On an all but normal evening in 2011, Nate Ruess arrived early at the Bowery Hotel on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He sat at the bar, downed a couple drinks, and waited nervously. Having spent ten years writing and performing music with various punk bands, a popular indie-rock group named The Format, and now as the front man of power-pop trio Fun., Ruess has encountered many people and products of the music industry. But on this night he’s getting silly drunk to calm his nerves and loosen up. For Fun.’s second album, Ruess devised an album seismically different from Fun.’s previous work. “I remember telling the guys in the band, the record label, and our manager ‘oh, it’s going to be like a Fun. album but it’s going to have breakbeats,’” Ruess told me. He intended to fuse his theatrical indie pop-rock sound with hip-hop aesthetic. To do it, he wanted the best producer in the business. He waited in the Bowery Hotel’s bar for producer Jeff Bhasker, the man behind the gilded stars Beyoncé, Kanye West, and Drake. Bhasker had already cancelled multiple meetings with Ruess, but serendipitous conditions aligned and he agreed to give Ruess 10 minutes of his time.
Aided by a slight sense of inebriation, Ruess talked freely with Bhasker about the concept of Fun.’s upcoming album, dropping huge hints abut the band’s desire to work with him. Bhasker took interest. He had been in the studio working on Beyoncé tracks that day and decided to invite Ruess to his room to show him the songs. With the power of drunk-logic behind him, Ruess decided it was only proper to show Bhasker what he had been working on. He sang the chorus of an unfinished song that he had written only days prior. Bhasker was impressed. That night they recorded the hook for what would become Fun.’s breakout single “We Are Young.”
The single “We Are Young” was released as in September 2011 and quickly grabbed America’s attention—first in small outlets online, on the television show Glee in December, and then in a Chevrolet commercial that aired during the Super Bowl in February. The track danced around Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, jumping up and down the ranks until finally landing on the number one spot in early March, 2012. Just as their second album was released, Fun. could be heard on the radio around the country. In its debut week, Some Nights took the position of number three on Billboard’s top album chart. Vocalist Nate Ruess, guitarist Jack Antonoff, and keyboardist Andrew Dost—the men behind Fun.—had arrived. “It really wasn’t our intention,” Ruess told me. “I think world takeover was always on the menu for us, but I guess what we assumed was that it would be in a much more subtle and slower type of way.” Even with the album out, “We Are Young” has sold over 1.2 million copies. “We’re super thankful for it,” Ruess said. “We thought we would just get a little bit bigger off this album. Our label just loved the music so much and thought we had a hit album.”
In 2001, 19-year-old Phoenix native Nate Ruess formed The Format with his childhood friend, Sam Means. After spending his high school years in various musical acts and roles, he finally settled into something he was comfortable with: singing and writing while Means played guitar. “I tried to play bass in a punk band once, and it was an absolute disaster,” Ruess said. “I can’t play anything. I don’t know what it is. I have no instrumental talent whatsoever. I can hear stuff, but I can’t play it.”
With local radio promotion, The Format’s aptly titled first single, “The First Single,” became popular and in 2002 they were signed by Electra Records. In 2003, The Format released their first full-length album Interventions and Lullabies, and eclectic mix of pop-driven music saturated with youthful emotion. Electra Records was consolidated into the Atlantic Records Group, effectively putting The Format on one of the largest labels in the country.
Rallying from the success and positive reception of Interventions and Lullabies, Ruess and Means began work on their sophomore album. The songs Ruess wrote far surpassed The Format’s debut work in complexity and scope. With new confidence built upon previous success, Ruess was determined to take more risks in creating a unique album in accordance with his emerging style. Ruess pulled from influences like Elton John, Electric Light Orchestra, Queen, Harry Nilsson, and Broadway show tunes. The result was a spectacular album featuring unbelievably rich orchestrations with incredible changes in time, feel, and key. Choirs, trombone, clarinet, saxophone, tuba, violin, French horn, viola, trumpet and cello weave in and out of Ruess’s distinctive voice and Means’s guitar and keyboard parts. Out of nowhere, Ruess had crafted a complex musical work founded on intricate technical details.
