All The Things They Do!: A Superstar Interview with Adam Schlesinger & Mike Viola

Mike Viola and Adam Schlesinger walk a fine line, both of them having written huge pop hits and racking up tons of awards while still being almost completely unknown to the mainstream public. With their shows this week in Philadelphia & New York, however, there’s a chance that all that could change.

Mike Viola has released ten albums under both his own name and the Candy Butchers, was a main contributor to the ELO love letter Alpacas Orgling (with the likes of Bleu and Jellyfish’s Andy Sturmer), and was a member of the band The Major Labels. Additionally, Viola co-wrote the songs for the biopic parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and contributed even more original tunes to this year’s comedy hit Get Him To The Greek.

Adam Schlesinger, meanwhile, has released five albums with his band Ivy and, more conspicuously, five with his Grammy-nominated group Fountains of Wayne. He also wrote four songs for the 2007 Drew Barrymore/Hugh Grant film Music and Lyrics during the same year that he wrote the music for the Broadway musical Cry-Baby (for which he received a Tony nomination). In 2008 he co-wrote the songs for the TV special A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! (for which he received both an Emmy nomination and a Grammy at long last).

Yet perhaps the most well known piece of music by either of them is the title track for the 1996 movie That Thing You Do!, a piece of Academy Award-nominated pop gold that was written by Schlesinger and sung (and coproduced) by Viola, which refused to get old even after being played several times in the film.

This week, the two are playing three shows together, at the Tin Angel in Philadelphia on July 27th, at Lincoln Center in New York City on July 28th and Joe’s Pub in New York City on July 29th. According to Mike Viola, Adam received an invitation from Lincoln Center to play a show, but additional shows were booked when the two began to discuss the body of work that they could pull from. While the shows grew in number, at their core they remained an opportunity for two friends to play music together. “That’s really what it is,” Viola says, “You know I love his work and it was like ‘Oh yeah, let’s do it. I’d love to play your songs,’ and he’d like to play my songs. It’s really that simple.”

Schlesinger agrees, but feels that the shows afford both him and Viola an additional opportunity: “We thought it would be fun to have a venue to play some of these other songs that were written for movies and other things, because we don’t usually get a chance to play them, so we had this idea that thematically we could do a show where we each play a bunch of those movie songs and tell a little bit of the story of what they were about and what they were written for and it would be something different then just going out and playing a bunch of songs from our records.”

New shows means new press and probably new questions about “That Thing You Do”. It is, after all, the most obvious question to ask. The second most obvious would probably deal with the fact that these two songwriters are largely unknown even though they each have the talent to be superstars. They deserve better; they deserve to be interviewed like the superstars that they should be.

When PopMatters got the opportunity to interview these two musicians the interview was anything but obvious, but it was filled with obvious questions. Mike Viola and Adam Schlesinger were asked obvious questions specifically designed for some of the biggest superstars in the history of popular music. How did they make it through their iconic, superstar interview? Like superstars, of course.


The Lennon/McCartney Question: What is your writing process?

Mike Viola: All of my songs start in a way that’s spontaneous; it’s spontaneous combustion. When I do collaborate I collaborate with really strong writers that can kick my ass. Dan Bern is a collaborator that I work with, mostly with movies, and you’ll be sitting in a room with him and it feels that everything we write is good. It’s almost Quixotic in a way, like I’m deluding myself. “Oh my God, is it really good?” You know, I’ve been at this for a while, I know how to write a song, but sometimes it just happens and feels so strong. I’ve had a good run at the movies; I’ve done really well with film. So maybe I’m a Harry Nillson. If they’re [Adam and Fountains of Wayne co-writer Chris Collingswood] Lennon and McCartney then I’m Harry Nillson because I’ve kicked ass with movies.

Adam Schlesinger: With Fountains of Wayne, usually one of us has written the song entirely, I mean it’s my song entirely or it’s Chris’. We don’t really collaborate at all anymore. We used to when we started the band but over the years by virtue of geography and our own writing habits we just don’t collaborate anymore. We agreed to share the credit. I don’t think that either of us are Lennon or McCartney, but I would say that I’m more of the McCartney in a sense that I’m more of the chameleon or the craftsman. I think Chris’ songs maybe tend to more often written from his own real life perspective whereas I think I tend to obscure stuff behind characters a little more. There’s no real set rule about it. We’ve each kind of imitated each other as well, so barely anyone can tell which songs were written by which guy.

The Jack White Question: What do you consider to be your main band/musical outlet and what do you simply think of as side projects? Do you feel as though you need to have a main project?

