Nate Ruess is 30 years old and has been a published musician for over a decade, but at this year's Grammys, he'll face Frank Ocean, Hunter Hayes, The Lumineers and The Alabama Shakes for the title of Best New Artist.
That's because, as he puts it, "99 percent of the population" had no idea who Ruess and his fun. bandmates (fun. is the band's name, not an adjective) were before smash singles "We Are Young" and "Some Nights" climbed the radio charts and took over dance floors. Now, fun. is nominated for six Grammys.
It's about time for Ruess. He's a veteran of the group The Format, and made an impression in the early part of the 21st century by leading that beloved indie-rock outfit. It wasn't until he and Kanye West's producer Jeff Bhasker started setting sad lyrics about alienation and self-segregation against pulsing, anthemic pop rock, however, that he found his true footing in music.
HuffPost Entertainment spoke to Ruess just after he landed in Park City for the Sundance Film Festival, where he was due to represent Brita at the launch for the brand's Bottle Free Bands Contest (an opportunity for up-and-coming, environmentally conscious bands to win a "green tour"). We chatted about what it's like to make pop music that speaks to depression, how fun. reintroduced America to rock music and why he was more than happy to perform at Barack Obama's second inauguration.
Congrats on all those Grammy nods. Lots of indie rock folks have had lots to say about them. Do you have any complicated feelings about the awards, are you just over the moon?
I'm pretty much just over the moon. It feels good to be recognized by other musicians or people that are part of the Grammy voting committee. I'm a voter too, so it's cool. It's like peer recognition, so I can't really argue with that. I think we're honored.
Is it weird to be named a "Best New Artist" nominee after making music for more than a decade?
I kind of like it. [Laughs] It's probably weird for the people who have been supporting whatever band I've been in for the past 10 years, but I'd say, if you were to break it down, we'd be a new artist to 99 percent of the population.
About the mood of those songs -- I read that some of them were written years ago, even for the Format, but on the singles, would you say those songs are a reflection of your current state or how you remember feeling?
I wrote most of it a month before we went into the studio. So that was an excitement type of thing. But as far as lyrical content, I've never felt as though I've belonged. There's a Van Morrison quote in his song "Astral Weeks": "Ain't nothing but a stranger in this world." I think that's my favorite lyric ever, because it feels the most relatable. Even despite any sort of mainstream acceptance, it doesn't change my reflective and anti-social outlook.
If you had to guess, do you think most people hearing "We Are Young" and "Some Nights," say, in a club, realize there's a certain melancholic or anti-social vibe there?
I think with "We Are Young," it was interesting to see how that got flipped around. I always thought of it as a sad song, and people took it and turned it into a celebration. And that's the nice thing about music. I don't write enough celebratory songs, they're always imbued with some sort of depression. So I like that now it looks like it's a celebration. I like playing it and seeing how people react.
But a song like "Some Nights" is that people just interpret it however they want to. It's a little more up there. A song like "We Are Young" seems pretty easy to digest, even if people are digesting it wrong.
So with "We Are Young," you got a happy song out of the way without having to affect an air.
"We Are Young" is pretty explicitly a rock song, which makes it almost unique when it comes to the the No. 1 hits that surrounded it (the rest were all dancepop joints from Katy Perry, Maroon 5, Rihanna, Ne-Yo). How does that make you feel?
Yeah I mean hopefully if it keeps up. It's a tough thing, but generally rock music is what I'm influenced by, it's what I grew up listening to and for the most part, it's what I'm still listening to. And so for us to be a part of it … I even feel like Foster the People, with "Pumped Up Kicks," did a really good job of helping that happen. So did the Gotye song. I'm hoping that there's going to be a swing for sure, and I'm just happy that we're a part of it.
Do you think in the next couple of years we'll see some fatigue with perhaps the more overtly dance type of pop songs? Do you think there will be some more "guitar music"?
It's hard to say. What's strange is that us guitar bands are moving toward the electronic thing. I don't see a problem with it. But I'm not a fan of electro music. I've always been a fan of guitar. I think that one of the things I really want for our next album is for it to be a guitar album. It can still have some of the things that made "Some Nights" accessible.
It's weird that those songs can blend in a club setting with, say, a Rihanna dance track.
Yeah it's weird because that wasn't our intention. This has all been dumb luck. The cool thing is that we're up for the challenge now. We never thought this stuff would happen. Obviously we wanted people to hear our music, and now that it's happening, we are the type of people who want to put up a big live show and have people come see us.
Not to suggest you're torn up about it, but do you ever think back on the music you made with The Format and wonder what it would have been like to experience this level of fame with that band?
I definitely wouldn't have been as equipped for it if it happened with The Format. I'm still a fucking nightmare as a human being, and I was even worse back then, so I can't even begin to imagine. I've been able to handle all this pretty well considering what a nightmare I am, but back then? No way.
Let's apply that same gaze to the difference between your first and second fun. albums.
We're becoming much more well-equipped, yeah. Musically we just hope that every album continues to be a progression in whichever way that we see fit and we never take any steps backwards.
Does the touring -- on bigger and bigger stages -- alleviate or exacerbate your anti-social tendencies?
Playing shows has become less and less -- I used to have a lot more stage-fright. I have a tough time meeting people, in general. That's not something I do particularly well. Nor do I ever really intend to win a popularity contest with my personality. I'm happy being an artist. But I've noticed that over the last 10 years, I do feel a sort of acceptance with the music. And it feels incredible to be on the stage. It's more therapeutic than it has ever been.
There are a lot of people in those audiences who are really glad -- even if they're radio fans who don't seek out music on their own -- that there is music that espouses a middle-lane message. Pop has been dominated by either an overbearing, "we'll love you, no matter who you are!" type of Lady Gaga sentiment or by a more dance mentality of "we're extremely happy all the time." So for those of us with a slightly depressive personality, it's nice.
That means a lot. I appreciate that. That's why I got into music in the first place, because I needed someone to relate to, in that type of way. It's important for me, as an artist.
What are you doing on this Spotify playlist that the White House put out, and what are you doing at the inauguration?
Oh, shit! We're not going to play the inauguration, we're just going to be in the Spotify playlist. [Laughs] I don't know. Obama called, and we answered. We're more than excited just to be able to go out there. We're going to be in the middle of rehearsals and we're going to fly out just to be there and play a few songs because it's incredibly important for us to be a part of it.
[Ed. note: The band performed at the Inaugural Ball.]
Was the election something you kept up with?
Of course. Obama had a big year, and we just started a non-profit that's working as a satellite for a lot of LGBTQ non-profits, so to see the president come out in favor of that was a massive thing for us. As if I didn't already think he was incredible, that's a bold step for the president to do, considering how a lot of people feel in this country. And for him to put his reelection out on the line for it? We obviously think he should have, but sometimes it's easier said than done.