Interview: Fun.'s Nate Ruess on writing and recording We Are Young

Ready for Fun.: Singer Nate Ruess (center), flanked by multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost (left) and guitarist Jack Antonoff.

Asked whether he was starting to get sick of talking about We Are Young, the ridiculously catchy, Queen-sized (and vaguely Queen-sounding) rock anthem that has spent the past two weeks at number one on the US Billboard Top 200 chart, Fun. lead singer Nate Ruess says, "I want to answer 'yes,' but then I start thinking about it and the answer is 'no.'

"Every time I talk about the song, I discover something new about it," he continues. "And the biggest thing I'm realizing is how proud I am of having made such an unconventional song that's being embraced by so many people. That's huge."

Also getting huge is Fun., which also includes guitarist Jack Antonoff and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost. The New York City-based trio came together after Ruess' old band The Format split up in 2008. After issuing an adventurous, alt-rock-pop-progressive debut album, Aim And Ignite, Ruess started hearing hip-hop beats for the band's next record, and he relentlessly pursued famed producer Jeff Bhasker (Beyonce, Kayne West, Jay-Z) to helm the just-released full-length Some Nights.

We Are Young started out slow, but its build has been steady, and now it seems like an unstoppable force of nature: Glee, a Super Bowl commercial, the top spot on the charts - it's not hard to picture who will have the primo seats at next year's Grammy Awards.

We spoke with Nate Ruess about how the behemoth tune came about, how he convinced Jeff Bhasker to get in the studio with a rock trio and whether he fears being the next one-hit wonder. (And if by some chance you haven't yet heard We Are Young, it's on the next page of this interview.)

OK, so going to the number one spot, what's that feel like?

"Going number one is so… unexpected. I was dropped from a label when I was 21 years old, and at that point I gave up thinking that I'd ever have a hit song. With Fun., I decided to concentrate on a live show, and fortunately we've been able to build up a fan base. For all of this to happen now, we're pleasantly surprised and willing to embrace it."

You were pretty set on Jeff Bhasker producing the album. Why did you think he was the right guy?

"I was listening to a lot of hip-hop at the time. Before that, any of the writing I was doing was feeling stale. Getting more into hip-hop made me really love popular music again; it made me feel that I wanted to be a real fan and not just some guy who listened to Van Morrison and lamented about the days of old - days I didn't even grow up in.

"Looking at liner information, I noticed that Jeff was a driving force behind a lot of the stuff I was listening to. It took a little convincing for the label to get on board with me trying to bring a hip-hop element into our music - luckily, the other guys in the band didn't need any convincing - but after a couple of emails, they were like, 'OK, Nate, whatever you think.' That was pretty cool."

We Are Young came to you while driving in your car, is that right?

"Yep, pretty much. I just starting singing, 'Toniiiight… we-are-young…' The words just came out, which is always a good sign. At first, I didn't think it was a chorus. I thought, OK, this is probably just the end part of a really long song or something. But it got stuck in my head, and I realized, 'Oh, shoot, I think this is a chorus.'"

Did you immediately record your singing into your phone? How did you start putting ideas down?

"I did, yeah - I sang into my phone what is essentially the chorus. And then I remember asking the other two guys for chord progressions. Andrew sent me this beat and a chord progression, and it had a little drop in it with, like, this note. I ended up using some of those chords for writing the verses, and I used that drop part - suddenly, I had a song."

Did you have a full demo of the song to play for Jeff?

"No. The rest of the guys hadn't heard it, and as for Jeff, I just sang him the chorus in a hotel room - and two days later, we were in the studio working on it."

When he heard you singing the chorus, that's what convinced him to work with the band?

"Well, we had a meeting. He had already blown me off twice before, so I wasn't expecting much; in fact, I was already thinking of other producers. But we ended up having a really good time, so he invited me up to his room to listen to a couple of the Beyonce demos he was working on. I think I was inebriated enough that I just sang him the chorus. His jaw kind of dropped to the floor, and he started freaking out, like, 'Let's go to the studio tomorrow!'"

The song is so elaborately plotted out - there's three very distinct sections to it. How did the pieces come together in the studio?

"These are good questions because they relate to how my mind works. So I had the verse, but because I write in my head I don't pay attention to how things fall in time. I knew that the verse was a little fast, but I was going to use that moment where the piano drops out to reset the tempo for the chorus.

"I sang Jeff the verses, and he kind of followed along on the piano. Then we hit the chorus, and I said that it had to have a Dr Dre kind of 'jing-jing-jing-jing-jing' thing to it. He bought into that right away. But we hadn't changed the tempo yet, and I sang the verses really slow, which was a drag.

"I was so scared of Jeff: He was already doing everything I wanted, and because he's like this god in my mind, I didn't want to say, 'OK, we need to do this double-time. We need to speed that verse up.' Because he's a hip-hop guy, and he's used to doing one beat throughout a song.

"When I first brought it up, Jeff was livid that I would even want to try something like changing the tempo. But he tried it, and he thought it was terrific, and he loved my slow vocal on the verse - that's my original take on the slow verse, but it's been sped up."

Talk about the bridge - how did that take shape?

"The bridge was very interesting. When we did that part, I could see Jeff's attitude changing to 'Oh, shoot, I might want to do a full album with these guys.' I hadn't even thought of a bridge, but I had this old part to another song I never used, so I started singing him the 'na-na' part. Suddenly, his eyes lit up.

"I didn't make the final cut, because me singing the 'na-nas' is really stressful on the voice - and I knew I wanted kids singing it. That was one of the few times I ever got melodic help from anyone. Jeff was so inspired by this part that he started singing the 'carry me home' part."

Mad men? Dost, Ruess and Antonoff go retro-cool.

The song has a real Queen feel, especially in the bridge. Were they a reference point in the studio? Are you a big Queen fan?

"Queen was never a reference point - although I'm a huge fan. For this band, Queen is only a reference as far as our harmonies go, and maybe the guitar playing, because Jack is such an amazing guitar player, and Brian May is, too. When we were cutting the song, though, Queen was never mentioned."

What did Jack and Andrew play on the track?

"Jack plays guitar, and Andrew went in and redid the piano parts. They also helped out with the second verse, which was a little shoddy to begin with. They added a real rocking element to it and made it not such a pop song."

When you first heard the finished version, what did you think?

"I wasn't thinking about the song singularly at all; I was more thinking of the album and saying, 'OK, this experiment might work.' But then people like Jeff and the head of our label were like, 'This sounds like a hit song,' and so I thought, Great - now I don't have to worry about writing any more singles."

A big hit song is something every artist dreams of, but are you nervous at all of the dreaded one-hit wonder syndrome?

"No, not at all. Any way we can expose people to our band is a good thing. Whatever happens happens. We didn't come out trying to write a hit song. A song like this ups our profile, so whoever sticks around sticks around."

Do you still have the phone recording of you singing the chorus?

"Yeah, I think I do. I have so much of that stuff because I do it so often."

You know you're going to have to put it up on YouTube at some point.

"Not gonna happen! I think I hit some bad notes on it." [laughs]

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.