Three months ago, if you asked me which rock band would rule 2012, I would have told you The Black Keys, hands down. And while Akron's finest are certainly having a banner year, nobody is dominating the music universe right now quite like Fun., the New York pop-rock trio whose single "We Are Young" has, ahem, set the world on fire. A microcosm of Fun.'s career, "We Are Young" built slowly, then exploded suddenly. Released last September to minimal fanfare, it built steam steadily (with a little help from "Glee") until it appeared in Chevy's Super Bowl ad February 5 and rocketed into the public consciousness. An iTunes firestorm ensued, and the song shot into heavy rotation on seemingly every radio station in the country. (I count at least four signals in Columbus blasting it on the regular.) By March 7, the song was No. 1 on the singles chart, a position it has yet to concede.
And while "We Are Young" is Fun.'s public face for the moment, it's just one great single on an album full of them. "Some Nights" is an expansive pop opus, bridging bombast of the past (Queen) and present (Kanye West) in a surge toward something new. And while not everyone among the band's old-school fan base appreciates the album's grand, triumphant strokes — hey, AutoTune ain't for everybody — count me among those who considers "Some Nights" a bold step into the future.
With the band set to play a sold-out LC Pavilion this Thursday, I phoned keyboard player Andrew Dost to discuss Fun.'s rapid rise, the passionate (and polarizing) response to "Some Night" and the inner workings of the creative process.
Alive: You guys have been to Columbus a few times over the years, but I imagine none of the shows were as big as this one’s going to be.
Andrew Dost: Yeah, we’ve been a few times over the years. And I remember the first time, I don’t think we got booed, but we didn’t go over so well, I know that much. I’m from Michigan and apparently there was some weird animosity there. But the last few times were fantastic. Yeah, we’re really looking forward to it.
Does it feel like this massive success has come overnight?
It does and it doesn’t. It does in the sense that we were on a pretty consistent path, I guess, just for the last couple years. Things were fine for us, and we were really happy to tour, and our fans were wonderful to us. That felt like a years-long process of touring and learning and growing. And lately it’s felt very overnight. It’s very much like, ‘Whoa, I never would have expected us to be on the Billboard Hot 100.’ You know, being in a band for the last 10 years, I never really thought that would happen. So that’s been very overnight and very nice.
I understand you chose to work with Jeff Bhasker because you admired his work on Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
We were big fans of Jeff’s work, both with Kanye and Drake and Alicia Keys and Beyonce. And he was kind of the dream producer for this album just because not only is he such a genius, but he also kind of represents everything that I love about music today. Like, he’s experimental, but he’s also a classic ear. So it was really kind of a dream to get to work with him, and I feel really proud of what we did together.
How much of the sound of the album did you guys conceive before Jeff got involved?
We knew that that’s the sound we wanted, we just didn’t know how to do it. We had talked a lot about, like, “OK, this Drake beat here.” We were listening to the last Kanye album pretty heavily, “Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and we were fans of how that was so theatrical and just a vast masterpiece. And we just wanted to—I don’t know, there are so many sounds and so many inspiring things about that album. So we had talked about all these difference reference points, like “The drums here are going to kick in like they do on ‘Lost in the World’,” or whatever. So getting to work with a guy who had a big part of that album was just huge for us. And not just Jeff, but some of the engineers, and another producer named Emile Haynie also made a few songs on the album. So working with those people, with the creative team that helped Kanye bring his vision to life, was just inspiring on so many levels for us.
Was it hard to figure out how far the hip-hop influences should extend? Like, did it ever cross your mind to have rapping on a song?
It was pretty natural. I mean, we are who we are, I guess, in terms of we love classic pop melodies, and songwriting and stuff. We wanted to just kind of pick and choose where the influence came from in terms of—like I’m not going to write a nu metal song or something. I’m going to be writing poppier rock songs, I guess. So we never wanted to change who we were, we just wanted to bring some more of the future, I guess, into our songs. Because our first album was pretty retro sounding, which is fine. I’m really proud of that album too. But I guess from this one, we wanted more of what’s inspiring us currently, which is, there’s just so much cool music being made, and so many cool directions music can go in. I guess we didn’t want to make another more classic pop album. We wanted to experiment a little more.
