When Nate Ruess of the chart-topping band Fun took the stage to accept a Grammy Award for Best New Artist in February, he took note of the moment as the culmination of 12 years spent working in the music business. He wasn't just taking a swipe at the Grammys' idea of "new," but nodding toward his lesser-known past: Long before "We Are Young" made him a star, Ruess was the lead singer of Arizona-based pop duo the Format.
Sam Means was the other half of the Format, providing the melodic framework for Ruess' lyrical musings. The Format grew out of Ruess and Means' high-school pop-punk band, but quickly demonstrated hit potential. The generically titled "The First Single," from 2002's equally generic EP, earned regional airplay. The band signed to Elektra Records for its full-length debut, 2003's Interventions and Lullabies, and issued its second album, Dog Problems, three years later.
Then the band broke up. Ruess moved to New York, and within years had a string of massive hits to his name. Means, meanwhile, settled into a much quieter life in Phoenix. In 2008, he founded Hello Merch, a band-merchandising company, and has watched as his former bandmate has taken home awards, soundtracked Super Bowl commercials and become an almost inescapable presence on pop radio.
Not that he's bitter or anything.
"I see on Twitter or blogs where they'll tag me in something, and be kind of like, 'Oh, I bet Sam's so bummed because he missed the boat or whatever,'" Means laughs over the phone from the Hello Merch office. "I'm definitely the least successful member of the Format at this point, when it comes to me and Nate, as far as the public eye is concerned. No one cares about a merch company."
"No one" might be a stretch. Hello Merch works with more than 100 bands, including Boris, King Tuff and Death Grips. In 2012, Means launched a clothing line, Hello Apparel, focusing on "a lot of kid stuff, and merchandise that appeals to younger moms." He recently added an apparel line targeted toward men. And much like how Ruess is the face of Fun, Means is the face of his own company: When you call Hello Merch, he'll probably answer the phone.
"It's all very personal," he says. "That's the way that we ran everything in the Format, with our label and our management company that we worked with. Literally every element of the Format I brought over into Hello Merch and how it's operated."
Means didn't completely turn away from music, either. Most of his work is featured on his Bandcamp page, including the 2012 EP NONA, on which the songwriter sings for the first time in his recording career. Songs like "Something in the Air" share the Format's ringing tunefulness, but Means' voice is subdued and mature. It's pop music, but it sounds resolutely grown up. Means says there's more where those songs came from, but he's in no rush to get them out.
"I definitely don't want to say that music has taken a backseat, because that's definitely the furthest thing from the truth, but it sort of has, to a certain extent," Means says. "It's my No. 1 priority in my brain. But in my physical functions, it's sat back."
He has contributed music to films and to a few other "low-key" releases, but he's mostly focused on Hello and his family. "I like spending every extra second right now with my 3-year-old daughter," Means says. "It's not like I've lost any passion for [music], but there's a time and a place for everything in my life right now."
There's a place for his former bandmate, too.
"I couldn't be more happy for him at all," Means says of Ruess' huge success. "We talk, especially more recently. We've been seeing each other quite a bit." Means insists the breakup wasn't acrimonious. "What he's achieved has been absolutely outstanding," he says. "It's almost annoying how much I'm trying to congratulate him."
So what if Ruess came calling about a Format reunion? "It's not something I'm against," he says. "But I hate when bands just get back together for no purpose. You just think, 'Oh, somebody needs money.' It's kind of sad. But I wouldn't rule it out. We've always totally gotten along since the band broke up—with us, it was time to move on.â
SEE IT: Fun plays McMenamins Edgefield, 2126 SW Halsey St., Troutdale, with Tegan and Sara, on Thursday, Aug. 29. 6 pm. Sold out.