It’s a Wednesday in 2010, which means I’ve just thrown on a Bill Cosby sweater and dragged myself across snowy Hilldale’s campus. Sub-zero temperatures be damned, I rarely missed Dr. Gary Wolfram’s Political Economy class on Wednesdays, since that’s when he gave us his Band Pick of the Week, often scratched wordlessly on the chalkboard. The man was ahead of his time, bringing Foster the People, The Antlers, and Yeasayer to our attention. Who would have thought I’d be talking to Fitz and the Tantrums’ Jeremy Ruzumna, four years after I scribbled his band inside the cover of my notebook? We caught up with the synth jedi for Pittsburgh City Paper, but his interview was just too good not to post.
I was going to say, I felt really lucky getting you since everyone else talks to Noelle [Scaggs] or Fitz.
Aww, no, I feel lucky to be talking to you.
You are the keyboardist in the band, which is obviously a really important role–
Doubly more important, than even the vocalists. [laughs] I’m joking.
So what do you think you’ve contributed to the band thus far?
Well, a few things. There’s musical, and there’s otherwise. In the otherwise category: I’m the one who brings the delicious scented sprays for the bus so that it doesn’t smell bad. You think it’s funky onstage, it’s even funkier offstage. I think I bring what everyone else brings. The reason we all came together for this was, we’ve all been around the block a few times, had different experience playing on different albums, with different artists, touring a lot. All of us have been touring since our twenties. We were all brought together to make the music sound as good as possible.
Do you think your role has changed at all? The first album sounded a lot more funky soul pop–
Yeah, I think so. The sound of both albums comes from the keyboards. I play the keyboards and Fitz plays the keyboards, and actually the guy Tony Chopra, who produced the second record. I think the biggest change between the two, the aesthetic was generated by what keyboards we used. On the first album, it was all about Fitz’s massive old organ and his old, out of tune piano. It was very lo-fi, and of course the wall of saxophone from James King. On this new record, we wanted to take our sound somewhere different. We wanted to do what sounded good to us, and hopefully other people would be into it. So one of the things that happened with this new record was, we completely opened up the arsenal of keyboards–I have a pretty formidable collection of vintage synthesizers at my house– so I was able to take the songs home at night and just lace them with tons of different weird and obscure keyboards. We used everything on this album, from old vintage synthesizers to modern laptop synthesizers. Just mixed them all together to taste. On this record, I got to really use a lot more instruments and a lot more colors in the palette.
So how many keyboards did you use in total?
I used at least 15 or 20 different old vintage synthesizers. Laptop synthesizers, there were at least four or five of those that made the rounds. It’s in the thirties, at least.
Fitz said in an interview with Billboard that the next single is between “Fools Gold” and “6AM.” What’s your pick for that?
It’s hard to pick between the two, because I really love both of those songs. We’ve been playing “6am” for a long time and a lot of people really, really, really love that song. It’s very soulful and very funky. But “Fool’s Gold” is a completely different flavor. It’s a very memorable catchy melody.
You see a lot of bands these days using heavy instrumentals, with a bunch of really charismatic musicians onstage. What do you think separates Fitz and the Tantrums from other bands that aren’t just using guitars, like Arcade Fire, San Fermin, or Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes?
The lack of guitar in our band is one of our calling cards. There’s one song where we broke our own rule, and our saxophone player, James, learned guitar just so he could play this one song, ‘Spark.’ But I think the fact that there’s literally no guitarist in the band is one thing that sets us apart. And also, it’s funny, it’s going to sound obvious, but Fitz and Noelle work really hard every show to connect with everyone in the audience. They have that extra job of having to connect with the audience and bring them in. I’ve been spoiled; I go to see other bands now, where people aren’t quite as charismatic as them, or don’t make quite the effort that Fitz and Noelle are making. And I realize, I think that’s one of our secret weapons, too. Every night Fitz thanks the audience from stage, on behalf of the whole band, and truly means it. It’s not like it’s just some wrote speech, it’s truly from the heart. And we all feel that way. There’s just a true sincerity there.
