Jeremy Ruzumna of Fitz and the Tantrums

December 8, 2012
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This extended interview accompanies our profile of Fitz and the Tantrums' keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna in the January 2013 issue.
Interview and story by ROBBIE GENNET.

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How did your involvement in the band come about

My friend Stewart Cole, who is now the trumpet player for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, had a little weekly thing going at a club in Hollywood called Bardot and I was playing keyboards in that. It was a cool night where we would just pick an eclectic array of songs and just do these really cool instrumental, art-house versions of anyone from Brazilian Girls to Booker T. to the Clash to Beirut. I loved it because I would bring in a different crazy keyboard rig each week to change things up. It was a good excuse to whip out a lot of keyboards that I normally reserve only for the studio; different Moogs, the Juno-60, ARP string machine, you name it. Plus, the ever-reliable Nords. 

It was a whole crazy celeb scene. Prince even sat in on keys with me one night, which was awesome. My buddy Josh Lopez, who I had worked a lot with in the studio and on the road with Macy Gray and with Cee Lo, was the guitar player. And the drummer was John Wicks, the drummer for FATT. At the time, Fitz didn’t have a band or anything and had mostly been concentrating on his commercial music business. But he was just beginning to experiment with the songs and sound that ultimately became FATT, and Wicks had been doing some work with him. When Fitz decided to turn it into more of a band, Wicks recommended me for keyboards for the band. I already knew James our sax player, from playing with him in a band called Breakestra, and I also knew our original bassist, Ethan Phillips, from different projects in L.A. I’ve known our current and longtime bassist, Joe Karnes, since high school.

There were only about three Fitz songs floating around at the time and one of them—the first one I’d ever heard—was a track called “Darkest Street.” It’s this beautiful, slow, kinda funky, kinda eerie song and I remember thinking, “Who the hell is this guy Fitz?” I really related to his style and yet it was also a new sound that really intrigued me. Also I was going through a terrible breakup, and all of his songs were these cool, angry breakup songs because he had gone through something similar. So I actually really related to the vibe and material on more than just a musical level.

When I first met him he was in the midst of recording what would become the first album in his living room. He and I immediately vibed musically and started writing a whole bunch of music, some of which appears on the “Pickin’ Up The Pieces” album. 

 

The story goes that Fitz acquired an old organ and “found” his sound. What was that organ and is it still in use? Does it still define the band’s sound?

Yeah, the legend is actually true! Fitz acquired an old Conn organ for 50 dollars and got it to his house and yes, that organ—along with his out-of-tune and beautifully vibey upright piano—became the central, defining instruments of the first album, “Picking Up The Pieces”. Of course, it’s not just the sound of those instruments but also Fitz’ signature, slightly oddball, yet totally unique way of playing that made that album sound the way it does. 

On the new album, we really made a conscious decision to extend our sound into new territory. Keyboard-wise, we ended up using a very healthy balance of lots of different instruments from different eras. A lot of the keyboards involved me taking song files to my home studio and lacing the tracks with all of my vintage and analog gear. But also a lot of the keys were us at the studio using Native Instruments Massive and other soft synths. Also, our producer Tony Hoffer is a master of the Korg MS-20, and that keyboard plays a very large role on this new album. Tony also has a pristine Roland D-50. I remember begging my mom to help me buy one of those way back in the day but I honestly never saw that keyboard becoming cool again. Crazily enough, though, we used it quite a bit on this new album, which I find really amusing.

 
How have you transitioned into the keyboard chair in studio and onstage? Does Fitz still play keys in studio or onstage?

imgThe first album is largely Fitz playing keys, although I definitely played on it as well, and I wrote a bit on it as well. But yeah that first album is pretty much him on keys. Fitz didn’t invent the quarter-note or eighth-note piano pulse, but he’s harnessed their power and definitely maximizes it when he’s writing on piano!

Live, however, he has his hands full being the front man and going crazy all over the stage, so the live shows have always been my domain on the keyboards. And our live sound is a lot more high-energy and aggressive than the original album, plus our saxophonist James King and I take turns being the “lead guitarist,” since there’s no actual guitar in this band. So when you see a FATT show, you’re really in for some very rocking, very aggressive versions of the songs!