“I think it comes from a love of music, honestly,” Ruess told me when I asked where these contrapuntal melodies and massive harmonies came from. “I grew up more obsessed with music than anyone I knew, and anyone around me. I remember all of my friends telling me I couldn’t sing. And I was just so obsessed with music that I refused to let any of that stuff get to me. So I just practiced a lot, and even as a kid I went to hundreds of concerts. I grew up loving music so much that I always have a frame of reference in the back of my mind. I think so many of the songs are just started from like 5 songs, that I’ve listened to a hundred times over, just morphing them in my head.”
But Atlantic didn’t like the direction Ruess and Means were taking with Dog Problems and dropped The Format from their label. In fact, they even paid Ruess and Means to leave. Atlantic wanted more songs like “The First Single,” a track that holds the position of most recognizable Format song to date. Ruess and Means took the money Atlantic gave them and used it to finance the production of Dog Problems on their own label: The Vanity Label. In 2008, they released the album and fans and critics were ecstatic about the new sound—most notably, the sound of Ruess’s voice. “It took me a really long time to even like it.” Ruess said of his voice. “I could never really listen to it. Even during the first Format album. It wasn’t until the second Format album that I heard it and liked it for the first time. I thought maybe I had something there.”
On Dog Problems, Ruess proved himself to be a musician who could hit Freddie Mercury highs, weave and navigate through dense harmonies, fluctuate pitch and modulate timbre to wring every last emotional drop from each note issued. Listeners heard a voice impossible to forget. “From that point on I made it a habit to understand how my voice worked to use it to the best of my ability. I think I’m lucky. I think that it comes out so naturally—the timbre and everything like that. Once again, I think it was listening to things like Freddie Mercury and Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson. Not only is it my voice, but it was me trying to sound like those guys. Eventually they became a part of what my voice is.”
Despite their success on their own label, the center couldn’t hold. In February 2008, Ruess announced on The Format’s website that they wouldn’t be making another album:
We have just put out word that we will not be making a new Format album. Please understand this was a tough decision and we’re both upset about it. While we accept there will be false speculation as to why, understand that Sam and I remain extremely close and in fact are still passing the twin peaks box set back and forth in an attempt to figure out who REALLY killed laura palmer
Immediately after, Ruess called up Jack Antonoff, front man of Steel Train, and Andrew Dost of Anathallo. Ruess had been friends with Antonoff and Dost for a while—Steel Train and the Format had toured together. Ruess bought a one-way ticket for New York to meet up with Antonoff and Dost. By the end of the week, Fun. became a reality.
From the moment The Format fell apart, Ruess didn’t stop moving. Fueled by the fear of pausing and facing the doubt of his circumstance, he worked endlessly. Fun. wrote their first album, Aim and Ignite, immediately went on tour, released the album, and then toured some more. “I was running away from something—undoubtedly,” Ruess told me when I asked if rushing into Fun. was a means to get over The Format’s break up. “My heart was destroyed when that happened. It just felt so weird to work so insanely hard for something and to do something like Dog Problems that we were so proud of and then to be told you’re not so desirable to work with. I had no choice but to go straight to New York and cope with it that way.” Even with all the work to be done, it wasn’t an easy transition for Ruess. “I was a miserable person for four months and I think everybody had a difficult time being around me, probably except for Jack and Andrew,” he said. Insecurities and anxieties layered on top of one another. “I can’t thank enough the people who stuck around from The Format to Fun. and didn’t just give up on me. It was really insane because I thought that anything could have happened at that point.”
Reflecting Ruess’s fears, Aim and Ignite opens with “Be Calm,” one of the most advanced songs Ruess has written. It’s a carnival of a piece. Every which way it turns, it opens up an entirely different avenue of sound. The track sends every bone in the human ear into a frenzy. It builds, splits, curves, accelerates, drops, explodes, rocks, blends, and catapults over every musical assumption a listener had before they played the song. It’s Ruess in his brightest and most unpredictable moment, but also his most insecure. Ruess sings:
I know you feel like you are breaking down
I know that it gets so hard sometimes
Take it from me, I’ve been there a thousand times
You hate your pulse because it thinks you’re still alive
and everything’s wrong
It just gets so hard sometimes
The lyrics offer the advice he told himself at the time. It’s a song to address and drive away his fears. “I remember I was in the shower having a panic attack when I wrote ‘Be Calm.’” Ruess told me. “A lot of the time I try to use the songs as therapy for myself. It was the prime example of everything I was going through. It really just summed up that point in time.”
