Attention downtrodden rock bands everywhere: If you think getting dumped by your girlfriend is rough, try getting dropped by your record label. Twice. Although they’re still barely in their twenties, that’s exactly what happened to Sam Means and Nate Ruess, otherwise known as The Format. However, instead of letting the experience destroy them, the band has transformed the ordeal into something positive. (Hell, they threw parties both times it happened.)
“It sort of mockingly turned the whole major-label side of the music business into a dance,” explains Ruess about one the Dog Problems’ most telling songs, “The Compromise.” “There’s a line, ‘I can feel your feet touching mine. If you can’t dance there’s someone else in line.’ which pretty much explains it all in the sense of ‘if you’re not willing to play the game, we’ll just find someone else.’ And that’s quite alright with me.” Although the band was inundated with major-label offers after their split with Atlantic, they decided to release it under their own Vanity Label imprint, distributed by Sony/BMG—a move that allowed them to make the album they wanted to make.
“It was great,” says Ruess, describing the process of recording Dog Problems with producer Steve McDonald (Redd Kross). “I’d go into the studio with and make decisions and never have to hear things like, “I don’t know if that has enough octane,” he continues, laughing. “I felt like on the last record, we were pressured to make an album full of singles, and this time we could just do whatever we want.” It’s true; six of the songs on Dog Problems have full orchestration (three of which are arranged by Jellyfish mastermind Roger Manning), and while the band may not have felt pressured to write singles, well, nearly every song on the disc could be a potential one.
However, the label issues are only part of the story behind Dog Problems—and hearing Ruess explain the album’s title is the best way to understand where much of the album’s emotional content came from. “The title Dog Problems comes from the fact that every time my longterm girlfriend and I got back together, we’d get a dog, thinking that it would save our relationship,” Ruess explains. In fact, you can actually trace Ruess tumultuous relationship through the songs on the album: “Matches” sets the scene and “I’m Actual” recounts the events actually going down, while songs toward the end of the disc have a sentimental and almost philosophical bent—“Snails” in particular, which uses the animal as a metaphor for making the most of the time we have with our loved ones.
But even if you don’t know what each song is about, well, the medium is also the message. With its horns and complex arrangements, “Dog Problems” has the scope of an elaborate show tune; “Oceans” is so instantly recognizable that it’s difficult to believe you haven’t heard it before; and “She Doesn’t Get It,” features a guitar intro based on Bruce Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up,” but quickly morphs into a hook-filled anthem reminiscent of the band’s pop-friendly peers. Ghosts of XTC, Harry Nilsson and, of course, the ELO haunt the rest of Dog Problems. “The new album is a definitely a pop record; that’s the only way I can describe it,” admits Ruess, clearly referring to a time before Britney Spears and boy bands co-opted the term to sell SUVs.
However, despite all this, the most amazing part of The Format’s still unfolding story is the way they’ve survived—no, thrived—in the face of adversity. In the past three years, the band has shared the stage with Motion City Soundtrack, Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional and kept their fans updated via “the Living Room” section of their Web site where they’ve posted acoustic versions of Dog Problems songs to tide over their growing legion of listeners—and somehow without MTV or radio play, their fanbase has grown exponentially.
So, how does it feel with the album finally set for release?
“It’s so exciting,” Ruess beams. “We were worried that since the record was delayed for a year, maybe people had forgotten about us—but our fanbase has tripled.” He pauses, trying to articulate three years worth of work into one sentence. “I don’t know how any of this has happened, but I feel like this is just the beginning.