You can definitely hear a heavy classic rock influence too, especially Queen.
Yeah, we didn’t want to lose those things because I feel like that’s part of who we are. That’s just going to happen. When Nate is singing and I’m on piano and Jack is on guitar, those are the songs that we make. And I feel like it would be dishonest to try to force ourselves to make other kinds of sounds. But those elements, we didn’t want to lose, definitely.
You obviously feel very strongly about the album. How does it feel to have so many people also respond strongly to it?
It’s a really amazing feeling. I think that’s something that artists really hope for, whether or not they talk about it. Like, we worked hard on it, and I would be proud of it no matter what any sort of reaction was or whether anybody came to shows or whatever. But knowing that it seems to be pretty well received is a really good feeling. And I don’t know if that’s across the board. I’ve really only talked to my parents. I don’t really read reviews anymore. But my parents really seem to like it, so that’s good for me.
Are any of your old fans upset about the new direction or you guys getting so popular?
Yeah, there’s a little backlash. I try to not check my Twitter @ replies very often anymore because the positive stuff I kind of don’t care about, and then the negative stuff really, really hurts me, so there’s no happy middle for me. I feel like it’s been from what I’ve seen and what people have told me, it’s pretty split. I think some of our fans from the first album really like it and it’s really resonated with them and they’re kind of going along with us for this ride in terms of hearing the song on the radio. I think some of them are really excited about that kind of thing. And then others tell us we’re sell-outs, and we shouldn’t have used AutoTune, and the beats are stupid, they just prefer real drums. It’s pretty divided, at least from what I can see. But I don’t know.
Do you think it’s possible to sell out, or is that an outmoded word?
I think it’s an obsolete word, or outmoded. I like that you said that. But I don’t know if everybody realizes that it’s obsolete. Because I think part of what makes bands able to survive now is having your song in a commercial or having fans come to your show. You need those things. And you need a lot of fans. I think if you want to keep making music, people have to understand that you have to make money somehow. And so I think we’re at a weird point where, like, maybe there’s still that mentality that maybe underground bands or indie bands are the only ones that have integrity. But I think it’s possible to have a lot of integrity and to be accessible to a wider audience. Look at Kanye West. I think “Dark Twisted Fantasy” is one of the greatest works of art ever made. And he’s the biggest artist in the world. And I think this is a really exciting time for music because artists are realizing that, like, you can make whatever art you want, and if you’re proud of it, and if it’s good, people will listen to it. So I think we’re getting a lot of experimentation out of people like Kanye who understand that. I think it’s just a really exciting time. And it’s a really exciting time for fans too because they’re getting anything they want to listen to. Anybody can make an album, anybody can download an album, anybody can listen to an album. It’s just a really exciting time. And I think box somebody in as a sellout because they’re popular is really unfair. And I feel like that’s a pretty small portion of what I’ve felt thus far. I feel like in general our fans are really, really cool about it, and really proud and happy. Some of them say they feel so giddy when they hear us on the radio or whatever. And I love that. That’s how I feel when I hear, even like Weezer, even though they’re a gigantic band. When, like, “Say It Ain’t So” comes on the radio, I still get really, really excited and really happy because that’s an awesome song. I’m just happy to hear it.
Has the experience of playing a show changed since you guys hit it big?
Yes and no. I feel like our fans have always been really cool and really good, and like, shows always feel like celebrations. And there’s always a lot of happiness and community and peace and tolerance and singing along at our shows. And that’s something that we really — we don’t take that for granted at all. We love it, and we take it really seriously, and we’re really proud of it. And that hasn’t changed at all. Shows feel the same. Shows feel like a safe environment where people can just come sing along. And I love that.
