Adam Schlesinger Interview

Aquarian Weekly 4/6/07

Adam Schlesinger InterviewFountains Of Wayne “Traffic And Weather” Unedited Transcript

Fountains Of WayneJC: Why four years between records?

AS: Well, we toured for a long time on the last record. So we were out for over a year and then, you know, real life sort of got in the way for a while. But we started to write during the break, and we actually got into recording fairly quickly after that. But it took awhile to get the record together. Then it takes awhile to get into the release schedule. In short, I don’t know why. (chuckles) All those things added up to four years. We can’t seem to make it go any faster.

Speaking of the writing, your main themes of the “Everyman” as the archetypal hero, this Joseph Campbell thing of an ordinary person challenged to his limit, reaching a peak-culminating experience, overcoming the “supreme ordeal”, but in everyday settings, seems to permeate Fountains of Wayne songs from your Utopian Parkway record through this one.

I think it’s something that’s developed over time. When Chris (Collingwood) and I first started writing songs when we were younger we wrote about much more general things, but we found that the more specific and, in a way, realistic details we put into our songs the more people liked them. (laughs) That’s what seemed to be what we were doing that people responded to. When we first started we were in more of a guitar-pop Crowded House kind of mode, where the stuff was a little more ambiguous, but then we just started having fun putting these details in and reflecting on things we had actually seen in our own lives or maybe fictionalized from our own lives and that grew into a style for the band.

Do you guys, or perhaps yourself, when you’re writing, make a concerted effort to put references into your songs for fun? I’m reminded of this David Letterman quote about one of my favorite songwriters, the late Warren Zevon, that only he could manage to jam “brucellosis” into a song, but I say sticking references to Cosco and Leichtenstein in the same song is just as impressive.

Right. (laughs) I think it’s just the fun of playing with language. It’s not premeditated. It’s not like, “How can I fit these two words into a song?” It’s more that you’re just free-associating when you’re writing. A lot of times I’m not even really sure where the story’s going. I’m just sitting there putting lines together and letting the story write itself. And that’s how you end up with Cosco and Leichtenstein in the same song, which is pronounced wrong on the record by the way; something I discovered after the song was finished. (laughs)

(laughs) I questioned my pronunciation of it, but I only remember Leichtenstein because at one time, I’m not sure this is still true, but it was the smallest nation on earth.

Right. Right.

Do you keep notes on the road, or do you find other ways to put certain observations into your songs?

Not really. It’s more of a mental notepad. I’m pretty disorganized, actually. I wish I were a little better at keeping track of ideas, both musical and lyrical. A lot of stuff I’ll just forget about and then a year later say, “Shit, why didn’t I work that out?” But I’m mostly scattered.

Do you work from a chord progression or a melody or do you work off the lyric?

I try and change up my method so I don’t get into ruts, but more often than not I start with lyrics or at least a piece of lyric and then start working on music. But there are a few cases where I did it the opposite way just to see if I could. The song “Someone To Love” was actually written to a track that I worked on humming a melody that didn’t have any lyrics. “Strapped For Cash” was kind of the same thing. It started with a track and some chord changes and I tried writing something on top of it.

I noted on “Someone To Love”, when listening to the record, I scribbled “A 21st century ‘Eleanor Rigby’ for the tri-state area set, but with a twist.

That was kind of the idea. Pretty much spot-on. In fact, before I had the chorus figured out I was sort of just singing the chorus from “Eleanor Rigby” as a placeholder. (laughs) The twist to it, which separates the song from the melancholia of “Eleanor Rigby”, is the two main characters, while being sympathetic to a point, they eventually enact their myopia on one another at the end.

That’s what I love about your stuff.

I see it as being a near miss. I came up with these main characters and was trying to come up with what should happen to them. Should they meet? And then I thought maybe they shouldn’t meet, maybe they could almost meet. (laughs)

Right. Therein lies the tragedy. (laughs) That reminds me of the lyrics in “All Kinds of Time” from the last record, which is a phrase used in the stable of commentary for NFL color analysts, but when taken out of context is pure nonsense. What the hell is “all kinds of time”? Yet you managed to stretch it to a metaphor and compose a beautiful ballad out of it.

Yeah, a lot of times that’s what I’ll do, sort of focus on a phrase that you take for granted or that you don’t really think too much about and see if you can do something literal with it or stretch it out or do something unexpected with it.

Did you dig what the NFL did with the song as a promo?

Oh, yeah. I loved that, man. That was actually something I was lobbying for for a long time because that song was inspired by those NFL Films, so in terms of a use for our song against pictures, that was pretty much the perfect thing.

Do you have any particular literary heroes that influence your writing?

There’s a lot of writers I like, but I don’t know how much they’re directly on my mind when I’m writing a song. But there’s writers I like that use a certain amount of humor but try and not stumble too much into straight-out comedy.

How about musical influences?

