If your intent is to read a down and dirty interview written by your average male disenfranchised rock reviewer, then this is not for you. Because whether or not anyone may admit it, every time a girl sees any band for the first time she thinks, “Who’s the cute one? Who’s the one that I would go for?” That’s my theory, which is also aligned with the one about girls deciding how far they’ll go within the first 15 minutes of meeting someone. It’s true.
The first time I saw Fountains of Wayne (FOW) live was with my boyfriend (now my husband) in 1996 when they were opening for The Lemonheads on the Car Button Cloth Tour. Evan Dando was one of my high school/college “boyfriends” and I was hyped up to see him for the first time. FOW opened. I picked my favorite. And thus the die was cast. Over eleven shows later and The Lemonheads are no more, but FOW are still an active part of my life. Sure, from my experience, when you see them live they don’t set the stage on fire. Hell, they probably won’t even look at the audience much. But musically they are tight. They are gifted and they are masters of the three-and-a-half minute pop song (as their press release will tell you). Ultimately, from a female alt-pop fan perspective, they are too good at what they do for anyone to discount them or to ignore their “boyfriend” potential.
Fountains of Wayne was formed in 1996. Led by songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, the New York-based quartet is known for crafting witty, wistful, and instantly memorable character portraits, often using the Northeastern U.S. as a backdrop. The group is named after a lawn ornament store on Route 46 in Wayne, NJ, near Schlesinger’s hometown of Montclair. Although the debut album Fountains Of Wayne was recorded largely as a duo, Jody Porter (formerly of The Belltower) and Brian Young (formerly of The Posies) joined the band shortly before the record’s release in 1996. The group’s sophomore release, 1999’s Utopia Parkway was widely considered a critic’s favorite and was a staple on many of 1999’s “Best of” lists. After being dropped by Atlantic Records, FOW went on to record their current album Welcome Interstate Managers.
On their long-awaited third album, Fountains Of Wayne tackle such time-honored pop subjects as love, work, frustrated commuters, drunken salesmen, retired airline pilots, pressured quarterbacks, bad waitresses, vegan entrepreneurs, clip-on ties, exploding cell phones, lawn mowing, vacations without the kids, New England snowstorms, lousy directions, and, of course, Face The Nation.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Adam Schlesinger recently to ask him a few of the questions which I haven’t seen answered in those “other” interviews. We comfortably settled in and ordered drinks (he a Jameson on the rocks and I a Bombay Sapphire and tonic). I attempted to swallow my fandom and the built-up expectations (seven years and eleven-plus shows in the making). I wanted to assume he would be an alterna-snob to prepare me for the disappointment of disliking him instantly. My disappointment never came. To my surprise it was the exact opposite of what I had feared. He was one of the most personable talents I have yet to encounter and, well, dare I say it? Nice.
Is it a blessing or a curse to always be considered a critics’ favorite?
It’s better than being universally hated, I guess. We don’t get tired of seeing people write nice things about our music, and you have to be really jaded to look at somebody complimenting what you did and be like “Ahhhh, who cares.” But at the same time you can’t take it that seriously because then when somebody writes something bad you get really upset. So you have to kind of appreciate it, but also not believe it’s the bible or it’s always the truth.
“Stacy’s Mom” is a brilliant video. It’s gorgeous and it’s smart. However, your longtime fans might argue it’s gimmicky and doesn’t showcase your strengths to their fullest potential. Are you afraid that the success you reach with this single will potentially drop you into the land of one-hit wonders?
It’s just on the line there. It’s on the line between bad taste and really bad taste; girls running around the kitchen naked. I think that I’d like to have the problem of being typecast as anything, so I don’t really care. (laughs) But seriously, I know what you’re saying: It’s a funny song. A lot of our songs have humor in them, and it’s going to be easier for us to kind of open some doors with a song like that than to put [out] a real somber ballad and expect MTV to play it. So, you know, it is what it is.