On our new album, the keyboards are a big combo. Several of the basic piano parts, around which a lot of the songs are built, were Fitz, with me building off of that in my home studio using my arsenal of vintage synths. Some songs we did the keys from scratch in the studio. Others began as jam sessions in a different studio that we used for preproduction with the whole band playing, then Fitz and Noelle writing to that later. Tony sometimes played his MS-20 and found some magical parts with that. In the song “Last Raindrop,” there’s a big dramatic moment at the end of the bridge where Tony put John Wicks’ long, building drum fill thru the MS-20 and did a crazy resonant sweep which just really put the thing over the top. There are a lot of awesome sonic moments like that on this album.

The song “Getaway” originated as a track that I did in my studio in Logic built around a beat that I did on my E-mu SP-1200 and then it got built from there at my place and ultimately at Tony’s studio.

How has the band’s music evolved from its original sound? What are the main influences on the new recordings?

The sound of the first album is Fitz’s old Conn organ, his vibey upright piano, and a wall of sax and flute provided by James King, mixed with breakbeats and a little of my keyboard icing smattered throughout. People love to compare us to Motown, probably because of the horns and the style of the cover art on the first record. But actually I’ve always described the sound of that first album as an ‘80s new wave band who got transported back to the ‘60s to record their album, and then had it mixed by somebody from the golden age of hip-hop. Fitz is truly into the ‘80s New Wave and “new romantic” styles. I’m the same way, but mixed with ‘70s and ‘80s soul.

Basically I grew up wanting to be Thomas Dolby, Dr. Fink from Prince and the Revolution, and Sly Stone all rolled up into one, plus I was into guys like Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre. Everyone in the band has heavy soul roots and we all grew up playing it. James is a deep jazz guy who is also an aficionado of hip-hop and a ton of other stuff. Our drummer can do jazz but he’s also heavily into soul, electronica, and was actually originally into punk. He can play like a drum machine and often subtly references classic hip-hop beats during certain moments of the set, which I love. I tend to think of our bass player Joe as classic rock. And Noelle—our female co-singer and a big part of the writing on this new album—also has heavy soul roots.

The new album is similar to the original in that it’s all about really tight, melodic songwriting—”pop” in the good sense of the word. But this time around it’s a much bigger sound with much broader potential. We really worked hard to make a huge sounding record while making sure to keep it unique and sonically very interesting. I’ve worked on a lot of records, some of which ended up being huge, and this is the most excited I’ve been about any album I’ve ever worked on. Fitz and Noelle really sound amazing vocally. One of my favorite songs, “6 AM,” was cut with them in the same room with them facing each other with no barriers. It was so old-school and raw. Fitz’s voice has never sounded better; he’s going for it on this album in a way that I love and people can feel when they listen to it. Our producer Tony Hoffer is subtly just a genius. I think he may secretly be a Jedi.

 

What are the main differences between your gear in the studio and onstage?

imgThe main difference, of course, is that in the studio you can use anything your heart desires: vintage synths, laptops, crazy pedal effects chains, whatever; whereas for the live show you have a limit to how much gear you can take with you. Plus onstage you have to worry about reliability and stability. And as shows get bigger and bigger, as ours have, you have to worry about having backup pieces in case something fails onstage. 

On this new FATT album, the keyboards included ARP String Ensemble; Minimoog; Rheem and Tiesco transistor organs; Moog Prodigy; Roland Juno-60, JX-3P, and D-50 synths; Nord Electro, Wave, and Stage; Korg MS-20; odds and ends by Yamaha, Native Instruments Massive; Martinic Vox and Farfisa software emulations; TAL UNO-62, which is a software Juno-60 emulation; Sylinth; various amp modelers and effects from Apple Logic; and stompboxes including a Russian Big Muff, SansAmp Tri-AC, and Strymon pedals such as the El Capistan delay and Blue Sky reverb.

This is definitely the hardest-working band I’ve ever been in. We’ve had to go from sound checks to radio shows back to the main stage. Sometimes we’ve had to set up and tear down our gear five times in a day! Because we’ve never had roadies—even now our gear is often set up by just our sound man and our tour manager—it’s always been important to have the most minimal setup with the biggest sound and the most reliability. Especially in the early days of doing things like playing South By Southwest and doing 14 shows in four days, and having to maneuver all of the gear through the dense crowds, it was extremely important to keep it simple and reliable.

