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The Empathy of Fountains of Wayne

on January 09, 2015, 3:30pm

Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Gabe Rosenberg talks to Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger about the characters he’s created, and the theme of empathy that can be found in his songwriting. 

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“I can’t think of one single song anywhere where we’re mean to anyone,” says Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger. He puzzles it over and comes up short. “If anything, I think the songs are pretty sympathetic to whatever characters we create.”

Fountains of Wayne are a little like an exercise in empathy. I’ve listened to them — obsessively but to the chagrin of most of my friends — since middle school. They were a good first band on the iPod (nano, 8GB, black) of a self-defined Not That Kind of Guy. My mom introduced me to Fountains of Wayne, actually. She thought “Stacy’s Mom” was a riot.

For the losers, the businessmen, the romantics, the self-deprecating jerks, the self-deprecating underdogs, the wannabes who inhabit the world of their music, existing pretty much within the commute from the suburbs of New York and New Jersey into New York City, Fountains of Wayne shake apart the conformity of contemporary living that we are reminded of daily. Every house on that block looks the same. The Men in the Gray Flannel Suit inside hasn’t changed much since the 1950s.

If anyone is being mean, it’s not Schlesinger or the other songwriting half of the band, Chris Collingwood. They see more than meets the eye. In the 20 years since they took their name from a now-closed garden store in New Jersey, Fountains of Wayne have paired upbeat power-pop with detailed, insightful lyrics that seem to lovingly make fun of the suburbs but also make fun of those who make fun of them. Where Arcade Fire lambaste the “dead shopping malls” of the Sprawl, Fountains of Wayne embrace them. “The Valley of Malls” is just another place in their landscape, just down the road.

fow1 The Empathy of Fountains of Wayne

Growing up in the suburbs, you see the general attitude toward your town go from Fountains of Wayne to Arcade Fire and then, eventually, back to Fountains of Wayne again. The suburbs are a place for many to rebel against; I’ve just never felt that push some of my friends have. I come home during the holidays, and though I try to avoid the Valley of Malls right before Christmas, the town has always been more like a Fountains of Wayne song than an Arcade Fire one to me.

Empathy is part of that. Fountains of Wayne considers the human condition in and around this peculiar sociological phenomenon, and it’s not monolithic. It isn’t as destructive as, say, The Stepford Wives, but it’s not quite the fluorescent tourist campaign of Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York”, either. They know the pressures of being a middle manager are prime for self-medication (“Bright Future in Sales”); that the neighbor whose daughter ran off to a commune misses her and also self-medicates with bourbon (“A Fine Day for a Parade”); and that you can wish all the best for those who make it in the big city, but sometimes you wish they would come back to stay or just visit (“Hackensack”). The big city is where success and work are, but the suburbs are home. Who are the band to be mean?

It’s been four years since Fountains of Wayne’s last album, 2011’s Sky Full of Holes, and Schlesinger is sitting in his West Chelsea, New York City studio, working on something completely different. Possibly his new wave side band Fever High, or scoring the Broadway musical adaptation of Sarah Silverman’s 2010 memoir, The Bedwetter, or another songwriting gig for an awards show (he’s been behind most of the songs Neil Patrick Harris sings on TV). I called him up, wanting to pick his mind about the characters he’s been writing for two decades, trying to figure out if my ideas were baseless. He was game to find out.

During our conversation, I asked Schlesinger to think about his career with Fountains of Wayne, the themes and locations he keeps drawing upon — this empathy in particular — how the band’s attitude has changed over the years, and, fingers crossed, when we’ll hear more.

fountainsofwayne st The Empathy of Fountains of Wayne

You’re a pretty prolific writer, between FoW and all your side projects. How do you write for FoW, as opposed to writing for other bands or singers?

With FoW, because Chris [Collingwood] is the singer of everything, I always have to think about what he would be able to deliver comfortably. Chris has a very sort of dry delivery, and he can deliver a line that has some humor but do it without sounding too snarky. Certain lines that I write that might sound, you know, too jokey or something if someone else sang it, if Chris is delivering it, actually sounds more earnest.

You’ve said in interviews before that, in general, your songs for FoW tend to be the more storylike, less abstract ones, obviously with exceptions. Where do those stories come from?

It’s usually something that builds off a title or a couple of lines that I like, and a lot of times I just start writing it and see where it goes. And sometimes — you call it a story, but it’s just a little piece of a story or a scene, it’s not a whole story like a movie. Sometimes I’ve actually put too much story in a song, and I’ve realized, “Hey, I’m not writing a TV pilot here” and try to cram it back down to a moment or two.

Can you give me any examples?

I guess two extremes would be, on the one hand, I have a song called “The Girl I Can’t Forget” [from 2005’s B-sides collection Out-of-State Plates], which is really a story. It takes you over the course of a few days and beyond, and it’s really like this happened and then this happened. Then, on the other hand, there’s a song like “All Kinds of Time” [from 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers], which is really just a few seconds in the middle of this football play, trying to take this tiny little moment in time and expand it over the length of a three-minute song.

What do you get out of that? They’re not exactly political-themed stories.

It’s not like an allegory. It’s not like I’m trying to make some larger point.

Actually, one writer I disagreed with over on PopMatters wrote a column in 2007 saying that FoW revolves around being mean to people.

I never understood where that came from. I can’t think of one single song anywhere where we’re mean to anyone. If anything, I think the songs are pretty sympathetic to whatever characters we create. A lot of times in our songs, the voice of the person singing the song is a character themselves, so if that person, that character singing the song is putting someone else down, it’s not actually me saying that, Adam Schlesinger.