When it came to write Fun.’s sophomore album, Nate Ruess wasn’t coming up with much. “There’s always been some sort of controversy within every album that I’ve ever made. And Some Nights was the first where I didn’t have that,” Ruess told me. “I just had a group of people who believed in the songs. I didn’t have to battle against something. I usually try to find something to battle against.” Without a conflict to address, Ruess turned to analyzing how his sound had been changing. “I wasn’t feeling like there was any sort of progression in the songs I was writing from Aim and Ignite. And it was kind of stressing me out because I’m always used to being inspired by something, and nothing was really inspiring me,” Ruess said.
“I started listening to a lot of hip-hop just randomly,” Ruess told me. “I think Drake was on the radio all the time, so Andrew and I bought the album, kind of as a joke. And then we found ourselves listening to it all the time and thinking it was incredible. Then Dark Twisted Fantasy came out and I think I just became so naturally involved in it.”
In concept, Some Nights became the reciprocal pair to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Where West had fused his fundamental understanding of hip-hop and rap with indie music undertones, Ruess wanted to take indie-pop and glaze it in breakbeats, samples, and Auto-Tune. “At first, it was a little hard for people to understand. But “We Are Young” was the first song we recorded and I think everybody kind of got it from there,” Ruess said.
Jeff Bhasker provided Fun. the advantage of working directly with the source of their inspiration. Bhasker could focus on beat production, perfecting samples, and tweaking effects so Ruess, Antonoff, and Dost could produce the grandiose pop songs Fun. is known for. The point where the two styles meet in the middle is the epicenter of Some Nights as an album: unconventional as can be, yet categorically Fun.
Some Nights opens with an overture, a method Ruess has employed on most of his albums. “Some Nights Intro” tangentially touches on the themes that Fun. listeners are accustomed to yet introduces vibes of the style unique to this album. The piece begins as a simple waltz similar to “Matches,” the opening piece from The Format’s Dog Problems. The gentle measures of three notes interject over conversation in the background. It’s like a scene from a musical where the actor interrupts the crowd to break into song—timid at first, but crescendoing to power volume. The track adds components—a drum machine, operatic arpeggios—while Ruess’s voice slurs and sips up the scale before breaking into sing-song shouts as the tune changes to an idiosyncratic and jarring seven-four time signature for a measure before returning to the calm and organized waltz. “I remember I was inspired by this song ‘I Happen to like New York.‘ I don’t remember who it was that wrote it, but Bobby Short had covered it at the beginning of Manhattan Murder Mystery, a Woody Allen movie,” Ruess said. “I thought that this song was so inspiring that I wanted to write a song that was very, very similar to it. The song specifically was great because it showed the transition from Aim and Ignite into this album.”
Ruess’s inability to play an instrument presents a challenge for someone who can conjure and compose such intricate parts. Ruess is orchestrating on a symphonic level but dealing with terms and concepts he only knows intuitively. To communicate his ideas to Jack and Andrew, he only has his voice. “The way that I write is that I think and I hear whole songs in my head, and then I explain it to everybody and they make it their own from there,” Nate said. “With the first album I’d have to explain the songs to Jack and Andrew and say ‘you have to trust me on this. It’s going to be in this time then that time; it’ll switch, blah blah blah,—and you’re just going to have to trust me.’ That was the challenge of that album,” Ruess told me. “This time I remember singing Jack and Andrew ‘Some Nights Intro,’ and it has that crazy, crazy time signature, and I don’t even know what it is—it’s just some weird time signature. There was no ‘you gotta trust me’ moment. The only thing they thought was, ‘okay, now what exactly does he mean by that.’ It only took them a few seconds to wrap their heads around it. I think that is really amazing that we were able to take off that layer of ‘trust me.’”
