Fountains of Wayne: Too Smart to Be a Rock Band, Too Smart to Be Anything Else

Fountains of Wayne
Traffic and Weather

Fountains of Wayne is that rare rock band that tells fabulous stories.

The band’s new album, Traffic and Weather contains songs narrated by a variety of average guys — a desperately jealous boyfriend who can’t accept that his girlfriend was “at The Gap with somebody in a baseball cap”, a dude who is balls-certain that he can turn a “’92 baby blue Subaru” into a Chick Wagon, a man restlessly in love with the woman behind Window B at the DMV who demands to see six forms of ID. These men are smart and funny, dumb and oblivious, empathetic or selfish — whatever serves the story.

“We’re not huge literary types,” claims Adam Schlesinger, one of the band’s two mastermind/songwriters along with lead singer Chris Collingwood. Really? “We don’t have our nose stuck in books all the time. And, personally, I hate most movies.” Maybe that’s because most of Schlesinger’s songs are carefully crafted, three-minute films in their own right.

Not Really Rock Stars

You might be excused for disbelieving Schlesinger, except that talking to him is a persistently sincere experience. Though he and Collingwood famously met at elite, smarty-pants Williams College and though their monster hit of 2003, “Stacy’s Mom”, would seem to qualify them as some kind of rock stars, Schlesinger just about cringes at the term.

“We’re not really rock stars. I don’t know. Playing in a rock band is, in general, a silly thing to be doing. But we really love it. It’s one of those paradoxes. If you take it seriously, you look like a jerk. But you have to take it seriously to do it well enough to keep doing it.”

And there you go — a rock guy discussing the paradoxes of the business. How very Fountains of Wayne. Which is to say — how keenly self-aware and interesting.

“Stacy’s Mom” is both the ultimate Fountains of Wayne song and atypical enough to be a problem for them as their new album emerges. The Schlesinger-penned hit is hilariously narrated by a teenaged kid who not only lusts after his girlfriend’s mom but also is deluded enough about it to think that “she likes me from the way she stared”. And the song is a dead-on self-conscious parody of the Cars, specifically “Just What I Needed” and, of course, “My Best Friend’s Girl”. Typical Fountains of Wayne: a vaguely deluded, unreliable narrator juxtaposed with a killer melody arranged with allusive power-pop expertise.

What was not Fountains of Wayne about “Stacy’s Mom”? That it was a monster hit, partly on the strength of a video that celebrated the boobs of model Rachel Hunter, the particular mom in question. “It was great having a hit,” Schlesinger says without embarrassment. “After being dropped by our old label and recording Welcome Interstate Managers without a deal, it gave us a new lease on life and has allowed us to keep going.”

As for the big boobs? “Yeah, that’s a tricky line to walk. Someone planning a piece for a magazine about big-breasted women contacted the band. That’s, uh, not really us. Videos are basically a TV commercials — so you go with what will work, what will be entertaining.”

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE [Photo: Kazumichi Kokei]

The Same Band

Early fans of Fountains of Wayne knew that their breakout hit was both consistent with the band’s early “indie” output and pretty anomalous. The pleading narrator of “Leave the Biker” (“And I wonder if he ever has cried / ‘Cause his kitten got run over and died”) is just as caught inside his own head as Stacy’s mom’s suitor, and the clever appropriation of another band’s sound is no less clever there than it was on the Revolver-era Beatles groove the boys nailed on “Utopia Parkway”.

In short, despite the surprise of a couple of over-thoughtful songwriters having a monster radio hit, Fountains of Wayne has changed very little over the years. “Having a hit, you worry that you’ll become a bunch of arrogant assholes, but it was good that it didn’t happen until eight years into the band’s life. We could actually enjoy it while also knowing that it won’t last.”

Does it feel, well, cheap to become a band that may now be thought of as a “one hit wonder”? Schlesinger doesn’t seem troubled by it. “I think of it as making us more like Randy Newman, who most people only know for ‘Short People’ or maybe ‘I Love L.A.'” And though Schlesinger is at pains to make you know that he isn’t comparing his songwriting to Newman’s, exactly, it’s notable that Newman also writes songs that are often funny or touching, narrated by the confused or the self-deluded, stating points of the view that the songwriter probably wouldn’t endorse.

“Being a one-hit wonder is a good thing. That one song gets heard by everyone. But then it allows you to have an artistic life for the people who are paying attention to all of your music.”

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE [Photo: Audrey Levy]

The New Album, Traffic and Weather

Fountains of Wayne’s latest, Traffic and Weather, is certainly an album that continues to exploit the group’s obsessions, strengths, and craft. Though Schlesinger denies the songs were written or selected with any particular theme in mind, the disc is very nearly single-minded in its obsession with the restlessness of American culture. Nearly every song deals with modes of transportation — taxis, cars, airplanes, highways, even revolving doors, sort of. The characters are needy and wistful as much as they are silly — they yearn for lovers who live far away or who haven’t even met them yet, or they realize love in the most mundane places possible — an airport tram.

“We didn’t intend for the album to have a theme, no. When you’re writing songs certain things just keep popping into your head,” says Schlesinger. “It’s not mapped out. I usually start by thinking about where I’m sitting, what’s going on.

As on previous Fountains of Wayne collections, the characters live in a world filled with pop culture, which the songs knowingly reference as shorthand. When two local newscasters proposition each other across the anchor desk in “Traffic and Weather”, they’re not just any newscasters — they are Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons of New York’s local NBC affiliate. When the lonely Seth Shapiro comes home from a hard day of litigation in “Someone to Love”, he doesn’t just listen to music, he listens to Coldplay.

