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 surfacethe 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.
The Format, "The Compromise"
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.