There’s so many. I think we do the genre-hopping thing because we love so many different kinds of music. There are certain songs where we try and do a sixties thing. There’s other songs where we’ll try and do an eighties thing or a new wave thing. Sometimes we’ll go for something that’s more classic rock, seventies, FM sounding. Between me and Chris, between all four of us actually, we know way too much music and we love so much music.

So you make a conscious effort to take a style and sort of Fountains Of Wayne it up.

Yeah, but I don’t know if it’s really like “Hey, let’s take this style and see what we can do with it.” It’s more like if I have some lyrics I’ll try and give it different musical beds. Depending on how you couch it musically it completely changes the meaning of the lyrics. You know?

Sure.

I mean you can take a lyric that seems really silly and tossed-off but put it against a melancholy ballad then suddenly it becomes so much more dark or poignant. Or you could go the other way and just put it against something that’s fast and bouncy and it changes the meaning of it.

I’m 44 now, and I saw in your bio that you’ll be 40 this year, so we’re in the ballpark of influences.

No. What? I’m 19, man. What are you talking about?

Oh, sorry, you’ll be 20 this year… (laughs) That kind of kills the question. But I’ll forge ahead nonetheless. Being a child of the seventies, I still have a soft spot in my heart for those WABC pop songs of the time. My brother was born in ’67 as well, but he was more of an eighties cat. But is it right to assume that pop music was always a jumping off point for your work?

Well, we love pop music. We love catchy songs you remember after the first time you’ve heard them. That’s just our taste, you know? That’s a quality in pop music that isn’t specific to any one era.

But I personally love that period of time, that AM radio period, when they would play “Smoke On The Water” and then the DiFranco Family back-to-back. This whole mosaic of pop, everything from funk to country to hard rock fell into.

Exactly. It wasn’t about a genre, it was about good songs. I have K-Tel records from the mid-seventies with these incredible swatches of all different popular musical styles from that moment, and they’re all great.

I’ve got the same albums. This is what I’m talking about with you guys. You hit that chord with your stuff.

I hope so, yeah, thanks.

You produced the record alone this time.

I’ve always taken somewhat of the lead on the records. It’s something that Chris is perfectly capable of doing; he’s just not that interested in it. He doesn’t want to spend the hours sitting in front of the computer or in front of the console doing edits or whatever it might be and I actually enjoy that stuff. This time around I did more of the grunt work, but that’s not necessarily what always happens with us. There’s been a lot of times where we’ll sit together in the studio, as in “Welcome Interstate Managers” it was credited to me and Chris and Mike Deneen, who was our engineer, because really the three of us would kind of sit around and discuss every song and make a range of choices. It’s just that this time around I was doing a lot more of that work on my own.

What do you look for in a studio sound? Are you an analog freak? You must fool with digital recording.

We use Pro Tools and we’re not afraid of modern gear, but we definitely start with vintage amps and really good mikes and sort of keep it organic at the most basic level. I think because we’re kind of a traditional rock band we record in a traditional way. We set the band up and try to get good sound on tape and towards the end we’re not opposed to using modern devices like plug-ins or synths or whatever it might be.

You built a studio in Manhattan, Stratosphere Sound. Was it structured in the style of how you personally feel a studio should be, or did you even have a hand in designing it?

Well, Stratosphere is owned by three guys; It’s me, James Iha, and Andy Chase, who I play in the band Ivy with. Andy was the one who actually started the studio before James and I got involved. But when we got involved we moved into a new space and we were all involved in the design and building from scratch. We hired a guy named Fran Manzella, who is one of the country’s best recording studio designers and really talked about what are uses for it would be, and it really came out great. It’s a perfect studio for the kind of bands we all play in and produce. It’s definitely geared towards making rock records and its very comfortable without being too sterile. He has a nice clubhouse vibe to it.

Do you find producing Fountains Of Wayne decidedly different than sitting in as a producer for an outside project? Plus, you’re playing on the record, so you’re in the band, yet you’re acting as producer, which is a role normally left to an objective ear.

Yeah, it’s definitely easier to produce someone else, because, as you say, you’re the guy that can step back from the whole thing and maybe see something that the artist is doing that they don’t see themselves. When you’re producing your own record it’s very easy to let your insecurities get in the way of being objective. A lot of times what we do is bring somebody in at the mixing who is also a trusted ear or producer in their own right. In this case it was John Holbrook and Michael Brower, both of whom are just incredible mixers but also good producers, so there’s that eleventh hour help of getting somebody from the outside to catch stuff that you probably missed.

That takes care of producer, but what about writing for someone else as opposed to writing for Fountains Of Wayne? I understand you wrote songs for the film “Music & Lyrics” and you penned the title song for the Tom Hanks’ film, “That Thing You Do”. Is that liberating to write for different styles and voices as opposed to your own?

In a case like that it’s a very specific assignment. You don’t have time to sit around and wait for your muse to strike. It’s like, “Well, we need a song on Thursday and it has to be about this and it has to be this long. It’s as if you’re a carpenter and you’re just trying to deliver what the director wants, just like the set director or the costume designer. (laughs)

You become a craftsman in a sense.

