Late on a Wednesday night, the spotlights at Tempe’s Marquee Theatre make the packed venue’s stage glow a fluorescent purple. It’s near the end of the show, and all eyes in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd are on Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick. Half the audience members have their right hand painted neon pink, white, and blue in mimesis of the cover art to HandClap, the group’s latest album. “THE DANCE PARTY BEGINS NOW!” Fitz proclaims as the band breaks into their 2010 single “L.O.V.”
Noelle Scaggs, or the “Boss Lady” as she calls herself, rhythmically slams her tambourine against her hip as she sings into her bedazzled microphone. Scaggs’ voice is so strong that, despite the band’s name, it becomes unclear who the lead singer is.
“It’s a shared role,” Fitz tells Rogue. “I think there’s a real power in the two of us trading off, and also in the way our voices work together. You know, it’s male and female on stage. So many of our songs are about relationships or scorned love, so it really all fits into what we do musically.”
Midway through the song, Fitz walks off the stage for a well-deserved break. James King, the band’s fedora-wearing saxophonist/keyboardist/bongo drummer, trades his bari sax for an alto and belts out a Don Menza-esque cadenza complete with allusions to Buddy Rich’s ‘Channel One Suite.’
Fitz tells us about how he and King go way back. “The band really started with the two of us,” he recounts. “We were in similar circles of friends in school, and I had always known him to be such a phenomenal musician. So when I started the band and wanted to incorporate some saxophone, he was the first guy I called.”
After the two had experimented with some songs Fitz had written, it was instantly evident that the partnership had some potential. “James and I were just sitting there saying, ‘This music’s begging to be played live.’”
“Then we quickly put the rest of the band together. It was just a couple phone calls to some of his friends and some of my friends. We all got in the room together, and we literally could have played a show together after that first rehearsal. That’s a credit to everybody in the band having dedicated their life to their instrument and their craft. It was just magic from the way we played to the way Noelle and I sang together. We’d all been in bands before and knew how hard it is to put the right pairing of people together, but as with everything in this band, there was just this sort of synergy and serendipity. I walked out of the room after playing two songs and booked us a show for a week later.”
After that first gig, things immediately started to accelerate—perhaps even too quickly for the band’s own good. Fitz continues, “Like I said, we’d all been in bands before, so we knew what it means to slog it out, but there was a magic with this band. We had played five or six shows, and all of the sudden got offered opening tour dates with Flogging Molly, Maroon 5, and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, all without having a record deal. That kind of thing just doesn’t ever happen. So we got to tour nationally and build a national reputation for ourselves by putting on this great show, but we didn’t have a record deal or anything, so it was a bit of a challenge at the beginning.”
“A bit of a challenge” is an understatement. The band had no idea how they would be able to afford to go on the road. “Everybody had to make major sacrifices to keep going,” Fitz says, “but everything in the universe was saying that there was something special happening. So those first two years were this incredible grind where we were playing all over the country, but we were stone-cold broke. And then finally, this indie label here in Los Angeles recognized what we were doing when they saw us play at SXSW and gave us a record deal. We had some modest success with the first record, and then we were very fortunate to have Atlantic sign us for our second record, and that has been the biggest blessing—to have a full team behind us, really supporting us and helping us all along the way.”
“So it’s been this incredible journey for us where, over the course of eight years, little by little, we’ve steadily grown this thing to a point now where we can go play in front of a couple thousand people in almost any city in America. That still catches me by surprise every night. I still can’t believe where we’ve been able to get to.”
The band closes the show with their hit single “The Walker”. During the outro, an obscenely massive, yet equally impressive, amount of glittery, pink confetti drops from the ceiling. Fitz’s two-year-old son, Theodore, makes an appearance on the stage while wearing a pair of industrial-grade earmuffs to protect his hearing. Fitz graciously thanks the crowd for enabling him and his band to continue on their spectacular expedition.
*Feature originally appears in Rogue's Issue #4*
Written by Cody Fitzpatrick