November 24, 2015
By David Accomazzo
When the duo that made up beloved Phoenix band The Format broke up in 2008, its two members went in very opposite directions. Nate Ruess famously dove headfirst into fun. and won Grammys, and instrumentalist Sam Means started a merch company and had a child. He did a little songwriting here and there, but they were mostly smaller projects that didn't require his absolute attention.
Means recently released a single from 10 Songs, the first full-length album he's worked on since the days of The Format. The album is scheduled to come out January 22.
The experience of being in The Format was overwhelming at times for Means, now 35. So after the band ended, he took his foot off the gas pedal.
"I didn't want to jump right back into a full-time band. Just doing things that were safe, that I knew wouldn't turn insane and put me back into the same exact situation," he says. "It's going to be something I could do on a smaller scale. And that was pretty appealing to me at the time."
Raising a child took the wind out of his extracurriculars for a few years, but now, as his daughter is in the first grade and his businesses are strong enough to not require his constant attention, he decided it was time to dive back into music.
He rented a studio near his house and established a songwriting routine. He had spent so much time with songwriting in the rearview mirror, he wanted to do the exact opposite.
"I would go down to the studio after everyone had went to bed and just work on a song that night, with the intention of not spending too much time on it," he says. "Seeing how much I could do in a short period of time, just to keep it exciting."
The result was that from March to October, he guesses, he ended up writing maybe 30 songs. He sent raw recordings to some of his old Format pals — Don Raymond, Marko Buzard, and John O'Reilly — and after trading some demos with them and getting input from producer Steven McDonald of Redd Kross, he had an album.
The album has many hallmarks of The Format sound, though minus Nate Reuss' huge, powerful voice. The songs range from the pop-inflected "Other Side of You" to the twee indie pop sound of album opener "How to Sing." In that song, which begins with a sing-song, almost lullaby-esque piano opening, Means sings, "They say you live forever if you know how to sing / But I don't."
It's a line that reveals the musical journey his life has taken since The Format dissolved. A self-professed introvert who was home-schooled as a child, Means was happy to take the stage behind a stack of keyboards and let Ruess be the frontman of the band. Now that Means is writing music and performing without Ruess, he almost by default found himself stepping into the lead singer role. He's a little nervous about it, though. Save for one performance in 2012, he's never actually sang on a stage.
"For me, it's a little scary," Means admits. "I've been in a professional touring band. So the idea of starting that but on a completely different level is a little nerve-racking . . . I've been trying to figure out a way how to make that happen and not totally freak out over it."
As happy and excited Means is to be a solo artist, it's hard to shake the songwriting habits he formed writing with Reuss, which he developed from age 17 to 28.
"I was used to writing songs and knowing that I had this powerhouse dude that was going to be there to really take it home," he says. "Still, to this day I'll do that. I have a bunch of songs that are more Format songs, more pop, that require a powerful voice . . . It's hard because I have these songs and I want to do something with them, but I just don't feel that I can pull it off. I almost feel like I'm still writing songs for him to sing."