Lyrically, Some Nights extends beyond a simple foray into indie-hip-hop concept album territory. Ruess hasn’t so much matured as a lyricist, but he has learned to isolate experiences to make the songs stand out. The album follows an arch of changing emotions: from isolated and crestfallen to giggling madly. The characters in Ruess’s songs are subjected to generally unfortunate, but temporal, circumstances. “Lyrics are always interesting to me,” Ruess explained when I asked about the prevailing themes in the album. “Before I go into any album I think this is going to be the one where I write about the random person down the street, or like the guy sitting next to me and what his pains are. But I’m too narcissistic to not make it about myself.” Each song creates a character vignette like an emotional photograph removed from time.
In “Carry On,” Ruess implores the misfits and downtrodden to act infinite and all-powerful despite their sinking lives. Ruess sings:
We are shining stars
We are invincible
We are who we are
On our darkest day,
When we’re miles away,
We will find our way home
If you’re lost and alone
Or you’re sinking like a stone,
He ends the song triumphantly singing “No one’s ever gonna stop us now,” as his vocals phase in and out, echoing and repeating like a chorus of people finally accepting what Ruess preaches and joining in on the song. It’s a tactic common to songs like Conor Oberst’s “At the Bottom of Everything” from I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. Ruess is rooting for the fallen. “There’s always some level of optimism in every single song,” Ruess told me.
On tracks like “One Foot,” the music and lyrics align to form a logically singular unit. “I put one foot in front of the other one/ I don’t need a new love or a new life/ just a better place to die.” Ruess sings in rhythm in time with a repetitious horn part that march, march, marches on. On the opposite end “All Alright” smashes antithetical music and lyrics together. A children’s choir emphatically sings the bright harmonies of the chorus, while Ruess sings about a character utterly and completely defeated:
I’ve given everyone I know
a good reason to go.
But I came back with the belief
that everyone I love is gonna leave me.
And it’s all alright.
I guess it’s all alright.
I got nothing left inside of my chest,
but it’s all alright
Ruess has created an image of a person who has accepted and assumed his misery with painful grace. It’s Mountain Goats style juxtaposition that allows for a rich portraiture of characters hiding, struggling, fearing and failing. “I’m not a very vocal person in my real life and I don’t talk about my problems or insecurities or anything like that really to anybody,” Ruess told me. “I think I sacrifice a lot of relationships by saving it for song. But that’s the only way I know how to cope with things. Some times they’re true stories and some times they’re just my insecurities amplified and turned into a story. I can’t write lyrics unless it’s about something inspiring—it really takes a lot out of me every time I do write them.”
Each song on Some Nights represents a different state of the same person. “Some nights I’m this person and some nights I’m that person. And It’s amazing what polar opposites these people are just depending on the night, depending on the situation, and depending on the mood,” Ruess said. It is the purpose of each song to encapsulate that cryptically amalgamated person in a different phase. “One night I feel like I could just leave everything, you know. And the very next night could be something so drastically different,” Ruess explained.
Some Nights creates a chronicle of individual portraits that build up single identity. At times an elegiac person appears only to dissolve moments later drenching the listener in pathos. But the songs tend to distort the chronicles as well. Ugly people are showered in harmony. Indecision is accompanied with fanfare. The mercurial amalgamated character does vaults and summersaults over the entire album. But just to listen to each track with the album as a reference is to participate in the character’s vulnerability and mutability. In the daily twilight of existence, people cling to different roles, and in these roles address circumstances in contorted ways. It’s an attempt at a deep character analyses that misses at some poignant moments but recovers with melody in others.
The album culminates in “Stars,” a track Ruess had been holding onto for some time. “I wrote Stars before we did Aim and Ignite,” Nate told me. “I just didn’t think that it was the right vibe for Aim and Ignite. In fact, I might have sang it to the guys I don’t think that I was inspired to work on it, I don’t think they were either. But for this album, it had spent four years just trapped in my head. So I really had to get that one out.”
