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Tuesday, 03 September 2013 09:27

'I just never thought that Motown described our whole thing' A pre-LouFest interview with Jeremy Ruzumna of Fitz and the Tantrums

'I just never thought that Motown described our whole thing' A pre-LouFest interview with Jeremy Ruzumna of Fitz and the Tantrums
Written by Kevin Edwards

Legend has it that Fitz and the Tantrums formed around an organ -- band leader Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick's Conn electronic organ to be precise. Keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna, who has been with the band from the start, took that organ-driven sound and ran with it.

In preparation for Fitz and the Tantrums' appearance at LouFest on September 7, I spoke with Ruzumna, who has also recorded with Bruno Mars, Cee Lo Green and Macy Gray, and performed on the song "I Try," which was nominated for the 2001 Grammy Song of the Year. He's a life-long musician: he once hoped to impress girls at a tender age and has since been impressing audiences around the world.

What is he doing with Fitz and the Tantrums? Having lots of fun, it seems.

Kevin Edwards: Good afternoon, what an impressive resume you have! Your list of album and concert credits is incredible. Before we get to your work with Fitz, will you tell us a little about you and what brought you to music as a career?

Jeremy Ruzumna: What brought me to music was that I was 8 years old, and I was trying to figure out how to impress a girl at a party.

(Laughing) I love it.

That is basically what happened.

I think if anyone says anything else about why they started playing music, it's probably a lie.

That's right.

So did you start off on keyboards? Has it always been keyboards for you?

Yeah, it's always been keyboards. Well, I started off on piano and bought my first synthesizer when I was…actually it was bought with my bar mitzvah money when I was 13, and everyone made fun of me because it was a Roland Juno 6 and all my friends had Juno 60s.

(Laughing) Well, you know, you start where you can.

But I got the last laugh, so you know, it was cool.

Yeah, because you're still doing it, and not only that but you played on and helped write Macy Gray's "I Try," which was nominated for Grammy Song of the Year in 2001. That's one of the big ones. That's the award for the composer, or composers, isn't it?

Yeah, it is. It's for the writers. And that album was actually the start of my career, that first Macy Gray record, and then it sort of just snowballed from there.

Were you at the Grammys, dressed up and ready to take the stage?

I was. But U2 beat us out.

They did. And you were up against Destiny's Child, Faith Hill, Lee Ann Womack and U2. Any cool after-party stories about Beyoncé? Or Bono? Or Beyoncé and Bono, like in some backstage group grope with Faith Hill?

(Laughing) No, but some other Macy Gray band members and I had a miscommunication backstage once. It wasn't the Grammys, it was before that, in Paris, and Beyoncé thought we were making fun of her, which we completely weren't. And we had this kind of funny argument. It was pretty funny, actually.

Well, you really wouldn't want to do that now. She has Jay Z with her now. That could be rather dangerous.

Yeah, exactly!

Making money playing music is harder than ever, but I've read that one way to still make it work is to land a song or a few songs on movie soundtracks, perhaps television soundtracks too. You've got lots of movie and television soundtrack credits, including "Shrek the Third" and, most recently, "Identity Thief." Is your success in that arena a studied move or something that just kind of happened?

Well, a lot of the stuff you might have seen is Macy songs that were put on soundtracks. But I've done some music for some small stuff that you wouldn't have heard of and some commercials. I've definitely done some commercials, Burger King and other things. Commercials can be great too. Or they used to be. It's actually not the same as it used to be.

Yeah, I don't know that any of it is the way it used to be, in terms of making money.

Well, now with any laptop, any 5-year-old can use Apple loops to make an amazing sounding track. It brings down the value of the music a little bit.

Exactly. I heard that Fitz, or Michael Fitzpatrick to his family, kind of stumbled across a Conn electric organ, bought it sight-unseen and wrote "Breakin' the Chains of Love" that same night. How did the band form behind that and how did you get involved?

That is all true and correct. And right around that time he also had the idea to form a band, and we all sort of knew each other in different ways so it kind of came together fairly quickly. James King, our illustrious sax player, who is actually sitting here with me, knew Fitz in college. They went to CalArts [California Institute of the Arts] together, so James is kind of the flash point, if you will.

It was sort of like a domino effect. I forget who called who first, but the way I got brought in was through John Wicks, our drummer. He and I were playing together at this club in Hollywood called Bardot where we were the house band. And then it's funny because I got in and realized that we all kind of knew each other.

James and I had been in a band together and we just knew each other from the scene and Joe Karnes, our bass player, I've actually known since high school. We went to the same high school together. He's not one of the people that made fun of me for my Juno 6.

So, yeah, it was a group of people that kind of knew each other from the scene or otherwise and it fell together rather quickly.

Well, say hello to James for me. I saw him with Fitz on the "Live From Daryl's House" episode and he's just an amazing player.

He's a great player.

He really is.

I don't know if you know this but I taught James how to play saxophone.

(Laughing) Did you really?


Yeah, James is shaking his head no right now, I imagine.