You played the Summer Music Festival with Jukebox the Ghost in Pittsburgh a few years ago, do you have any memories from that experience?
First time we played Pittsburgh, I had a massive case of strep throat, and I was quarantined for the whole day. And when we did the show, I was basically quarantined to my corner of the stage. And then immediately quarantined afterwards. But it’s funny, because even that time, I remember loving the crowd, and loving the energy. I feel like we were playing on all cylinders, and the audience was just firing back.
When I listen to More Than Just A Dream, I feel like it’s half about your success, and everything that comes with it, and half about a failed relationship. I’m wondering if you think these go hand-in-hand.
The first album was definitely a really angry breakup record. In this record, it’s true. There was some stuff about success. There’s a song ‘Merry Go Round,’ which I think ties it all together. It’s about the drudgery– the Merry Go Round aspect– of being on the road all the time. Being on the road all the time does put a strain on your relationships. People in the band are married, people in the band have kids, girlfriends, to me ‘Merry Go Round’ bridged the gap between the two albums, sonically and in terms of the subject matter. It’s about being on the road all the time and it’s about relationships. Fitz and Noelle have to take on the lyrics, because they have to sing them, and that’s where they were at when this record was being written.
I was talking to The Colourist, and Adam said Fitz gave him some advice. It was, “never say no, just go for it.” Was there a moment where you, or Fitz, or the band, realized you were able to give advice to other bands?
I don’t know if there was a moment. I’ve had a couple moments like that in my life, where I assumed I don’t know anything. But when you talk to people who are younger, and just coming up, you realize you know more than you think you do. Several years ago, one of my old production partners and I were asked to speak at a college music class. And I was like, ‘I don’t even read music, what am I gonna say?’ The person who asked us to do it said, ‘just go there, it’ll be fine,’ and turns out it was totally fine. You realize there’s always something you can teach people. I have noticed that it happens. I don’t know if that makes sense.
It makes sense. Did you guys receive any advice when you were starting out that stuck with you?
The first time I ever went on tour, it was with this Irish band called the Devlins. And my first instinct was to party my ass off. So for the first three days, I was like ‘come on, guys! we’re gonna get wasted every night, it’s gonna be great, we’re on a bus!’ And I remember very forebodingly, they told me, you can’t really do that. You have to take care of yourself. You can’t just go home the next day and feel sick. As much as people think it’s this 24 hour party lifestyle, it’s really not. It takes more discipline than you think it does. You can always tell young bands, ‘cause they’re wasted all the time, and paying for it the next day. It just makes more sense to get offstage, take a shower, and read a book in the bus.
This is kind of a personal question. Who is Mr. President?
Fitz always describes it as ‘a love letter to Obama.’ It was written when he was still early on, in office. He had a few pointers, if you will. When you’re writing something, you don’t always know what you’re writing about. Who knows what’s going through Fitz’s unconscious mind when he’s writing, but the more we performed it, the more he started to look at it as that, as a love letter to Obama.
So what’s your favorite song to perform?
Any time you’re in a band, and you look at the set list, certain ones are the moments when you’re like ‘I can’t wait until we get to that song!’ For me, I love “6AM,” I love playing “Spark,” I love playing “The Walker,” I love playing “Fools Gold,” I love playing “Moneygrabber, I love playing “Break the Walls,” I love playing “Breakin’ the Chains of Love,” I love playing “House on Fire”–
Sounds like you like to break out!
[laughs] Prettymuch I love playing every song.
You should be in musicals.
Exactly. I just wanna dance!
Do you do a lot of dancing onstage?
I do, but you would never know it because I’m behind two big keyboards and all you can see is my shoulders and my head. But inside, I’m dancing my ass off. Fitz and Noelle are all over the place, and James King, or sax player-slash-multi-instrumentalist is all over the place. John [Wicks], the drummer and I are trapped behind our instruments, but we still give it the old college try.
That’s all you can do, really.
Yeah, or, you know, grad school.
Bang bang here we go, you can see Fitz and the Tantrums blow the speakers at Stage AE this Saturday, June 5th.