Music News

Adjusting to Format

Phoenix-bred duo The Format won a coveted major-label deal and got to tour on the WB's dime and borrow Guns N' Roses' newest drummer -- on the strength of just five songs and five live shows. Calling these guys unlikely rock stars is like calling an AK-47 a water pistol.

Yet to see friends Nate Ruess and Sam Means, both 21, actually pull off the rock star thing is a revelation. The duo began the local push for a debut album on Elektra Records, Interventions & Lullabies, last month with shows at Modified Arts in downtown Phoenix and Peoria Sports Complex. The excellent album comes out on October 21, and if the buzz at a show September 13 at Modified is an indication, The Format may be in business.

Ruess, slight with a vintage hair-metal mane, and Means, taller and intense with scowling brown eyes, performed alone for a crowd of about 200, mostly teens. Dressed in '80s-style tees, ratty jeans and multiple wire wrist bracelets, they took the stage barefoot; the pair obviously digs the old Ronnie Van Zant feel-the-earth trick. The mood was casual, as if this were a practice. Someone wrote the set list on the back of a peculiarly long receipt from the burger joint Sonic.

With only Means' acoustic guitar backing him, Ruess propelled the songs' catchy rhythms by stomping his feet and clapping his hands. By engaging his listeners all night, he made the concert feel like a taping of VH1 Storytellers (he even made that remark himself). When he introduced "The First Single (You Know Me)," the song that put The Format in this position to begin with, the crowd ignited, singing along as if it was "Stairway to Heaven."

"When we first wrote it, The First Single' was built around the theme of . . . starting something new music-wise," Ruess reflects. "It was about the start of The Format.

"And then all the crazy stuff happened."

Interventions & Lullabies, 46 minutes of eccentric, confessional and occasionally gorgeous power pop, documents The Format's thrust into an Almost Famous-style vortex. You'll want to invest in it -- the album certainly is the best work by a Valley band this year. The album features overflowing pop hooks and its original use of keyboards, banjos, accordions and harmonium. It's so good you may find yourself bragging that you were on the ground floor of something special, much like folks from these parts still do with the Gin Blossoms (including the Blossoms themselves).

Ruess, a fan of diary-fodder lyrics, plasters his work with references to our scorched land -- literally (he wants to return to Tempe and stay away from Glendale in "A Save Situation") and metaphorically ("It's time to get out of the desert and into the sun," from "On Your Porch").

Musically, Means, with assistance from producer R. Walt Vincent, builds on the Valley's history of dramatic hooks and melodic guitar. It can't quite be called jangle-pop, but with its concurrent uses of joyful tempos and melancholy undertones, The Format's music does share a thing or two in common with that of fellow locals Jimmy Eat World.

With the cactuses and myriad highways of our fair land (even the 51 gets a mention on "Tune Out") as a backdrop, the record explores the consequences of chasing big dreams -- romantic breakups, dissolving adolescent connections, immense personal stress.

"It's been the most exciting and it's been the most challenging year of our lives," says lyricist and singer Ruess by phone from Indiana, where the band is en route to a gig with Orange County punk band RX Bandits in Chicago. "It's been such an up-and-down time. But the highs are so much better than the lows."

The new album indulges in a little bit of both. Ruess says the new album's second song, the jangly "Wait, Wait, Wait," is a self-explanatory freak-out: You got what you wanted. Now what?

"It's almost like, are we ready to do this?" Ruess says. "A lot of the record is about wondering about whether we're ready to do this and about actually doing this at the same time."

Ruess graduated from Deer Valley High School in Glendale, while Means was home-schooled. The two aspiring rock 'n' rollers met five years ago when their desire to play in bands brought them into the same lineup. That first band fell apart quickly, in part because the kids had no idea what they were doing; Means says he and Ruess had no songwriting input then.

They got their first taste of that process with their next band, nevergonnascore. It was with nevergonnascore that Ruess and Means began to develop their chemistry and focus as pop craftsmen.

"We wrote a couple of songs toward the end," says Means, who co-founded local high-profile concert promotion house AMJ Concerts around the same time with band manager Mike Jarmuz (the two were co-workers at old punk dungeon the Nile Theater in Mesa). "We had never played slower songs like those. We would bring them to the band, and we couldn't do it, because, you know, they weren't loud enough."

Solution: Break away and just do your own thing. In the spring of 2002, as The Format, the two wrote and recorded a five-song EP with prolific local producer Bob Hoag simply called EP. The EP's version of "The First Single" (a rerecorded version will, yes, be Interventions & Lullabies' first single) stood out immediately for its agile acoustic riff, peppy use of drum machines and a restless, relatable hook -- "I've been waiting all this time to be something I can't define."

Within weeks, local alt-rock station KEDJ-FM began playing "The First Single." Soon after, Zia Record Exchange stores began selling the disc. The subsequent buzz and swing of local popularity caught the attention of Elektra.

Which came with a price. Interventions & Lullabies' "Give It Up," a psychedelic pop gem, deals directly with the drawback of being swept into a small Culver City, California, recording studio for most of six months, namely lost friendships -- "That's where I once belonged/But now I'm gone, I swear I'm long gone."

Ruess was further bothered by the phoniness and the built-up scenester nature of Southern California -- and then there's the fact that his now-ex-girlfriend loved it.

"The person I was with overglorified California as this amazing place that was going to solve everybody's problems," he says. "We had friends who thought it would resolve all of our problems, because of the celebrities and the nice weather and everything. At the time, I was really angry about it, because I thought Arizona was all right."

Moments later, Ruess laments: "Someone decided to become something completely different than what they were." The breakup is documented -- triumphantly, in fact -- on the up-tempo rocker "Sore Thumb."

But Ruess and Means survived their displacement syndrome and are now gauging the response to their new material. The response here in Phoenix, Means says, has been overwhelming. Indeed, KEDJ's program director Nancy Stephens says the station is spinning "Tune Out" 30 times a week.

And Ruess and Means surely aren't shying away from the idolatry in their home base. Near set's end at the Modified show, Ruess led the audience through the tongue-twisting coda to "Career Day," an Interventions & Lullabies standout. Its words captured the moment, and, for that matter, the band's newfound resolve: "In with the outro, and out with the old."

"I don't think we can ask for anything better at this point," Means says. "We're pretty sure we'll be able to make a few people happy in a few states out there."

Got a problem with Kick & Scream? Let's hear it. Contact the author at his online address, [email protected], or call 602-407-1715.

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Christopher O'Connor