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fountains of wayne
future in record sales
by jay s. jacobs

Copyright © 2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 9, 2004.

When the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences released their 2004 Grammy nominations, Fountains of Wayne were one of the acts nominated as Best New Artist.

This must have surprised the members of the band, who were under the impression that they'd been playing together for well over a decade.  They believed that the two songwriters for the band, lead singer Chris Collingwood and bassist/guitarist Adam Schlesinger had met and formed the band in college.  They thought they had released their self-titled debut album way back in 1996, even getting a bit of an MTV hit with the song "Radiation Vibe."  They believed that that multi-Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks was such a fan that he tapped Schlesinger to write the title track to his directorial debut, the 60s pop-rock tribute That Thing You Do!  They had also heard that they released a second album in 1999, the critically adored but publicly over-looked Utopia Parkway.

But who are they to question NARAS?  Best new artist it is...

One thing is for sure, though.  In the past year Fountains of Wayne have vaulted from being critics' favorites to actual hit musicians.  They are no longer one of those bands about whom music scribes say, "you gotta hear them."  They are now a band that people are actually hearing for themselves.  For this they have to thank "Stacy's Mom," their delightfully retro-sounding single.  Maybe it was the pseudo-Cars power chords.  Maybe it was the funny and slightly deluded lyrics about a young boy who falls for his girlfriend's hot divorcee mother, and actually believes it is mutual.  Maybe it was even the terrific video that pays tribute to the famous pool scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  And it doesn't hurt that supermodel Rachel Hunter appears in the video in negligee, either.

The great thing is, their latest album Welcome Interstate Managers has fifteen more examples of the band's terrific tunes and quirky short story lyrics.  Pretty much any of these songs could be huge hits, at least in a better world where songcraft is more important than beats.  The music covers all sorts of bases, from the thumping power pop irony of "Bright Future In Sales" to the lovely gentle melancholia of "Hackensack."  There are gorgeous Beach Boys-style vocal harmonies on "Halley's Waitress" and straight-up pedal steel country on "Hung Up on You."  The band also masters psychedelic groove on "Supercollider," alt Brit-pop on "Little Red Light" and sweet acoustic folk on "Valley Winter Song."

The band has become the latest musical ambassadors of New Jersey.  Jersey is a state that is proud of its native sons like Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi who put the (often depressingly hard) life of the area to music.  The group name is taken from a lawn ornament store in the town of Wayne, N.J., which has gotten even more buzz because it has since been used several times as a location on The Sopranos.  Schlesinger grew up in the Garden State in Montclair.  Collingwood grew up across the river in Sellersville, a suburb of Philadelphia.  The band is rounded out by guitarist Jody Porter and former Posies drummer Brian Young, both of whom have been with the band since soon after the debut album was recorded.

Lead singer Chris Collingwood sat down with us to talk about how the band has gotten here.

How did you first get into music?

Into playing?  I wanted to be a rock musician since I was a little kid.  I had a kind of conservative upbringing, so it was always kind of in the background.  Just sort of raised to get good grades and I went to a private school, boarding school and that sort of shit.  So, it wasn’t really until I got into college that I had the freedom to start a band.  I didn’t even play the guitar until I was in tenth grade.

How did you hook up with Adam and get the band together? 

We went to school together.  We happened to sort live down the hall from each other.  We went to a place called Williams College, which was a really small school.  When we went there, there was only about 2,000 students.  Pretty much every musician on campus knew every other musician.  At one point or another, everybody played with somebody in some sort of band or theater production.  We all knew who the other musicians were.

When your debut album came out in 1996, the single “Radiation Vibe” became a pretty big MTV hit.  Did you think you'd finally made it, you were going to be a rock star?

I might have thought so if we’d sold any records or had any real success.  To be honest, since I’d never been through something like that before, I had a bigger impression of what was going on then than I do now.  Because it was so new to me and everything and I thought it was going to take off.  Now, I’m just so cautious at every turn, you know?  Even though the most recent single is the most success we’ve ever had, I’m not even holding out for the continued success of the album.  It would be great if it built on that, but I’m so pessimistic (laughs) most of the time.

