EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Noelle Scaggs of Fitz & The Tantrums
Where in the world is Noelle Scaggs?
Bouncing from their Los Angeles headquarters to just about everywhere reachable by plane, genre-flexing soul monsters Fitz & The Tantrums are on the move towards the mainstage. With an upcoming album to be released May 7th through new label Elektra, the group”s next efforts (with the help of Phoenix and M83 mastermind producer Tony Hoffer) push their retro-vibing soul sound forward into a category-defying convergence of influences, from “80s to funk to electronic. Gathering writ efforts from on-the-road epiphanies and bleakest moments of heartbreak, More Than Just a Dream is, much like their current tour life, a mile high and heading 500mph beyond a sophomore slump.
Somewhere between gearing up for an Atlanta show and prepping for an upcoming tour with darling pop-soul supercrooner Bruno Mars, we caught up with vocalist Noelle Scaggs to chat about the upcoming album, More Than Just a Dream. Here she takes a few minutes to talk neighborhood icons, long-distance relationships, and sometimes sounding like an Englishman just to make a point.
The Owl Mag: Hey Noelle! Are you in LA right now?
Noelle Scaggs: No, I’m actually in Atlanta right now.
The Owl Mag: Oh my God, you guys are non-stop! Alright, well we haven’t been able to listen to the album yet—Elektra is going to send it over a little bit later, so thus far, we’ve only heard “Spark” and “She’s Out of My League.” Let’s talk about some of the other songs on the album though. I hear there’s a great story behind “The Walker.”
Noelle Scaggs: Yeah, it kind of crosses different paths. “The Walker” starts with a four-on-the-floor vibe with a whistle opening. The story of that song is based on this kind of neighborhood staple guy. “The Walker” was basically this doctor who was obsessed with walking. He walked like 12 hours a day around Silver Lake. He was a staple figure within the neighborhood, and everyday you’d see him at the same time, at the same hour, in different parts of the neighborhood, wearing little green shorts, a headband, and he was just super tan.
The Owl Mag: Haha, awesome.
Noelle Scaggs: Fitz and I started writing this song with a really catchy whistle, and he had this melody idea like, “I want to write something different. I don’t want to write a love song,”and I was like, “Oh my God, let’s write about that guy!” We started vamping off of the Silver Lake walker, wondering like, how did he die again? And then started considering what may have been going on in this guy’s head when he started to become this phenomenon around the neighborhood, and just wondering what people thought of him. LA Weekly was writing about him, and everybody kind of had this perception of who he was. I kind of thought he was just super obsessive-compulsive and that
was just something that he had to do everyday or his mind would snap. It became this segue of what he thought or what he didn’t think. There was that passion—like he didn’t care what people thought about him, which is kind of what I say in my back up parts, along with Fitz who’s like, “Run run run to the beat of the drum….” It’s kind of just about going to the beat of your own drum—just being who you are no matter what people think of you.
The Owl Mag: Haha that”s great. So do you have any particular songs on the album that maybe are your favorite to perform or that you had a good hand in the writing process?
Noelle Scaggs: It’s interesting because it’s hard to separate those. To be honest, of all of the ones on the record—[even amongst] the really high energy ones that we have, “Spark” included, and “Out of my League”—there’s a song called “Merry-Go-Round” which is actually a favorite of Fitz and myself—that one actually for me was the grower; because I wasn’t completely happy with it when we actually finished writing it, before it was completely produced. I still felt like there was something missing and I think for me, I figured out that it was that emptiness that you feel on tour when you’re constantly moving around. You could call me next week and I’ll be somewhere else, or I don’t even know where I am at that point. And that’s the ending track to the record, which I thought was a very somber way of end it, but it ends up having this really cool vibe to it. You really do start to feel like you’re in the spiral with us, you know. It’s interesting to feel like you’re draining. So it’s a very beautiful record.
The Owl Mag: Definitely. Any others?
Noelle Scaggs: “Last Raindrop” is also a really special record to me—really personal. It actually starts off as a poem. It’s about a long distance relationship that is starting to separate. So that one is really good—it’s a really beautiful duet between Fitz and myself. It has this juxtaposition in the sound because it kind of takes on this slightly disco-y phase. It kind of mixes in all these sounds sonically.
The Owl Mag: Did you write that one as well?
