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.
The EP closes with "Even Better Yet," featuring a deliberately distorted vocal treatment. The song was "written literally in five minutes waiting to get into the studio," according to Ruess. "Bob was late. We just started playing it for Bob, and he was like Oh, cool, we've got to record that.' So we were rehearsing it, and we were like, Damn, it sounds really good through the PA,' so we miked it through the PA. So it's a naturally shitty sound." While the other tracks on EP are solid in their own right, the Format could have recorded dial tones after "The First Single" and still attracted attention. An account manager at local rock station Edge 103.9 played the song for program director Nancy Stevens, who enjoyed it enough to ask nighttime DJ Andy Hawk to test it out on his "Local Frequency" nightly slot in late April.
"I play one local song every night at midnight, and I ask people whether they like it or not," Hawk explains. "I'm very used to all the bands' friends calling and saying, That's the next greatest thing,' but I've been doing this long enough that I can tell what is real and what is not real. And their response was just overwhelmingly strong." According to the jockey, the phones rang on end for the entire hour, something that doesn't happen regularly.
After the initial test, the Edge played the song in the middle of a weekday. The phones lit up again. The response was so positive that the station threw "The First Single" into daily rotation in June and continues to play the track up to three times a day, every day. The station believed in the Format enough to have it open the main stage at its annual Edgefest on September 28.
Around the same time, the Format began ranking high on Zia Records' in-store sales charts, both as a local and national act. The combination of the band's success at Zia's, especially at the Tempe location, steady radio play on the Edge and continued coverage from thescout.net drew the majors.
Steven Tramposch, Elektra's director of A&R, explains: "Based on the short time and our enthusiasm for the act, we sent John Kirkpatrick [West Coast VP of A&R] out to Phoenix. He came back with rave reviews, and we immediately set up a showcase in Los Angeles for the entire senior executive staff, including the CEO of Elektra."
Tramposch says Elektra has an intricate system for sussing out what is actually garnering an honest response, not idle hype.
"From the very beginning, I've been excited about the music on the EP as a whole. This type of success just reaffirmed my belief in the band's talent," he says. "It represented an undeniably authentic audience reaction to the music, whereas the combination of an astonishing live performance, word of mouth and radio airplay drove people into stores to buy the record."
While this may sound like a paid advertisement, Tramposch seems genuinely excited about the Arizona act. Everything but the ink is dry for the Format. The band hopes to begin recording a full-length album in January and is perusing a producer list supplied by the label.
"It's so weird," says Ruess about the process. "When you've only played four shows, it's crazy stuff. We got thrown into the fire pretty fast."
Means continues the thought. "Yeah," he says. "Everything has happened so fast, I don't think it's really caught up with us yet. It was extremely fast."
You're right about that, fellas. Now go out there and kick ass; we'll all be watching.
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