Despite an oddly punctuated name and a single about friends getting high in bathrooms, NYC trio Fun. is officially America’s new indie sweetheart. As of press time, for the third week in a row, Fun.’s single “We Are Young (Feat Janelle Monae),” is the Billboard 100 No. 1 single, making Fun. the first rock band to top the Billboard charts since Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” went to No. 1 back in 2008. The album Some Nights, bolstered by the hit single, debuted at No. 2 on Billboard’s “Top Current Albums Chart” and No. 3 on the Billboard 100. But enough numbers talk: Fun.’s popularity, on the heels of America’s insanely intense love affair with indie crossover group Foster The People, seems to signal a return to the early ’90s, that golden age in mainstream pop and radio when, for a glorious and fleeting moment, the oddballs ran the show. To be fair, Fun. is signed to Fueled By Ramen, but the group’s grandiosity and odd tempos share more in common with Mike Patton than Michael Buble.
Whether the dream of the ’90s will or will not be having a second coming remains to be seen, but Fun. lead singer Nate Ruess is cautiously optimistic that America might be developing better taste. Before Fun.’s sold-out April 14 show at The Vic, The A.V. Club caught up with Ruess to discuss hype, keeping a level head, and aging gracefully.
The A.V. Club: It’s hard to recall exactly when “We Are Young” started getting airplay, but it was suddenly ubiquitous. How are you handling the mass exposure?
Nate Ruess: I think it’s something that we’re still trying to get used to. On one hand, our days are becoming more and more hectic. But we don’t get to hear “We Are Young” on the radio, and we don’t get to watch TV, because we’re on tour, so we’re kind of witnessing and experiencing this thing around us without actually experiencing it from the other side. I think that makes it a little bit surreal, and I don’t think mass exposure was ever our intention. I felt, like when I was dropped from a major label when I was 21 years old, that I would never have a “hit” song. For all of this to be happening now, it’s interesting to think that you thought you knew everything, and now don’t know anything.
AVC: Do your mom or dad call, saying that they just heard you in the grocery store?
NR: They don’t fill me in. I’m not sure how much the song is actually going off in Phoenix, Arizona, because they don’t really call me for anything, except to tell me that I never call them. I remember calling them right after the Super Bowl, because no one was calling me, and I found it particularly weird that my parents hadn’t called. So I called them and said, “Uh, did you know that we had a song in the Super Bowl? Did you guys check it out?” And they were like, “Yeah, it was cool. Good job.” They’re amazing people and massively supportive, and I’m so thankful that I’ve had parents like them to stand behind me when times were tough, but I’m wondering if they’re too cool for school now.
AVC: In terms of the heightened exposure, are you more of an introvert to begin with, or are you learning to embrace the spotlight?
NR: I don’t have a Twitter or a Facebook, or anything like that. I think any branding for me is band-related. It’s really weird to get used to the exposure, because I am a naturally introverted person, and I’m not exactly social. Occasionally I can get comfortable enough to talk, but I spend a lot of my days not talking, especially when I’m at home and not on tour. I don’t ever talk on the phone or anything like that. It’s interesting to feel the pressure of having to be outgoing, because I think in general, as a human being, I’m pessimistic and introverted. But, it’s cool, because it’s a whole different side of me, and I impress myself. Even at times when I think that there’s no possible way that I can be engaging, I’ll suddenly pull it out and impress myself. I’m probably only impressing myself and not those around me, though. Even though I’m introverted, I’m not a dick. I don’t ever want to be seen as a dick. I might just be slightly off.
AVC: Well, you’ll probably never be LMFAO, out there flashing your ass.
NR: [Laughs.] I don’t know, man. Give me some time. Flashing ass sounds so intriguing, like the key to superstardom.
AVC: There was a three-year gap between Aim And Ignite and Some Nights. Did you take that time to find your new muse, and the sound that was going to inspire you for the new record? Hip-hop production seems to have played a big part in shaping the sound.
NR: It took me a long time, two years, to figure out what the album was going to be. I think, with any album that I’ve ever done, I’m always thinking, “How’s it going to progress? It can’t sound like the old album. It can’t sound like a Rage Against The Machine album, which sounds like a collection of songs from the same year.” It was really rough, because I’d only written a couple of songs in those two years, and they weren’t that great. Fortunately, when I discovered the whole hip-hop thing and became inspired by that, finding a way to write music and infuse that type of style into it, it was really cool to see those two songs that had nothing to do with it become infused with this new style that was developing. I started doing all the writing a month before we went into the studio. Sometimes I’d sing the guys a song on our way into the studio, and we’d record that day. It felt like catching lightning in a bottle. I just took that one month and did all the heavy lifting.
AVC: When you were first assembling the band, did you know that you’d all make a good creative team?
NR: It was a little bit of a struggle at first. I write songs in a really weird way. Since I don’t play an instrument, I hear full songs in my head, and then I start to work them lyrically and melodically in a way that I can present to the guys. I’ll describe the full song in my head as best as I can, and then they’ll take it and put their mark on it. I always feel that it ends up better that way. When we first started, I think it was definitely interesting, because they had to get used to that process. I remember there were a lot of moments when I’d say, “You guys just have to trust me. There’s going to be a gospel choir right here. You just have to trust me.” I think early on, there was a lot of, “What is he talking about? That’s crazy!” For this album, it was amazing, because I felt like any time I was about to say, “Trust me,” they knew what was happening better than I did. It got to a point when I’d just have to describe something, and everyone was really confident about it.
AVC: Do they ever have to reel you back?
