The Format are the biggest band in the world. If you're from Phoenix and born in the mid-'80s, that is.
Before this demographic had careers and mortgages, The Format were the first band they called their own. They came of age as the band grew from shows at Modified Arts to a deal with Atlantic Records in the early 2000s. Even as The Format's star expanded nationally, they served as a shining example for young fans and creatives across Phoenix. Which is why when they went on hiatus in 2008, it was like losing a first love.
In the years since, everyone’s moved on. Nate Ruess gained national fame as one-third of Fun. Sam Means remained busy with his company Hello Merch (plus some solo work). The fans, meanwhile, kept growing up, perfectly content with The Format as a happy memory. And then nostalgia reached critical mass.
After 12-plus years, Ruess and Means reunited for a surprise show in early February. The duo originally had planned a series of reunion dates in Phoenix, New York, and Chicago for March and April. However, after the pandemic began, those shows were bumped back to July. In the last several days, with no clear window for venues to reopen, the pair have been forced to make further changes.
When I spoke to Means in mid-February, shortly after the reunion show, the band were riding a wave of enthusiasm. Because even after all these years, everyone had slipped back into 2008 with the greatest of ease.
"It doesn't seem like 12 years have passed," Means says. "I started a business and had a kid. Nate has a Grammy. It goes so deep that nothing ever changes."
Means says the collective "worked really hard" to make their appearance at a screening of 2007's Live at the Mayan feel like a surprise. Yet even those who’d already discerned their plans (via online hints) wouldn’t know the topic’s been broached before.
"There was never any issues," Means says of his relationship with Ruess. "It would casually come up that maybe we should play some shows. But there was never any following up."
Means says that what got it to the "next level" was, in part, the release of Live at the Mayan on streaming platforms, which was their chance to give fans something after seeing "kids buying stuff on eBay" that was often overpriced and even bootlegged. It was this younger generation’s attention that helped keep The Format relevant.
"It's wild to hear people who are 20 say they love your album," he says. "They'll say, 'My older brother listened to you, but I didn't know. And then I heard Nate sing with Pink.' It's this really organic spread of fans, which is cool."
Despite all the good vibes, Means says the actual reunion was laborious enough. After 12 years, there was plenty to do in finding their groove once more.
"There's a lot of songs that have to be remembered," he says. "Logistically speaking, it's a little different this time. But we come from a world of shows and music, and the stress is always there. You always have some hurdles. It's just such an exciting time, so it was all welcome."
It's not just about relearning chords, either. Means readily admits that, when they performed in their early to mid-20s, they developed a rather specific relationship with the music, one that often painted the band’s overall operations.
"It used to be we'd tour and then do an EP or album and then go back out," he says. "You don't get to stop and think about the songs, and so you lose track a little."
Part of that dynamic is the sour taste left behind after the band’s deal with Atlantic fell apart, which forced them to self-release 2006's Dog Problems. Having space from that drama helped the band better understand the music, and that newfound appreciation facilitated the early successes of their reunion.
"After what happened to us, we were almost rebelling against major labels," he says. "And we had a huge chip on our shoulders for a lot of years. But we were really blaming the album and not the circumstances. Running through it, it really gives you an appreciation, and I love the simplicity of those songs." Means says he and Ruess both "rediscovered" 2003’s Interventions + Lullabies independently of one another prior to rehearsals.
Means said it's "not necessarily nostalgia" but definitely a "newfound fondness" for their past works. He says, "At 22, writing music, you trained yourself almost to play like a beginner." As a result the music is "all really stripped down and really simple." Rather than enhance these songs with years of added insight and experience, it's a chance to fully celebrate the past.
"We're trying to stay true to those songs, to stick to what's there," he says. But as Means quickly adds, "maybe a couple things can drag on a bit. Just not to get all Cream-y or do some jam band version."
If anything's changed, it's the technology, with Means adding, "Now instead of lugging around an organ and a Wurlitzer, there's keyboards that make three different sounds. Thinking about what I want to tote around was really swaying some of those decisions."
The band have tried to act as mindfully since day one of their planning process. Means says they "almost played the Crescent Ballroom," which would've been a much bigger deal both financially and operationally. They've also had several offers in the past.
"It would've been a cash grab [before], and we didn't want that," Means says. "We want to maintain a level of integrity, because we know our place in the world of business. Nothing has changed, as with our friendships. We want to play in places we like so we can be intimate with the crowd and feel the energy and the love."
That attitude, a deep respect for the powers of artistry, is born out of The Format’s earliest experiences growing up in Phoenix. Means fondly recalls "being in the pop-punk scene, going to see shows at The Nile, and then spending every night at Zia." Whether The Format's playing a movie screening or some sold-out club, they're a deeply Phoenix band, born from a specific musical tradition and a keen sense of creative freedom.
"Growing up, outside The Beatles, we loved Rancid, and that led us back to Operation Ivy," he says. "You see all this music that existed before, and you can discover something not a lot of people knew about."
It’s that teenage love and commitment to music that still informs so much of their decision-making. Means and company won't rightly sign on for anything else until they're all absolutely certain it's the right thing for both the band and fans.
"We have no plans or decisions until we see how it all goes," he says. "Do we want to do more? Did it feel good? Can we make it happen? It's a feeling thing for us from start to finish. We don't ever want to force anything. It only happens if it feels right."
That said, if Means has his way, next year's shows won't be the end of The Format's grand reunion plans. It could just be the start of another exciting new chapter.
"I have, though, been vocal about that I'd love to do more music," he says. "But you can't force creativity. Making music is a very different part of our [his and Ruess'] dynamic. We'll latch on if it feels good."
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.