Noelle Scaggs: Fitz and I pretty much wrote everything on this record lyrically and melodically together. He and the boys [bandmembers John Wicks, Joe Karnes and Jeremy Ruzumna] pretty much did all of the musical creation together. It was kind of a really cool collaborative record. But lyrically it is definitely…well, it’s got a lot of Fitz and Noelle dominance in the writing process on this one.
The Owl Mag: We read that you guys wrote 40 songs in 30 days for this record, how is that…
Noelle Scaggs: Yeah! It was about 30 to 40. A lot of them are instrumental versions only that we didn’t quite get a chance to go into with lyrics, and some that we did that we’re probably going to revisit at some point later. It was a lot of work you know? [After touring] we maybe took like less than a week off and then went straight into Fitz’s house and started working on these ideas that he and the boys had come up with. John sent several tracks over, and Jeremy had different ideas. We were revisiting songs that we created in between our off days, when we got together to just write and stuff, and we hashed through everything. And, we tried to write as much as possible with no limitations.
The Owl Mag: Wow! Sounds like a lot of work.
Noelle Scaggs: That’s the hardest I’ve worked on any album in a very long time. It was a very cool experience because we really challenged each other, and I think really grew on this record even more so as songwriters, and with Fitz as a producer, and creatively, really working together.
The Owl Mag: We saw you at Outside Lands last year. It’s no secret you’ve got a lot of charisma on stage. A lot of these songs on the last album are really upbeat. Are we going to get the same kind of stage charisma that you show in sonic form on this album?
Noelle Scaggs: Yeah you know it’s really cool! With Picking Up the Pieces we didn’t really get the opportunity of performing everything live. We were kind of just going along because everything started happening so quickly. The finalization of Picking Up the Pieces in the writing happened because we were going on tour off of an EP, and we barely had enough material to get through an entire set, you know, opening for people. So we had to kind of create and do all of these things very quickly, speeding up some of the songs in the recording process to match what we were developing on stage. Then, whereas with this one, we had been on tour, we had been together for four years. We’ve really been able to kind of grow into our sound and grow together and then translate that onto record and that is something we really wanted to focus on as well. We wanted to make this record as fun for people in their living rooms by themselves as it is when they come to see us play.
The Owl Mag: You guys are so fun to see play live and the songs we’ve heard so far are so engaging.
Noelle Scaggs: Very anthemic. And, you listen to “Spark,” and it’s definitely one of those songs you want to hear in an arena. “Break the Walls” is the same way. They’re all very fun sing-a-long songs—very clever in the writing style, which was a focus on this record for sure.
The Owl Mag: Great! We”re really interested in the first single, “Out of My League.” It”s such a great track. How did the writing process for that song come about?
Noelle Scaggs: I actually wrote that song. The beginning stages of that song started in my living room. It started as a ballad and just by chance I changed the drums to what I thought would go with the actual music and “40 days and 40 nights” was literally the first thing that popped in my head. Literally 20 minutes later I had a like really simple, cool, fun song. I ended up singing the demo in this like male voice, or trying to sing like a guy. I think I even pitched it down a little bit to play the fifth. And, I don’t know, I somehow developed this English accent—I don’t know what happened there! Haha! Fitz is not English at all—but I was singing the demo, and I went to his house, and we were in the car, and I was like, “I want to play this idea for you, don’t laugh at me,” and he was like, “What do you mean?” and I put it in the cd player, and I said, “Just promise me you’re not gonna laugh.” He said, “Ok I won’t.” And of course, I start singing and it’s this male-sounding English accent and he looks at me and he starts laughing. I was so embarrassed but he liked it, and by the time the chorus hit, he was like, “I want to sing this for sure. Let’s work on this.” [So then] he and I and Tony Hoffer—who is the producer on this record—hashed it out. We made it a really cool jam, and I’m super proud that it actually made it onto the record because we [fought for] this one, and Fitz felt really strongly about [it]. And, well, so far so good—people seem to like it.
The Owl Mag: Yeah it’s a really great single for sure. You worked with Tony Hoffer who has worked with bands like Phoenix and The Kooks in the past. Did you guys approach him, or how did that come about?
