Fun. – New York rockers on the rise
After years of girl pop and hip hop on top, a New York guitar band called Fun are about to turn back the tide
20 April 2012
Who would think to look for the latest saviours of rock music in a tiny London venue? The New York trio Fun arrive at sweaty little XOYO in Shoreditch next month, a scenario that belies their status as America’s biggest new band and the harbingers of music’s latest sea change.
Fun (who style their name with a full stop which I’ll remove here for the purposes of comprehension) are the group behind the biggest single in the US this year, and the first number one rock single in almost four years. The song, We Are Young, has now sold 3.6 million copies and this week was rush-released in the UK to keep up with demand.
The band argue that their sudden success signals a shift away from the synthesized girl pop and hip hop that has controlled the charts for so long. “It’s exciting for us to be here right now because I do think that music is starting to come back around. It feels as though a tide as turning,” Nate Ruess, Fun’s singer and chief songwriter, tells me. A skinny 30-year-old who almost made it with a previous band, The Format, at 21, his years watching from the sidelines have allowed him to formulate a theory about shifting patterns in the public’s musical taste.
“It was such an amazing time in the Nineties, when you could be on a major label and be a rock band and write amazing songs, like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins. I think what happened is rap-rock came along and just destroyed it. It polarised everybody and drew a line in the sand to the point where you could only be a pop group or an indie rock group. I think that’s one of the things that has harmed the music industry, never mind all the technological changes. It was the fact that things were so black and white.”
Fun’s sound is much less clear cut. It could be said that they’ve brought guitars back to the charts by subterfuge. We are Young principally features bright piano and thumping electronic drums from hip hop producer Jeff Bhasker, and a huge, huge, pop tune with multilayered vocals, Queen-style. Unusually, the pretty tune slows down as it reaches the chorus, for an arm-waving moment so catchy (“Tonight, we are young/So I set the world on fire/We can burn brighter/Than the sun”) it lodges in the brain like an icepick.
I tell Ruess that his song is currently occupying my head to such an extent that I can no longer remember the names of my children. It seems to have that effect on people. In February last year, he finally got to sing it to Bhasker after the producer had cancelled two previous meetings because he was busy working on Beyoncé’s far more important 4 album. “He stopped silent and made a face that I now recognise, that meant: ‘Wow. This is ON.’ We went into the studio the next day.” Beyoncé was left hanging for this little known band instead. “So from that point on my expectations for the song were pretty crazy.”
Having made a debut album in 2009 of theatrical, tricksy pop-rock reminiscent of emo bands like Panic! At the Disco, Ruess’s big idea for Fun’s second was to add hip hop production to the mix. “Jeff worked on Runaway by Kanye West, which is probably my favourite song of the last 10 years. He also did a ballad with Alicia Keys called Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart which is kind of a template for what we’re doing now. So he absolutely had to be the producer. I feel like Kanye took over from Radiohead in terms of being innovative while also writing songs that everybody could sing, and that’s what we want to do too.”
The rest of the album is equally polished, making frequent use of the fashionable Auto-Tune vocal effect, and is sure to win over all those Katy Perry fans.
The world outside of rock has helped Fun’s progress in other ways. Last December, before We are Young was a hit for the band, it rose high in the charts as the latest imagination-capturing cover version on Glee.
Covering an unknown song was unusual for the show. “Glee doesn’t break bands. We celebrate existing pop success – that’s our core model,” music supervisor PJ Bloom said. For this song they made an exception and it worked.
Then at the end of January, the song was used as the backing for a Chevrolet car advert during the Super Bowl. Ads are all part of the show during America’s biggest sporting event, with companies competing with each other for the most eye-catching segment.
Chevy seemed to win this year with a clip featuring cars bungee jumping, falling out of planes and doing skateboard tricks, all for real, while Fun’s anthem provided the perfect setting. YouTube it – it’s great. “Madonna was playing live in this big comeback, and we were just the background song in a commercial,” says Ruess. “Then sure enough, the next freaking morning, it went crazy.”
And the craziness shows no signs of abating as the song goes global. Ruess can afford to be amused by the situation, having tasted major label life’s more painful side the first time around with The Format. “When I was 19 I thought I’d written a song that should have been bigger than this one. It was called The First Single,” he says. A breezy tune built on an energetic acoustic strum, it didn’t chart when released in 2003 and the band were later dropped from their label. “So I thought if it didn’t happen then it’ll never happen again. If we do end up being a one-hit band now, I’m pretty sure I can live with that.”
He’ll make sure he enjoys this prolonged moment for as long as it continues too. “I like being the centre of attention right now. I’m getting to write with some amazing people, but I also get to say, ‘No, it’s my turn.’” Over a decade since he first thought he had a hit on his hands, he’s earned it.
We Are Young is out now, followed by the album Some Nights on May 21, both on Atlantic. On May 14 Fun play XOYO, EC2 (0870 264 3333 , xoyo.co.uk); and Heaven, WC2 (0844 847 2351, heaven-live.co.uk) on July 9.