“Stars” puts everything on the table. The seven-minute song takes its time to present the most complicated and effective musical arch on the album. The structure is similar to the Kanye West song “Runaway,” a song that Fun. has covered during their shows. “Stars” begins with harmonic resonance ebbing through cheers and clapping in the background before Ruess enters with the line “This growing old is getting old.” The lyrics inform a time-twisted paean to the cosmos. “I used to think this all was yours/ We’d stay up late, debate on how we’d find out way/ say it’s all up in the stars.” In typical Ruessian fashion, the sentiment is just a memory. Two minutes in, the feel is altered to focus on beats, and Ruess converts from a vocal lyricist to a vocal instrumentalist. He sings:
You’re always holding on to stars
I think they’re better from afar
Cause no one is gonna save us
Oh, and me
Well, I have faded in the dark
So don’t you ever kiss me
Don’t you wish on me
Why can’t you see that no one’s gonna save us?
The song ends with Ruess improvising like a jazz musician over the repeating final chorus. “That’s my favorite moment of the album. It comes from Van Morrison being my favorite singer ever,” Ruess told me. “I always thought I wanted the song to be like Van Morrison but in outer space. I remember being in the studio and it was just me and Jeff and Andrew (I think Jack had to go away for the weekend or something). Jeff had introduced me to Auto-Tune because that is what Kanye would use to just settle all his melodies. It’s like you don’t have to worry how technical you are. Sometimes melodies come to you and you can really just be free in the moment and not have to worry about pitch. So I asked him to give me some Auto-Tune and I was just going to go for one take. I remember it was super late in the night but I had my Van Morrison moment. I finished and wasn’t sure how it was and I looked at Andrew and Jeff’s faces. I think their jaws were on the floor. We listened back and I asked for a copy of that and I think I still listen to it almost every night. It was my favorite moment in making music ever.”
It appears that there is nothing to obstructing Fun.’s path to perpetual success. They’ve beaten the game by breaking the music industry’s rules and made a point to prove repetitious, non-adventurous music needn’t be the only thing to top charts. Fun. has upgraded and accelerated to fame without a hint of selling out. Serendipity and luck brought them to Jeff Bhasker, but in no way did it change the way they make music. Circumstance informs people to change, but it seems to have only helped Nate Ruess mature.
At the end of our talk, I brought up The Format’s early days, Ruess’s poor experiences with large labels, and achieving regional fame at such a young age. We talked about a particular recording of Nate and Sam sitting on a curb in Arizona playing “Faith in Fast Cars,” a song played at shows that never made it to a real album. It’s a humbling recording. It’s effervescent, really. Nate’s voice and Sam’s guitar intertwine, rock gently, and capture listeners in they sway. “I think that I’ve changed massively since then,” Ruess said. “I think then I was a little more snotty—I’m under the weather now so I’m super snotty but in a different sense. I consider myself to be a completely different person. Sometimes I look back to those Format days and I think about all my friends in that band and what they had to deal with from me and how difficult I could be. I wish they could be on tour with me now because I consider myself to be so much more in control and more thankful for everything. I know I can be a bit of a bear as far as song writing is concerned. I can be really rough on what I expect out of people. But it’s all coming from a good place.”
Nate Ruess’s ascent is an unlikely one; one he appreciates massively. But were you to take away all the glamour of the last twelve months in an instant, it couldn’t stop Ruess from making music, and progressively altering his sound. Whether he’s operating under The Format, Fun., or anywhere else, you can always expect something new and idiosyncratically grand. If each album is a reflection of Ruess’s internal struggles, insecurities, and fears, then they serve as a record, a sonic testament, to the alterations of his personal chronicle over the past ten years. “You wouldn’t believe the most amazing things that can come from some terrible nights.”
Blake J. Graham
Blake J. Graham is the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of The Airspace. When he isn’t inhaling obscure literature, playing the fussy piano, writing about asinine technology on BlaBeat.com, critiquing lascivious typefaces, deconstructing acerbic sentences, pressing indelible coffee, tweeting crooked thoughts or cooking insipid meals, he is most likely sleeping for his ritual “nightly hours.” Email him: Blake [at] TheAirspace [dot] net. Or find him @BlakeGraham on Twitter