NR: I think we all have to reel each other back. Sometimes it feels like we’re adding stuff on just to add something on, and being too musical. That was something that we really wanted to take back on this album, and something that Jeff [Bhasker, producer] did a great job showing us. There were a lot of songs where we would have layered 17 guitars, and instead he was like, “Nope, just play that one guitar part that everyone is going to remember.” It was really hard for us to get used to. For all the little, tiny things that go into a song, we just made a conscious effort to take a lot out and simplify.
AVC: It’s like a chef knowing when to not add another ingredient.
NR: Precisely. I think about that any time I cook as well. Less is more. Getting older, you realize that is a good recipe for songs as well.
AVC: On paper, Bhasker (who produces for Beyoncé and Drake) doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for producer, but the results make sense. Did you know that Some Nights would benefit from a slick, hip-hop sound?
NR: I think so. That was my driving force. We have this really retro vibe and style of songwriting and, personally, I wasn’t embracing the current state of music until I fell in love with hip-hop. It felt good to suddenly embrace where music was headed, and I think hip-hop is the best at that, because it feels so progressive and everybody wants to be the best. I think that with art, you should love it and want to do it, so it just felt like it was time to embrace what was happening and tap into the future, as far as our music was concerned. We’re super audio nerds, and there’s nothing I love more than a Fleetwood Mac snare sound, and that’s what’s cool about hip-hop. A lot of times they’re sampling and trying to reproduce certain sounds, but it’s always on more of a hyped level. We love a good, hyped sound, but when it starts to sound insincere, that’s when I lose interest. I hope that our music, even if it sounds polished, doesn’t sound insincere.
AVC: Was there a spark when you were writing “We Are Young” when you thought you had a hit song? Did you even think that it had mass appeal?
NR: I personally didn’t, because when I was 20 and thought that I had a song that could have been big and didn’t, I just began to wonder how a hit song actually works, and figured that it could never work for me. Writing “We Are Young,” it was like “Okay, this is catchy,” but I couldn’t imagine it taking off in such a massive way. Even the day after Jeff and I had recorded it and sent it to everybody and the head of our label, he freaked out over it, and I thought it was cool, but had no idea.
AVC: Was Bhasker receptive to the idea of working together, or did you have to wine and dine him a bit?
NR: I looked at all the album liners of the stuff that I was listening to, and he was in so many of them, so my thought was, “I don’t care what it takes. That’s the guy.” He blew me off twice, and then one night he and I got together. He finally had a little bit of time for me; he was doing the Beyoncé record, and we sat down at a bar. I was basically thinking, “This is gonna go absolutely nowhere.” I had a little bit to drink, and I started to loosen up, and eventually I went upstairs with him and he started playing me this Beyonce demo he was working on. I was really liquored up, and I started singing him “We Are Young,” and his jaw just dropped to the floor, and he said, “We’ve got to go into the studio tomorrow.” We went in the next day and recorded an early version of “We Are Young.” He really enjoyed the style that I did things, and I think he was just excited to work with a band. We thought it was just going to be one song, but he totally rearranged his schedule so that he could do the album.
AVC: There’s the line in “We Are Young,” “My friends are in the bathroom / getting higher than the Empire State.” With drugs and alcohol, is it “been there, done that” for you guys, or have you managed to avoid that lifestyle?
NR: [Laughs.] I laugh only because I’ve worried that the line would paint a picture of my friends as drug users, when none of them use. I just thought that it was a cool lyric. Maybe I thought that it would make me look cooler than I actually am. All we do is eat. I drink, and occasionally I’ve been known to drink too much, but there’s never been any drug use. The lyric should have been, “My friends are in the bathroom, because they ate too much fancy steak,” or something.
AVC: What’s your relationship with “We Are Young” like at this point? Are you going to pull a Radiohead “Creep” and never play it live?
NR: No, not at all. It’s been great, because we played a show last night, and I feel like “Some Nights” got a bigger reaction. Fun. fans are amazing, because they sing along to every single song; the whole set is one giant sing-along, and I don’t feel that the majority of them are coming to just hear “We Are Young.” I feel that we’re at the point now that we’re making those people who come with the intention to just hear one song realize that they’re missing out on a whole bunch of other stuff.
AVC: Is there an artist or band whose career trajectory you’d like to follow? I can’t imagine you’re entirely comfortable at the mainstream party.
NR: For me, it’s probably Pearl Jam. They took commercial success and worked it to the point where they’re not at all singles-driven, but still one of the biggest bands in the world. That would be amazing for us. We wanted to end up as a giant live band before any commercial success, so if this can be something that we can continue to hold on to, and when it eventually dies down, as I feel it always does, to still have wonderful lives, that’s about perfect for me.
AVC: Is the general public getting better taste? I’m still amazed, no pun intended, that “Pumped Up Kicks” has had such legs.
NR: Yeah, I do. I feel as though the ’90s was such an amazing time for music, and specifically alternative music, that everyone had great taste. The ’90s still feel really wonderful, as I remember them, but once we got to the late ’90s and rap-rock took over, that set everybody back so far and drew a line in the sand between between mainstream and being a rock band. For the last 10 years, it feels like everybody has been apologizing. It’s like you’re an indie rock band or some sort of sellout. That’s not how it was in the ’90s, and bands shouldn’t have to feel that way. There have been some amazing indie bands that probably felt like they couldn’t go mainstream for fear of losing people, and there were probably radio listeners who felt like they were hearing too much pop. For whatever reason, there was that period where indie crossover just couldn’t happen. But suddenly it feels like it’s starting to turn back around, and I’m really happy about that.