Mike Viola: I think Mike Viola has now become the main thing. I’m trying to put together a tour, but the thing is I’ve had my had in so many different projects so I’m considering going on the road as just me with a band if that band can play Major Labels songs, L.E.O. songs, soundtrack songs and I have brand new band here in L. A. called Winston, and we’d also play Winston songs. That’s my main thing. My name; my career and everything else is kind of a subcategory of it.

Adam Schlesinger: Well, I suppose for most of my adult life Fountains of Wayne and Ivy have both held kind of equal weight, but in the last few years I’ve been working on lots of other things. I don’t know exactly how to answer that question, but I feel like I’m best when I’m constantly switching gears and when I’m working with different people and working on different projects. You know I’ve never really had the desire to be a front person or a solo artist. I don’t really create that much of a hierarchy in my mind. I just like to stay busy and I like to work with interesting people.

The OutKast Question: Do you get tired of people telling you to stop taking so long to record another album together?

Adam Schlesinger: Yeah, it would be nice if we [Fountains of Wayne] moved quicker but it takes a long time for a lot of different reasons. The main one is just having enough songs that we like to release. Also, I think that the slow pace that we’ve operated at is the reason that the band has lasted this long. I think that if we were doing an album a year, or even an album every two years, and touring in between we would have probably stopped speaking to each other many years ago. I think that the space and the distance is necessary.

The Jennifer Lopez Question: Your career has covered so much ground — albums, movies, television, tours — do you prefer one over the others and do you ever feel as though you have to short shrift one type of project to work on another?

Mike Viola: It’s really hard to say because right now I’m speaking to you from Hollywood and I’m working on another movie and it’s really fucking fun. I get to write within a context, which is really liberating. Adam sort of does that anyway with Fountains of Wayne. They’ve created a context with that band. I don’t really have a context; it’s a little all over the place. So with Russell Brand I get to write for this crazy character or with Walk Hard I get to pretend to be Dewey Cox and it’s pretty liberating. Writing’s my favorite thing to do. If someone comes to me and asks if I’ll write for a picture and I’m supposed to be in the studio I’ll cancel the studio time to write. Not because I want money for the picture but because I really enjoy the writing process.

Adam Schlesinger: Well making your own records is really satisfying in the sense that you, more or less get to do what you want. It may not sell or whatever, but on an artistic level, the only people that you really have to fight with are the people in your own band. If you’re working on a movie or a TV show or something you’re really just trying to deliver what somebody else wants and read their minds. It’s fun to try to do that and do a good job, but I feel that on some level that’s always a little bit less about your own artistic idea and more about just trying to do the assignment that you have to do.

The Notorious B.I.G. Question: Proportionately, how may more problems do you have when you have more money?

Mike Viola: [Laughs] “Proportionately”, I like that. Oh man I wish I knew! I wish I knew.

Adam Schlesinger: [Laughs] You know, we’ve never really gotten to a level where having more money has been a problem. With Fountains of Wayne, after “Stacy’s Mom” happened, we started making a little bit more money and getting a little bit more known. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a problem though because our band was on the brink of financial collapse at that point so it kept us going for a long time.

The U2 Question: Do you believe, at some level that the right song can save the world. Does music, even pop music, have that kind of curative power?

Mike Viola: Oh I totally believe that. Stevie Wonder once said that early on in his career, I remember reading an old copy of Rolling Stone, that a song, honestly, a song like “My Cherie Amour” can change the world. It did for me yesterday. I was driving around in my car feeling like crap and that song came on and it was literally like the hand of God reaching down, the clouds parting, and giving me a little massage. Without getting too serious or too sappy, if you can write a song with an injection of realism and emotional depth, the people that relate to it, they respond; they react deeply.

Adam Schlesinger: Oh I think that’s obvious, that a song can have a lot of power and do terrific things for people. At least, if nothing else, like touch people in a really profound way even if it changes something really slight. I don’t think anybody would question that. I think the weird thing is, as a writer, if you set out to try to write something important it usually ends up being terrible. It’s usually the ones that kind of fall out of you, at least for me, the ones where you don’t have great ambitions of creating some wonderful piece of art, and you’re just having fun and it’s something quick and easy, those are the ones that usually stick with people and mean something to them.

The Radiohead Question: When you begin writing a new album, do you use a musical tone as the starting point? Do you decide at the outset whether you are recording a “guitar” album, for example, or are things less planned out in the early stages?

Mike Viola: Yeah, totally. Every time. I have what I call a palette of sound. Like for Mike Viola, which was my last record, I made sure that there wasn’t going to be anything orchestral on there — no strings, no horns, nothing like that. I just cut a record here in L.A. with my new band, Winston, and it’s a full on rock record. When I made that record I said no piano, no keyboards; everything cut live in the room, very dirty sounds and very obtuse lyrics. Nothing that’s direct, everything’s kind of hidden and obscured by the sounds of the words.