I think it’s about, basically, how — let’s say — catty it can get in songs like “Leave the Biker” [from 1996’s Fountains of Wayne].

I can’t really speak for Chris, who wrote “Leave the Biker”, and to be honest, he doesn’t even like that song anymore. He wrote that about 20 years ago in about 10 minutes; he’s disowned it to some degree. But even in that song, there’s nothing mean. There’s a character singing that song, asking his girl to leave this biker. The person telling the story is part of the story.

Going to Utopia Parkway [1999], that is not really a concept album but more of a themed album in a way. Lots of talking about the suburbs — there was some of that early on. It’s a good bit of optimism, making fun of the suburbs just a little bit but really capturing a more youthful feel. Why the suburbs as a focal point for your characters?

Chris and I didn’t plan anything out; we just started writing songs for our second record, and that’s what we ended up with. It was something of an accident that it had any kind of thematic continuity to it. I was born in Manhattan, but my parents moved to New Jersey with me when I was about five, so I grew up outside of New York City. And Chris grew up about 45 minutes or an hour outside of Philadelphia. It was when we started writing about the real things and places that we knew that we started getting any sort of personality as writers. When some of that showed up on our first record, a lot of people responded and encouraged us to go even farther in that direction. I think it’s more just the way a lot of novelists will set a lot of their books in the same place; we just focused on a setting that felt comfortable to us, and we keep going back to it.

A lot of the band’s music has this sort of middle-class malaise, disappointment, even frustration. You get to Welcome Interstate Managers, and the first three words you kill someone off. Even like “Hey Julie”, which is maybe your second most popular song as a band, is sung by someone who really hates his job.

Yeah.

Why the shift from the optimism of your prior works? And where did that come from, that new discontent?

I don’t really know. It’s just more interesting to write about something that has a little sadness or darkness or melancholy. If you just write about someone who is happy and everything’s great, it’s just not a very interesting song. [Laughs] I don’t know how to do that. There’s something about having a little contrast that keeps it interesting. I mean, “Hey Julie” is a love song, really, and the idea is just that Julie is the best thing in the guy’s life.

But even in “Bright Future in Sales” and “Little Red Light” [off Welcome Interstate Managers], you have the traveling professional trying to cope with his workday, or frustrated with his technology, frustrated with his girl. Did you have some grudge against middle managers?

[Laughs] No, again, I don’t think those songs are making fun of someone with a job. It was some kind of subject matter that was on my mind in those few years.

Have you ever repeated any characters? Since a lot of your songs are written in first person, have you ever thought of a couple of songs coming from the same source?

Not in the literal sense of, “Hey, Julie’s back!” I’m sure there are certain songs — the two you just mentioned are closely related, and there’s others that came from the same period where I was thinking along the same lines, but I don’t think of it literally as being a character that recurs.

If you take another jump in time — between Traffic and Weather in 2007 and then Sky Full of Holes in 2011 — there’s definitely an audible change. I think it’s in the guitars — just listening to the first three songs of each, the guitars got significantly less fuzzy, a lot less power, a little more folk pop. There’s more acoustic guitar taking the lead.

That was an intentional choice for sure. That was something we talked about and said, “Let’s try on this record to not just have the wall of power chords.” When we first started playing music together as teenagers, we just played acoustic guitars, and all our early recordings and early demos we did in our early 20s were a jangly acoustic guitar thing, and it would have some arpeggios and stuff like that. We didn’t get into any distortion at all until the first FoW record, so in a way it was really most similar to the early stuff we had done together.

But at the same time, the lyrics — maybe it’s because four years passed — have older narrators, in very different places in their lives. How did you pair the words to the music or vice versa?

Usually what I do is I start noodling around with some lyrics on a computer or a pad of paper, and if something strikes me, then I start playing around with music and see what it does to it. And different music can radically change what the words mean, in a weird way.

What do you mean?

A song like “Richie and Ruben” [from Sky Full of Holes], I came up with this idea of these two guys who were just bad businessmen and kept losing their money and taking people’s money — and to give it this sort of bouncy, little folk-pop song feel, I thought went with the humor of that idea.

And it downplays any bad feelings from the narrator who got ripped off.

It doesn’t make him seem like he’s really that pissed, because if the music was super angry, it would be this weird, angry song. Or “A Road Song”, which is another one I wrote for that record, is just a little tour diary, but musically I wanted it to have that ‘70s soft rock vibe because that was a period when a lot of bands were writing songs about being on the road. In that case, it feels a lot more wistful than they probably are on paper.

Have your side projects and award show writing at all influenced your FoW songs or vice versa?

I think what’s happened is it’s made me realize that if I want to get something finished or have to, I can. It’s very easy to procrastinate when you’re a songwriter and never finish stuff. But when you’re working with someone else, you can’t call them back and say, “I’m sorry. I’m just not feeling inspired today.” It’s a way to develop some work habits; that part has rubbed off.

Is that maybe why FoW takes about four years between albums? Procrastination?

To be honest, the reason it usually takes four years in between albums is that, between every album, Chris doesn’t know if he wants to do it anymore. So there’s usually a process of waiting for him to come around. That’s happened pretty much between all of them. I think if it were left up to me, we’d have put out a lot more records, and we would have put them out faster.

On that note, do you know yet if there will be another FoW record? 2015 will be four years since, so that’s on pace.

There’s no record in the works right now. I would love if there were one. Chris, at the moment, is focusing on doing a solo record, which he’s wanted to do for many years, and he’s basically said that until he sees that through, he doesn’t want to do another Fountains record.

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Gabe Rosenberg is a Pittsburgh writer going to school in Connecticut. He tweets