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LA’s Fitz and the Tantrums play Greensboro on the heels of new release

by John Adamian

The internet hasn’t exactly obliterated space and time. But sort of, when it comes to music. Some artists are excavating sounds from the past, styles that themselves might have been nostalgic for an earlier era when they first emerged (the ’90s aping the ’70s aping the ’50s), and connecting with other like-minded musicians independent of geography. Or maybe that’s just what the present feels like — vaguely detached and vaguely familiar, but pumping. Fitz and the Tantrums are from L.A., a place that is sort of like a mix of everywhere. And their music sounds like of-the-moment effervescent radio pop, which is to say that it hints back to bouncy disco and the keyboard-heavy sounds of the ’80s. The band just released their third record, “Fitz and the Tantrums.” Fitz and the Tantrums play Greensboro’s Cone Denim Center on Wednesday, June 15, with The Finish. I exchanged email questions with the band’s keyboardist, Jeremy Ruzumna, as the group was in the middle of a flurry of promotional activity around the new record.

Maybe it’s fitting that Ruzumna wrote that he wasn’t sure where he was writing from — from up in his bunk on the tour bus, in the middle of the night as the band hurled itself somewhere new. The band formed in 2008, and from the start they’ve been committed to the idea of evolving, spinning into unknown territory. (In addition to Ruzumna, the band is made up of frontman Michael Fitzpatrick, spotlight-sharing co-vocalist Noelle Scaggs, sax player and multi-instrumentalist James King, Joseph Karnes on bass and John Wicks on drums.) Fitz and the Tantrums have stayed true to their electronic neo-soul sound, but they’ve also worked to pursue whatever grabs them, figuring what pleases the band will resonate with fans.

“That’s really always been our approach; we’ve always just gone by gut instinct and tried to find something that hits us viscerally,” says Ruzumna. “As an artist, all you can ever really do is to make something that excites you. The best feeling is working your behind off on a song, then having that moment when you bump it on the big speakers and see how it’s really translating. If it gets us going, then we feel it’ll get you going too.”

In a way, the new record is about getting you going, with recurring themes of desire, blind passion, and the joys of energetic partying. It can seem trite, but in the face of violence, environmental collapse, concerns about the economy, or political blowhardism, music that brings people together on the dancefloor seems to be incrementally battling the darkness. Simply stoking pleasure for three or four minutes at a time is not insignificant.

“There’s always a lot of good and a lot of bad happening in the world any moment. And the Internet just brings it more immediately to our attention,” says Ruzumna. “We just try to give people something to escape to – if we can move your ass AND your soul, then we’re doing our job.”

The new record by Fitz and the Tantrums came out last Friday, and it marks the first time the band has worked extensively with outside producers and songwriters as creative collaborators. (Among that team of collaborators are artists and writers and studio wizards who’ve worked with acts like Twenty-One Pilots, Lorde, Sia and others.) At moments, like on “Burn It Down,” the sound can conjure comparisons to Katy Perry and One Direction, with choruses that arc up and flow over beats that pulse and then drop out briefly before coming back to build to higher and stronger places. Little synth lines tick out countermelodies over stark keyboard chords, and then it all comes blasting back, woven together like the finale of a Broadway show that trots out all the motifs together. The bubbly drive of a song like “Roll Up” brings to mind adrenalized pep music like The Go! Team, songs that are destined to be played on workout mixes and in cardio classes.

To go along with the new music, Fitz and the Tantrums have some new flashy toys and tricks to dazzle fans.

“We have an amazing new stage setup, a mindblowing lighting rig, and all kinds of new technical elements now, and it’s all come together so beautifully,” says Ruzumna. “We’ve done a few shows now and we’re totally excited about the response we’ve been getting.”

Fitz and Tantrums seem to be striving to deliver a trans-rational jolt to listeners, like turbo-charged bubblegum pop with a secret dose of zippy self-empowerment and the flicker of smoldering longing. They’ve thought it through, and if they can stimulate your pleasure centers, then perhaps they can change the world microscopically, upping the power of emotion over cold calculations. Some people strain to limit sensuality and desire, but Fitz and the Tantrums see some powerful release in harnessing it.

As frontman Fitzpatrick explains in the press materials for the record: “Desire is one of those emotions that really forces you to turn your brain off and just feel. That’s just the nature of it.” He and the band embrace the idea that altering people’s vibe can have a ripple effect. “[It] changes the molecular structure in the room. It changes the energy.”

Whether you buy that kind of talk probably depends on how ready you are to abandon your head for what’s below. Fitz and the Tantrums — despite being a band with lots of synthetic sounds and a sort of party-machine look — definitely embrace the flesh, but they’re not trying to engineer some kind of fizzy circuit-board utopia for pop robots.

Ruzumna, who’s worked with both Macy Gray and Prince in the past, says he’s impressed by a lot of the blending of technology and old-school hooks he hears in pop music today.

“There is an interesting melding of more organic electronic sounds and real songwriting, which I find inspiring,” says Ruzumna. “At the same time, we have to be careful not to let the computers win.” !

JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.

WANNA go?

See Fitz and the Tantrums at the Cone Denim Entertainment Center, 117 South Elm St., Greensboro, Wednesday, June 15, 7 p.m., cdecgreensboro.com.

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