Noelle Scaggs: Actually, it was funny because we had been looking at a couple through Jeff Castelaz, who is the president of our new label at Elektra and Atlantic—he was also the guy who [originally] signed us at Dangerbird. He manages Tony Hoffer. We were actually familiar with him and the work he had done with Beck and M83, and all these different amazing artists that we”re all fans of. Fitz made the final decision to go with him because he understood production elements. He was one of the only producers that we knew of that could really bring in the stylings of really doing stuff live and bring in production elements like using a drum machine and experimenting with sound. That was one of the reasons that we really chose him: for being a valuable resource to get this record done. He and Fitz worked really well together—they set the bar really high with the songs, and he and I would not settle for anything less. Tony is really an incredible person to work with too, just super cool for the entire process.
The Owl Mag: It sounds like you’re really pushing the envelope for the group to head into some new areas of sound. You”re definitely incorporating more elements. There”s still that defintie soul, sound, but also more 80s and blues. Tell me about working with Hoffer. How did it go with him in terms of pushing your limits? Were you on the same page as far as wanting to try out new things on the record?
Noelle Scaggs: Yeah, absolutely. That was one of the reasons that we chose a producer [like him]. Any producer that you get who’s willing to push you and push the unconscious limitations you put on yourself [is worth it]. Because we started this record saying we were not going to limit ourselves on just being this type of thing or only doing this style of writing, it really helped in this process of being open to try something else. If you listen to this first record, Picking Up the Pieces, there were these kind of 80s Talking Heads moments you were hearing. There were all kinds of variations of sound happening from drum tracks, you know, a lot of sounds having that sort of low sound drums and a saxophone and taking it to that moment like more of a Motown fab five, but you know, also getting that 80s moment and I think it really pushed the experimenting with different synthesizers and bringing out the 70s sounds and putting it on the album. Having Joe put his live played bass moment on “6 am” and breaking it down and then playing it for several hours on a synth stage keyboard was…
The Owl Mag: Wait. What?
Noelle Scaggs: Yeah, he basically took his live bass playing and ended up replaying it on a bass synth. So he was basically using a bass keyboard to replay his parts on “6am.”
The Owl Mag: Wow, that”s incredible!
Noelle Scaggs: Yeah, Tony suggested he play it on bass synth because he thought it would make it punchier. He said, “I think its gonna change the vibe from a more modern to a more throwback sound.” And it pushed the envelope. Then we added things on top that really opened up that song, but, had that moment not happened, [it would] very well sound different. That’s what Tony was really good at hearing. Fitz and I [often] had to sit down and figure out how many different ways can you say ‘and’ or ‘in’ and what sounds better in this one particular moment. That was kind of what was going on in our process of our writing. I mean I go back now‑I spent more time in our pre-production portion than I really did in our studio because I realized a lot of our pre-production elements. I”m a firm believer that I only need to be in the studio when I need to be there. Like it”s way too easy for people to be in there with their opinions making it a lot harder. I”m a lyricist, you know, I can write a song at home, I don’t need to be a producer on a record that’s basically just the path that I chose. I would go into the studio though, and if there was something that somebody was stuck on I”d have that fresh ear, and I”d sing something and they would be like “Oh my God, where were you like 5 hours ago?” You know those moments happen.
The Owl Mag: So, “6 am” seems to have some significance here. What”s the story behind it?
Noelle Scaggs: “6 am” was one of those songs that in our earlier period of time, when we were touring and already two years into it, we were trying to develop new material. It was one of the songs that spawned from those happenings. Fitz, myself, Joe and Jeremy, getting together, were starting to build on [the song] more, but then we started performing it live so it was one of those earlier, newer songs that translated really well—people were recording it and singing along to it and it became one of those songs that ended up standing through with the new records” new songs. You know, just a really fun duet.
The Owl Mag: What is it about?
Noelle Scaggs: It”s actually really heartbreaking. It’s about a couple who breaks up, but they still have these memories. It’s the early stages of a breakup, where you”re now the only one in the bed and you”re hearing your song on the radio, and it”s bringing back all these memories. You can”t sleep and you”re going through the process of trying to get over someone.
The Owl Mag: Very sad, definitely. Let”s not end on a sad note though. Any last thoughts?
Noelle Scaggs: Just that [the new album] is a fun record, so have a good time, dance around, play it in your car, play it for your friends, enjoy the content that we’re gonna deliver on our social media. Come to the shows and just have a good time!
The Owl Mag: Of course! Are you gonna be making the rounds this summer?
Noelle Scaggs: Yes! We’re actually touring with Bruno Mars this summer, and then we have our headlining our own stuff in July. Aaaand then we”re heading overseas in October. We’ll be fun-filled for the next two years.