Welcome Interstate Managers seems to follow the theme of the working man’s plight. Did you start out with that intent?
It just kind of happened. Chris and I, the only thing we talked about in the beginning was “Write what ever you want.” We wanted to have a very varied kind of record and we didn’t want to try to preplan it too much. But what ends up happening is, because you’re writing in these little spurts, you have certain themes that keep coming into your head. And so you end up accidentally having related songs. But we didn’t have any blueprint or anything.
Do you get asked a lot what your songs are about or do you prefer to let people interpret for themselves?
Well, I think with my songs in particular, it’s pretty obvious what they’re about most of the time. Chris tends to write more abstract songs that are maybe open to a little more interpretation. My songs tend to be pretty clearly about what they’re about. I actually sometimes try to force myself to write songs [that are] not as literal because my instinct is to be real literal.
So are the songs literal, as in, something that actually happened to you?
It’s not necessarily because of something in my life, but I usually have a really concrete idea of what the song’s going to be about. It might just be totally fictional, but it’s usually a concrete idea.
Do you write the lyrics first or the music?
I usually like to start with the lyrics, at least a few lines. It doesn’t have to be a completely written lyric. If I just have a melody without words I’ll never finish anything: It just doesn’t work like that. I have to have a couple of lines to kick around and sing and play with a little bit.
On your earlier albums, the harmonizing was not as evident even though it’s always been a major part of your live performances. However, with each progressive album it has become more evident. Is there any reason for that?
I think live, at least, we’ve gotten more confident about harmonies. We’ve got four guys singing now. Our keyboard player’s a really good singer. Jodi’s a great singer. I’m an okay singer, at least, if I am hidden between those guys it sounds okay. Definitely live we try to make the most of that. I think that’s one of the big things that keeps us from sounding like a generic band. Whenever we’re arranging a song in the studio, when we put the harmonies on it [and] that’s when it kind of comes to life.
On average, how long does it usually take you to write a song?
It really depends. There are some songs — like “Stacy’s Mom” — that were probably written in five minutes. But there are other ones that we kick around for a year. And I sort of have a vague idea of what it’s going to be but I never really get around to finishing it.
Was there ever a single that got away?
Definitely. Well I think the one that was a big disappointment for us was “Troubled Times.” That was on the last record, Utopia Parkway. We were sort of told by the label it was the song. But because it was ballad and because it wasn’t a rock song, they couldn’t start with it and they couldn’t use that as the first single. They were like “Don’t worry, don’t worry, later in the year we’re going to build up to that and that’s going to be the big song.” But it never happened. Basically, by the time we had time to think about that they weren’t interested, and we didn’t have enough going on for anyone to really care.
But it made it onto Dawson’s Creek…
Yeah, the one thing about that song is, it’s one of the only Fountains of Wayne songs that you can actually license to television shows. Not that you physically can’t, but our songs are impossible to place on TV because they’re about stuff that would screw up the scene. You can’t have a teenage party and then have some song about a drunken salesman playing behind it. So “Troubled Times” is the one song that actually kind of works like that.
You started the recording process independently. Were you asked to make major changes when you got signed to S-Curve?
No, we basically gave them a finished record. I mean, we talked to a bunch of record companies before we had anything recorded. And everybody was like, “Well, we really like your band but we need to hear what you’re working on. Do you have any demos or anything?” And we didn’t want to make demos. We just found that kind of demeaning. But we were sort of at the point where we could have gone and made demos.
And it was like, you know, for God’s sake we’ve been doing this so long, we’re not going to make a demo tape. We’re just gonna go make a record and that’s what we did. We know the guys at S-Curve from different places and we just sent it to them and they liked it. It was pretty simple. They just kind of took it as is.
Do you now have a big group around you that has been helping to support this album?
