When Nate Ruess calls from Houston, the singer of pop-rock trio Fun sounds a little overwhelmed as he tries to sneak away for a quick cigarette break. After all, he’s had quite the year—when the group’s smash single “We Are Young” topped the Billboard Hot 100, Ruess and bandmates Jack Antonoff (of Steel Train) and Andrew Dost (of Anathallo) accomplished something Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and Bruce Springsteen never have.
Thanks to its appearance in both a Super Bowl ad and an episode of “Glee” (and seemingly half of the other commercials on TV), “We Are Young” (featuring Janelle Monae) flew up the charts and stayed at No. 1 for three weeks. That made Fun, who released its sophomore album “Some Nights” on Valentine’s Day, the first rock band since Coldplay in 2008 to have the top song in the nation.
Despite the newfound success, Ruess(formerly of the Format), 30, sounds just as surprised as everyone else while talking about his love of Wilco, his aversion to celebration and Googling “fun.”
You guys really took off by having your song on “Glee.” Did you watch the episode featuring “We Are Young”?
I didn’t see it in real time. I had to go to the studio. Andrew and Jack watched it at Jack’s parents’ house and Jack’s mom made a cake and everything. They were texting me while we were in the studio. They were freaking out and I was checking the iTunes charts and it was pretty surreal, since a year ago this wasn’t even in our plans. I was dropped from a major label at 21 or 22, and I gave up on the thought of ever having a hit song at that point in time. I never tried to write a hit song and really haven’t since for Fun. When that happened it was pretty crazy because I was in the studio until like 5 o’clock in the morning. I woke up at some point the next day and I was at Jack’s parents’ house, and his mom cued up the episode and made me watch it. When people cover a song I usually get a little squeamish about that kind of stuff. But she made me watch it. She made me watch 15 minutes before so I understood what the story was and I actually shed a tear. I had to leave the room.
You were signed over a decade ago; at some point you’d just have to think this would never happen.
I watched that Wilco movie [“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”] and there are some amazing quotes that have to do with that. I was going through record label turmoil when I watched that, which is why it’s my favorite movie. I thought, “You don’t have to be so dependent on that type of stuff.” It made me very defiant. And with the Format, even after getting dropped, we self-released our album, and even at that point it was incredible to play shows and have a thousand or more kids come out to our shows because of what we were doing. There was no reliance on our record label. The only reason [Fun] signed with the record label we did was because of the relationship I had with them because they’ve been trying to sign me since I was 17 or 18 years old with my old, old band. ... They understand who we are and don’t expect us to do anything crazy and they thought we could just do what we do but make sure more people hear it. And I thought that was really awesome. I probably would have given up a long time ago if it wasn’t for that Wilco movie.
In movies, whenever they portray a band making it to No. 1 they always show them excitedly gathered around the radio. How did you hear the news you topped the charts?
I’m not going to lie. I check the iTunes charts. It’s all about the iTunes charts. I only go on the Internet for the iTunes charts and basketball blogs. After the Super Bowl, it skyrocketed up. We thought the song would do well, but we thought the song would take a little longer to go up. Andrew’s dad just called him and left a message saying it’s been at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks now and it’s weird. I want to post his message on Twitter because it’s really amazing. It’s more amazing to see how our parents are reacting to it.
You didn’t have any big rock star celebration? You didn’t throw any TVs out the window when you found out you had the No. 1 song in the country?
I’m a very competitive person. I think sometimes to myself, “That’s awesome.” But all I can think about is, “That’s great, how long can it be maintained and how is the rest of the album going to do?” We’re still the same band, we still tour and I just want to maintain everything. It really sucks to work this hard for so long and just give up and celebrate now.
So you’re in for the long run here.
I’m hoping for an early retirement. [Laughs.] No, no, we want to continue and do as well as we possibly can. But there needs to be more.