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It's late in August, and after six straight months of touring, Nate Ruess is in the parking lot of the Al Bedoo Shrine Auditorium in Billings, Mo. Ruess, who sings in the band fun., owners of one of the year's biggest hits "We Are Young," has just finished assembling a portable basketball hoop outside the band's tour bus.
It's ironic, he notes, since the stage he'll play on later that night is exactly where a basketball hoop would be if the Shrine were set up as the basketball arena it sometimes is. For a touring band, the hoop is a luxury only the successful can afford. Not so much the hoop itself, but the space to tote it from town to town. Three weeks earlier, fun., which had since February been packing its 12 musicians and crew members onto a single tour bus, spread out into a second bus and got a semitruck to carry all its equipment.
The living is a little easier, but responsibilities are multiplying at the same time, and the group is still in the middle of a growth spurt. "We're just learning," Ruess says. "We're trying to figure out, within all these opportunities, what the image of the band is now that it's gotten so much larger."
We've been following fun. on this tour since before the band scored that second bus, talking first with Ruess about what it takes to get a band on the road. This summer it's crossed the country and a couple of oceans.
In July, when we spoke with instrument technician Shane Timm, the band was in Germany on a short promotional tour. Two weeks ago, lighting director Jackie Finney told us about the band's new lighting package (a big part of the reason for those extra-large vehicles). Just before fun. takes a little break and begins a European leg of its tour, we spoke to Megan Aberle, who sells merch for the band, and fan Adam Becker, who's seen fun. three times since February.
And lead singer Ruess returns for an encore.
Adam Becker, Superfan.
Adam Becker saw his first fun. show at Webster Hall in New York City in 2010, when the band was touring on its first album, Aim and Ignite, and he's seen fun. three times since the tour for Some Nights started.
"The highlight of the tour was just how many people were there. And all the times where Nate had to sort of stop in the middle of a song because people were being too loud for him to sing, people were clapping too hard and yelling too much that he would just stand there and smile."
"You all feel like you're in this together. I'm a self-conscious person, but at a fun. show, I'm all over the place and I don't care who sees. You can be who you want," he says. "And they don't mind that there are people who come just to see the one song because they know that putting on the show that they do, that people are going to notice what a great time they're having and check other stuff out."
Megan Aberle, Merch.
Aberle has been working with the band for three years. She sells merchandise for other bands when fun. isn't on the road, but since 2009, if you've seen the group play a show in the U.S. or Canada, Aberle was probably there in the back of the room, behind a table stocked with CDs and T-shirts.
"I remember we had a show once in California where we played at a thrift shop for 50 people. And now, playing for 5,000 people, it's a big, big change."
Aberle says that at a venue that holds 1,400 fans, she'll sell 500 T-shirts a night. "A lot of the kids that come to the show are first-timers. It's their first concert, so it's just exciting to see how excited they are," she says. "The young kids who are just so excited and shaking when they walk up to the merch table with their $20 in hand to buy their first band T-shirt they've ever bought in their life."
Though Aberle says there's no "standard fun. fan," the people who show up have changed this year. "They used to be fans of the music, but now that the band is bigger, they're much more fans of the people [in the band] and what the band stands for," she says. "They feel more important, which is totally true, because they're the reason we're here."
Nate Ruess, Singer.
Ruess refers to himself as "antisocial" multiple times over the course of a 30-minute interview, but you'd never guess it from the way he bounces up to the lip of the stage during a concert.
"I prefer to connect with fans from the stage. That's how I've always seen myself as effective," he says. "While we're having all this commercial success — which is amazing — what it really does is feed into the live show."
He's aware of the fact that as the crowds grow, fewer audience members will be long-time fans. "We make a joke that we want to make a shirt that says: 'I'm 35, I've got two kids, I've got the night off, get to the song.' "
When Ruess spoke with Scott Simon at the beginning of the summer, he said his goal for the summer was to try to give up smoking. "A few weeks after we had talked, I had a long night in the studio and smoked too many cigarettes and woke up the next morning, got an email from a friend of mine who sent me a timeline of what you get back as soon as you quit smoking. And I thought that that was the perfect time." He's been off cigarettes now for two months.
"I've probably done a lot of growing up in this entire summer. I've started to notice that I'm not part of the responsibility of four or five other people — now it's turned into a crew of 15. So I have to take the shows, personally, a little more serious." That means he's drinking less, "so that I can just focus on enjoying seeing all these people out in the crowd," he says. "It's an amazing thing to be on stage every single night. And I kind of want to be as present as possible."
"When I was building the basketball hoop today, I thought, like, 'This, to me, is heaven.' Being with these people every single day, it's all good clean fun." As he pauses for a beat, you can almost hear Ruess acknowledge that the band's name, and its success, has changed that word slightly. "We're all in the middle of personal problems and so on, and it's amazing to see people rally around each other and not fall into any stupid cliches."