Yeah, obviously you want to do something good and that you personally like, it’s not that cut and dry. You still have to put your own inspiration into it, but it’s definitely got to be right for the film more than anything else.

I’m not sure how “Music & Lyrics” did as a film, but the soundtrack did big numbers on ITUNES.

The film did okay. The record at least on a certain level did well. I didn’t actually write all the songs for it, I wrote three. I sort of got more credit than I deserved on that movie because there were a lot of other songwriters involved, but I had three pretty prominent ones in the movie.

Is that the same kind of deal as the Tom Hanks’ film? Did you already have “That Thing You Do” or did they say, “Write us a pop song that reflects a vanilla early-sixties pop group”?

I didn’t have that song beforehand. I heard what they were looking for after I got some notes. It’s a little bit different because in that scenario I was just one of a bunch of people just trying to submit stuff on spec, whereas with “Music & Lyrics” I was hired for the film. I had the chance to rewrite stuff and try again. It was more of a hired job up front.

It must have been a kick, in the case of the Tom Hanks film that song is plays every 30 seconds. (laughs)

Yeah, the first time I saw it I almost wanted to apologize to everyone in the theater.

Did I read you’re working on the music for the new John Waters’ Broadway musical, “Cry Baby”?

Yeah, it’s kind of in the workshop stage. The plan is hopefully to be on Broadway at the beginning of next year.

Is Jimmy Vivino from the Conan O’Brien band acting as musical director?

Well, actually Jimmy Vivino played on and produced all the demo recordings when I was writing the songs. I don’t think he’s going to be the music director because he’s got so many other things on his plate. He may be involved in some kind of consultant capacity because he did play all the guitar licks on the original demo recordings, so whomever they bring in is going to have to imitate him, which is no easy task.

How was working out the music for a Broadway play?

In some respects it’s completely new. I’ve never written anything for Broadway or even for theater particularly, but in other respects it’s the same, you know? You’re given an assignment and each song has very specific meaning in the script and in the story, and you just have to make it work. I’m lucky to be working with some really smart and top people from that world. The guys who wrote the script are the guys who wrote “Hairspray” and “The Producers” and “Annie”, and all kinds of huge shows. They know what they’re doing. I’m working with lyricist David Javerbaum, the executive producer of The Daily Show, and the two of us were just trying to deliver songs that fit into their script.

Back to the band, have you guys played any shows promoting “Traffic And Weather”?

No, we’re just starting. We’re still in rehearsals. I think the first thing we’re doing is an acoustic thing at the Apple Store in Soho on the 20th, and then we start playing full band gigs after that.

When was the last time you guys were on the road?

We’ve done some sporadic gigs here and there over the last couple of years but in terms of really heavy touring I think we wrapped it up in maybe early 2005.

So what’s the mind set when you go from songwriter, to recording artist and producer, and then working on films and musicals to a touring act again?

It’s fun in a totally different way. In a way the hard part of the work is over, because you’ve written and recorded the songs and now you’re just going out and playing them and having fun. It’s much more visceral. I don’t think anybody in this band wants to live on the road. We like to go out for a couple of weeks and then take a break and then maybe do a couple of more. We all have normal lives at home now, families and stuff like that, so we can’t be like a bunch of 21 year-olds hopping into vans and disappearing for a year. (laughs)

(laughs) Is there pressure in promoting a record as opposed to just playing the odd gig here or there? Just doing something like this, doing interviews, making appearances, making yourself constantly available for promotion.

You know, compared to most things you have to do for a living, it’s hard to complain about it, really. (laughs) If I have to talk about myself for a couple of hours it beats flipping eggs, as my drummer always says. It’s our catchphrase whenever we’re stuck doing something kind of crappy, it’s like “Well, it beats flipping eggs.”

Where are you now? At the studio?

I’m at home. I live in Manhattan about three blocks from the studio so it’s a very easy commute. I’m about to head over there now, actually.

I live about ten or so miles from the actual Fountains Of Wayne. I know you’ve been asked this a billion times, but is there any particular reason why you named the band after a garden furniture store?

Well, I grew up in Monclair (New Jersey) near there and it was just one of those names that we had in our back pocket along with a lot of other band names. We used to spend half our lives thinking up band names. That’s the one that stuck. It’s actually worked out well for us. We sort of took a lot of shit for it at the beginning because people thought it was a horrendous name. In some ways it is. It doesn’t really roll off the tongue. I feel like it’s ended up fitting what the band’s about and sort of bonded us with people from this area somewhat.

How about the proprietors of Fountains OF Wayne?

Yeah, we talk with them, and when we were working on our first record we went to those guys and made sure they were cool with it. We didn’t want them to be surprised. They gave us their blessing and said let’s stay in touch, and we’ve talked with them occasionally over the years. And every once and a while a journalist with call them up and ask them questions and they play along with the whole thing. (laughs)

Yeah, well, of course now that you’re famous, but back then I can only imagine, “You’re naming a what after us?” (laughs)

Right. Right.

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