|Photo by Joseph Cultice|
Though they look about as threatening as Hall & Oates (minus even the menace of Hall’s mullet and Oates’ mustache), Fountains of Wayne songwriters Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger can cause a respectable ruckus. I’m standing with Schlesinger next to the band’s tour bus, which is parked on the corner of Irving Place and East 16th Street in New York City, a few doors down from the main entrance of the amply sized concert hall Irving Plaza, on a warm, overcast afternoon earlier this month. The band are about to sound-check for the sold-out show they’re playing tonight — their first hometown gig since the June release of their third album, Welcome Interstate Managers, a collection of peppy guitar-pop tunes that, like the two before it, is distinguishable from any number of other peppy guitar-pop collections by its sharp, specific writing and impressive stylistic breadth.
Fountains of Wayne songs aren’t sappy paeans to unattainable women or mopey reflections on attainable women who still managed to get away. Well, some of them are, but they’re not like the ones you’ve heard hundreds of times before. For one thing, they’re funnier: “He’s got his arms around every man’s dream,” Collingwood sings on “Leave the Biker,” from 1996’s Fountains of Wayne, “and crumbs in his beard from the seafood special.” In “Denise,” from ’99’s Utopia Parkway, the unattainable woman “drives a lavender Lexus/She lives in Queens but her dad lives in Texas.” FoW songs are also packed with believable, well-drawn characters — goofy guys not terribly unlike Collingwood or Schlesinger but with their own annoying traits and bad habits and special weaknesses. And their own geographical locations: If you were to get a map of the American East Coast and a bunch of those little colored pushpins and mark each of the cities, towns and roadways name-checked on the three Fountains albums, your map would have an awful lot of pins in it. (When I point this out to Schlesinger, he tells me that someone asked him a few days ago if the point of his band was to bring some attention New Jersey’s way, a fitting presumption when you consider that the band took its name from a gift shop in Wayne, New Jersey. We both laugh, so I don’t ask him the same thing, even though I’m curious, too.)
Welcome Interstate Managers is the band’s strongest record yet — funnier, sadder, filled with more believable characters and including three songs that drop place names in their titles. It also shows off Collingwood and Schlesinger’s compositional range better than ever before. In addition to a handful of buzzy new-wave nuggets (the most Cars-ish of which, about a burgeoning May-September romance, could’ve been called “My Best Friend’s Girl’s Mom”), there are plangent winter-weather ballads, dippy acoustic shuffles, polished lounge-pop, corny aw-shucks country and leftover alt-rock bravado. And they don’t just gesture toward those styles, either; “Halley’s Waitress,” about a server with better things to do than warm up the narrator’s coffee, comes replete with fretless-bass runs and subdued wah-wah straight out of Steely Dan, and pedal-steel whiz Robert Randolph lends the rural “Hung Up on You” some Yankee twang. Like their heroes Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, these guys have listened to a lot of records and can’t help sprinkling their own with memories of their favorites.
Anyway, Schlesinger and I are standing outside the bus waiting for Collingwood to return from the hot-dog stand around the corner when a burly security guard with a badge about two sizes too small for his grimace sidles up to us. “You know who this bus belongs to?” he demands, not really looking at anyone in particular but definitely accusing anyone within earshot.
“Uriah Heep,” Schlesinger replies instantly. It’s a good answer, probably the one band this guy digs. “Why do you ask?” Schlesinger ventures.
“I just wanted to know what kind of lowlifes would park right in front of a hospital,” the guard sneers, gesturing toward the utterly nondescript façade he’s in charge of securing, which only Batman or Doogie Howser or the zoning commissioner could possibly know conceals a hospital and not one of the other 27,000 businesses located in buildings exactly like it.
I’m registering my surprise that two guys who can evoke the pangs of withered high school romance so ably on CD can be so ruthless in real life when Schlesinger starts explaining to the dude (without clarifying that he does not in fact play bass for Uriah Heep) that the venue staff said it was cool to park the bus there and that they hadn’t been notified of any potential hospital-entrance blockage crisis. The guard snorts loudly, not quite mollified, and waddles off, mumbling something about a disenfranchised elderly woman who had to park all the way behind the Fountains’ traveling home. Then Collingwood rounds the corner, happily munching, and we head inside the bus.
The episode sort of typifies the Fountains’ career: Nice guys hit right place at wrong time, butt up against record-label authority figure, fix problem themselves. When Fountains of Wayne’s “Radiation Vibe” managed to catch some alternative-radio heat in the mid-’90s, the band found themselves lumped in with the Weezer/Veruca Salt crowd, which made some sense sonically but didn’t help the more thematically ambitious Utopia reproduce the debut’s sales or radio play. So the band, which since Utopia has also included guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young, ended its relationship with Atlantic Records and spent the next four years alternately on hiatus (Schlesinger holds down a successful side career as a member of the breezy New York pop trio Ivy and as a songwriter/sideman/producer-for-hire; Collingwood enjoys “golfing and gardening”) and recording Interstate on its own dime. (“It actually cost more than a dime,” the two joke simultaneously.)
Both men know their tale of major-label woe is not theirs alone. “Please don’t write one of those sad-sack business stories,” Schlesinger laughs. “We don’t like those.”
“The band that can’t get a break,” Collingwood booms in his best newspaper-headline voice.
“The only time we really spent dealing with that was after the record was done,” Schlesinger explains. “We sent it around to some people and got a new deal, thankfully, very quickly. We had had a couple of meetings way back right after we parted ways with Atlantic, and a bunch of people we met with all told us they really liked the band but they just needed to hear some new material. And we didn’t have any at that point, so we said, ‘Fuck this, let’s just make a record and figure it out afterward.’”
The new deal they signed was with the Virgin/EMI imprint S-Curve Records, a small label that can afford to indulge founder Steve Greenberg’s pet affections because he released the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out,” which, as Schlesinger estimates, “sold about 10 zillion copies.” Greenberg’s not expecting to sell 10 zillion copies of Welcome Interstate Managers, but “He just thinks of us as pop songwriters and doesn’t put us into some kind of weird left-of-center category,” Schlesinger says. “Which in a way is great, you know? Because that is sort of what we’re trying to do. Not necessarily be the Baha Men, but we do consider what we do writing pop songs.”
The capacity crowd at Irving Plaza certainly don’t disagree — a few hours later they’re singing along to every one of the band’s new songs as if the radio were flogging them nonstop. (Not that it’s so hard, since part of what makes a great FoW song like “Hey Julie” or “Hackensack” great is how it intertwines strands of novelty and familiarity, how you’ve heard its parts but never its whole.) Despite Schlesinger’s trepidation, the current narrative in the Waynes’ world is actually a happy business story, not a sad-sack one.
And they care about disenfranchised elderly women, too. A few minutes before the band head inside the venue for sound check, a parking space in front of us opens up and the driver eases the bus into its new, less problematic resting place. Schlesinger seems relieved. The Fountains’ nice-guy reputation is restored.
Fountains of Wayne play House of Blues on Sunday, July 27.