News Column

Fun. Singer Is Having Fun with Smash Hit 'We Are Young'

April 13, 2012
Nate Ruess, lead singer of fun.

While the rest of the world has been inundated with the new eternal-youth anthem "We Are Young," the guy who wrote and sings the No. 1 hit claims to be oblivious to its wildfire proliferation.

"We don't get to hear it as much as everyone else because we're always cooped up on a tour bus or shut in somewhere," laughed Nate Ruess, singer of the New York band fun. (yes, "fun." with a period is the official name).

It wasn't until Ruess' girlfriend was driving around Los Angeles listening to the radio a few weeks ago that the song's popularity hit home to him.

"She kept texting me: 'It's on.' 'It's on again.' 'And again.'"

It only takes a couple of listens for the mega-hit to seep into your memory, with its giant chorus: "Toni-i-i-i-ght, we are young / So let's set the world on fire / We can burn brighter than the su-uh-uh-un."

"We Are Young" is still burning bright after five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Its TV exposure has ranged from nearly every late-night talk show to a "Glee" performance to a Chevrolet ad that first aired during the Super Bowl.

The song is is the first debut single by a rock band to go No. 1 since Nickelback's "How You Remind Me" in 2001.

In the wake of all this attention, fun.'s show in Minneapolis was upsized twice, and now will play in the biggest club in the metro area.

Talking by phone from (where else?) the tour bus just a few days before the latest venue change, Ruess sought to justify the initial switch to a bigger space.

"We booked this tour really not knowing what was going to happen, and if anything we booked it as an underplay," he said, using the concert-biz term for purposefully playing small venues to sell out.

"It's OK if the shows are packed and only a few fans don't get in. That's sort of how a buzz is built nowadays. But there comes a point when it looks like you're just being downright rude if you're not playing a bigger venue."

Ruess is not making his first go-round with fun. The 30-year-old Arizona native's earlier, scrappier band the Format earned a short-lived record deal with Elektra Records in the early-2000s and toured steadily until an abrupt breakup in 2008.

"I gave up thinking I could ever have a hit song, going back to when I was 22 and dropped by a label," said Ruess.

"It just never seemed possible. Fortunately, there were all these other avenues and amazing ways to do this professionally and still make the music I love. I feel lucky just to have done this as a profession now for like 11 years."

It was with the Format that Ruess made his first trek to Minneapolis. The singer said he vividly remembers playing the former Glam Slam space.

"We knew it was Prince's club, so we kept going, 'Will Prince be here?' 'Is he here yet?' Of course, he never showed, but we still had a blast."

Ruess formed fun. with a couple of guys he met on the road with the Format: Andrew Dost, formerly of Anthallo, and Jack Antonoff of Steel Train. Their 2009 debut, "Aim & Ignite," barely blipped on the radar, but they proceeded to tour with the popular emo/teen-rock bands Jack's Mannequin and Paramore.

Gearing up to make fun.'s second record, the defining moment came when Ruess pitched "We Are Young" to producer Jeff Bhasker, who helmed recent albums by Kanye West, Beyonce and Alicia Keys.

"I kind of got the vibe that he was like, 'Who is this kid? Why is my manager making me sit with him?'" Ruess recalled. "We ended up hitting it off, though. I ended up having a lot to drink, too."

And that's when he unveiled the song.

"I had just written it like a week before, and I hadn't sung it for anybody else. I sang it for him, and his jaw just dropped. We went into the studio a day later, and we hammered out an early version of the song."

Bhasker eventually produced all of the band's sophomore album, "Some Nights." The futuristic pop/R&B polish of "We Are Young" can be heard throughout the record's 11 tracks, but traces of Queen's operatic bombast also come out, especially in the title track (the next single).

With an F-bomb prominently dropped just 20 seconds in, the rest of the album reinforces something largely lost in the success story of "We Are Young": Ruess' songs are not exactly kid-friendly. The lyrics of "We Are Young" could prove especially troublesome when teens start asking for it at prom or high-school graduation. One of the opening verses goes, "My friends are in the bathroom getting higher than the Empire State."

Ruess said the lyrics reinforce how unexpected this sudden mega-fame was.

"I would hate to have to put a filter on my lyrics or change the way I write," he said, laughingly recalling an earlier interview where the "getting higher" line came up.

"I was asked if I use drugs. The truth is, I've never used drugs in my life. None of my friends use drugs, either. So it's interesting how your brain works. If I'm writing something, I like to sort of overblow the ideas."

Whatever you think of Ruess' story about being a teetotaler, it's certainly more believable than the one about never hearing the song on the radio.

Source: (c)2012 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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