Adam Schlesinger: Usually I don’t really think that way. Well with Fountains of Wayne we sort of just had a rule to write whatever you want and let’s not plan it at all because if we plan it it’s sort of limiting. There’s certainly times in a certain song where I’ll say, “You know I haven’t heard the piano thing in awhile” or “I want to write something that’s based more around a drum beat and less around a bunch of guitar chords” or something. I remember Joe Jackson made that record Night and Day where he decided no guitars on this album because he’d made a bunch of guitar albums, so he decided to make an album with all keyboards. That’s a cool choice. I think Aimee Mann did that at one point, too. It’s sometimes cool to give yourself a set of limits like that, but I haven’t really done a thing where it’s an entire album.

The Kanye West Question: Alright let’s start a little beef here. Do you sometimes feel disgruntled, maybe even angry with your musical contemporaries and the organizations that choose to shower them with accolades that should be yours? Do you ever wonder how some acts, I’m not picking on anybody in particular, Maroon 5 or the Killers perhaps, have become such big successes?

Mike Viola: No, it’s not their fault. [Laughs] There’s always been music that passes for popular music, and those bands that you mentioned it honestly isn’t their fault. I mean they really go for it; I don’t. I’m not competing for that. I’ve kind of learned to cherish my obscurity because it allows me to stay exclusively artistic. When I was in my twenties and I was on a major label and I was at those meetings, I was always the guy that was questioning all that stuff. Bleu calls me “the all time greatest foot shooter” he’s ever met, but I don’t think so. It’s more sticking to what you’re good at. I mean I will purchase the Killers’ record and I’ll check it out and I’ll throw it away, whereas the National, the National has a new record out and I’ll listen to that and think, “Man this is good.”

Adam Schlesinger: I don’t really think in terms like that, to be honest. I don’t think that what I do is anywhere near as commercial as what any of those bands do, so I can’t be surprised at their commercial success. I’ve certainly written a handful of songs that I thought could have, in some world been hits, but that’s something that you can’t really predict. Especially these days, the music world changes so much and there are so many other factors involved besides the music anyway. There’s a huge amount of luck involved no matter what you’ve got going on. We never set out to come up with some kind of commercial formula. I think that if I had set out to make a total Top 40 album and it didn’t get on the Top 40 I think I would be upset. That was never really our goal.

The Madonna Question: When was the last time you felt as though you’d been “touched for the very first time”? When was the last time it all felt “shiny and new”?

Mike Viola: Well, honestly the last time that I felt touched and it all felt shiny and new was an hour ago when I just finished a new song. It feels absolutely amazing. Even though somebody might hear this song and be like “Oh this sucks” it’s just the act of creation. It happens so much in my life that I’m constantly feeling rejuvenated by it.

Adam Schlesinger: I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I guess if I’m going to interpret that question in an innocent way and just say that you’re talking about the experience of making music, I still, you know, get a thrill from recording something that I’ve written and hearing it come back fleshed out. It’s still exciting to have it on a CD or something that you can listen to on your computer or whatever. It’s still nice to come up with an idea and hear it finished.

The Bob Dylan Question: Do you feel uneasy when you are referred to as “the voice of your generation”?

Mike Viola: [Laughs] A generation of … [Pause] well, that’s pretty good. I’m hanging on that question because, well, in all fairness I am the voice of a generation, a very obscure, little generation. It’s the kind of a generation that … yeah, I guess I feel uncomfortable. [Laughs]

Adam Schlesinger: [Laughs] I wish. I wish that were the case.

The Prince Question: Don’t you think that it’s a bit unfair to your fans for you to continue releasing albums that aren’t as creatively groundbreaking as Purple Rain and Sign O’ the Times?

Mike Viola: [Laughs] Oh God that’s funny. You just have to listen closer.

Adam Schlesinger: [Laughs] This is one of the more confusing interviews that I’ve ever done, but in a good way. I think that, um, every artist, I mean certainly when somebody is as successful as Prince, but everybody goes through a thing where if there are fans that love one of your records it’s almost like they don’t want to hear another one on some level because it can never mean to them what that older one does. That’s something that everybody fights with, you know? I mean, you try to do something each time that stands on its own, but there’s something … certain records hit people at a certain time in their lives that just means so much to them because of the time when they got into it. No matter what you do you’re never going to be able to recreate that experience for them. But then there’s other people that just kind of come along for the ride and whatever you’re doing they want to check it out and they come at it with an open mind.