It gets you to wondering, do the targets of the band’s commentary (or their lawyers) ever object to being referenced? Schlesinger, an almost naively good guy, says — “There’s been no problem there. We’re not making fun of Coldplay at all. That character is just not an indie-rock hipster, which is part of the point of the song. If he wanted to relax, that’s just the music he would put on.”

Traffic and Weather, like 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers and the two new songs that were included on last year’s b-sides/rarities collection Out of State Plates, is carefully produced. Not only is the band’s basic guitar-heavy power-pop sound enhanced by keyboards, but there are plenty of vocal harmonies and horn charts. The music isn’t “slick”, perhaps, but it is gussied up enough that it seems the band can transform itself into anything it needs or wants to be. “Yolanda Hayes” plays at being a dead ringer for the Beatle’s “Getting Better”, and the chorus of “This Better Be Good” is pure Brian Wilson — high harmonies and tambourine in glorious combination. “Seatback and Tray Tables” smacks of a folk arrangement from the ’60s — acoustic guitar, harmonica, and Simon & Garfunkel harmonies.

For a band that started out in 1995 as a scrappy “alternative” group, are they sounding kind of Steely Dan — two college pals writing literate story-songs to be played by New York’s best? “Hey, we like Steely Dan,” Schlesinger notes enthusiastically. “We just try to do what each song calls for, musically. We have no particular rules. But, sure, we really love harmonies and we’re going to use them.”

On Traffic and Weather Fountains of Wayne uses the musical arrangements precisely and for some considerable fun. On “’92 Subaru”, for example, the narrator’s hilarious boasts about the features of his used car (“Pumpin’ in oxygen from some Swiss mountain / Alarm system so confusing you can’t even get in”) are made more ridiculous and more charming because they are accompanied by what Schlesinger calls “cock rock”. “That’s the whole idea with that song — we pick a musical bed and then put lyrics on top that you wouldn’t expect. It’s supposed to be funny. But we also want it to be a song you want to hear more than once.” Then Schlesinger, trying not to be that “arrogant asshole”, says, “Though you probably aren’t going to want to listen to it forever. It’s a fine line — sometimes we want to be funny but we don’t want to be Weird Al. We don’t want it to be all we do.”

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE [Photo: Kazumichi Kokei]

Balance of Humor and Emotion

Schlesinger probably doesn’t need to worry too much. Though Traffic and Weather is arrestingly witty in many places, it is sincere and intense as well. “I-95” narrates a long, yearning trip on the highway that runs south from New York. “Hip-hop stations are fading out / All I’m receiving now is a kick drum mixed with static / Constellations are blinking in the sky / The road is open wide, it feels so cinematic”. The narrator is cut off by “an elder gentleman” and “from then on that’s all I see” — a portrait of himself translated indefinitely into the future. It’s made particularly lovely by a phased guitar sound and cushions of vocal ahhhhs that evoke John Lennon just enough.

Similarly, “Strapped for Cash” is nothing-too-fancy, a tale of owed money with four chords and a trashy rock-funk that could be played by a sloppy bar band. “New Routine” economically tells a series of connected stories about coincidence with a tense Police-ish guitar feel beneath it all. “Setting out to tell a story in a song is tricky. You really only have about eight to twelve lines for the whole thing.”

This kind of awareness of craft is what has made Schlesinger, outside his Fountains of Wayne career, into a go-to Hollywood songwriter. He wrote the faux-hit songs for the Wonders in the Tom Hanks movie That Thing You Do, for the Josie and the Pussycats movie, and for the recent Drew Barrymore/Hugh Grant comedy, Music and Lyrics. Is that music just Fountains of Wayne music in another context? “No. You have to take those assignments seriously and get into the world of the movie. In fact, when I’m writing a Fountains of Wayne song, I think to myself: ‘OK, what would those Fountains of Wayne guys write?'”

You might ask a guy that self-aware what he thinks of the Robbie Fulks song “Fountains of Wayne Hotline”, which imagines that the Fountains of Wayne guys run an emergency service for foundering songwriters that doles out time-tested formulas for writing catchy tunes. “There’s some truth to that,” Schlesinger admits. “There are a lot of tricks that go into writing songs. There is no set formula — but we’re probably guilty of sometimes falling back on things that we know are going to work and we just don’t care if they are the same.”

You get the sense that Fountains of Wayne simply has too much fun with the play of pop music to be all that concerned with how they are perceived. You ask Adam Schlesinger whether it was different recording the new album for a big label (Virgin) compared to the last one, when they were unsigned. “Not really. We’ve approached all the records exactly the same.” Smart, funny, craft-conscious. Loads of scrumptious hooks.

That’s why the band has fans that span about 30 years — young fans who love “Stacy’s Mom” and older fans who love to hear rock music that is still as well-crafted as the classic stuff. Fans like NPR’s Terry Gross, the host of “Fresh Air”. That must be why they put Gross’ voice on the very beginning of Out of State Plates, before the song “Maureen”. So you ask Schlesinger — what is it with you guys and female sex symbols — Rachel Hunter, Terry Gross…?

Yeah, Schlesinger tells you. “We originally asked Terry to be in the ‘Stacy’s Mom’ video, but she couldn’t do it.”

And you realize that he’s right. Fountains of Wayne can’t be real rock stars. They don’t posture, taking themselves too seriously, erecting a wall of pretension and mythology around themselves. They just focus with great seriousness on the music, which — in the end — is funny and insightful and stunningly crafted.

You can, it turns out, listen to it more than once.