Sometimes the best things in life are unexpected.
For indie pop band fun., their sudden rise to pop stardom, domination of the Billboard Hot 100, and inclusion in everything from Super Bowl commercials to an episode of a certain teen musical-drama has been anything but anticipated. Not that the band isn’t confident in their abilities or thinks that their music isn’t meant to be heard by a grander audience, they’ve just been down this road before only to watch the promises of success fade away. In particular, Nate Ruess’ and Jack Antonoff’s past endeavors in The Format and Steel Train (respectively), each landed them on the cusp of stardom before broken promises and label fallout led to eventual disappointment.
When Ruess and Antonoff teamed up with Andrew Dost (ex-Anathello) in 2008 to form fun., the premise was simple—create exciting indie pop/rock and put on the best live show possible. This desire led to their 2009 debut Aim and Ignite, one of the most unsung indie pop albums of the past several years, which landed the band on tours with the likes of Panic! at the Disco and Jack’s Mannequin and eventually earned them a deal with Fueled by Ramen.
Knowing that they had barely scratched the surface of their potential, the band struck inspirational gold last year after repeated listens to the likes of Kanye West opened the door for a completely new, darker, and decidedly more bold pop sound. After repeated requests, Ruess earned a short meeting with producer Jeff Bhasker (Beyonce, Kanye West) in which he played an early version of the song that would become “We Are Young”. The rest is history. The band’s latest effort, Some Nights, produced by Bhasker, captures a band brimming with pop sensibilities while maintaining a distinct underlying ambiguity that sets them apart from the rest of the radio world.
PopMatters recently had the chance to chat with fun.‘s Jack Antonoff about the somewhat dark subject matter found on Some Nights, the meshing of indie pop and hip hop, and the band’s level-headed approach to their recent rise to fame ...
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Congratulations on your fifth straight week at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100! How have the past couple of months felt for your guys? Has it all hit like a whirlwind or do you feel like you were prepared for it?
Well, all of us have been touring for like 12 years in other bands and in this band as well, so the hardest parts are the parts we’re most acquainted with. Like I can’t imagine what it would be like if we were starting a band now and we had to learn how to go out there and learn how to tour and learn how to do this kind of schedule. So it’s actually kind of funny because what’s changed the most is the intangible qualities, like being congratulated by people we haven’t spoken with in a decade. But the reality of what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis is really just playing shows, living on the bus, and doing what we do. So I’ve found that almost not that much in the moment has changed, while also keeping in mind that this tour was booked before a lot of the stuff that’s been happening started happening, so we’re not jumping into anything too new here.
Like you said, you guys have been touring for awhile now and you’ve been known as a band that puts on a fantastic live show with a lot of energy. How has it been on the current tour? Have you noticed a change in your audience?
They’re probably at like, the next level of excitement as they’d been before. We’ve always had an amazing audience, but I think that something is sort of happening in the current moment, that has a different excitement that comes with it. We’re so excited about the new album and it feels like the audience is too, and it’s all happening right in this moment. The feeling is like we’re all kind of catching lightening in a bottle. I don’t know, it’s a funny thing. It almost feels like every show is a celebration of what’s happening because a lot of shows sold out before the album took off, so most of the shows are filled with the fans that have been with us the past four years. The vibe that we’re getting from them is that they’re so excited about what’s happening. But once again, not to sound bored with what it’s like, but the shows are just kind of spectacular as usual. I mean, we haven’t really done anything yet that’s outside of the norm of what we’ve been doing, besides a lot of radio visits.
It’s been documented pretty well in some circles about the fallout you guys have had in the past in your respective bands when it comes to major labels. Is acceptance of a mainstream following something that you’ve all kind of grown into together, and how have your views regarding success in the pop world changed, even recently?
Well, going mainstream in any sense was never something that was really on our radar. Nate and I got signed to major labels when we were 17 years old, and back then the promise was what’s happening to us now, though at the time there was this expectation that we were going to have big albums and singles and blah, blah, blah and none of that happened for either of us. And so from a pretty early age, we got a pretty sour taste of the record industry and that pretty much lasted for a decade. And throughout that decade, my whole vibe before we started fun.—and then once we did start fun.—was that we could be completely fucked, or we can go out there and we can make a living and have an amazing career, adding to our audience and playing to our fans. That’s all that made sense to us for a long time. And when we would go and make albums, even when we went in to make Some Nights, our goal was to try and make a great album that was going to excite our fans, be exciting to play live, and just create another two years of magic to go out and tour on. Also keep in mind that when we signed to a major label, that was still the goal. It was just like, “Okay, we’ll sign to a bigger label because we just want to help further boost our current career and basically be able to continue to do it.” Because, in a sense, we’ve come out of nowhere and it’s been a wonderful thing and we’re incredibly fortunate.
So for months and months and months, everyone was just saying “[‘We Are Young’] is going to be a big song” and we were just like “Well, we’ve heard that before,” you know? We’ve kind of been through that ringer, each of us at different moments in our career. And then when the song actually started to happen, it was really just a funny, exciting thing. It’s like, everything that’s going on with the single is just icing on the cake. You know, it’s never been our goal to have this big song. Our goal has definitely been to make great albums and to play shows to as many fans as possible. So we’re not apologetic about anything that’s gone on in the past and we didn’t have any intentions of completely taking over, but we just didn’t think it was going to be when we matured. I think we just kind of thought we were too old for it.
