Lydia Jenkin

Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Boys just want to have Fun

Grammy success for New York trio fun. came after 12 years of hard work, writes Lydia Jenkin.

Fun won a Grammy Award in February for Song of the Year. Photo / AP
Fun won a Grammy Award in February for Song of the Year. Photo / AP

They may seem like an overnight success story, but it's taken the three members of New York indie pop act fun. around 12 years of songwriting and touring to reach the winner's circle at the Grammys.

Last month, the three-piece - singer Nate Ruess, guitarist Jack Antonoff and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost - won the Song of the Year award for their hit track We Are Young, and also the Grammy for Best New Artist, which may have seemed somewhat amusing to the trio of nearly 30-year-olds, who have been touring constantly since their teens.

But speaking from New York on a rare day off, Antonoff (whose girlfriend is actress/writer Lena Dunham) is the first to admit that the past two years have certainly been the making of their career.

"It's been really wild. So many things have happened that we never imagined were possible, and now we seem to be living in this weird fairy tale where anything is possible, and the Grammys are no exception," he laughs.

"It's been very chaotic, but in a nice way, and it's kind of a relief that playing shows is still the most important thing for us - playing our best, and challenging ourselves artistically, because when a band gets big, you never know what's gonna happen, and we just didn't want the story to be about anything except our music, and we've been very lucky that that's where people have kept their focus."

When they formed fun. back in 2008, they knew they were on to something good. All three of them had spent their teens and early 20s touring with different acts, but didn't feel as if they'd yet found their best fit.

"When you start a band when you're 16 or 17, there's a lot of people doing it, but by the time you're 23 or 24 and people have real jobs and have real lives, all of a sudden touring is not so attractive to everyone, so you're able to see who's really in it for the long run.

"And so, Nate, Andrew, and I were all in different bands when we met, but we were on the same tour together, so we got a really good look at each other from a distance, and I could tell Nate and Andrew were serious about music, and really dedicated, and wanted to do it for all the right reasons."

They released their first album as a trio in 2009, entitled Aim and Ignite, and generated positive feedback and reviews for their intelligent pop writing, reaching No 71 in the US charts, and building their fanbase through touring, and supporting acts such as Paramore and Panic! at the Disco.

But it wasn't until they released their first single from Some Nights, the anthemic tale of a loose night out, We Are Young, that the buzz really started. First it was picked up by Glee, then Chevrolet used it in their 2011 Superbowl commercial, before further TV shows and films wanted to use it too.

The momentum reached a peak when the song became No 1 in the US in February last year, before breaking both airplay and digital sales records, and it has now sold more than five million worldwide, with the video having more than 170 million hits too.

Next single Some Nights was more of a sleeper hit, but has sold more than four million, and reached number three in the US. Their third single Carry On has so far reached No 20 in the charts.

So, it's been a pretty good run of late, but did they know they'd written such a mammoth collection of hits when they put the album together?

"In a funny way, I guess we always think that, but we don't think about it in a commercial sense. Whenever we make an album, we keep working on it until we feel like it's our best work ever, and we wouldn't do it if we weren't aiming to create that feeling.

"So we're always trying to crack the code, and do something bigger and better than what we've done before, and get artistically closer to the pinnacle we're trying to achieve, and I think we knew we'd gotten pretty close with this album, but we never think about sales or radio. So, I guess the answer is yes and no."

You can attribute the song's success to many things - the lyrical ideas, vocal performance, chord structures - but it's worth noting that the trio had quite a specific sound palette in mind when they began working on the album, and knew they were keen to find a way to incorporate some of the production elements of R&B and hip-hop into their work.

"We definitely talked about the aesthetic of the album before we started, conversations about the feel of the beats, and the types of sounds we wanted, and what sort of layers we would use.

"For this one, we wanted to incorporate this sort of bombastic hip-hop element, based around these big beats and these sort of incredibly catchy sonic elements that don't exist in other music. But then it was just about letting go and just doing it.

"Once you've set up the parameters you've got the freedom to let things happen."

Getting acclaimed producer Jeff Bhasker on board was also a bold move for the group, but Bhasker, who's worked with Kanye West, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey, among others, has certainly turned up their sound to stadium-sized.

"Getting Jeff was a huge element of the album. We knew that if we worked with him he'd bring out something different in us. Because our own model, up until then, was for the three of us to go in to the studio and do everything ourselves, but working with Jeff was all about giving up some control, and having confidence in someone else, and having enough confidence in our own ideas to let someone else in, so that was a big part of the story behind this album."

Who: fun.
When and where: Performing at the Logan Campbell Centre on Wednesday March 13 (sold out)
Listen to: Some Nights (2012), Aim and Ignite (2009)

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