After the response to “Radiation Vibe” and Adam’s success with the theme from That Thing You Do!, when Utopia Parkway came out  it got great reviews but never got much in the way of sales or airplay.  Were you wondering what you had to do to get an audience about then?

Well, you know, it was a really bad time for radio.  Just all the Pearl Jam clones and the rap metal guys.  There really wasn’t any pop music on the radio.  Now, I think it’s probably just because of people like… what the hell are their names?… what’s the name of that production team, they just did Liz Phair’s record?

The Matrix.

I think there’s guitar pop on the radio again.  Even if I’m not a huge fan of that particular thing, back when Utopia came out, there wasn’t any guitar pop on the radio.  So, I don’t know… it was weird, looking at the top ten a couple of weeks ago and it’s like us and 50 Cent and Britney.  None of it kind of added up.

It took about four years between Utopia Parkway and the new album.  Why did it take so long? 

The basic answer is that when we got dropped from Atlantic, it’s my fault that it took so long, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep doing it.  At the end of four years of the hardest work I’d ever done in my life, more traveling and being away from my wife the whole time, I had nothing to show for it.  I got back home and I had nothing.  I was broke, I was demoralized, I was exhausted.  I think I just needed a year to recharge my batteries.

I’ve heard that beyond your work in the band, you also do computer programming.  Do you think that if not for the music you would be living the 9 to 5 office park cubicle life?

I did.  I did go in that direction.  That’s kind of what I did until our first record came out.  I think that a lot of our music is informed by the fact that both Adam and myself spent so much time in cubicles.  Actually, I used to work at American Express in New York City.  I was a programmer there.  So basically, what happened was I had this friend named Joe Rey that I worked with.  He set up an independent consulting thing.  So, as soon as we got dropped from Atlantic, I just came home and I worked from my house.

How did you get hooked up with S-Curve Records?

Adam had a long relationship with Steve Greenberg.  I think he’d done some projects with Steve, who runs S-Curve.  By some weird coincidence, our A&R guy from Atlantic became head of A&R at S-Curve as well.  So, Steve Yegelwel, the guy we had worked with quite a lot, he just went to Greenberg and said ‘this band is unsigned.  I’ve worked with them, can we do this?’  He already knew Adam, so, yeah it was pretty easy, actually.

“Stacy’s Mom” turned out to be the band’s biggest radio hit yet.  At this point, how surprised were you that it really took off?  

I was really surprised.  I think once we made the video, because we didn’t really get a whole lot of radio airplay until the video kind of got big.  Once there was the video, I was a little bit more thinking it was going to happen.

I love the video for it, too.  Who came up with the idea of doing a Fast Times take off, and who said let’s get Rachel Hunter?

That was Chris Applebaum.  He’s the director.  He, actually we worked with him a couple of times before.  We’ve known him for years.  The last time we had a chance to make a video he wasn’t as enormous as he is now.  Now he does videos with, like, you know, Britney Spears, who’s that "So Yesterday" girl?” 

Hilary Duff. 

Hilary Duff.  So, he’s like total A-List now.  I guess his production company has a little bit of sway when it comes to getting the celebrities in the video.  He’s amazing.  I think he made a really, really great video.  He’s incredible to work with.

The important thing, I think, is that while some of the things the characters in your songs say are sort of sad or deluded, but they don’t necessarily feel that way and the band does not look down on them.  Like, say, tell the truth, what do you think the kid would do if Stacy’s mom said, okay, let’s do it?  A lot of music writers then to refer to it as sort of nerd chic, but I think it’s simpler than that.  Do you feel you understand, relate to and even respect the dreams of your characters?

God it’s hard to put it into words, but neither Adam nor I have an ego in the sense of songwriting.  We have an ego in the sense of dashing up against each other quite a lot, but it’s never disdain for the characters in the songs.  I mean, it’s an uniquely American thing that you’re supposed to believe that the singer… the song is feeling his personal pain, and conveying that to you in the song, like Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain or something.  That’s certainly a legitimate way to approach it, but there’s also the Paul Simon/Randy Newman way to look at it, which is that these are characters in a story.  One of the reasons I love Nabokov is that I love the unreliable narrator.  Did you ever read Pale Fire

I haven't, Lolita is the only Nabakov I’ve read…

Well, you get about ten pages into it and you realize this guy, the narrator, is completely out of his mind and is harassing the hell out of his neighbors.  It’s perfect, because it’s a narrative that has a second dimension to it.  It’s not just telling a story, it’s telling a second story.

