can you maintain a romance when you’re never home? But don’t get them wrong, they add—there are perks to being a rock star. Former stylist Scaggs has been gifted by posh design houses like Rag and Bone, and was even offered a custom suit from John Varvatos himself.
This, perhaps, is the one upside to being in Fitz and the Tantrums—besides that hour onstage each day, the moment they truly live for: The fashion world has at last taken note of their chic aesthetics. “It’s so funny,” says Scaggs. “I did an interview with a magazine for ‘What are your favorite things?,’ and I mentioned my watch, which happens to be a Marc Jacobs watch. And then Marc Jacobs sent me three watches! It was great!”
This gets Fitzpatrick in the mood to argue again. “Here’s the secret,” he says in a conspiratorial whisper. “If you are a woman? They loooove you. The fashion world just sprinkles gifts on you. If you’re a guy? You’ve gotta beg. And I have style—I will make that proclamation here. But you get five times the love being a girl, as a guy. I mean, look, I’ve gotten very lucky, and it’s been amazing.
“But nobody’s sending me three watches, that’s for sure!”