Within a couple hours, there may be several dead bodies strewn across the ping-pong table. Sam Means is hoping he’s not one of them. He knows that’s only wishful thinking. He’s got skills, that’s for sure. The Format multi-instrumentalist grew up with a paddle in his hand, often spending the hours after school at a friend’s house battling over ping-pong honors. He’s got a backhand, occasionally some spin.
But this isn’t junior high; this is Norva. It’s one of two clubs on the circuit that sports a ping-pong table. The Norfolk, Va., club is legendary for its backstage throw-downs, bands popping off their sets in quick succession so they can get down to the real business. Things are going to get serious, especially since Means has been talking trash with the other bands on the tour. “We’ve been dorking out on ping-pong,” he admits with both a hint of pride and shame. Now he has to put up or suffer the consequences.
“I’m really not that good but I’m trying to act like I am,” he says under his breath. “Hopefully, I can psych some people out.”
Such tactics aren’t new to Means. The guy has always been able to talk a good game, often forcing him to either quickly come up with the goods or go down fighting. And it’s not something reserved just for the various on-tour tournaments—the poker games, the video game showdowns, the dodgeball picnics. He’s pulled the same crap with The Format.
Usually he comes out on top. The fact that the group—basically Means and longtime friend Nate Ruess—is even around is a result of one of his biggest gambles. Of course, the fact that The Format struggled through years of major label purgatory was also partly his doing. He knew that the group probably shouldn’t ink a deal. As a former concert producer, he heard every band that rolled through The Format’s native Phoenix tell him the same thing: “They all said not to do it, but we decided to try it out,” he says. “That was a mistake.”
The band signed with Elektra, released its 2003 debut Interventions and Lullabies shortly thereafter. By then, the headaches were already building. “I hated being on a label,” Means says. “Every time you’d want to do something, the label would say no. And we were always like, ‘Really, but that’s so logical.’”
Things only got worse. Layoffs and label consolidations slowly swiped away everyone the band knew. The duo’s sophomore record was put on hold. “By the end, we were all for getting dropped,” Means says. “We were like, ‘Thanks for paying for the first album and then giving us three years to develop on the road. We’ll take it from here.’”
Which was Means’ other big gamble. Rather than immediately pursue another label to sign the band, The Format decided to go it alone. Means and Ruess established The Vanity Label, paid for their own studio time and resolved to release an album—not just locally, but nationwide. “It wasn’t an easy process,” Means admits. By July of last year the two had everything worked out, shipping thousands of copies of Dog Problems across the country. Within a few months, the band had sold more discs than they could have imagined.
It helped, of course, that Dog Problems was arguably one of last year’s best albums. A cheerful rant on the end of a relationship, the disc is pop at its peak—complicated and familiar, personal and full of mass appeal, with one catchy melody crammed on top of another. Guitars crash and bang their way into bouncing, horn-soaked choruses. Harmonies are piled up like a stack of Oreos, sweet notes rubbing up against bits of dark melancholy—and it’s all delivered with the glee of a first-grader devouring all that processed sugar. Check the saccharine “I’m Actual,” which launches with a Ruess doing his best impression of Brian Wilson before casually strolling into the kind of elaborate, orchestral pop waltz usually reserved for The Decemberists. Or “Time Bomb,” a crisp bit of indie rock that sent The Shins into fits of drooling more than a few times. Even “Snails,” a song originally written as a kids’ tune that’s now a gorgeously optimistic gallop that can make anyone smile.
“That’s the thing no label could ever give us: real freedom,” Means says. “We only have to please ourselves. We can do a song like ‘Snails.’ We can try whatever we think will work. If a label would let us do that, then things might be different. Right now, we’re happy where we’re at.”
Though as Means gets the call that he’s about to hit the ping-pong table, that might change. “Wish me luck,” he says. He’s going to need it.
THE FORMAT @ Jamboree Festival, Thanksgiving Point, Lehi, Saturday, Sept. 8, noon. Ticketmaster.com cw
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