UPDATE: The band also took home the award for "Best New Artist."
So maybe LL Cool J's joke about "always getting back together" following Taylor Swift's performance of "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" fell a little flat, and maybe the Gotye win for Best Alternative felt a little bummer-y, but it was hard not to feel a little Arizona pride when fun., fronted by local-boy-gone-to-NYC Nate Ruess, won Song of the Year for "We Are Young (featuring Janelle Monáe)," the band's monster single from 2012's Some Nights, at last night's 55th annual Grammy Awards.
Following a performance of "Carry On", the band took the stage to accept the award, brazenly. The trio beat out Ed Sheeran's "The A Team," Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," and Miguel's "Adorn."
"If this is in HD, everyone can see our faces and we are not very young," Ruess joked, while guitarist Jack Antonoff pointed out that the band has been at it for 12 years -- counting stints in bands like Steel Train, Anathallo, and The Format -- while shouting out his ladyfriend, Lena Dunham, creator and stars of HBO's Girls.
Congrats to Ruess and co. We've gathered up some of the pieces we've written about Ruess, fun., and The Format over the years. Enjoy.
fun. frontman Nate Ruess wears his heart on his sleeve, and that's why it's so easy to get into his head. His lyrics -- part stream of consciousness ("My friends are in the bathroom, getting higher than the Empire State"), part diary entries ("So this is it? I miss my mom and dad for this?") -- practically invite you in.
The guy's got something on his mind, and he wants to tell you what it is. His lyrical transparency isn't the only reason for fun.'s total domination of the Ikeda Theatre stage at Mesa Arts Center last night. No, keyboardist Andrew Dost's piano pop melodies and guitarist Jack Antonoff's classic bar rock affectations had a lot to do with it, too (as did the live band: bassist Nate Harold, drummer Will Noon, and guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist, saxophonist, all-around-charmer Emily Moore). But Ruess is the centerpiece, the guy bouncing around the stage, the guy telling jokes about Glendale's cat killers, the guy pouring it all out.
The guy, most clearly, who felt very, very happy to be home.
While the GOP presidential candidates debated in Mesa last night, folks at Zia Records in Chandler gathered for a different kind of spectacle: NYC-based pop band Fun. (featuring Nate Ruess formerly of Tempe rockers The Format) played an acoustic set and signed autographs for about 400 fans.
Up on the Sun: You guys played Conan last night. How did it go? Nate Ruess: It was a disaster. A mad disaster.
Really? It didn't look a disaster. That's the magic of television [Laughs]. That was our third take that we had to do, because our drum machine was breaking on stage, so it was just like...I was fuming. Just because I didn't want to waste everyone's time there. I was like, "Fine, give them the second take." But they let us to a third take, then I felt uneasy about performance of that. So I'm not ever going to see that. I don't want to look [Laughs]
Did you meet Conan? Yeah, very briefly.
Had you ever met him or seen him around? No, no. That was my first time, and it was [pauses] He was pretty weird. I think he's super friendly, but I might have been giving off a vibe that I was too cool for school or something. But my vibe inside was, "Holy shit, I can't believe I'm doing this." I was trying not to sweat all over the camera. So he was like, "You don't have to be cool," and I was like, "No no, trust me, I'm not cool. I'm freaking out."
It's "Emo Night" at Idle Hands, a dimly lit bar in Manhattan's East Village. I've stumbled in with a some friends for a drink, unaware that the stereo system would be blaring angsty emo hits from the early 2000s. As I grab a seat, I hear a familiar sound, the opening strains of "The First Single," by defunct Phoenix band The Format.
Any question of whether the band had been only a regional success is answered as I watch the room erupt with dancing 20-somethings, shouting every lyric and playing out the exact scene described in the song's chorus. It's blatant nostalgia, an ache for youth from people who shouldn't feel so old. "I've been waiting all this time," singer Nate Ruess belts, "to be something I can't define."
Three weeks ago, I was in Phoenix speaking with Sam Means, one half of the Format duo. He played the instruments and wrote the core of the songs, while his partner Ruess sang and wrote lyrics. For seven years, the two conquered the hearts of heart-on-their-vintage-sleeve listeners. It wasn't "emo" by the textbook definition, but it was as earnest as even the most open Jimmy Eat World track.
