January 22, 2016
By Ed Masley
It’s been 10 years since Sam Means and Nate Ruess, the songwriting partner he’d been working with since they were kids in Peoria, released their final album as the Format, a beautifully realized foray into chamber-pop waters called “Dog Problems.”
Means left the Format in early 2008 and started his own business, a merchandise company called Hello Merch. Ruess went on to multiplatinum success as the leader of fun., winning Grammys and topping the charts with a quadruple-platinum duet with Pink, "Just Give Me a Reason."
They were headlining theater tours by the end of the Format. But Ruess was the one in the spotlight while Means, in his own words, was hiding behind his keyboard.
“I was sort of the dude off in the corner,” he says with a shrug and a smile.
Means is launching his post-Format solo career in earnest with the release of an album called “10 Songs,” recorded with bass player Don Raymond Jr., guitarist Marko Buzard and drummer John O’Reilly Jr. of the Format. It also makes use of the “Dog Problems” dream team, Steven McDonald of Redd Kross producing and Roger Joseph Manning Jr. of Jellyfish providing the arrangements.
It’s a great-sounding record that plays out like a logical successor to the Format’s final effort with one obvious exception. Means and Ruess are very different singers, a fact of life that Means addresses head-on in the first track, “How to Sing.”
“They say you live forever if you know how to sing, but I…”
There’s a dramatic pause before he finishes his thought with “don’t.”
It’s a brilliant self-effacing moment that certainly plays to his strengths as a lyricist.
It’s also not exactly true.
The way Means sings is actually a great fit for this type of introspective chamber-pop. But it’s clear that having shaped his musical identity sharing a stage with a singer of Ruess' abilities has shaped the way he hears his own voice.
“I mean, I know I can sing,” Means allows. “I just, in my brain, don’t consider myself a singer. It’s like a weird mental thing, stacking myself against the singer that I’m so familiar with in songwriting. The contrast is so vast. And it's still pretty new for me. I put out a couple seven inches and did a movie soundtrack but I don’t consider myself a singer even still. I just like writing music and I sing now at this point almost out of necessity because my schedule is so weird in doing this business and I haven’t found anybody I’ve ever been able to write songs with since then. Since Nate. So I’m just kind of on my own, doing what I’ve gotta do.”
He has no touring plans for now, although he has had offers.
“It’s hard,” he says, “because I run a business, which I’m pretty dedicated to being here at this point. I mean, I think I could go do some stuff, but I don’t think I would go tour if I couldn’t tour with all the guys that played on this because it wouldn’t be the same to me. They all have jobs. We live in different states. Everyone’s spread out around the country. We were in the Format., too. But we were a lot younger. We weren’t as committed to families and jobs as we are now.”
There’s also the matter of confidence — or more specifically the lack thereof.
“I’ve never performed live as a singer,” he says. “I’ve done it once. I sang one song at a benefit show for Charlie (Levy). That was it. So I have a little bit of fear, the same kind of fear that I had to just start singing at all on my own. And I have this internal struggle of I want to do this but I want it to be good and I want it to be on the terms that I would want to set for it, which is playing with the guys and really making it the best that it could be. It’s kind of hard too because there’s a lot of strings and horns and things like that on the album. And Nate is such a powerful person that a lot of Format songs had those same things but we didn’t really have to carry them over as much because when you have someone who is such a loud powerhouse vocalist and energetic and just a good performer, it compensates for a lot of those things. And I’m sort of the opposite end of the spectrum as a singer. I’m sort of reserved and quiet and mellow.”
In much the same way that he wouldn’t want to tour without the Format guys who backed him on this record, Means says he had no real interest in making the record at all if he couldn’t record with McDonald again.
“He’s just such a good person,” he says. “And that’s such an important thing to me, working with people that I feel comfortable around. And he kind of takes the record on as if it’s his own. He’s really a part of it, which is something I knew I needed — that other person, maybe even just on a confidence level, to know I can do this. I knew I was going to try to do a proper release and make CDs and vinyl and reach out to press and all those kind of things, which I hadn’t done before. Before, it was just like ‘Oh, this is out. It’s kind of fun. It’s just something I’m doing.’ I knew I wanted to make a little bit of a bigger deal out of it and I just loved the way his stuff sounds. I was so happy with ‘Dog Problems.’”
