Q&A: fun.’s Nate Ruess On Self-Help Lyrics, Second Chances, And “Pessimistic Optimism”


fun. has blanketed America with the song “We Are Young,” a strange, anthemic, Queen-nodding song that, via Glee and a Super Bowl commercial, is a bright symbol of modern rock being a force in pop. On the first fun. record Aim & Ignite and in his previous band, The Format, singer Nate Ruess made music in which punk-rock sensibilities could sit uncomfortably near wild Broadway asides. His lyrics seem uncommonly directed toward the personal, and themes surface—the phrase “cause a scene” appears in both The Format’s “The First Single” and fun.’s “Take Your Time (Coming Home),” with the former calling for people to “cause a scene” and the latter declaring that “we’re through with causing a scene.” SOTC interviewed Ruess about his lyrics and his music industry experiences.

I saw you guys last July and you were opening for Panic! at the Disco, and this year you’re on your own tour. What is that transition like?

It’s been pretty insane for us. We’ve always had a really good touring career. This has been something massively beyond that. Which has been special, everything about it. When I think about how well we had done in the past and just comparing it to now, it’s like, “Were we doing well in the past?”

Since one of your tracks on the last record is called “Be Calm,” and there are a few tracks on the new record, like “Carry On” and “It Gets Better,” I was wondering about the kind of instructive element of your songwriting.

I think that there’s a self-help element to the music that, I wouldn’t say I’m super self-conscious of, but I’ve always found music to be very therapeutic for me, specifically, and the lyrics I write. I feel like a lot of it is just trying to convince myself that everything’s okay. When you’re singing those words every single night, you kind of start to believe it in some way or another. I think there’s a little bit of that on the first album, with songs like “Be Calm,” but I feel like this album definitely has a lot of, I don’t want to say it’s “false optimism.” I would say it’s “pessimistic optimism.”

That’s the feeling I get from it, in the contrast between verses and choruses. You’ll have these stark images in the verses, and then they’re counteracted and amplified in the choruses by those self-help elements.

It’s a really good observation on your part. I wasn’t as aware of it as I was doing it. After the fact, I thought that that was pretty neat; it does a good job of describing who I am but I also think that most people can relate to that, because I wake up every single morning feeling anxious and feeling not so great. There obviously are so many great moments, I suppose, in life, but I tend to focus on the bad ones. And somehow I’ll use an inspirational moment to try to get me to stop thinking about that.

You actually address in your lyrics, from The Format to fun., the idea of trying to achieve success in music but within this record industry machine that bears down upon you. What is that like now that you guys have achieved a modicum of success?

It’s a whole different beast to be hyperaware of and cautious about. It’s funny, because I hadn’t listened to Dog Problems in about five years, and I woke up this morning at about seven, having one of the songs stuck in my head. I couldn’t fall back asleep and I downloaded the album for the first time. I listened to it and I couldn’t fall asleep this morning, because I listened for two straight hours. And I was actually so proud of what I accomplished. I was always so proud of what we accomplished in the moment of that album, but looking back a few years later, I was so happy with it. And I was listening to “The Compromise,” for example, and I was like, this still really rings true, but there’s a certain naiveness to how I perceived the music industry. I think it’s good to be cautiously optimistic about the whole thing. But even now, even with the success, in some regards I could be called out as a hypocrite. But I just think that you grow and your perspective changes. Now there are new things I have to be hyperfocused on. I’m glad that as a band we’re very focused on the business end of things and how things are running and where things are coming from and so forth. I think that that’s helped us achieve the level of success that we’ve had. And I’m not going to lie, we’ve had a great run so far with our record label.

I was watching your old videos and noticing they’re from Nettwerk’s YouTube account, which, I only know Nettwerk as the label that hosts both Johnny Foreigner and Sarah McLachlan. So I think it must have been a neat thing to have even been on Nettwerk.