Sort of like A Confederacy of Dunces, too

I can’t believe you said that.  I just bought that book for a friend of mine yesterday.  Greatest book of all time.

I’m from Philadelphia, too, so I can really appreciate how well you guys capture life in Jersey… 

How come you don’t have the accent?

It’s funny, many people tell me I do.  I don’t hear it, but when I’m away from home in places like California people often say I do… 

No, you don’t have it.  I don’t have it either.  But, I was in Hawaii and I was asking people, excuse me, youíre from Philly, right?  Itís the flat O that bothers me.  When weíre in Philly, and I can say this, because Iím from thereÖ all my band mates are like "Fritooos," "Doritooos," "potatoooes."

I’ve known way too many guys like the one in “Bright Future In Sales.”  How much of your writing comes from life experience, and how much is more fictional?

Some of them are just out and out like straight out of real life.  There’s a song on the first record called "Joe Rey" about a friend of mine.  Thereís another one on the first record called "Barbara H."  Thatís my wife.  Thereís one on the new record called "Valley Winter Song" which is pretty much about my life.  Others are just kind of composites of different things, either phrases we pick up from people or people kind of loosely based on a character, but then you take some piece of a different person you know and throw it in there.  I think probably Raymond Carver would probably tell you the same thing, the story is built around something, maybe starts with a character and you throw in some other aspects of a different character, maybe.  I mean, there really is no original thought, is there?  I mean, everything comes from somewhere.

I just love “Hackensack.”  It is a lovely tune and probably has as sad words as anything on the album.  Is that based on anyone in particular?

That’s actually one of Adam’s songs.  It’s funny, I just got the news today, we’re actually being honored by the New Jersey State Assembly.  (Laughs)  They want us to, I guess go down to one of the assembly sessions.  They want us to play a song while we’re there.  So I was just thinking like the "Hackensack" thing would probably be a good idea.  Usually, a rule of thumb is if one of our songs has a New Jersey reference, or is about high school, that’s one of Adam’s. (laughs)

One great thing about your songs is that you’ll often take on sort of sad or pathetic lyrics, but the music is still sort of upbeat and happy.  Sometimes you’ll go in the opposite direction, too, like “Fire Island” which is a lovely pop ballad about kids trying to get out of having a babysitter so that they can have a party.  How do you feel that kind of contradiction between the musical tone and lyrical content can add to a song’s impact?

Uh, I don’t know.  You know, that’s another one of Adam’s.  This is going to be one of those interviews (laughs).

I’m sorry…  All the songs are credited to both of you.

It’s New Jersey, right?  It's interesting.  There’s so many different ways of approaching the melody versus words.  At least from my perspective, I never start with the words and then write the music, or start with the music and then write the words.  It always comes out at once.  I think that for whatever reason, there’s usually a marriage of the melody and the words in my head.  I don’t think Adam usually works that way.  He has things that sort of sit on his plate for a while.  Then he slowly uses these different ideas in different musical motifs.  We don’t really work together, or the same way, anymore.  I think it’s probably just by nature of the fact that we arrange everything together and we produce it together that it still sounds like the same band.

So many bands these days feel that it’s a sell out to have a tune.  Do you think pop songcraft is making sort of a comeback now?

Yeah, definitely.  I was trying to think of that girl’s name, that production…

Avril Lavigne?

No, the other one with the piano…”

Vanessa Carlton?

No, there’s another one.  (laughs)  It does sound like there’s songs on the radio now.  Regardless of the quality of it, which I won’t even address, but at least they’re songs.  It’s not Fred Durst saying "I did it all for the nookie" and stuff.  So that’s good.  It’s funny, we just got off a tour with Matchbox 20, and I frankly didn’t know much of their music before the tour, but by the end, you realize why that band has such popular appeal.  Those songs are so hummable.  I suppose if I had been a teenager, I would have been really into that.

