fun.'s "We Are Young" Wins Grammy Award for "Song of the Year
It's "Emo Night" at Idle Hands, a dimly lit bar in Manhattan's East Village. I've stumbled in with a some friends for a drink, unaware that the stereo system would be blaring angsty emo hits from the early 2000s. As I grab a seat, I hear a familiar sound, the opening strains of "The First Single," by defunct Phoenix band The Format.
Any question of whether the band had been only a regional success is answered as I watch the room erupt with dancing 20-somethings, shouting every lyric and playing out the exact scene described in the song's chorus. It's blatant nostalgia, an ache for youth from people who shouldn't feel so old. "I've been waiting all this time," singer Nate Ruess belts, "to be something I can't define."
Three weeks ago, I was in Phoenix speaking with Sam Means, one half of the Format duo. He played the instruments and wrote the core of the songs, while his partner Ruess sang and wrote lyrics. For seven years, the two conquered the hearts of heart-on-their-vintage-sleeve listeners. It wasn't "emo" by the textbook definition, but it was as earnest as even the most open Jimmy Eat World track.
The song raised the profile of the band, which signed to Elektra Records, which released the band's full-length debut Interventions and Lullabies in 2003 before collapsing. As Elektra was dismantled by Warner Brothers and Atlantic, the duo left the label and released Dog Problems on their own in 2006. It was the record the pair would say they were most proud of -- stepping out of a bad label situation and finally gaining the musical freedom Ruess and Means yearned for. The band ended abruptly in 2008, with neither member electing to discuss the dissolution in interviews, leaving their cult-like fan base up in arms, screaming, "Wait, WTF?"
Ruess packed up and moved to New York City, forming the pop band fun. with members of Anathallo and Steel Train (both had toured with The Format). The band's first record, Aim and Ignite, performed admirably, but its latest, Some Nights, is a genuine blockbuster. Its first single, the massive "We Are Young" (featuring Janelle Monáe) topped a Billboard chart, cresting on the wave of its gigantic, Queen-meets-Kanye West bombast. Means stayed in Phoenix with his wife of seven years, started racking up soundtrack work (he scored a McDonald's commercial in Japan), had a daughter named Lola, and started a merchandise company called Hello Merch. On Saturday, April 21, he'll release NONA, his first proper solo release, featuring his vocals for the first time, via Photo Finish Records
"Musically, I've always worked with [Ruess]," Means says seated in his office chair at Hello Merch's Glendale warehouse. "Always. Ever since we started our first band together -- we were in three bands together [before The Format]. I always had someone to write with. So, being away from that was pretty weird and hard to adapt at first. I'd never sang or wrote lyrics, so it took me a long time to adapt to that and get comfortable with both of those things."
A little more than three years ago, The Format shocked the Valley with the announcement of their breakup. The duo of Nate Ruess and Sam Means seemed poised to put Arizona music in the national spotlight. They had established their own imprint, The Vanity Label, with national distribution through Nettwerk Records, and released an acclaimed sophomore album, Dog Problems.
After touring in support of the album and releasing a live DVD, it all just ended, with little explanation from the band beyond a statement on their website, which included, "Please understand this was a tough decision and we're both upset about it."
Three years later, Ruess still refuses to talk about the breakup. He offers little insight beyond saying that, back then, he enjoyed spending time in New York because that's where his girlfriend and best friends were. He eventually started living there during The Format's breaks from performing, and The Format "kind of evaporated."
Ruess saw the breakup as an opportunity to start something new, so he teamed up with Jack Antonoff of Steel Train and Andrew Dost of Anathallo to form the indie pop band fun. The band's sound isn't a huge departure from The Format's, with a breezy pop-rock vibe and Ruess' signature prose-like lyrics. Now as frontman in fun., Ruess calls the East Coast his home. As for the history of The Format, that seems to be the last thing on Ruess' mind.
"I don't know. There's no story," Ruess says when asked about the exact cause of the breakup. "I really can't remember it all now." Considering, he says, that he and Means still talk and meet for dinner when Ruess is in Phoenix, things could have ended up worse.