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."
Means calls the four songs (plus a bonus cover of The Hollies' "Carrie Anne") on the EP "simplistic and sleepy," and the compositions burst but stay melodic and sweet, ripened with percussive touches. The arrangements stay out of the way of Means' voice, which is raw and emotional. It all comes off as carefully crafted and more honed than anything Means had released. With characteristic self-deprecation, Means dismisses my compliment that his vocals are easy on the ears.
"I still can't deal with it," he says, smiling. "I know that I have to . . . I've gotten a little bit better with it. I feel like it would be nice still to write with other people — and I've tried a couple times — but I think I am enjoying doing it on my own. I am so busy with so much stuff going on that it's good to be able to just do it at my own pace."
Busy is an understatement when describing Means' activities after The Format's breakup. He started Hello Merch "probably a month or two after the split" because he had to do something.
"[Hello Merch] was my first instinct when the band broke up — I needed some kinda day job or something to do in the day for myself so I wouldn't go crazy, so I just kinda ran with that."
And there it is: the breakup. Means and Ruess have remained mostly silent about it, though their announcement of the hiatus assured fans that Means and Ruess were on good terms. "While we accept there will be false speculation as to why, understand that Sam and I remain extremely close and, in fact, are still passing the Twin Peaks box set back and forth in an attempt to figure out who really killed Laura Palmer," Ruess wrote on the band's official site.
I had to ask about the split.
"Honestly, I don't even really remember anymore, because by that time, we had just gotten off of two tours, being the busiest we'd ever been," Means says. "We went into writing a whole new record and touring a bunch of different countries. We were mentally and totally crazy. I don't know, maybe what was happening wasn't actually happening."
His hesitant and foggy interpretation of "that day" feels genuine, but it seems Means is holding something back. Then, he continues: "We both know we needed to do it and wanted to do it . . . [But] going into Dog Problems, it was all pretty exciting, because we hadn't experienced any success, outside of doing support tours. And we went through a big-window phase with labels — foreseeing how incredibly crazy it was gonna get, and that it was gonna take another two to three years. It kinda freaked me out a little bit."
Means was freaked out enough to walk away.
"Yeah, it was me," he says with some relief. "I'm married and had been married since a year and a half into starting the band. So the first four and five years of my married life was pretty hectic. There was definitely a lot of things that were going on, from whatever, a musical standpoint or just a head-bashing standpoint or just me being crazy, or I don't even remember anymore because it's been so long."
Looking back on The Format's career, he says that ending the group when he did was the right choice. "Whatever was going on, after a few days of it actually happening, we both knew it was definitely the way to go," he says.
"No matter what, we had a great partnership as a band," he says of Ruess. "Especially with Dog Problems. We worked with everyone we wanted to work with, and we had just gotten off of a bad label situation but also stepped into a really great management situation, so we were able to do pretty much everything we wanted — within reason and with our own budget."
For Means, the pressure of delivering more music under The Format banner didn't fit his writing style. "I felt like my restrictions are what made [my songs] great," he says. "I kinda felt that maybe he wanted to go toward a bigger spectrum that I necessarily didn't want to do, or maybe I couldn't or just didn't think I could.
"That probably was part of the problem, too — not having to answer to anyone else and working on my own," he says. "I took four years to [finish the EP]. I basically had to force myself to even do this EP, because I kinda thought, 'If I still want to work toward an album, I'd never get it done.'"
But the record is done; and for the first time, listeners will be able to hear Means alone, without his former partner to deliver the words.
"Yeah, he was the voice and he was very good at speaking for me, because for a very long time we were on the exact same page with everything," Means says of Ruess.
And whether he's ready or not, Means is singing for himself now.