S-Curve is like this little tight knit group of people. It’s a small operation within this big company. They are part of Virgin and EMI, but it’s just a small group of people and I’ve known a few of them for a long time. Then they bring in other people to help out and it’s not this big faceless corporation. I can call up and get the president of S-Curve on the phone any time of day.
Do you have to do that a lot?
(laughs) No, I try not to bother him. The point is, Atlantic Records is the biggest record company on the planet. It’s definitely a different thing. And S-Curve has about two records out now. The first thing that they put out when they first opened their doors for business was “Who Let the Dogs Out.” And it sold a zillion copies. So next it will be “Who Let the Mom Out.”
What do you think of the backlash that Liz Phair has gotten recently with the release of her new album?
I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with wanting to co-write with people and make it sound more radio-friendly and all that stuff. I think that the trick is to do something that’s commercially viable and also something you’re proud of and happy with. If she’s proud of her record and it’s the record that she personally wanted to make, then there it is. I heard the single and I think the thing that’s the bummer about it: [It] sounds like it could be anybody. It sounds a little bit generic. But I don’t think it’s a bad song. It’s just not what I would think of as Liz Phair from her earlier records.
From what I read about her, I don’t get the sense that some record company was forcing her to do that. I think that she wanted to do it and it was her choice to work with the Matrix and to have all these co-writers. So as long as it was something that she was willingly doing herself… I have friends who are in bands who are on major labels and the record company meddles with it to the point that the band hates their own record. And that’s the worst thing, because when it’s all over, the only thing you have left is the record. Even if it only sold two copies, at least you can show it to somebody and be like, “I’m proud of this. We made something. Even though it tanked and we got dropped or whatever. We made something we’re proud of.” But if you let somebody meddle with it and turn it into something you don’t even identify with, what is it? It’s like it might as well be a pair of shoes.
There are things we’ve put out where we feel like we could have maybe done it a little bit better, but whatever. We haven’t put anything out that we’re ashamed of. We haven’t put out anything where we’re like “Oh well, there’s a whole excuse behind this song: We didn’t want to do this, but somebody made us do this.” We’ve never been in that situation.
I have to think that there are very few artists who can say that.
And you know, honestly, that’s why when people ask me “Do you have anything bad to say about Atlantic? Was that a bad experience for you?” I would reply that I wish we sold more records. But they never, ever messed with anything creatively at all. And now at S-Curve it’s the same thing. I think that that’s great, having seen what other people sometimes have to go through.
Speaking of challenges, do you think that age is a challenge in the music industry?
Well, we’ve come up with a way around that problem. We don’t appear in the videos and we just get hot girls to be naked in them instead. (laughs)
But it is true. It’s weird — not just in terms of the business, but just in general — being a little bit older and still doing pop music. It’s a genre which was basically created for young kids. When you get to be in your 30s you sometimes wake up and you’re like “What the hell are we doing?” But I think that music is something that lasts your whole life and songwriting is something that should be able to last your whole life. Unfortunately, the commercial part of it is driven by young kids that used to buy records [that] maybe now they just download.
I think that the good thing is that people our age and older, they don’t know [about] downloading. They are going to go buy a record because that’s what they grew up doing. They are not going to sit there on the computer. But there are probably 13-year-old kids who would never think of going to a record store.
Are there any bands that you think Fountains of Wayne has influenced or has anyone told you that you have?
There are people who come up to us occasionally and say, “You’re a big influence.” Which is the ultimate compliment, you know. I don’t think that it’s anybody that anybody’s ever heard of, so that’s the problem. But we get that sometimes. It’s very flattering.
In almost every article that I’ve ever read your fans have been referred to as record store clerks. Who’s perpetuating that idea and do you think that it is true?
(laughs) You actually have to show your record store employee badge to buy a ticket to one of our shows, so we know it’s true.
How do I get in?
Hey, you have to work in a record store. It’s as simple as that.
In a recent Blender article, your manager, Cliff Bernstein, commented about wanting the audience of Blink-182… Do you know who they are and do you really want them?
