Singer Noelle Scaggs had been in plenty of bands before she joined the neo-soul/indie rock outfit Fitz and the Tantrums in 2008. But from the moment she attended the first practice with the group, she knew it would amount to something significant.
"The synergy was there from the beginning," she says. "[Singer] Fitz and I sang together and our voices blended really well. It was one of those magical happenings. This music spoke for itself. The energy was bouncing off all of us."
Fitz had written the tune "Breakin' the Chains of Love" on an old electronic organ and recruited college pal James King, a guy who plays a mean saxophone, to help him flesh out the song. King in turn recruited Scaggs and drummer John Wick.
"The music was based upon the Motown/Sax period," Scaggs recalls. "James [King] knows how to get the horns to sound right. He knows where to take it and how to modernize it in that way. I come from a hip-hop world. I grew up in the '90s and listened to Tupac and A Tribe Called Quest and stuff like that. It brought a different level of performance when it came to the live show as well. It gave it more of an organic appeal."
The band practiced only once before playing its first gig, a hometown show at Hollywood's Hotel Café that showed just how quickly the group had clicked.
"It's the level of musicianship," says Scaggs when asked about how the band was able to immediately gel. "We were well-versed in getting things together that quickly. When you're doing your first show at Café, you're probably playing for 25 minutes, so you're able to make it work. You can make a lot of magic happen in five songs by extending sections. As we progressed, we developed more material."
That material would end up on 2010's full-length debut, Pickin' Up the Pieces. The album's first track, the aforementioned "Breakin' the Chains of Love," features a soulful melody and some great back and forth between Scaggs and Fitz. "I've been trying to forget you," croons Fitz while a woozy saxophone riff fades in and out of the mix. The ballad is more low-key than the rest of the album that also features "MoneyGrabber," a tune that would become an indie rock hit. And the most remarkable part of the whole thing: The band recorded the album in Fitz's living room because it couldn't afford a proper recording studio.
"We had a little bit of money, but it wasn't sufficient to take it into a studio setting and hire an engineer," Scaggs says. "Fitz had come from the world of doing engineering so he was versed in being able to put it together. We recorded everything in his living room. That shows the technology. You just have to have the ear. Other artists have pulled it off too. Young the Giant just did the prerecording for their second album in this house they rented. It's amazing the things you can come up with."
The album caught the attention of Maroon 5's Adam Levine, a guy who's become an unsuspecting tastemaker thanks to his role as a judge on The Voice. He heard "Breakin' the Chains of Love" while at a tattoo shop in New York and quickly tweeted his approval.
"He really liked what we were doing," says Scaggs. "We invited him to a show and next thing we knew, we were getting an offer to tour with them on their college tour. We took it and it was great."
Festival dates, including a well-received show at Lollapalloza in 2011, followed and the group began work on its follow-up. While initial sessions took place in Fitz's living room, the group had the money to record at a proper studio (the Sound Factory) with a veteran producer (Tony Hoffer) who had worked with acts such as Beck, M83, Depeche Mode and Phoenix.
"I wouldn't say it was drastically different," says Scaggs when asked about the recording sessions for More Than Just a Dream. "For us, it was really different having a producer. Having that outside-looking-in person allowed us to let go of things that we were trying to hold onto. It gave us a cohesiveness with the sound. [Producer Tony Hoffer] would say to the six of us, 'I know you want to do this but let's try it this way instead.' To have that communication happen was really cool. It really challenged us. He's an amazing mixer as well and we could really fine-tune things before we even got into the mixing process."
The album's first single, "Out of My League," was a song that Scaggs sketched out and then took to Fitz. It commences with perky synthesizer riffs and the phrase "more than just a dream" is repeated over and over. The song sounds like something that could've been a hit on commercial radio in the '80s.
"It's not really based around anyone," Scaggs says when asked about the track. "It's a late night unexpected happening. We wrote it as a ballad at my house. We thought there was something there and I recorded a demo for Fitz. I was a little bit nervous. It was early in the writing process. We made a rule that there were no rules as to what we were going to do; we were just going to create the best songs possible. For me it was so far left. I heard it as a British rock band singing it. I didn't know if it would fit for us. Fitz loved it. We tweaked it more. It's just about how you're crushing on somebody you think might be too good for you."
On the whole, the album embraces an '80s aesthetic, something Scaggs says was intentional since the group intended to move in a different musical direction.
"We didn't want to get pigeonholed as a retro '60s band," she says. "We knew we had more to offer. We were trying to bring forth those small elements that might have been lost but still push forward that modern sound we were going for on the first record and really find those elements. The '80s synth thing found more of a presence on this album. I have to give credit to Fitz and Tony [Hoffer] because they come from the same mind when it comes to that love of music. We wanted to make sure we were bringing a modern sense on the lyrical tip. We just decided that that was what we would do."
So does that mean the band will embrace a '90s sound for its next record? Scaggs says the band, which just got off a summer tour with soul pop sensation Bruno Mars, is too busy promoting More than Just a Dream to think about the next album. But she guarantees it will involve yet another musical evolution.
"The worst thing you can do is stick to something, especially if you've broken out of it," she says. "We have a solid label with us now, having just signed to Electra Records. We have people there who want to see us have a 20-year career. It's a matter of getting out there and doing the work."