Fitz & The Tantrums: Don't Call Them "Retro"

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Fitz and The Tantrums, a group Rolling Stone named one of its "bands to watch" last year, will be gracing Houston with their presence Sunday at Free Press Summer Fest. The six-piece soul-influenced indie-pop band likes to embrace difference. Influenced by Motown and Stax, the band lacks guitars, but makes up for it in their own way.

Rocks Off spoke with Tantrums vocalist Noelle Scaggs, known for her expressive use of the tambourine, about the band's journey, and what they have in store for Houston at Free Press Summer Fest.

Rocks Off: Fitz and The Tantrums has progressed so much over these past few years. The transition period from local venues to nationwide festivals has been quite fast. It's only been since 2008 when y'all had formed as a band. After one rehearsal?

Noelle Scaggs: Yeah, it was, actually. In the beginning, I had gotten a phone call from James [horn player King] telling me to be expecting a phone call from Michael [singer Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick] since he was looking for someone to do backup singing for him for his very first show. It was at this little place called the Hotel Café here in L.A., and at the time I was in between wondering if I was going to move to San Francisco or not, going through many transitions, but I said, "Sure, I'll take a look at the music and let you know for sure if I am able to make it happen."

Long story short, we end up doing our first rehearsal for the gig. I walked into the room and realized that I knew pretty much all of the musicians that were there. It was just a really magical exchange between all of us. We really, really connected well. Fitz and I connected well with singing. There was this very cool vibe between our voices that really made the sound grow a bit more.

As we progressed more and [did] shows, we started getting more offers and then we took on management. It became this kind of slow and steady build-it-yourself project. Building the fans, fans telling other people and bringing more people to our shows. With that came all these opportunities to tour with some bigger bands.

Flogging Molly was the very first band that we ever got to open for. We had literally gone to playing at the Hotel Café, which seats about 150 people, to playing at Red Rocks for the first time, which was at least 10,000 people. It just became this really great progression to where we are now.

RO: After a few phone calls and a rehearsal, here y'all are now!

NS: Yeah, ha-ha.

RO: Now, I know the story about how Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine went to New York to get a tattoo from his tattoo artist. He happened to be a fan of y'all, told Adam he had to check out this band. Next thing you know, y'all were on Maroon 5's College Summer Tour in 2009. Dang, fans help!

NS: And that is a big credit to our fan base. We have a really dedicated, loyal group of fans. We call them "super fans," and they pop up all over the place. They just do a tremendous job of promoting our music and telling other people.

I can tell you we have one fan that literally, I think, on her own maybe put on 1,000 people. She's just one of those fans. She goes to every show that she can; she was at Coachella with a sign. She's just an awesome person.

RO: With y'all being at Coachella 2012 for both weekends and SXSW in 2010 and 2011, would you say that you like this huge festival atmosphere more or individual shows?

NS: I mean, it's funny because they both come with their rewards in a sense. When we are doing the smaller, intimate shows, it is always a lot of fun. You can feel the intensity and energy in the room. You're a lot closer to people. There is an intimacy there that you don't necessarily have when you're performing on a really large stage in front of thousands of people.

It's really hard to connect to just one person; you kind of have to find it within the entire crowd. There was an artist that once said that they are always trying to play to the back, all the way to the back of the field, when they are playing at a festival or even a large arena, because that is how you connect with the entire audience.

They both have amazing advantages. No one will say that they never wanted to play in front of 30,000 people. If they did...they're lying. Unless they just want the minimal amount of performance that one could get. But I enjoy both atmospheres.

The success in general is just astonishing. Y'all were on Jimmy Kimmel, Conan and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Heck, the song "News 4 U" became a promo for Desperate Housewives. Starting in 2008, were there ever any expectations for this kind of level?

NS: No, you know what, I don't think we ever put that much thought into what everything could become. You just wanted to make it as good as we could make it. The fact that we were able to link up the way we did and all of these magical things happening to the band is just awesome. More people are starting to know about us, but it still hasn't really fazed any of us. That's what I love about every individual member with the band. We don't let our egos get in the way.

Now, Free Press Summer Fest is on the way. I have word that y'all have written more than 30 songs and are in the process of recording. Along with your latest album, Pickin' Up the Pieces, will Houston be able to have a listen at some new things the Tantrums have in store for the future?

Oh yeah! Absolutely! We are definitely pushing our sound forward. We will have some things that take on that familiar vibe of what our last record had, but it's not going to be fully what Pickin' Up the Pieces was. I think we really focused in the beginning on making our sound different.

We didn't want to be a retro band. We are pop songwriters. We all come from the front of how to write really amazing songs, and that's the most important thing. Between the saxophone, myself and Fitz's voices, and the lack of guitar that we have in our music, we were really able to develop our own thing. I think with that, we are able to grow with it.

So I look forward to how [Houston] responds to what they are hearing. We have played a few songs in shows previously and we've gotten a great response. So it should be really cool.

RO: So are you ready for Houston?

NS: We've actually been to Houston, I believe twice. We've played the House of Blues. Once in the smaller room, once in the larger room. Ha-ha. Free Press should be much different.

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

2:10 p.m. Sunday, June 3 on the Budweiser Stage (Stage 2) at Free Press Summer Fest, Eleanor Tinsley Park. Gates open at noon.

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