Did we say that? Oh, he wanted us to have that audience. Oh right. Actually, it’s funny that you mention them. Because we once played at this festival in Boston at Great Woods. [The festival] had an autograph tent set up and we went over there and there was this huge, huge line of girls. We were like “Oh man, this is awesome.” Then it turned out that they were all waiting for Blink-182 — who were on right after us — and there were actually three guys waiting for us to sign something.
I like that band actually. That guy’s a really great drummer. But they started that whole weird fake English accent. Well, I guess that Green Day started it. But the Blink-182 accent is almost like a Philadelphia accent, even though they are not from Philadelphia: “myyy” instead of “my.” Now everyone sings like that. Like All-American Rejects, they all have “myyy”s and “whyyy”s. It’s weird.
Do you have groupies and what are they like?
I don’t know if we really have groupies. We have a couple of semi-stalkers but we don’t necessarily have groupies. In fact, people make fun of us all the time. They come back to our dressing rooms and it’s our parents and our cousins. It’s so lame. I don’t know why that is. We’re just lame.
Our keyboard player, Steven, was never in a rock band before. He does TV music for a living so we were like, “Come on tour it will be really fun.” He comes on tour and he’s like, “You guys are so lame, I have more fun at home doing TV commercials. There’s more of a rock n’ roll scene going on there.”
You’ve toured a lot in Japan. What are the differences between Asian and American audiences?
I’ve only been to Japan, but Japanese audiences are very orderly. They all cheer at the same time, they stop at the same exact time, and then it’s like silence in the room. It’s the craziest thing in the world.
Also, if you’re an American band and you go over there, they act like they think you’re The Beatles. It doesn’t matter what band you are. If you go over there they will follow you to the train station, and the hotel and the airport. And we thought it was just us, but then all the other American bands that I’ve run into were like, “No, no, no, that’s just Japan. It’s not you guys.”
Does it bother you if someone comes up to you randomly? Does that make you uncomfortable?
The Japanese people don’t do it in the same way obnoxious Americans do it. They’re very, very soft spoken, polite and embarrassed. They would never come and get in your face, but they will come and bring you presents and sort of bow.
It’s crazy… Yeah, it’s a whole other world. It’s funny because the first time you go to Japan you think, “This isn’t that different.” And the more you go there, the more you think, “Oh, this is totally different.” Culturally, it’s much more different than it seems on the surface.
Fans singing along with the band: Is that good or is that bad?
I was at a show where there was a guy next to me singing louder than you. In fact, instead of singing “Stacy’s Mom” he was singing “Stifler’s Mom.”
That was my dad…
What are you and Chris thinking when you’re shooting looks at each other on stage? Are you making fun of the audience?
No. I mean, that’s just stupid — to make fun of the crowd. They’re the ones who are going to start throwing shit at you. (laughing)
Sometimes we give each other looks because one of us sang the wrong note or something. It’s just a little inside thing, but we don’t make fun of the audience. Rule number one: Don’t make fun of the audience.
Do you make more money selling albums or touring?
I think right now it’s kind of a wash. You don’t really make money selling records — speaking as a band, not as a record label. The band doesn’t really make money from the records unless you’re really selling a lot. I know bands that have had gold records that didn’t see a dime from them. Most guys make their living from other things, like touring, from publishing, and from selling t-shirts and whatever.
I don’t think that any band makes any money from records unless you’re literally selling millions. The accounting of it is ridiculous. But the record companies’ argument, which I kind of understand too, is “Well, the band has all these other avenues that they can use — like touring and like t-shirts — to make money,” and the record company has the record to sell and that’s it.
There are a lot of unreleased songs floating out there. How does that happen?
The b-sides are usually [out there] because they are b-sides in other countries where they do singles. A lot of them come out in England. Because every time we put out a single in England, there would be two songs attached to it. So a lot of them got released.