The Format were actually scheduled to work with McDonald again a few weeks after Means informed his bandmates that he wanted out.
“We had it all planned out,” he says. “We had a studio picked out. He was gonna do it. We had the songs ready.”
A lot of what they'd written for the album ended up on Ruess’ first release with fun.
“I was just sort of like ‘Take these and do whatever you need to with them,’” Means says. “So most of them ended up being the first fun. album. Everything got pushed back a little bit but they kept the same plan in motion. They just did it with fun.”
As to why he left the Format when he did, Means says, “When things don’t feel right and you start getting closer to this commitment of looking down the road and knowing, when you do a record, it’s not just a record. When you’re in a band and you’re touring relentlessly, it’s a cycle — a very long, grueling cycle. It can be. And it just seemed like internally things weren’t the same. Some things were feeling weird. Without trying to be super vague, it was more or less not wanting to waste anyone’s time. It was like there’s potential that maybe this isn’t gonna work out in a little bit and just to go through that whole process and do all that stuff, spend all that money and for everyone involved to put all that time into something for it to potentially dissolve before it was seen through, it seemed like a bad idea. And the closer it got, the more real it became that we should probably just put on the brakes for a little bit. It was me who stopped it but I think everybody knew that it was for the best after it happened.”
And things worked out beyond OK for Ruess, which Means was glad to witness from the sidelines.
“I really didn’t know what Nate was gonna do,” he says. "It was one of those things where it was like, ‘I hope you’ll keep doing this. There’s no reason why you should stop. You’re super talented. You have these songs.’ I think he was probably bummed out to some degree, at first, to have to go back in a van and play smaller clubs, not really starting over because there’s some carryover from the Format, but I hoped that everything would work out well for him. So then, when ‘Some Nights’ came out and just shot into the stratosphere, there was nothing but joy for me, really.
“I’ve known Nate for almost 20 years, which is kind of insane,” Means says. “And while I did disrupt the friendships a little bit, everyone is still in touch. Obviously, Don and Marko have been doing everything with me. I still talk to Nate constantly. We’re really good friends. So yeah, I avoided the tension of having to deal with a lot of things that can come with bad situations in bands. When you spend that much time with people in close quarters, you really do get this bond that is probably not really comparable to a lot of other things aside from family. So the thought of losing them is not an easy thing to think about.”
He’s been meaning to make a proper solo record all along, Means says. But he’s been busy with his businesses – Hello Merch and an offshoot he launched with his wife, Hello Apparel. And they had a daughter, Lola, in 2009. But by the time he started work on “10 Songs,” his life had gotten to the point where he could step away and do his own thing, too.
“By last year, I had probably 15 employees,” he says. “So it’s just easier for me to get away from this in small doses of time, to go to L.A. for a couple weeks and know that this is gonna be OK. So that was part of it, being able to get out of here a little bit now. And then, my daughter, she turned five. She’s in school, getting a little bit easier to manage. We don’t have a baby anymore. We have a little adult, basically. That's we call her. So the pressure of what had become my normal life started to ease up and seem a little more likely that I would be able to do this. It was just the right time.”
Now that the album is out, he’s just trying figure out how much he can commit to the musical side of his life with disrupting the balance he's found for the moment.
“A couple years ago and into the beginning of last year, I had a song that was on this soundtrack that I did that’s been put in a ton of commercials," he says. "So I ended up signing a licensing deal in the Netherlands just on that song with options to pick up other stuff, with Sony. When I did that, it was like, ‘Come out here and play all these radio festivals and coffee shops in Amsterdam or whatever.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s not really my thing.’ And it pretty much killed that relationship. They just kept saying, ‘We don’t understand. You’re a singer-songwriter that doesn’t perform?’ And I’m like “I am a singer-songwriter but not like you think. I’m not the coffee shop dude. I’m in my mid-30s. I’ve been in a band. I own businesses. This is sort of a studio project. I just like making music and people to hear it. I’m not necessarily a performer.’ They were just like “Why?” Which… I get it. It’s like ‘I don’t know. I don’t know why. That’s just what I do.’”