Over the course of three albums, Fitz and the Tantrums has gone from a Motown revival, to ‘80s new wave, to Top-40 pop.
Experimenting, especially the sort that lands in our “mainstream” periphery is ripe for scrutiny: something the sextet has quickly realized, but are owning. I spoke with keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna on the group’s evolution, the Catch-22 of technology, and getting raunchy. Fitz and the Tantrums will close the Twilight Festival on Thursday, September 1st.
CHARISSA CHE: Your latest album seems like your most produced and dancey one so far. How was this shift received by listeners?
JEREMY RUZUMNA: You get people who are like, ‘Why would they do that? I loved their old Motown sound!” And then you see other people saying, ‘This is great; I love their new sound.’ It’s a funny thing. If you try to make everything just to please the public, you go crazy chasing your tail, because everybody is different. All you can do is have your own internal compass of what you think is cool, and follow that.
CC: There is that negative connotation to “pop,” even though all that really means is that it’s “popular.” Do you think an artist can find themselves in pop music?
JR: I do. I think that there’s a value in every genre and style, and we don’t turn our nose up at anything. Especially now, in an era where you can go on Apple Music or the internet and just listen to anything in the world at your fingertips (laugh), it’s all up for grabs; it’s a crazy time. There’s no reason for people to confine themselves anymore. I like pop music just as much as I like obscure soul music. I like Donnie Hathaway and I like Justin Bieber. I mean, it might be a bad thing to say but I actually really like the latest Justin Bieber stuff.
CC: Are there other pop acts today that you draw influence from?
JR: I like Diplo and that whole camp. There’s really sick stuff going on with Drake. It’s easy to be dismissive of it, but there’s actually a lot of very intricate, subtle things happening with the production and arrangement that you might not catch unless you were scientifically listening to it. We’re all sponges and it all rubs off on everything that we do.
CC: So, one of my favorite tracks off this album is “Complicated.” When I first heard it, I was taken aback because of how raw it was lyrically and sonically. How did that song come about?
JR: That song was a collaboration with one of the members of 3OH!3. The other day, I was listening to early demos of the record and that one actually hasn’t changed all that much. But yeah, it’s kind of a fun song. It’s not that it’s deep, but it’s real. It’s a very honest song, and the production is fairly minimal. Funny enough, it’s one of the songs that goes over the best live. The minute we start playing it, the audience totally perks up. And so do we. Whenever we play that song, I look around on stage and I could see everybody in the band not even realizing they’re in the zone, nodding their heads.
CC: While on that note, how has each subsequent album affected your stage act?
JR: No matter how much the sound changes, the challenge is to make sure that we’re giving maximum energy live. Some of the older songs, it’s just us using very old school instrumentation, and on the new stuff, we’re using more modern instrumentations. I see a lot of bands out there, when they’re performing, they let the production take over, and they just become like secondary co-pilots. I kind of have lost interest in seeing a lot of bands live because it just feels like you’re just pressing play and that’s about it. So for us, the challenge is to make sure that we always are just crushing it live, staying on top of it, and not letting the technology of our time overshadow what we’re doing.
CC: Yeah, you were talking about how technology allows all these different genres to be available to you and shape your music – but it seems like a double-edged sword. Over the course of your careers, has the increase of these outlets presented challenges in staying true to yourselves?
JR: We live in a time where you can do anything. If you wanted 100 drum tracks and 50 synthesizer tracks and 4 bass tracks and 100 vocal tracks, you can do it on your laptop. And while that sounds incredible (laugh), it can actually be very paralyzing. The paralysis of analysis, I guess you would say? I went through a phase where I said I’m just going to use this one synthesizer, just one drum machine, and that’s basically it. And you find you get a lot more done that way, and it forces you to get into it, really shape your sound, and make it something that’s your own.
These days, every commercial sound on the radio is available to you. That’s the other challenge; trying to use stuff that everyone else is using but somehow have your own voice in the process. We fought hard to have a personality in this album. And we’re lucky that we’ve got six [musicians] as our front, because I think there’s a unique sound to her (Noelle Scaggs’) and his (Michael Fitzpatrick’s) voices. With the two of them together, it becomes bigger than the sum of its parts.
And even though the production and the sonics have changed, I don’t think that the writing has that much. If you were to take different songs from all of our albums and play them on an acoustic guitar, you’d find there really is a common thread. The core of what we are – the playfulness of what we do mixed with the dark seriousness – all of the threads are there.
CC: Why’d you decide to title this album after your band’s name?
JR: Each album, it’s like you’re trying to find who you are as a band, and by the time you have your third album, you’ve got an idea of your essence. We hit that magic number three album, and we found that. So it felt like a way of announcing to ourselves as well as to our audience who we are.
Go here to get tickets to see Fitz and the Tantrums and learn more about the Twilight Concert series.