Big Deal

The Format burst from nascent Valley obscurity to major-label glory. Here's how.

In the last five minutes, after the microcassette recorder is turned off and the interview is over, Nate Ruess, vocalist for the overnight success that is the Format, predicts a humorous Behind the Music ending for the Valley band, equating the songwriting duo with the decidedly un-tragic demise of Wham. It's a joke, but the image is hard to shake. Of all the bands to name check, this is the least understandable.

"I'll be George Michael, and Sam (Means) can be the other guy," Ruess says. Does Ruess, all of 20 years old, not remember "Wham! Rap" -- or has he perhaps never heard it?

The Format is like that, though. The cheesy fat 1980s drum machine sound on the band's breakthrough single, appropriately titled "The First Single," is a nod to a bygone era, not just a result of being drummerless and on a tight recording budget. Ruess and Means cite Cat Stevens and the Cure among their favorites. Both speak in fond amber tones about James Taylor.

Before we continue, a warning, an aside: Local musicians, brace yourselves. This story may make you want to snap your bass in half or set your kit on fire. Read on. Maybe we all can learn something from this tale of good fortune and timing. Then again, maybe we can't.

The Format was born eight months ago. It has recorded five original songs, put out locally by the band. It has played five real shows, all in Arizona. And it just signed to Elektra Records. Yes, that Elektra, meaning that this virtually unknown, completely untested pop duo now shares the same label with the Doors, Metallica and Phish, among others.

It is a nice October night at Lux coffee house in central Phoenix, and the band is drinking water and chain-smoking Marlboro Reds. Means, the Format's principal musician, wears a white ringer tee shirt that broadcasts New York City in large black print. He is wearing brown old-man pants, thongs, black sweat bands on his right wrist and a multitude of black gummies on his left. He is thin, soft-spoken and youthfully attractive. He has shiny black plugs in his earlobes.

Ruess is wearing a pin-striped blazer over his thin frame, a Maine tee shirt featuring the ever-popular Marine font, old ratty jeans and thongs. His hair is a fabulous disaster, a scruffy hair helmet, perfectly disordered. He has clear blue eyes and good bone structure.They both speak openly and with humility, having only last week returned from the metropolis emblazoned on Means' shirt and negotiations with Elektra. They, too, are kind of surprised. Kind of.

How did this all happen? The duo met through a mutual friend four whole years ago and began playing while still in high school.

"It was fun. It was weird being in a band in high school, especially if you are the only one in your school," Ruess informs.

"We played at Deer Valley school one time," Means says.

"For an assembly, I think. I came down with mono the next week, so after we played that, I didn't go to school for another month," says Ruess.

They called the band in question Nevergonnascore, a self-described bad pop-punk band. The band imploded when the bass-playing songwriter quit. Most of the remaining players carried on as Thispastyear. Means and Ruess had yet to solidify their songwriting talents, and Thispastyear, according to Means, "was like bad mature punk." The two bands collectively played more than a hundred shows before Thispastyear ended a year ago. Ruess and Means had already begun songs together and, in January, they recorded "The First Single."

"The First Single" is a masterful pop song. Blissed-out, hook-laden and brain stem-penetrating, it centers around acoustic guitar, Ruess' multilayered high/low harmonies, and drum machine and keyboard sounds. It summons the better moments of Squeeze, with the energy and vocal clarity of emo, and subtle nods to Skylarking-era XTC and other forgotten '80s pop. Nevertheless, the song is its own creation, not an influence-soaked retread.

Indie labels responded to the song quickly, making it a marketing tool for a band that existed only in the studio.

"We were about to sign with Fueled by Ramen until our song got on this thing called thescout.net, and it started getting us some attention from other labels," says Ruess. "It's an A&R tip sheet Web site. For a long time, we were getting e-mails from labels, and everything was based on that one song.

"We hadn't done anything else," begins Means. "Ramen was the strongest one, and there were a bunch of e-mails from labels saying, You guys are awesome.' We had never been through it, so at first it was really cool to us, but we didn't know how serious it was. We weren't really looking for it, so we weren't really ready for it."

Totally unprepared for sudden interest in a band that had never played live, Ruess and Means realized they needed more material.

"People were asking for more music, so we were like, We have go in and record.' So we went in and wrote some more songs, and that's the EP." The EP, called, um, EP, features four songs in addition to "The First Single." The songs benefit from the expert playing of Flying Blanket studio honcho and ex-Pollen player Bob Hoag on drums and Pollen mate Chris Serafini on bass.

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