When it came time to record their sophomore album, the brilliantly catchy orchestral indie-pop band fun. couldn't get hip-hop off the mind. So they went with it.
Singer Nate Ruess says he, guitarist Jack Antonoff and keyboardist (and much more) Andrew Dost were all deeply infatuated with hip-hop, soaking in Kanye West and Drake—simply as music-lovers chasing those sounds they couldn't get out of their heads.
Still, plenty of that hip-hop influence found its way into Some Nights, a follow-up record that combines deep, pulsating rhythms and complex beats with the band's increasingly theatrical type of pop. Ruess points to Jeff Bhasker, the unlikely dream producer who fun. secured after a couple of whiffs.
"It's something that I always wanted to do since we'd really started writing for the album. At the time, I was so inspired by hip-hop, and he was responsible for all these albums that I loved," says Ruess, pointing to Bhasker's résumé highlights that include tracks from Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Drake.
"He blew me off for two meetings, and by the third time, he wanted to sit down and meet with me," Ruess says. "I'd had a little bit to drink, and eventually, I got to singing him the chorus of 'We Are Young,' and we went into the studio two days later."
Some Nights, released Feb. 21 on Fueled by Ramen, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. That's a huge improvement over the peak chart spot of 71 captured by the band's 2009 debut, Aim and Ignite. But even before the album came out, Ruess says the band knew that pairing with Bhasker had paid off.
"There was a bigger sound in mind. The songs are a little slower-moving, and there was an emphasis on trying to write from a classical standpoint," he says. "Aim and Ignite, as much as we love it, was a lot of us finding ourselves. This time, we wanted to be a little more subtle with our production choice. It sounds bigger, because we're doing a less-is-more thing."
The first single, the aforementioned "We Are Young," features Janelle Monáe, a notable genre-mashing guest star whose presence both gives Some Nights a star-level boost and points at the newer, bolder and dancier fun.
"She was always at the top of our list, but we thought it would never happen," Ruess says.
With spots on a Super Bowl commercial and the hit TV-show Glee providing the propulsion, "We Are Young" has already hit double-platinum, an admittedly unlikely place for the band, which formed after a series of other band breakups. (Ruess comes from the Phoenix indie-pop stalwart The Format, Dost from Anathallo, and Antonoff from Steel Train.)
"We owe all of it to this touring base and those fans who initially came out. A lot of them had come from The Format, and they're excited about the band in general now that I'm doing something else," he says. "A lot of times, when you start over, people can give up on you. From the moment we went on our first headlining tour, it was obvious people weren't giving up on us, and we're so grateful for it."
The initial success put the band members on a steep curve, both in terms of getting to know each other and how to collaborate musically.
"I'd say we're a bit of a roller coaster," Ruess says. "We're very distinct personalities, but what I find so exciting about being in this group is me and Andrew and Jack are totally the same in that we're such choosy people with who we let into our inner circle. We've all really let each other into our lives."
That closer band relationship made all the difference in how easily Some Nights came together. Ruess recalls writing the title song—the first one he came up with for the new album. First it was just the phrase, which popped into his head as an interesting title and a possible thematic center for the album. Always introspective, Ruess finds himself pondering what he stands for, night by night.
"That's what I can be on any given night and in any situation. I can wake up after a night out and wonder who that person was," he says.
Ruess first sang "Some Nights" to his band mates one night before a hometown show, after sneaking into a rehearsal space in the Arizona State University's music department. Based on just the vocal melody, Dost and Antonoff came up with the piano chords and rhythm.
"The last album felt too bright, so I had that song, and I showed it to the guys. We were really inspired and a few weeks away from going into the studio, and they hadn't heard half the songs I was working on yet," Ruess says. "It was a really great moment. I feel with the first album, there was so much of me trying to explain myself and telling them, 'Just trust me; just trust me.' With this time, I never had to say, 'Just trust me,' to those guys. They just knew, sometimes more than I would."
The rest of the songs came quickly, from the rush of hip-hop influences and the everlasting bustle of their current home in New York City.
"I write on a personal level," Ruess says. "I tell myself before every album that I'm going to try to write about the guy standing next to me and try to analyze him instead of myself. But I'm too self-aware, I guess."
Some Nights is an album about how many facets life has, and how many facets people have. It's about how the notion of a personal identity exists in the midst of all those ever-shifting facets. In a sense, that's what Ruess has been writing songs about for more than a decade. But with Some Nights—and the song "Why Am I the One" in particular—there's a little more of an answer.
"It's always trying to figure out who I am," Ruess says. "I'm getting to a point in my life where I'm in New York now, and I love being here, and sometimes relationships can be problematic, and I'm always finding myself being the one who has to leave. For once, I want to be the one who stays."