“Some Nights” is the next single. Are you guys nervous about how that will be received?
Oh yeah, terrified. (laughs) But on the other side of the coin, we’re still really grateful for what has happened with “We Are Young.” If that’s the only song that really takes off from the album, that’s OK with us. We’re still really proud and happy about that. But also, there’s still a lot of expectations or hopes for another single too. So yeah, it’s a big mix of feelings. I’m just happy that “Some Nights” is going to be the single because I really love that song, and I love playing it live. We’re really proud of that one too. So I’m just a little nervous but very happy.
You talked about Kanye making a big statement with his album. Obviously your album makes a pretty big musical statement. Do you feel like there’s a lyrical statement there too?
Yeah, I mean, I guess I wouldn’t at all call it a concept album. But I would say that the way we listen to music and the way we think about albums is in terms of the entire thing, and that there ought to be some threads that weave throughout. And I always try to make albums that should be listened to in one sitting. Hopefully the songs can stand alone, but ultimately they’re meant to be listened to together as an entire experience. So in that sense, yeah, we definitely set out to do that. And I guess a lot of the songs deal with similar themes, and the majority of that is about just being a different person on any given night. That’s what “Some Nights” as an idea is all about. You can be anybody depending on who you are and who you’re with. And sometimes you might not like who it is, and sometimes you might be really proud of who that is. It just varies every night. So that’s, I guess, loosely what the whole album is about, but I wouldn’t call it a concept album or anything. It’s just a collection of songs that have some similar themes.
How long was the process of recording the album?
We started in January of 2011. We met at a cabin in upstate New York and just kind of pounded it out for about a week. And then we came back to New Jersey and wrote for another couple weeks. And then basdically as soon as we hit March we started recording. I would say start to finish of the recording process was like two and a half months, but the bulk of it was in LA in March. And then the mixing took months after the fact. It was months of mixing. And then we came back to New York and recorded a couple songs too.
I imagine the mixing job on songs with this many layers is insane.
It was, and especially for us because I don’t know how to wrap my head around beats in terms of like a sound field. I don’t even understand how that really even fits together. But fortunately the people that mixed it really understand far better than we do. So I thought they did a great job. And Jeff actually, the producer, mixed a great deal of it. And just, it’s outstanding.
Obviously you’re in the midst of promoting this album, but have you thought much about the next one?
Yeah, that’s always in my mind. I’m really excited, especially after making this album and being so inspired. It was really mind-opening in a lot of ways because working with a guy like Jeff makes you think about music a little bit differently. And the studio is where I’m most kind of at home and happy. I like to tour, but I really, really like to make albums. I’m looking forward to the next one for sure.
I have to ask: What’s the story with the period in the band name? Is it significant?
It is. It wasn’t something that we really planned. When we decided on the name fun, we Googled it extensively for just days and days of intense research. And we couldn’t find anything. We thought, ‘Wow, it’s never happened. A band has never just been called Fun.” And so we did it, and maybe a few months later, we heard from a band that I think is from Sweden, and they said that they were called Fun. And we didn’t necessarily have to necessarily change it, but they said if we distinguished our name in some way so that people could know the difference, and I guess the period ended up working for them. So it kind of stuck, and I like it because we’re not really, like, a party band. We’re not really fun. We’re fun, I guess, with a period. A little more subdued. So I’m actually really happy that it worked out the way it did because it kind of, I guess, dulled down the name a little bit.
One more thing: I was talking to a local radio DJ who also does weddings, and he told me “We Are Young” is now the song people get in a circle and sing at their weddings. “The new ‘Piano Man,’” he called it.
Oh really? That’s awesome. Oh, that rules! That makes me so happy.
I guess that bodes well for the staying power of your band.
I sure hope so. We were just talking about that. Things are really good right now, but I wonder what’s going to happen in five years, or ten years, or a month. So that’s really good to hear. That’s awesome.