INTERVIEW: “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” of Soul with “Fitz & the Tantrums’” Jeremy Ruzumna

Photo Credit: Michela Smith

Originally Published in The Daily Free Press on November 9, 2011

By its very definition, soul music cradles our most intimate emotions. Catchy melodies wind their way into our deepest crevices, exalting and exciting us, often into dance. Yet, in a culture dominated by prerecorded loops and computer-generated accents, it’s difficult to find the hedonistic passion inherent to soul on the radio or on stage.

Thankfully, Fitz & the Tantrums, a Rolling Stone 2011 “Band to Watch,” brings it on home. Comprised of organ, bass, brass and drums, the band of gold is now notorious for the jungle boogie energy and heat wave of sweat they sustain to the stage until the midnight hour.

Yet, despite their Motown influence, Fitz & the Tantrums is no knockoff band. Modernity complements both band sound and ideology, leading to musical innovation that will be on show Friday night as the Tantrums storm Boston’s House of Blues.

I recently spoke with Jeremy Ruzumna, Boston native, and keyboardist for the band on their climb to fame and mission to reawaken soul.

Michela Smith: Soul, R&B, Motown, your inspirations, are all uniquely American creations. How does your music translate when brought abroad?

Jeremy Ruzumna: Everywhere in the world, people respond to soul music. It just seems universal. Even before Fitz and the Tantrums, everyone in this band had traveled the world in other bands that were heavy on soul, r&b- whatever you want to call it- and people worldwide just love it.

MS:  Many tracks on Pickin’ Up the Pieces either express remorse or anger over love. Is it emotionally difficult to perform these songs nightly or can the band remove themselves from the emotional content to ensure that everyone still has a good time?

JR:   Well I can’t speak for Fitz, but I’d say that when it comes time to perform, it’s really more about getting the adrenaline pumping and focusing on pulling the audience into a crazy, hyped up party. And even though a lot of the lyrics are sad or remorseful or angry, performing the songs live is really a blast for us. Maybe it’s a way of turning the universal pain that love can bring into something fun and awesome.

MS: A vintage church organ bought by Fitz started this whole adventure. Unsurprisingly, Pickin’ Up the Pieces heavily features organ parts too. Do you think you’ll always feature organ in your music, even as your music evolves, simply because it’s so integral to the band’s existence?

JR: Organ, and keyboards in general, will always be an integral part of our sound. We don’t even have a guitar player, so keyboards are the only chordal instrument in the band! We plan to push the sound forward on the next album in a lot of ways, and one way we’ll do that is by continuing to use old, interesting vintage keyboards. Between Fitz and myself, you could fill a warehouse with crazy vintage keyboards.

MS: How did Fitz balance writing, playing, and engineering when putting together Pickin’ Up the Pieces?

 JR: Fitz is a very seat-of-your-pants type producer, which is to his benefit. It can be hard when you have to be the guy responsible for making everything sound good – which is kind of like being the teacher in the class – and simultaneously putting yourself in the zone of being childlike and creative. But Fitz has the natural ability to keep things moving forward by not over-analyzing things in the moment. He understands that modern recording allows you to capture performances and moments and vibes, which can then later be sorted through and molded into a final product. The trick is to know what to stress about and what not to sweat.

MS: The group formed in 2008, Pickin’ Up the Pieces released in August 2010, but Rolling Stone didn’t call you a “band to watch” until April 2011. What was that waiting period like, between breakout and serious success?

JR: There is a lot of faith and a lot of uncertainty for anyone who is trying to make it in music. You literally sacrifice years of your time, making no money, working your tail off, not being around to hang out with your friends and loved ones, and slaving away with zero guarantee that anything is even going to pan out. That’s the truth. And you know the whole time that no matter how good you are, the odds are stacked against your ever making it. It’s kind of insane to be a musician, yet we do it because we love it and we are crazy enough to still have a dream, even as the music business crumbles around us.

MS: I heard that you were serendipitously booked on Maroon 5’s tour after Adam Levine’s tattoo artist recommended you. Is the music industry dependent on talent, “being in the right place at the right time,”  “who you know” or a mixture of all three?

JR: Definitely a mixture.  ”Luck” is a deep concept, because it’s made up of many things. It’s lucky that Adam Levine dug us enough to ask us out, but we also had prepared ourselves as a band and as musicians to be able to act on the chances that came our way. You really do make your own luck, and you have to recognize opportunities when they arise. In the beginning, we said yes to everything that came our way. Every little Internet show, every little chance to show ourselves, no matter how small it seemed. In the end it’snot who you know- it’s who knows you.

 MS: You’re obviously reinventing an older age of music, but do you ever long for the music industry from that same time? What do you like – and dislike – about today’s music industry?

JR: We are literally witnessing history right now in the biz. We saw it crumble to the ground with the advent of digital technology that allowed massive piracy to actually be the norm, and which brought the major labels to their knees and cast doubt on whether musicians and labels would be able to continue to make money making music.  But that same technology has actually freed us from the tyranny of the traditional record label; anyone with a computer can record an album and distribute it on the Internet. It was unthinkable not so long ago that you could record a song this morning and put it out on the Internet this evening, where anybody anywhere in the world could listen to it. It’s incredible. The means of production as well as distribution are now in the hands of the artist.  And now that the dust is settling, people are getting a handle on rethinking the biz and creating new ways to make it possible for us to keep doing this.

MS: What’s the goal? To bring soul to all corners of the Earth? To banish electronica forever? To inspire the new generation with the same passion or style that influenced you?

JR: I think one of our main strengths and goals is to show people what it’s like when you see a band that isn’t playing to tracks, isn’t playing it safe onstage, and is just making a big sound with four instruments and two vocalists doing their thing. And no, we don’t hate on any form of music; everything is legit and beautiful if it comes from a place of honesty.  That’s really what soul is, to me.

MS: What are looking forward to in Boston? Will you have any time to see the city? Need a tour guide?

JR: I was actually born in Boston and my Dad lives there now. So I’m looking forward to seeing the fam. And, as always, we look forward to doing such an intense and fun show that the audience leaves the club rethinking everything they thought they knew about not only music, but existence itself.

MS: Just because I myself can never choose: Sam Cooke or Otis Redding?

JR: Otis Redding.

Fitz & the Tantrums will play Boston’s House of Blues on 11/11/11.

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