Did you find it somewhat intimidating working with a producer like Jeff Bhasker, or did your songwriting come just as naturally as ever during that process?
Well, Jeff is a huge personality. Working with Jeff was a real testament about where we were emotionally when we wanted to make this album. In the past, there’s an immaturity that comes along with this way of thinking that you can do it all yourself and you know it all. In all of our [past] bands, and the first fun. album, we were all just thinking “We don’t need someone to guide us; we’ve got all the ideas; we’re good,” you know? So stepping in with Jeff and having a personality that big, and then the three of us, that’s just a lot of personalities that added elements that really gave us the confidence that we were going into this album with, which was—we finally felt confident enough to open ourselves up to someone who would really get in there and really fuck with us. We were ready to be in the studio with someone who was a little bit intimidating because you’re out there, you’re playing takes, you’re writing parts, and you’re doing it alongside someone who inspired you to do those things in the first place. That not only feels like The Twilight Zone, but I think it’s pretty much as inspirational as you can get.
I know you guys have mentioned how artists like Kanye West influenced your writing coming into this album, and Some Nights is full of songs that have this happy feeling on the outside, but if you dig a little deeper, there’s a bit of darkness there. Was that intentional, or was there a certain directions you wanted to lead the songs on this album?
Well, I think that whether it’s lyrics or the way we write music or the way I’ve written in the past, that’s something that’s at the core of who we are, which is not being concerned with marrying the lyrics with the actual melody and feeling of the song. It’s a wonderful thing that I think we’ve learned from bands like Mountain Goats or The Beatles. To go back to some of those amazing songs and lyrics that we love, you know? You think the song is about something and it sounds so happy and then you dig into the lyrics and it’s about some of the darkest moments that you could possibly have in mind. And to me, what that offers is a complexion to the music ... basically, by doing that, there’s a way of creating layers to songs. Even a song like “We Are Young”, I think some people hear it and on an immediate level they think, “Oh, this is a pop song about being young and it’s inspiring” and then some people will interpret it like, “Oh, this is sort of a fucked up song about a pretty fucked up night.” You try to marry the whole thing together, and it’s a way you can connect to a lot more people by having a lot more layers in a song. It’s not just like, “This is a good beat, so this has to be a happy song”, because really, anybody can do that.
And speaking of the music, you guys made some changes by incorporating things like programmed drums and some other hip hop elements into this album. Was that something that you had been wanting to do for awhile, or was it something that just sort of came out during the writing process?
That’s something that happened right before we started “We Are Young”. We were in a period where there was really nothing creative coming to mind for a long time. So we were working on songs; nothing was really happening. This is right before we started Some Nights, and there wasn’t really any inspiration. Then Nate had the idea of bringing in hip hop elements and we started talking about that and we started fucking around with MPCs and thinking about how it would sound pushing the two styles together. And after that inspiration happened, Nate started writing like an insane person, and then when we all got together and started writing together, it was just clicking. With any album we’ve ever made, it just happened in the moment. Everything was written really quickly. We were in the studio and pretty much recorded the entire thing in three weeks. A lot of people wouldn’t think that the bulk of the album was pretty much recorded live, but it was just like, quick inspiration—and that’s the way an album should be. An album should be a documenting of a band in a moment in time. When you have the opportunity to think back and rethink some of the choices you made on the album, that’s the moment you that you pull away from the urgency of letting people share in that moment of your life. So that hip hop inspiration came to us and we recorded it and this whole thing happened in like, a month and a half. Then, we were like, “Oh, we should involve some of these elements that we’re loving on our favorite Kanye West album, that theatrical hip hop album.” Then it was, “Well who’s the greatest hip hop producer of all time? It’s Jeff Bhasker.” Two weeks later, we’re in the studio with him, and four weeks later, we’re done with the entire rest of the album. I think that being able to catch that moment is at the core of what this is about for us.
I think a lot of people are realizing that this album doesn’t just revolve around “We Are Young”, but there’s a whole album full of really great songs that have a lot of potential. What are your hopes for the rest of this album?
The only hope that I have for the whole album cycle is that the entire album becomes featured the way it’s deserved. It’s really exciting to have a big single, but the biggest goal at this point is for everyone out there in the world to hear the album for what it is, which is an entire piece of work. Maybe it’s like a cultural issue, but if there’s one downside to having a really big song, it’s the fear that we’re just going to be about that, when in truth, there’s so much more to this album. The next single, “Some Nights”, is such a huge moment because that’s the difference between the world seeing a band as a song and the world seeing a band coming into their own with their own sound. It’s really about the album for us, and our live show. If having “We Are Young” serves as the catalyst to bring people here, that’s great. But our challenge is to make sure that that’s exactly what we do.
When you started fun. back in 2008, what were your expectations at the time, and how has your vision of what this band is and could become changed over the past few months?
I mean, nothing’s really changed. The only thing that might have changed is we’re a little less ashamed of how far we want to go with this. You know, in the beginning there was this whole “indie rock” quality of always apologizing for what you do and always sort of pretending that you don’t want to be as big as you want to be. We have a pretty clear goal that we’ve come to over the years: we’ve worked so hard and we’ve done this forever and if we’ve found any kind of vision [it’s that] that sound was meant to be played to a lot of people, not a small clique of people. If we can share what we’re doing on a huge level without compromising, in any sense, which so far is what we’ve done, then that’s still our goal—to take over without losing sight of why we did this in the first place.