Interview: Fountains of Wayne
Twenty years ago, guitar-based music was still in rude health, largely thanks to the new wave of British guitar music (which was later derivatively denounced as ‘Britpop’). Across the pond, 1996 spawned a raft of classic albums, from Beck’s Odelay to Dust by Screaming Trees. However, another album celebrating its twentieth birthday is the eponymous debut by Fountains of Wayne, an album that fizzed with raw energy, white-collar wit and irresistible harmonies.
The band, comprising of songwriters Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger – as well as guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young – went on to achieve global recognition for their 2003 hit ‘Stacy’s Mom’, but it’s a song that has unfairly overshadowed their unique brand of articulate power pop. Their debut album, released through Atlantic in the autumn of 1996, contained fuzzy grunge laments (‘Survival Car’), homages (‘Barbara H.’) and, in ‘Radiation Vibe’, their breakthrough single.
Sam Lambeth spoke to Schlesinger and Collingwood about the band’s inception, their debut record and if – not when – the band will record again.
Can you talk us through the birth of Fountains of Wayne? I understand you both knew each other a while prior to the group’s inception.
AS: Chris and I met as freshmen at Williams College in Massachusetts. We played music together on and off through college but didn’t really get a proper band going until after we graduated, when we both moved to Boston. We started playing locally in Boston clubs as Wallflowers (a name that we were eventually paid a few thousand bucks to stop using). We kind of took a break from each other for a couple of years after that, then Chris moved down to NY and we started hanging out a lot again. At some point Chris played me a few new songs he had written, including one called ‘Radiation Vibe’, which he kind of discounted as a joke. But I thought it was amazing and had way more personality than a lot of our older stuff. He wrote a few more right around that same time, and I started writing some of my own in response. We also wrote a few together. We started Fountains of Wayne around that new batch of songs.
CC: After leaving college, I was living in Boston and one day I realised I was working in a bank, so I moved to New York. Adam was already living there, and we had a friend with a studio and made a few songs, but none of them made their way onto the FOW record. Then, one day I bought a Gretsch and decided to write some louder rock songs, of which four became the first FOW demo. We did the whole thing very quickly and didn’t slow down to think about it.
You recorded the record without long-term members Jody and Brian (though Adam and Chris received help from bassist Danny Weinkauf). Was it a liberating experience? Did you know back then was going to become a full-time concern?
AS: On the recording, I was playing drums, Danny was playing bass and Chris was playing guitar. Then Chris and I would take turns doing some overdubs on guitar or a little keys. After we made the record, Danny decided to do other stuff (he’s now been touring and recording with They Might Be Giants for many years), and that’s when we found Jody and Brian and switched the line-up around, and I started playing bass. We were having fun but at the same time we were taking it seriously, and we felt like this new thing had potential. It was a period where bands with guitars and a bit of a sense of humour were actually selling records, so it seemed plausible that something might happen.
CC: Yeah, I think so. Back then, the industry was throwing a lot of money around, particularly Atlantic, whose strategy seemed to be to sign a million bands and see what stuck. We got a pretty sizable advance and once that happens it becomes a full-time job.
In terms of lyrics, as the band progressed there was a greater emphasis on the minutiae of suburbia and clock-punching. On your debut record, I feel it’s there in certain songs (‘Sick Day’, ‘Joe Rey’), but there’s also more of a dashed romanticism running (Chris’ ‘Leave the Biker’, ‘Please Don’t Rock Me Tonight’). What emotions/inspirations were you going through at the time?
AS: It’s pretty hard to remember what I was thinking when I was writing a song 20 years ago. I know that, as now, I often worked from titles and then sort of free-associated. Also, Chris’s new songs had a bunch of specific names and familiar, real places in them and I think that sent me off in that direction as well.
CC: I think the specifics give the record a sense of time and place. I had this fascination with The Kinks for a little while, and it occurred to me years later that all the quirks of language and places I’d never seen made it more fascinating, when to them it was just their little neighbourhood. I realised there’s value in any mundane experience if you look at it the right way.
Chris has previously said this LP was 60 per cent him, 40 per cent you, in terms of the songs. Is that about right? It’s changed over the years, but did you feel back then Chris was on a particularly hot streak?
AS: He was definitely on a streak that year. In terms of writing, that sounds about right.
CC: In 1995, I was in a new city and felt energised. I was staying out all night and being self-destructive – it was fun. I think my mind was ready to absorb everything and spit it back out.
One of album’s deeper songs is ‘She’s Got A Problem’, which almost serves as a pre-cursor to the much-later ‘Hate To See You Like This’. What was this track about?
AS: That’s one of mine. At first for some reason I thought it was a funny title, but the song that ended up coming from it isn’t really funny at all. It’s a very simple idea and a very simple melody, but there’s a contrast between the dark lyric and the sing-song melody, which is something we kind of did a lot later. And I also wrote ‘Hate To See You Like This’, which is indeed sort of an update of the same idea.
Well, I know ‘Barbara H.’ was written by you, Chris (the titular ‘character’ of the song is Chris’ wife). Tell us about that song.