We’re so psyched about our time in Nettwerk, because I think they allowed us to be a little more trusting of the music industry in general. They did a really great job of, first with the Format and then with fun., kind of letting us be in control of our own destiny, so that when we knew it was time to sign with a major label with fun., we knew what we wanted in a partner.

I wanted to ask you about a specific lyric, the opening to “At Least I’m Not as Sad,” which is “have you ever wondered about our old nu-metal friends and what became of them?”

That was one of the oldest songs. I’d written it initially for The Format and it just didn’t work out. It was one of those things where, it somehow wasn’t working when The Format broke up, and as soon as I brought it to fun., those guys automatically picked up on it. I just thought about growing up in the late ’90s. I was a punk rock kid, and I was going to punk rock shows every weekend, but there’s still kids in my high school that were into that nu-metal type of music. Because we were the different kids in high school, we all got along despite our musical differences, because we were “the music kids.” It didn’t matter about genre necessarily. So I think it was looking back fondly on that time and kind of wondering where all of them went to.

I wanted to talk about Fueled by Ramen because I think they’re a really interesting label to even consider. I started paying attention to them around 2005 and to sort of see the arc of bands like Gym Class Heroes and Cobra Starship, how they enjoyed success then but are enjoying a different level of success now—it’s really peculiar. And also I’ve been thinking about Some Nights and how, where Gym Class’s and Cobra Starship’s recent records engage more with the current pop world, Some Nights exists on the same label and is more inspired by a relatively successful but still fundamentally weird Kanye record.

I think FBR has been really special for us. We were aware of what they had done with things like Gym Class, but I was so focused on the back catalog. I had a relationship with the head of the label. He was the first person that tried to sign The Format back in 2002. And having all of those other problems that I had that I talked about in a song like “The Compromise” on Dog Problems, I was really wary about signing to another big label. Having the relationship that I had with John [Janick], the head of the label, from those early days, was really awesome, because he tried to sign every single album.

After every album I put out, he’d always send an email, like, “What’s the deal? Any chance I can sign you?” I think we felt for fun. it was the right time. It truly was. What was so awesome about it is, none of the success that’s happened from Some Nights… there was no pressure on the songwriting. When I told him I wanted to do this album that was a little more inspired by hip-hop, he paused for a second, and then he was like, “You know what? I’ve been blown away by every single album you’ve ever done. I have no doubt that this one’s going to be the exact same thing.” It was great to have that faith early on, in making the album. It was like, whatever we needed in order to accomplish the album that we wanted to make, him and everybody else at the label was right there for us. I think that goes back to them starting as an indie label. It’s a very family-based world over there, and I couldn’t be any happier, being associated with them.

One thing that I love is that it’s the same people, just doing different things on a different level. That’s just one thing I’ve noticed about that label. And you guys are still around.

Most bands, people don’t get a second chance. That was a big thing for me in the first place. When we started fun., I was so grateful that a lot of the old fans from The Format were giving me a second chance. And I remember we had talked to labels, and nobody was very into giving someone coming out of an old band a second chance. It’s almost automatically, “Well, if that didn’t go well, you must not be good at what you do.” And the truth of it is, so many different things can end a career or end a band. I think John and everybody else at FBR has done a great job of looking past whatever that band was and seeing the potential in the songwriting or the other things involved. That’s a pretty freaking awesome thing.

“Take Your Time” from the first record incorporates a kind of Paul Simon, Graceland influence, and then “Some Nights” further explores that kind of template. That’s a neat thing to hear across two records.

It’s a keen observation and one that is very true. I remember when I first started writing “Some Nights” and I was so excited about it. I have a note in my phone around the time I started writing it telling me to finish it. The thing was: “Paul Simon song question mark” or “Graceland type song question mark… This could be your favorite song you’ve ever written.” I wrote that to myself. So it was like, “Finish it!”

fun. play at Terminal 5 on Saturday and Sunday.