(Laughing) He is.

I read that the first rehearsals were reported to be smashing. Did you guys start playing dates soon?

Yeah! I mean, you know, we all had experience. We'd all been in bands and on stage since we were basically teenagers and you know there were only a few songs at the time to learn and get together. So it only took, probably, two hours. But at the same time songs were still being written for that first album and so, yeah, we started booking shows and essentially forced ourselves to have to have more songs.

How long did it take to get into the recording studio?

Well, we never got into a recording studio on the first album. We did all of it except one song in Fitz's living room on an outdated, very dubious, Pro Tools rig and two microphones.

Is that for the EP you released or the first full album?

Both. The only exception was a song called "Tighter" that we all wrote together in a room and the basic tracks were not recorded at Fitz's, but still in a home studio. In someone's garage, actually, and then the strings were added later. But the majority was done with two mics and that's it.

So, I believe the EP came out in 2009 but then in 2010 you guys really hit it big with your first full album "Pickin' Up the Pieces." Billboard noticed, Rolling Stone noticed, the world noticed. Daryl Hall noticed, for God's sake! Was it a bit of a whirlwind there for a while?

Yeah! It was cool. It was awesome and it was a pleasant surprise. It was funny because the minute I met Fitz I sort of had this strange confidence in the project because he's a very charismatic dude. And the way people started reacting from the first time we ever got on stage…I was kind of blown away by the passionate response from the audience.

Because usually when you're starting off in a band no one really cares. I mean, just your friends show up and you usually have to beg them to come to the gig and they're like, "Yeah, you were great." And they give you that friendly pat on the back.

But it was interesting; from the very beginning we had a pretty intense response from the audience.

I can imagine that is true because the sound is so danceable that you almost have to move to it. I know I loved the first album. I heard the single and immediately bought the album and have stayed pretty close since.

Thank you.

The band's sound has been described as kind of Motown or Stax influenced and I find that is true on the new album, this year's "More Than Just a Dream." But there are other sounds too. Did you try to work against type on the new album or was it more natural than that?

It was both, actually. We were aware that we were getting kind of typecast as the retro-Motown band, which none of us felt was really a completely apt description from the beginning. I mean, obviously, those things are in the music, especially on the first album.

But, really, to me, on even the first album, the way people described it was not the way I always felt, which was that it definitely had some Motown, some soul, but also had '80s new wave. On some of the songs you can just tell that the '80s are in our DNA. And even the beats. I always felt that some of the beats were almost a golden age of hip-hop thing.

I just never thought that Motown described our whole thing and I guess none of us did. And as a band we just decided to come together on the second album and just let all of our influences hang out. I kept joking that the rules are: there are no rules. Like in the movie "Grease."

So for the second album we just decided that we'd put any instrument on, even if it's a synthesizer that you would never expect to be in a Fitz and the Tantrums song. And if it doesn't sound cool, no one ever has to hear it. And if it does sound cool, then we'll use it. And that's how we built the last record.

I think that it's smart of you to do that because people want to pigeonhole bands so much.

Yes and I think it's good that we did it on the second album instead of the fourth album when we might have really been there.

You know it's a scary thing to change up your sound, but at the same time our outlook was, hey, let's just do whatever we think sounds cool, we're not going to do it for everyone else but hopefully they'll all think it sounds cool too.

Exactly. Do what's in your heart and they'll follow; the right ones will follow anyway.


Your touring schedule is just kind of crazy. In 2011, Vogue Daily named you guys "Hardest Working Band" and it seems you're kind of out to capture as much of that funky James Brown work ethic as possible. Does anyone throw a cape on anyone in the show?

(Laughing) No, but the thought has occurred to us.

Well, Fitz is pretty lanky to be carried off stage. If you think about doing it, consider an appliance dolly. I mean the guy must be 6' 3".

He's about 6' 14" I think.

So what drives the band to work so hard and play so many dates? Do you just love it or are you looking back over your shoulders and trying to stay ahead? Or a little of both?

I think it's that, but I've got to say that, in today's music biz, you have to be like a shark. You can't stop moving. You have to continually keep swimming forward or you'll just die. It sounds like a joke but it's really true.

And I'm glad to be in a band with a bunch of people who are basically workaholics because I'm a complete lazy sloth and (laughing) they kind of force me.

But even early on it was obvious that we were going to be an extremely hard-working band. Even from those first gigs, we were just saying yes to everything. We even would drive down to San Diego so we could play one song in someone's garage for a podcast or Internet show for like 30 viewers.

We just literally said yes to everything and just jumped on it and it really hasn't stopped. I wouldn't say we have a tour schedule; I'd say we have an occasional off schedule.

That's certainly what it looks like. And you're playing Saturday at LouFest just before the National and Wilco and after Trampled by Turtles. Aren't festivals great?

Wow. I hadn't really thought that out, but that's pretty impressive company.

Fitz and the Tantrums perform at LouFest on Saturday, September 7. KDHX is a media partner of LouFest 2013.

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