As simple as it is, the Format's Dog Problems might just be the album title of the year.
"It was that thing where instead of having a baby to fix our relationship, we'd always get a dog," singer Nate Ruess explained. "So by the time she left for good, I had three dogs."
Three dogs and an album's worth of songs.
To say the Peoria, Arizona, duo's just-released second album was inspired by Ruess' relationship with an ex would be an understatement. It is the relationship.
"After we finished [2003's Interventions and Lullabies], we were a little disappointed, and any time you feel like you're better than what you've done, you overstep your boundaries," Ruess said. "So I wanted to make it a concept record about this relationship that I'd been in for the last five years. I wanted to make it a story that started out with the relationship ending and somewhere in the middle I realize I should be happy with what I do have around me. But I never got to that because I was still in the relationship and it was still going bad and I couldn't get out of it.
"I guess, in hindsight, it helped me out, because it was kinda like therapy," he continued. "But I was like, 'Man, can I stop writing songs about my relationship?' I should be beyond that — not so Michael Bolton about it."
The one exception on Dog Problems is the first single, "The Compromise," which chronicles another troubled relationship, between the Format and their former record company. Ruess and multi-instrumentalist Sam Means originally signed to Elektra, but the label folded into Atlantic just as Interventions and Lullabies hit shelves, leaving the album lost in the shuffle.
"The song was written as a way of hopefully getting dropped by our label, and it ended up working," Ruess said. "It's about bands getting snatched up and released as quick as they come."
Getting released, as the Format hoped, has proved to be a good thing. The band had creative control on Dog Problems, and it's selling remarkably well for an indie, debuting at #84 on Billboard's albums chart. It's also the first album to be sold on MySpace, where the Format have more than 95,000 friends (see "MySpace To Take A Bite Out Of Apple, Sell Music Online").
"It's where music, to me, is moving towards," Ruess said of the social-networking site. "It's crucial for someone who doesn't have a record label or airplay, who's just gaining fans by playing live."
And playing live is the Format's forte. The band's been on a near-sellout headlining tour all summer and will open for the All-American Rejects beginning in October.
If that sounds like an odd pairing, you haven't heard Dog Problems. Although the lyrics are as melancholy as they come, it's a delightfully poppy record.
"People are like, 'It's the feel-good record of the summer,' " Ruess said. "And I'm thinking to myself, 'I wrote a lot of this stuff holed up in my room at wintertime, really bummed out.' Once we did get into the studio, though, I started feeling better about myself."
As for the other participant in the relationship, well, that's a different story (or a different album, perhaps).
"She's not happy with it, but there's nothing I can do," Ruess said. "Times were hard. When we were recording, I realized everybody makes mistakes. We were young and she made mistakes, so I made a conscious effort to call her and say, 'I don't want you to take offense to this. It's just where I was at the time. I forgive you as much as I can.' I do feel bad, and sometimes I feel like, 'Why does she have to be reminded of it?' I tend to get a call when, like, the video might be on."
Thankfully, that video (for "The Compromise") has nothing to do with relationships. It's all origami.
"We didn't want to act or do a lot of work," Ruess said. "We showed up for four hours behind a screen, and our job was done. And it's the first time I've been happy with a music video."