Nate Ruess, the lead singer of the New York power-pop trio Fun., isn't shy about his band's ambitions.
"I hope we can sell out Madison Square Garden," Ruess, 30, said.
Fun., which plays the Sweetlife Food & Music Festival on Saturday, is off to strong start with "We Are Young," the now-ubiquitous No. 1 hit from the group's second album, "Some Nights." The song is inescapable, from Top 40 stations to car commercials, WWE promos and, of course, "Glee."
After years of nostalgically drawing from older musical eras for his previous band, the Format, Ruess found inspiration for his smash hit in an unlikely place: rap.
"I was so rooted in listening to retro albums and yearning for the past, a time I wasn't even born, that 'Some Nights' was about embracing the future a bit more," he said. "And hip-hop is one of those things. To be so set in the past, it was very narrow-minded on my part."
After falling in love with Kanye West's lush, expansive "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" ("There's an ambition to be the best, to push everything forward," Ruess said of West's album), he cornered the record's co-producer, Jeff Bhasker, in a Manhattan hotel. The sought-after rap producer was reluctant at first, but signed on after Ruess sang the soaring chorus of "We Are Young" on the spot.
Bhasker was the producer and, more important, the support system Ruess needed to finally deliver on the pop potential the Format had regularly suggested but never capitalized on. The admittedly self-conscious Ruess says his second-guessing had slowed down his songwriting in the past.
"There's one side of us that wants to be the biggest and the best as possible, and there's one side of us that's just shy dudes," he said.
Bhasker, who Ruess called the "missing piece" to Fun.'s success, did everything he could to build the band's confidence while recording "Some Nights."
"He would stand up and shout the songs like a hypeman in the studio," Ruess said. "He was there to make us feel better about what we're doing and not have to apologize for it."
While "Some Nights" finds Ruess and his two bandmates — Andrew Dost and Jack Antonoff — trying different sounds ("Carry On" is an anthemic marching band stomp; the title track owes equal debts to Queen and Auto-Tune king T-Pain), Ruess maintains his trademark lyrics, known for their sharp, candid bite.
On "One Foot," Ruess sings, over punchy horns: "I put one foot in front of the other one / I don't need a new love or a new life, just a better place to die." This is the same singer who once turned a suicide plea into a catchy, tongue-in-cheek kiss-off (The Format's "Tie the Rope"). In pop music, masking macabre in sticky hooks is nothing new, but in Ruess' hands, it's a songwriter's feat.
"I enjoy being depressed because it's a natural feeling for me," he said. "I'm not the type of person to be confrontational in real life. but I bring it out in the lyrics."
His approach has put friends and family "in the cross hairs" of his songs, something he concedes feeling bad about but can't help.
"Even when I'm critical of people, I'm a narcissist, so I always end up turning it on me," Ruess said. "I plug my nose and I dive in, and worry about the repercussions later."
His approach is working: "Some Nights" is sitting in the Top 20 of the Billboard 200 eight weeks after its release. The plan for Fun. has always been the same, according to Ruess: Become the biggest band in the world.
"We don't want to be a hipster band or a college band," he said. "We want anybody to come and feel that they belong, and with that, we want our music to reach as many people as possible."
If you go
Fun. performs Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, for Sweetgreen's Sweetlife Food & Music Festival. Avicii and Kid Cudi, among many others, will also perform. Gates open at noon. Tickets are $75. Call 877-435-9849 or go to merriweathermusic.com.