By August Brown, Los Angeles Times
10:00 AM EST, February 3, 2013
Considering the powerful audience that New York trio Fun. performed for last month, its set during next week's Grammys telecast must feel like a house party gig.
"When President Obama asks you to play, there's no way you can say no," said Nate Ruess, the group's singer, about Fun.'s set at the president's inaugural ball in Washington, D.C. "Just before we met him I had to keep reminding myself, 'Don't call him Obama!' I wound up going with 'Mr. President' instead."
Those are the kinds of welcome new quandaries now facing Ruess and his band. After years of slogging it out on the indie rock club circuit, Ruess formed Fun. in 2008 with multi-instrumentalists Andrew Dost and Jack Antonoff, and four years later the trio vaulted to the top of American pop. Its second album, 2012's "Some Nights," paired classic-pop melodies with modern hip-hop production styles and earned the group six Grammy nominations, including nods in all four major categories: album of the year, record of the year, song of the year and new artist.
In a field of acts with a variety of missions (Black Keys and Jack White saving rock; Frank Ocean using virtuosic R&B to express same-sex attraction), Fun. doesn't have one, except a goal to upend expectations about what makes a pop hit today.
Most pop fans likely know Fun. from its inescapable single "We Are Young," featuring Janelle Monáe." Pop radio has an overabundance of songs about getting out of hand in nightclubs, but "We Are Young" is a barroom blitz in reverse. It's a halftime, piano-driven ballad bleary with the coming hangover — but also the promise of connecting with someone over those many drinks. The song spent six weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was covered on "Glee" and appeared in a high-profile Chevrolet ad during the 2012 Super Bowl.
In a year when several out-of-nowhere pop singles — Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" and Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" — captured the pop zeitgeist, some expected Fun. to join that cast of one-and-done singles artists. But the whole of "Some Nights" has proven more resilient and musically progressive than anyone might have suspected based just on that single.
To make it, the band recruited producer Jeff Bhasker, a longtime collaborator with Kanye West, Alicia Keys and Beyoncé, to work closely with it in deconstructing songs written on acoustic guitars and pianos and reimagining them as small epics of electronic percussion and high drama. The record's title track stacks "Bohemian Rhapsody"-level harmonies with Peter Gabriel percussion and the earnest chants of Arcade Fire. "Carry On" bolsters its Irish-drinking-song lilt with huge, reverbed drum smacks and guitar shredding.
"The whole time we were making it," Bhasker said, "I kept telling them, 'We're making the Grammys' album of the year' — not because we just wanted to win an award but because I thought we were making something of that caliber."
Bhasker, who's also up for a Grammy for producer of the year, nonclassical, was skeptical about the project at first. Ruess dogged him for a meeting, and Bhasker intended to politely humor him for a few minutes in a New York bar between sessions with Beyoncé. "But that moment when he sang the chorus to 'We Are Young,' a cappella, in that bar, it was like, 'Wow, this voice and this song are special. Let's get in the studio tomorrow.'"
Despite Bhasker's input, it was anything but inevitable that Fun. would make it work. After years fronting the modest but well-liked rock band the Format, which released two albums on major labels and a third independently, Ruess had no idea if there was going to be a market for this new sound. It was too urbane and high-gloss for indie rockers and built on old-fashioned pop songwriting structures (ELO was a big influence) that hip-hop and R&B largely avoid.
Though the band signed with the Atlantic Records imprint Fueled by Ramen for "Some Nights," and the label had success breaking emo-rockers like Paramore and Panic! at the Disco into the pop consciousness, Fun.'s tricky album posed its own challenges in becoming a radio staple.
"'Some Nights' wasn't any attempt to break into the mainstream," said Ruess, 30. "I do think the Grammy nominations acknowledged that what we were doing was unique and original. I'd never heard anything like it, for better or worse. I thought I'd have to be explaining our sound forever, but that's what makes it special — it just sounds like us. And it's nice, after spending years playing and sleeping on floors with weird smells and no one putting our songs on the radio and wondering, 'Why do people not get it?'"
It's an aesthetic without obvious peers on mainstream radio or in the Grammy's traditional niches of retro-nostalgia. Ruess and Bhasker think that's what Grammy voters were responding to in making "Some Nights," one of the year's most idiosyncratic albums, one of the most championed.
"I think its popularity is one reason, but as you dig deeper there's a whole body of work there, a classic-ness to the songwriting," Bhasker said. "There's a real trend for individuality this year — all the [major category] artists nominated, from Miguel to Frank Ocean to Mumford & Sons, are doing something really fresh."
The album's success opened other avenues for Ruess' writing and singing — he co-wrote the Kesha hit "Die Young," the first single off her new album, "Warrior," and appeared on Pink's "Just Give Me a Reason" from her album "The Truth About Love."
Commensurately, the Fun. members have become genuine pop celebrities and have availed themselves of the upsides — Antonoff is dating "Girls" producer and star Lena Dunham, and the band's music appears on the show's official soundtrack.
Yet even as Grammy and the pop world have fully embraced Fun., the indie kid in Ruess remains a little uncertain about how this weird project turned him into a presidential crooner and radio-pop's newest savant.
"[Writing for others] is a good exercise, but I don't want to do it too much anymore," he said. "At first it was like, 'I can make actual money doing this? Crazy!' But I still don't understand what makes a song a hit. This is the first time in our lives that we've even been anything close to rock stars, and it's such a crazy honor, especially remembering where these songs came from — me writing in the bathroom of my apartment with the faucet running so I wouldn't wake up my girlfriend."
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