So for the last few years my stage setup has mainly consisted of a Nord Wave and a Nord Electro 3. I use the Electro for all of the B-3, Vox, and Farfisas. I use the Wave for upright piano and Mellotron sounds. It’s not ideal using the light keys of the Wave for piano stuff, but we’ve managed to pull it off. Later I added the Nord C1—which happens to be the keyboard that Prince sat in on at Bardot that night—because it’s just so fun to play B-3 on that thing, plus it serves as a backup organ. For bigger shows we rent an additional Nord Electro and I dump all of my setups into it from a laptop, so that in the event of a glitch, we could just throw that thing up there and keep the show going.

For this new album, the live setup is going to change. For starters, because there are so many keyboard parts on this new album, we will be enlisting James as the backup keyboard player. Also we are in the process of integrating Apple MainStage into our live setup because it’ll allow us to basically have an unlimited palette of sounds, which we need in order to be able to represent the insane amount of keyboards on this new album.  

 

Why use digital keyboards to reproduce vintage and classic sounds for live performances?

FATT started out, like all bands, as a bunch of musicians in a van, driving ourselves from town to town, setting up our own equipment, and then tearing it down after shows, loading the van, and driving to the next town. Or flying in planes and carrying the minimum amount of equipment possible. I have a pretty huge arsenal of equipment at home. With Macy Gray, I had the luxury of touring with my 1957 Hammond B-3, Leslie 147, Rhodes, Minimoog, and basically anything I wanted. But with FATT it was a total DIY situation, so my setup had to be bare-bones, yet great sounding and totally reliable. It had to be ultra-portable, because we set up and break down so often. So my entire FATT rig for the last few years has literally just been a Nord Electro 3 and a Nord Wave. Between those two keyboards I get all the pianos, B-3s, Voxes and Farfisas, plus Mellotrons and other samples I may need. On a bus tour I’ll also throw in the Nord C1 because the dual manuals are so fun. 

 

How did working with Macy Gray prepare or help you for playing in FATT?

Well working with Macy was an amazing, crazy experience. First of all, it was the first time I’d worked in a project where I saw what it was like for someone to go from total obscurity to being famous, and all of the strange psychological things that come with it. It was also my first experience of having a little bit of spotlight on me, although it was obviously more of a “behind-the-scenes guy” spotlight. These things really do affect people emotionally and psychologically, and when you’re basically a kid it’s a real mind-bender. As a keyboard player it was actually quite daunting, because suddenly I felt this pressure that I had to be “the greatest keyboard player in the world.” One of the big things I learned is that ultimately you have to be you. You have to play like you. And you have to sound like you. Once I relaxed into that concept I had a much better time.

Playing with Macy was my first experience touring on that higher level. We had started out playing small clubs in L.A. like Dragonfly and the Viper Room. The first festival we ever played was Glastonbury, in front of what seemed like 100,000 people. It was unexplainably surreal. So I began to learn what works and what doesn’t work, plus what matters onstage. And also you learn about what works for you on the road, lifestyle-wise. When you’re first starting out, you think it’s got to be a non-stop party every night. But I learned early on that you have to be healthy and take care of yourself on the road. Oh, and it’s easy to get fat on tour if you’re not careful!

Playing with Fitz and the Tantrums is a dream because everyone in the band is a seasoned pro. Funny enough, Fitz had never actually toured until this band, but you’d never know it. He adapted to the road like a seasoned vet right from day one, which is impressive. If you’re gonna make a go at being a successful band, you really have to be prepared to work your ass off. Everyone at home thinks the road is 24-hour fun, but it’s actually much harder work than any office job you can imagine. The people we work with—like radio stations—love us because we’re respectful, punctual, and we even show up in suits and ties! Don’t get me wrong—we know how to have fun. But we take our work very, very seriously.

 

How do you challenge yourself on keys? Do you rehearse, and if so, what can you share with readers about your technique?

I pretty much practice by just keeping my ear in shape; I don’t know if I should mention this, but I don’t read music. But I know a little theory and everything I do is by ear. So I basically learned by listening to my favorite records or players and just learning to play what they played. These days, if you’re learning by ear there are so many resources available that weren’t when I was getting started. Like being able to do it all in headphones and loop certain sections or slow things down in Melodyne or whatever software you use. You can really get down to the microscopic stuff now, and that’s a beautiful thing.

 

What do you wish you could go back and do more of in your early career?