CC: We were living together at the time. The “same song” on the radio was ‘Champagne Supernova’, and she hated it. We would rent a car and drive out the city and the song was on the car radio, and we joked we couldn’t get away from it. Then I was trying to finish my songs for the record and she couldn’t get away from them, either. I think ‘Barbara H.’ was just a little thank you to her for putting up with me.
When the album came out, it was fairly successful, particularly in the UK where the likes of ‘Radiation Vibe’ and ‘Sink to the Bottom’ gained airplay. Were you surprised, at the time, at the positive reactions the record received?
AS: We were thrilled, especially after having gotten nowhere our first time around. And generally the press was all positive. But one of the first times we played in London, some guy wrote a review of our show and called us “kings of the assholes”. I didn’t even know the assholes had kings. I remember that I immediately started writing a song about the reviewer in response, but our UK publicist told me definitely don’t do that.
Adam, outsiders of the band are always surprised when it’s discovered you write just as much, if not more, for the band than Chris does. Has there ever been a desire for you – or did it ever come up in the early days – to get behind the mic and take lead on the songs you pen, Posies-style? You’ve got a good voice.
AS: I think I’ve gotten a little better as a singer over the years but there was never any question that Chris was a lot better. And his voice really defined the sound of the band. What sometimes was an issue, though, was that Chris would refuse to sing certain songs I wrote because they were too hard for him, like maybe it has too many words to even breathe properly, which is a way I write occasionally. And others he just didn’t like and refused to sing. In those instances, maybe it would have been better for me to just do it rather than throw the song out or never play it live.
‘Radiation Vibe’ is one of the catchiest songs in the FoW canon. Did you always know this was going to be the lead single, or was that decided by the label? Could you also talk us through the very of-its-time music video? There’s a lot of weird imagery in there.
AS: We always assumed it would be the lead single. I really hated that music video when it was done and pushed to throw it out and start over, but our managers told us that was simply not an option. We hired the director because he had done a couple of other videos we liked. We didn’t really understand his video treatment but we just thought, let’s trust him, he has stuff on MTV. That was a time when MTV had an enormous amount of power to break a band, and I think if we had made a bright, sunny, fun video for that song, our entire career could have started off on a much bigger level. Instead we made this weird, dark, creepy video that had some kind of Twilight Zone elements that no one got except the director, and something about nailing our shoes to the floor. I still have no idea what any of it was about. And it got some token MTV play but that was it.
CC: We all hate the video for that song. The treatment was intriguing, but it was hard to convey the visual the director was going for until we were in the room, and then it was another total surprise when we saw the edit. Plus, it cost a lot of money that was the label’s, not ours, and throughout the whole shoot there was a guy sitting there with a clipboard, full of marketing surveys. It was incredibly stifling and anti-art.
Fountains of Wayne have led a sporadic life, almost cyclical with fellow power-poppers Teenage Fanclub and The Posies. I know you’ve said before you’d have liked a quicker turnaround for albums. Has it been frustrating for you? Do you often write songs consciously for FoW, and have to see them lie idle?
AS: It has been very frustrating at times. Chris and I are great together musically, I think, but we just operate differently. I like having deadlines and having multiple projects going on at once. He’s more of a wait-for-your-muse-to-strike kind of guy, and he’s definitely not a multitasker.
Chris, you’ve just finished recording your solo album. Can you tell us a bit about it?
CC: People who’ve heard it tell me they can’t believe how different it sounds. I deliberately didn’t record any songs that I thought would belong on an FoW record, since I thought it was important to draw a line between myself and the band. I demoed extensively at home using spare percussion, acoustic guitars and piano, and they became the foundation for the record. I’m very proud of it.
Chris, you wanted to finish your solo album before possibly returning to FoW duties. Now that’s more or less in the bag, what’s the state of play now? Have you guys got in touch about a new record? Do you think there *will* be a new album?
AS: I don’t know if Chris wants to do it anymore. Getting the last FoW record finished and out in the world was sort of a nightmare, frankly. If we can find a way to work together and have fun and be creative again and not have it be miserable, I’m totally into it. But I’m too old to have band fights.
CC: I like Sky Full of Holes quite a lot, but it was no fun to make. There were two different writers with two increasingly different visions, and we spent more time fighting than recording. I try never to say never, but it’s staggering to think of everything that would have to happen for me to want to repeat that experience.
20 years on, what are your opinions today of your debut, compared to, say, when you first heard the final mix? Are you happy with it?
AS: I love that album and it’s like a time capsule for me. It feels very spontaneous and kind of lo-fi but also well put together. It doesn’t really sound like any other record I can think of. But it’s nice to be used as a point of comparison at all. I think the songs on our first album still hold up pretty well. Chris hates ‘Leave The Biker’ now but I still love it.
CC: (on ‘Leave the Biker’) I lost interest in both literalism and punchlines. In 1995, it honestly didn’t occur to me that I would be playing that song for the next twenty years; it’s like doing a comedy routine every night but everybody already knows the punchline.
I have mixed feelings about the songs on the record, and some have aged better than others, but I like the overall feeling that we didn’t spend too much time sweating it. In general, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about past records. The most important thing, and the hardest thing, is not to repeat yourself.
For more information on Fountains of Wayne, visit their website.
Sam Lambeth is a Birmingham-based journalist, musician and writer. You can find more of his work at his own site.