Every band wants their music to be heard by as many people as possible.
And no band is allowed to admit it.
Why is it so forbidden for musicians to acknowledge their commercial aspirations?
It’s assumed that if an artist does so that they’re making concessions in some way, putting something other than the music first.
But why can’t they have it both ways?
Does artistic credibility and the open pursuit of mainstream popularity really have to be a zero sum game?
Not if you ask Jeremy Ruzumna, keyboardist in soulful, snazzily dressed popsters Fitz and the Tantrums.
“There’s no sin in writing music that you hope is going to be popular,” he says. “I’ve always said, ‘You’re not selling out if you actually like the music.’ One of things that I like about Fitz, what he and I have in common, is that we believe in the music, but we also have an ear toward wanting people to like it.”
This becomes obvious upon spinning “More Than Just a Dream,” Fitz and the Tantrums’ second album, which could double as a singles collection, with every song seemingly tailored to assault the airwaves until pop radio has no choice but to offer its complete and total surrender.
Both Ruzumna and band frontman Michael Fitzpatrick have a background in producing music for commercials, and as that pedigree suggests, they’re skilled at crafting tunes whose hooks are delivered instantaneously, with melodies practically mainlined into the songs for immediate gratification.
“More Than Just a Dream” is a pure, complete distillation of the band’s pursuit of pop perfection. In this way, it’s a departure from the group’s vintage-sounding, retro-soul debut, “Picking Up the Pieces,” where the band was frequently labeled a throwback.
“ ‘Picking Up the Pieces’ is a very cool sounding record,” Ruzumna says. “People said ‘Motown,’ and I get it, because the cover art was very Motown and there was so much sax and horns on the record, but I never really thought of Fitz as a Motown guy.
“I always felt that if you took those same songs from that album, and produced them with, like, ’80s synth production, they would sound equally as cool and they would be totally at home like that, because I think that’s really where Fitz comes from,” he continues. “So to me, this second album really was just a logical extension of who Fitz is, who I am, who we are as a band. Obviously, it’s a very sonically different record. In reality, I think it’s a more realized vision of what the band is.”
Still, “Picking Up the Pieces” was a well-received album that garnered the band considerable career momentum, so departing from that record’s sound wasn’t without its risks.
“The hardest part of this record was that initial leap of faith that we didn’t have to make it sound like the first record. It was a very conscious decision,” Ruzumna says. “The first record was very much Fitz’s living room, his out of tune upright piano, a little bit of my keyboards, this fabled organ that he’s got and literally just two microphones. The thing was very lo-fi.
“I think the biggest thing was like, ‘Is it crazy if we use a synthesizer? Is it crazy if we use a drum machine?’ ” he adds. “And we decided, ‘It might be crazy, but let’s just do whatever we think sounds good. Let’s just do anything we want.’ ”
It worked: The album’s lead single, “Out of My League,” became the group’s first No. 1 hit on the alternative song chart and the band has steadily moved to bigger and bigger venues during their near-constant touring.
In Las Vegas, it was only a few years back that the group was playing a series of free shows at Book &Stage at The Cosmopolitan. Now, they’re headlining the property’s new, 4,000-capacity Chelsea.
Ruzumna remembers those Book &Stage shows with a chuckle.
“It was pretty funny, man,” he says. “Once in a while we had fans there that knew us and liked us, but most of the time, we were just the background music. It was a cool experience. I kind of felt like the Beatles in Hamburg, just really honing down and playing the songs and getting really tight.”
Ruzumna, who played with Macy Gray in the ’90s and notched numerous hits with her, never thought he’d be in a working band again, having given up life on the road in favor of production work and writing with various musicians.
“I had actually vowed to never tour again,” he says.
And yet, here he is, lured back by a band whose reception has been as immediate as their songs themselves.
“Even the first couple of shows that we did at Hotel Cafe and Three of Clubs, which is just this little bar, just the reaction that we got from the first show we did, I remember thinking, ‘You know what? This is actually pretty cool,’ Ruzumna says. “ ‘This might be worth sticking with.’ ”
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.