Few would have guessed going into 2012 that fun. would end the year as the country’s most successful new band, but with a pair of unavoidable top five Hot 100 hits—the chart-topping “We Are Young” and the No. 3-peaking “Some Nights,” both of which also placed quite high on our Top 100 Songs of the Year—fun. somehow ended up as the year’s biggest rock success story. Perhaps no one was more surprised than Nate Ruess himself, lead singer of the New York-based trio, who says he had long since given up on achieving this level of mainstream success. We talked with the Arizona native about his unexpected year in the spotlight, and about the songs that made it possible.
How was your 2012?
You know, it’s not over yet. So who knows, it could go horribly wrong…
Well, the first 11 months, anyway.
The first 11 months have been pretty crazy. It’s been, like, 99% incredible and 1% something. It’s been hard, just having such a big year commercially, going through a schedule that we could have never imagined in all the previous years that we’ve been professional musicians….you kinda lose focus on a lot of the people you love, and stuff like that. It’s a give and take, like anything in life, but it’s hard not to spend December listening to the Counting Crows song “A Long December.”
Did you have one moment that kinda stands out as the defining moment of the year?
I think playing Saturday Night Live was probably, among a billion other things. You could certainly make an argument that we’ve had a fairytale type of year, but in terms of the goals we set as a band, I think that Saturday Night Live was always at the very top of that list. I think having commercial success wasn’t something that we ever even thought that we would have, so that’s all good, but as far as a tangible goal, I think playing SNL was that.
Did you have a favorite song of the year that wasn’t done by you guys?
There’s a band that we like to bring out on tour with us all the time called Miniature Tigers, they released an album this year, and they have a song called “Angel Bath” that I’ve probably listened to the most out of any song that was released this year. Otherwise, right now, I’m really into the Ellie Goulding song “Anything Can Happen.”
Was there anything else about the year that you really liked, pop culture-wise? Favorite movies, TV shows, etc.?
Well, this was the year that we watched more movies On-Demand in our hotel room than any year before. And Movies On-Demand is one of the greatest gifts that anybody in a hotel room can ever spend $20 on.
Any specifically great or specifically terrible On-Demand choices?
I think the three of us were really collectively into That’s My Boy and Chipwrecked.
Sorry, what was that second one?
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked!
Nice! What about Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked really spoke to you guys?
It was colorful! And when all you wanna do is eat a really crappy hotel room club sandwich—your 17th one, like, that week—Chipwrecked is like the perfect thing to have on in the background.
Do you remember what your New Years’ Resolution was last year? Do you have one for this year yet?
You know, I will say that I didn’t make a New Years’ Resolution, but I quit smoking this year.
Thank you. The fact that I quit smoking was pretty amazing. So therefore, I’m gonna take off this year off from any resolution.
Did the Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez breakup change your viewpoint on love?
They broke up?
Shit. Apparently not. But I wish them the best.
The first time you listened to “We Are Young,” did you have a feeling that it was gonna be a hit?
No, not at all. I think when you’ve been going at it as long as we have, in all of our bands, there’s always been talk of “This is the Album, or this is the song…” or so on and so forth. And I think after your second album, you just drown it out completely…I don’t know, I’m not good at predicting what the radio is gonna like, or what people are gonna like. I usually just do what I know, or what inspires me.
So I was more just happy that the song existed, and when people were saying that it was gonna be big…I thought everything on the radio was like, four-on-the-floor, so I thought there was no way it was gonna work because it wasn’t a dance song. So I was second guessing everybody, but the people I was second-guessing would know a lot more than I would about whether or not it was going to be a hit.
Did you pay attention to the song’s climb up the charts? Were you checking Billboard for how it was doing?
Yeah! For sure, and that was really exciting for us, because like I said, it wasn’t something that we ever anticipated, and it’s also something that we kind of gave up on that dream of having a #1 song by the time we were 15 years old and in punk bands. So to see that happen, we couldn’t help but pay attention to it.
What did you do to celebrate when the song hit #1?
We had just stepped off from an airplane, like…all I remember is that Jack [Antonoff, guitarist] and I were super, super sick, and we had to get up that morning and fly, on a jet at like 5:00 in the morning, we’d gotten like three hours of sleep, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. And I just remember getting into a cab, and Andrew [Dost, instrumentalist] wasn’t sick, and the cabby was clearly on some sort of methamphetamine or something. And he was talking to Andrew, and Andrew was talking his ear off, and I just wanted to punch both of them in the face. And eventually, we got on the airplane, and as soon as we landed, one of the people from our label who picked us up at the airport told us the song was #1. And I don’t even think we like, cared, at that point, cause we were just desperately trying to find a Walgreen’s.
Once “We Are Young” had that level of success, did you feel a doubled sort of pressure for “Some Nights” to do equally well?
Yeah. I think with “We Are Young” doing what it was, we felt that OK, if this is who we are, we were in about as good a place as we could possibly be, and I think in wanting to stay there, we thought “‘Some Nights’ has to do well.” And for “Some Nights,” it’s an interesting song, because I never even thought of it as a single. When I was writing it, I thought it was most certainly just for the fans of the album, because it felt like more than anything, a very important piece of the album. Not a single.
Yeah, they’re both kind of unconventional songs for pop singles. Did you ever get any kind of pressure, while recording or after the fact, to kind of edit them down, make them more conventional?
No. And that’s what makes any of the success really fantastic for us, is that when we signed the deal with our label…there was never a pressure to be anything other than ourselves. Anything that we’ve done in our careers has been based upon just being ourselves, and I think that’s the most important thing for any artist.
That line in “Some Nights” about looking into your nephew’s eyes (“When I look into my nephew’s eyes / Man, you wouldn’t believe the most amazing things that can come from some terrible lines”), do you actually have a nephew that it’s based on? How old is he?
I do! He is five years old…shit, he might be six! But, uh, I get to see him every time we roll through his town on tour. It’s really cool, because he really loves that song.
Does he have any kind of personal fame from that song?
I guess. He always says “Mom, play the song where it talks about me!” And he knows all the words to the song.
With “We Are Young,” was it a conscious decision to have the word “tonight” in the chorus have so many syllables? Did you ever try it with less, more?
No…when I first did the song, in the studio with Jeff our producer, I had all the syllables in the song. He was definitely trying to cut them out, and he had never really heard me sing full force. Every time I had showed him the song, it wasn’t in the right key or something, I wasn’t really showing him how big the song was going to be in terms of me belting it. So, I think at first he really tried to curb it. But I’m like a wild stallion, so…
Can’t be tamed, sure.
Yeah! I can’t be tamed! Especially as far as extending syllables! It’s something I subconsciously do and when I remember writing the song in my head, thinking that was pretty cool. So at first when he tried to stop it, I was like “No fucking way.” And fortunately, he ended up really hearing and hearing the single, and he knew that he wasn’t going to stop that train.
What do you do when you hear your song either on the radio or on TV? Can you still stomach it?
I’m always slightly embarrassed. I’m like 40% embarrassed and 50% freaking out. Anytime I’m around other people and it comes on, I’ll run and hide. But if I’m by myself and I hear it, like, on the radio, I just freak out.
If you had the choice of being remembered for one of the two songs, which would you rather be remembered for?
Is this a sort of like Sophie’s Choice? I have an answer, but I’m just not gonna tell you. I’ll let you guess.