I guess I wish I’d learned to read music. And I guess I should have taken scales more seriously.

 

Outside of the band, what are your favorite keyboards to play/record with?

Everyone has a keyboard that has a fake Clavinet sound on it and that sound has been so bastardized and made into such a cliché. But playing a real D6 Clavinet is amazing. Real strings, plus the mute lever. In reality it’s such a versatile instrument and can sound like so many things, especially through different guitar pedals. It’s hands down one of my faves.

And I love my Hammond B-3. It’s all tricked out and customized by Ken Rich in Los Angeles. The reverb is beautiful and I use a Leslie 147, which is just really ballsy sounding. I bought it from the studio where we did all the Macy stuff. Everyone from Dylan to Sly Stone had come thru there and played that B-3. And Billy Preston autographed it for me after he played it on a song I’d written with Macy called “Don’t Come Around.”

I have a Minimoog with its key action customized by Ken Rich, and it’s just a joy to play. It has low end for days and is just such a beautiful beast. I love the ARP String Ensemble. Sometimes I record it with the chorus turned off and it’s like a whole different instrument. My Roland Juno-60 is just so simple yet huge sounding: instant ‘80s for sure. I like just layering it and layering it and tweaking the hell out of it in real time. So fun and easy and satisfying. Same with my Jupiter-8. I absolutely love my Rhodes and my Wurly. They’re very different animals and they both just sit so well on any track. Ken Rich does this thing for the Wurly where he makes the vibrato speed variable, and I want to have that done for sure.

 

When you co-wrote Macy Gray’s song “I Try,” did you know it would be such a huge hit?

It’s a funny story with “I Try.” Macy called me and a couple of other band members to a recording session at some dude’s studio in a garage in, I think Culver City. In typical Macy fashion, it was a last-second thing and I almost didn’t even go! Fortunately I did go. She was picking out a few chords on a guitar and my friend and I basically tried to interpret what it was that she was trying to play—at this point we had no idea what the melody was or anything—so we helped her with that, plus added some chords of our own. My buddy and I wrote the bridge, I came up with what would become the signature piano parts, and we demo’ed the music. I even remember that the drummer didn’t show up so Macy actually played the drums on that original recording. 

The crazy part was when she got into the vocal booth and started laying down the vocals, which she had fully prepared in her head in advance. The moment she sang the first line, my friend and I just looked at each other like, “Holy s***!” When she got to the chorus, I knew right then that if anyone ever heard this song, it would be a hit. It was my first experience with that: hearing something totally undeniable and knowing right then that I was part of something incredible and special. Interestingly, a lot of labels passed on her and a lot of execs passed on that song, saying they really didn’t get it. It didn’t really see the light of day until about three years later, when we made On How Life Is.

 

What are some of the other collaborations you’re proud of?

imgI also worked with Joss Stone when she was only about 15 and even then her voice was totally unbelievable. She wasn’t into the over-singing, vocal gymnastics thing. Not that she didn’t have that ability. But she just had so much taste and maturity in her vocal phrasing that it made you realize that some people are literally born with a gift. It’s like she’d been reincarnated or something. I have a song on her Mind, Body, and Soul record called “Don’t Know How.”

Our drummer John and I spent a week in the studio with Cee Lo. We did a bunch of songs that may or may not ever see the light of day. But one of those songs actually ended up being a Bruno Mars song featuring Cee Lo and B.o.B. It’s called “The Other Side”. Funny enough, the lyrics were originally written about vampires because the song was going to be in a Twilight movie. Working with Cee Lo in the studio was one of the most inspirational experiences I’ve ever had. He’s truly a creative genius. He would listen to the music and sit in front of the mixing board with just a Shure SM57 mic and start putting down little vocal ideas. But even his scratch, off-the-cuff vocals were more brilliant than most people’s keeper vocals; everything he did was like little diamonds. The creative process with Cee Lo reminded me a lot of working with Macy on those first few albums; total anything-goes and totally otherworldly.

Another funny thing: Bootsy Collins once came to a Macy Gray show and we all ended up back at his home studio listening to literally the funkiest s*** you could ever imagine. Like, some next-level genius stuff. We ended up doing a group handclap track on one of the songs and making funny voices at the end. Anyway that song ended up being a collaboration with Prince, so I like to joke that technically, I’m on a record with Prince!

    

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