I remember when I was in college, one of my writing professors said that if you feel inspiration, you should lie down and wait for it to go away.  I always thought that was a bad attitude.  Do you feel inspiration drives your songwriting and playing? 

I don’t understand that at all.  What does that mean?

He was one of these guys who believed writing was more a job than a calling…

Oh, okay, treat it like homework.


You know, Adam and I approach that differently as well.  Adam tries to sit down and write every day.  As a result, he’s got a huge catalogue of stuff every time we go to make an album, and we whittle it down.  In general, we like to keep it about 50-50 on the album.  Unfortunately, what’s happened… like the first album was mostly mine.  The second album was 50-50.  This album it’s more like me 40 him 60.  I’m going downhill.  But, he tends to write a ton of stuff.  Not just for us, but for his other band (Schlesinger also plays bass for Ivy) and for other songwriters and stuff.  I’m a little bit slower.  So, in my case, I get an idea in my head and I really can’t work on something else until that is finished.  As a result I work a lot slower.  It’s just a different way to approach it, I guess.

What bands inspired you to take up music?

Well, apart from the obvious ones?  Like, usually I do the Beatles disclaimer, because that’s just too obvious.  Beatles.  Beach Boys.  When I was probably twelve I really, really got into Tom Petty, you know "Refugee," the whole Damn the Torpedoes record. 

Yeah, I saw him in concert at the (Philadelphia) Spectrum in ’81 and it was the best show I ever saw.  I hadn’t been a huge fan before that…

They’re such an amazing live band.  You know, I’ve seen them live on video, but never in real life.  He was amazing to me.  I can just remember sitting, my parents had a little beanbag chair when I was growing up, and the whole family except for me was sitting around and watching, I don’t know, Happy Days or whatever.  They’d keep yelling at me because I had the headphones on and they were too loud and they couldn’t hear the TV.  I was not a normal kid.  I didn’t grow up watching TV or anything.  I just grew up listening to Beatles records and Tom Petty.  And also, it’s funny, like, people ask me what I’m listening to now and I really have a hard time answering that question.  It really, I think I bought like two records in the past year.  I have a really good friend at Warners Special Products who sends me these AM radio compilations of the 70s and that’s kind of like what I play in my CD player.

I love that stuff too.  I’ve actually done a little work for Warners myself, mostly writing liner notes for projects that ended up not coming out because of licensing problems.  None of them have came out, except for of all people Christopher Cross, but Chris decided that he wanted a friend and former band mate to write the liner notes after I’d done them.  So they paid me for the liner notes, but didn’t use them.  Oh well, what can you do?

I just heard your Philly accent, just now…

Okay, there you go. 

I always thought it must be tough to corral licensing on all those songs.  No, it’s a little bit different now, because there are like two record labels.  But if you’re going back and trying to put that shit together for the 70s, it’s like, back when there were actually record labels, it’s a little different.

In the end, how would you like people to see your music?

Oh, God.  That’s a hard question.  I just hope that people can like dig a little deeper than the single.  I hope that this record is not over after "Stacy’s Mom."

Have you decided what’s going to be the next single?

We do have a second single, yeah.  We actually made a video for it last week, two weeks ago.  "Mexican Wine." 

That’s a great song.  I could see that getting some airplay.

I hope so.  The video shoot was crazy.  We were out in LA on a yacht off of Malibu.  Girls in bikinis.  (laughs)  Helicopter shots of the beach.  Some mariachi band.

Sounds like living…

It was fun.  We had a really good time.  I’m sure it’ll come out great.  Chris Applebaum is amazing.

Are there any misconceptions you'd like to clear up?

God, where do I begin with that one?  Well, a lot of people think the band plays ‘That Thing You Do!’  That’s a misconception.  I don’t know.  Yeah, there’s too many to list.  (laughs)  If you hear any rumors about me and a goat, they’re just not true. 

Good to know.  I was going to lead with that story. 

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Photo Credits:
#1 © 2003 Joseph Cultice. Courtesy of S-Curve/Virgin Records.
#2 © 2003 Joseph Cultice. Courtesy of S-Curve/Virgin Records.
#3 © 2003 Neal Casal. Courtesy of S-Curve/Virgin Records.

Copyright © 2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 9, 2004.

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Copyright © 2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 9, 2004.