In Japan, they usually add extra bonus tracks to the record. They have big problems with imports. For some reason in Japan it’s actually cheaper to buy the US version of a record than the domestic version, so in order to try to prevent people from doing that they usually add extra tracks to the Japanese version.
I know! I bought one full CD of unreleased FOW songs on eBay.
That’s okay. (laughs) Out! Out!
I’ve never downloaded a song…
It doesn’t matter. We don’t make any money off of our records anyway.
Have you ever been to the Fountains of Wayne store, or have they ever contacted you about the use of the name?
We went and talked with them right when we started the band, and let them know that we were doing it so that they were aware of it. They were really nice about [it]. But they were kind of like, “Well, let’s just stay in touch through this whole thing,” and we were like, “What whole thing?” That’s it.
Did you have to trademark the name?
I don’t know how that really works. I mean, if you’re not in a competing business with them, then I think you’re allowed to use it all. Though, if we tried to call our band Apple Computer we might get in trouble.
Are you sick of talking about getting nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song for “That Thing You Do”?
No, that’s okay. The guy that sang it was a guy named Mike Viola, and he sang the demo and he’s a friend. I sing back up vocals. Mike is a great singer. We did a demo originally, me and Mike, and Andy Chase, who’s in [the band] Ivy, engineered it, and we sent in that demo. They loved the song and they also really liked Mike’s voice. They tried to record it with some studio guy and they ended up hiring Mike to do the final version. He did all the songs that were that character’s voice.
Speaking of side projects — this is a random question — did you create the Howard Stern’s E! show theme song?
Well, my name is on it, but actually Steven, our keyboard player, wrote it. Steven and I do a lot of TV music together and we sort of always had a deal that with things like that we would each do our version, and if either one of us got it [we’d both get credit.] It’s the same thing that me and Chris did, because you kind of go into it before hand saying “Alright, one of us might win,” and you decide beforehand, whoever wins, we’re going to share it. You get a better chance.
Now for the deep questions. To make this a true PopGurl interview I need to ask you two questions, one about *NSYNC and one about potatoes. I’m from Maine so the potato thing seems reasonable to me.
(laughs) You’re the Idaho of New England! Okay, shoot.
What do you think about Justin’s career now?
I don’t think that I have an opinion on that. I think that he’s very good at show business.
Okay, I need to ask you a question about potatoes…
Chris has a band call the Gay Potatoes. He just thought it was really funny. Gay Potatoes… You can’t have a potato that has a sexual preference. Chris is a really dour guy, but there are certain things that just make him laugh for hours on end. And that’s one of them. Even now you mention his band name and he’ll laugh for about 20 or 30 minutes.
Is he really that dour?
Um, well, yes and no. It’s funny because I know him so well, and he likes to complain about whatever’s going on, but he’s actually very psyched about the way things are going right now, I think. Even though he likes to get through the day by going, “Oh this sucks, why do I have to do this,” I can kind of see that he’s actually really into the fact that it’s going well. I think I can anyway.
Then every once in a while there’s something that makes him laugh and he can’t stop laughing for hours. We got this magazine called Viz from England and there’s this cartoon in it called “Vidal Baboon.” It was about this baboon hairstylist — instead of cutting your hair he just, like, destroys the whole salon. It really wasn’t that funny, but Chris for some reason thought it was the funniest thing. And he laughed so hard that he couldn’t breathe. He was doubled over like “Vidal Baboon, ha ha ha ha…”
At the end of the day, what would you want people to take away from this interview?
“My, what a witty charming fellow…”
After interviewing Adam, all I can say is, thank God the Evan Dando thing didn’t pan out. The most refreshing thing about the experience for me was confirming that a founding member of a favorite band is just as cool, yet refreshingly cynical, as their songs would lead you to believe. Most importantly, the next time I go to a show I need to bow and bring gifts to get on their good side, in order to finally get that groupie gig.
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