The song raised the profile of the band, which signed to Elektra Records, which released the band's full-length debut Interventions and Lullabies in 2003 before collapsing. As Elektra was dismantled by Warner Brothers and Atlantic, the duo left the label and released Dog Problems on their own in 2006. It was the record the pair would say they were most proud of -- stepping out of a bad label situation and finally gaining the musical freedom Ruess and Means yearned for. The band ended abruptly in 2008, with neither member electing to discuss the dissolution in interviews, leaving their cult-like fan base up in arms, screaming, "Wait, WTF?"
Ruess packed up and moved to New York City, forming the pop band fun. with members of Anathallo and Steel Train (both had toured with The Format). The band's first record, Aim and Ignite, performed admirably, but its latest, Some Nights, is a genuine blockbuster. Its first single, the massive "We Are Young" (featuring Janelle Monáe) topped a Billboard chart, cresting on the wave of its gigantic, Queen-meets-Kanye West bombast. Means stayed in Phoenix with his wife of seven years, started racking up soundtrack work (he scored a McDonald's commercial in Japan), had a daughter named Lola, and started a merchandise company called Hello Merch. On Saturday, April 21, he'll release NONA, his first proper solo release, featuring his vocals for the first time, via Photo Finish Records
"Musically, I've always worked with [Ruess]," Means says seated in his office chair at Hello Merch's Glendale warehouse. "Always. Ever since we started our first band together -- we were in three bands together [before The Format]. I always had someone to write with. So, being away from that was pretty weird and hard to adapt at first. I'd never sang or wrote lyrics, so it took me a long time to adapt to that and get comfortable with both of those things."
A little more than three years ago, The Format shocked the Valley with the announcement of their breakup. The duo of Nate Ruess and Sam Means seemed poised to put Arizona music in the national spotlight. They had established their own imprint, The Vanity Label, with national distribution through Nettwerk Records, and released an acclaimed sophomore album, Dog Problems.
After touring in support of the album and releasing a live DVD, it all just ended, with little explanation from the band beyond a statement on their website, which included, "Please understand this was a tough decision and we're both upset about it."
Three years later, Ruess still refuses to talk about the breakup. He offers little insight beyond saying that, back then, he enjoyed spending time in New York because that's where his girlfriend and best friends were. He eventually started living there during The Format's breaks from performing, and The Format "kind of evaporated."
Ruess saw the breakup as an opportunity to start something new, so he teamed up with Jack Antonoff of Steel Train and Andrew Dost of Anathallo to form the indie pop band fun. The band's sound isn't a huge departure from The Format's, with a breezy pop-rock vibe and Ruess' signature prose-like lyrics. Now as frontman in fun., Ruess calls the East Coast his home. As for the history of The Format, that seems to be the last thing on Ruess' mind.
"I don't know. There's no story," Ruess says when asked about the exact cause of the breakup. "I really can't remember it all now." Considering, he says, that he and Means still talk and meet for dinner when Ruess is in Phoenix, things could have ended up worse.
Just after sunset on a Monday in May, early summer heat is mellowing into a soft, balmy night, and the Arizona State University campus in Tempe is animated with end-of-the-semester buzz. A benefit concert hosted by local indie label Western Tread is starting late, and outside the Galvin Playhouse, a chattering mass of teens and twentysomethings, all casual in their colorful tees and shorts, form a crooked queue that stretches across campus.
Before long, the doors are flung open and the snaking line steadily pushes its way inside as ticketholders shuffle into tiered rows of plush, theater-style seating. The whole place is full by the time the lights go down for acoustic performances by Reubens Accomplice, The Format, and Jimmy Eat World's Jim Adkins.
It's the same lineup that played Western Tread's benefit show at Celebrity Theatre three years ago, so tonight was pretty much a guaranteed success. And sure enough, this 500-capacity event sold out three weeks in advance, says promoter Charlie Levy. "We didn't even have to advertise the show and it was gonna sell out," he says.
For most of the evening, the audience sits in hushed awe during the unplugged sets, bursting into cheers and applause between songs. It's no unruly rock show by any stretch of the imagination -- the prevalence of flip-flops alone is a good indication -- but the crowd gets extra giddy when The Format starts playing.
The musicians and their instruments are strewn across a wide stage where a big, black fake tree spreads its papier-mâché branches across a rose-colored Old West backdrop.
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Seated front and center like a rag doll in an oversize wooden rocking chair, Format front man Nate Ruess tugs at the sleeves of his brown striped sweater and leans forward to sing, pushing messy hair out of his eyes. You'd almost expect the vulnerable voice of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst to come from this endearingly disheveled waif, so the effortless power of his smooth, high-pitched vocal style is disarming.