We took a creepy, 15-minute gondola ride up a pitch-black abandoned ski slope in Park City to catch up with fun.’s lead singer Nate Ruess. He didn’t know his band would soon win Best New Artist and Song of the Year at the Grammys.
Paste: So your band the Format had a pretty core audience—obviously not as big as you’ve had with fun., but pretty devoted. How has this been different, getting this kind of response?
Ruess: Things that I learned in the Format I think are certainly crucial and obviously made me who I am as a songwriter and as a person, so I can only imagine being signed as a band at like 19 years old to a major label like I was back in the early days of the Format. Had our one song stuck or had we had the type of success we have now, I don’t think I would have been equipped to deal with it. I probably wouldn’t have been as pleasant a person because I still don’t think I’m equipped to deal with any of it.
Paste: Are you surprised that you’ve had the success you’ve had playing more of the pop rock? Because you guys kind of came out of the indie rock world a little bit.
Ruess: I mean, we came out of our own world, which is even tougher than like anywhere. I think we came out of a place where, and you wonder like, “Who’s going to listen to this?” if I were a businessperson. But as a songwriter or as an artist, I’m just thinking like, “Well, we accomplished what we wanted,” which is to take all of our influences and make something we don’t think has necessarily been done often. And I think with Some Nights the influences just happened to be in line with the new thing, not even intentionally. I’ve become obsessed with a few Kanye West albums and really wanted to use their producer and kind of take like a classic songwriting approach and put that kind of hip-hop production on top of it on a couple of these tracks. It feels more like right place, right time. I think there are a whole bunch of bands out there who make great songs and sometimes it just takes a Super Bowl or something like that, I guess, for it to catch people’s attention.
Paste: Every time I listen to you guys I can’t help but think of the band Queen. Are they at all an influence?
Ruess: It’s weird because it’s not like, it’s not like I walk in and think I want to sound like Freddie Mercury. Out of all my favorite vocalists—and him being influential—he’s probably not even in the top 10. When I sing I always, when I’m writing songs I always picture Paul McCartney singing. Or actually Harry Nilsson, and they both kind of sound the same. So it’s weird because I don’t think too much about Freddie Mercury. I think it’s something that’s just inherent in the songwriting. For me, especially through the second Format album, I was listening to so much Queen, and that was when I first really started writing music. So I think it’s just something that now feels like it’s in my blood, but I don’t like to think to myself like, this sounds like Queen.
Paste: Of all of the things to bring you here to Sundance it’s your passion for green touring and a partnership with Brita. Tell us a little bit about this contest that you guys are doing.
Ruess: Well we’ve fortunately been hooked up from Brita on previous tours. Even in the Format, I did a tour with Reverb. What Brita wants to do is get Brita Bottle Free Bands, and that’s like for bands like I guess like fun. was three years ago—touring around in a van, booking your own tours—Brita will come in and green up your tour. So basically bands should go to the website (brita.com/filterforgood) and check it out and see how they can get Brita and Reverb to green their tour.
Paste: What are you guys doing on your tour—your tour is obviously not four guys in a van anymore—to try make it less tough on the environment?
Ruess: Now it’s a three-bus tour.
Paste: Do you ever feel like the CEO of a company with all of this stuff going on?
Ruess: If I am I’m like the most passive one of all time. I care so much about the show we put together. It’s such a good team around us and the people who take care of us are people who care about what they do, so I don’t really have to say anything. But as far as greening up the tour, we’re doing these Brita filter bottles, which help out immensely, and we’re recycling like crazy people, which is funny because it’s something that we kind of thought, it’s not that we thought it was inconvenient, but when you’re on tour you think you don’t have time to do something as simple as recycling, and it’s just like, recycling couldn’t be any more simple than it already is. And Reverb and Brita have been really cool just as far as helping us bring out our non-profit, which is basically a non-profit that fights for LGBTQ rights and marriage equality.
Paste: So what’s next for fun.?
Ruess: Tour, tour, tour. It’s crazy. We’re playing the inauguration in a few days.
Paste: Is that blowing your mind?
Ruess: It’s blowing my mind in a way that it hasn’t hit yet. And then a couple of weeks after that we’re playing Radio City Music Hall, and the week after that we’re playing the Grammys.
Paste: So what do you think about sitting down and writing new songs for the next album? Is it different from sitting down and writing songs for Some Nights?
Ruess: No. It’s kind of the same because I didn’t start writing for Some Nights until about a month before we went into the studio. For me it’s about getting inspired. For a few years while we were touring when I would write music it felt like I was just rehashing what we’d already done, and I like trying to add some sort of element to the music, trying to challenge ourselves to get into the studio. And then the whole hip-hop thing hit, and then Jeff Bhasker, our producer, he and I wrote “We Are Young,” and it kind of just snowballed from there. It’s not like I’m looking for the exact same thing, like I was writing just the other day, but I’m not putting too much pressure on it.