Fountains Of Wayne “Traffic and Weather”

Buzz/Aquarian Weekly

How Fountains Of Wayne Peddles Middle Class Angst In Nifty Pop

The rock and roll idiom, usually filled with the strain of angry misanthropes and subculture gits, sexual bravado and rebellious revelry, is lost on Fountains Of Wayne. This is a band obsessed with the obsession of normalcy, everyday annoyances and mini-tragedies, subconscious frailties and overall stuff of non-legend. But it’s not so much its subjects that set the band apart from its genre, but its manic dedication to rare pop sensibilities, infectious melodies and sweeping harmonies. The man in the gray flannel suit has a song to sing, and it is a real good song, and you cannot help but hum it all the way to the commuter train.

Fountains Of WayneThis month Fountains of Wayne is releasing its first record in four years since the brilliantly crafted pop masterpiece, Welcome Interstate Managers, with its sordid tales of white-collar woe and weird suburban revelations, office politico pleas for redemption and sad sack dreamers from Hackensack. The “regular” guy and gal from Anytown USA is back in the 14-track Traffic And Weather, and so are the real good songs, slick production, and formidable detail to wit and wisdom.

There are rhythmic odes to girls behind the DMV counter who “wait patiently to see six forms of ID” and a suped-up baby blue ’92 Subaru. Broken hearts at the Gap, renewed love vows at the airport baggage claim, a borrowing cash blues, and a ballad to driving on I-95. Oh, there are songs about the rock and roll life too; a wonderfully foot-tapping tale of touring with its “highway hotels and their air-conditioned cable-ready cold padded cells.”

And these guys don’t fuck around. Only two of Traffic And Weather‘s songs run over four minutes, and yet no emotion gets the short shrift. There’s no fear of dropping the odd “yeah” or “baby” but the collection also manages to balance the type of lyrical observations that would challenge the best of Dylan’s meanderings. One of the damn things even boasts references to Cosco and Liechtenstein.

For reasons only clear to the painful process of media promotion, the band’s bassist, co-songsmith, and record’s producer, Adam Schlesinger, agreed to discuss all of this with me.

JC: 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 a while to get the record together. Then it takes a while to get into the release schedule. In short, I don’t know why. (laughs) 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 in everyday settings seems to permeate Fountains Of Wayne songs from your Utopian Parkway record through this one.

I’m just sitting there putting lines together and letting it write itself. And that’s how you end up with Cosco and Leichtenstein in the same song

I think it’s something that’s developed over time. When Chris (Collingwood) and I first started writing songs we wrote about 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’d actually seen in our own lives and that grew into a style for the band.

Do you 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.

(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 it 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)

Do you record your observations in a notebook for later reference?

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 a lyric and then start working on music. But there are a few cases where I did the opposite just to see if I could. The song “Someone To Love” was written to a track that I worked on just humming a melody. “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'”.

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.

I see it as being a near miss. I had 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.

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?

Adam & ChrisOh, yeah. I loved that, man. That was actually something I was lobbying for 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, others we’ll do an eighties thing or a new wave thing. Sometimes we’ll go for something that’s more classic rock, seventies, FM sounding. All of us know way too 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 “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 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.

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 hours sitting in front of the console 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 the three of us would 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.

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.

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 it liberating to write for different styles and voices as opposed to your own?

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.

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)

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.

You’re working on the music for the new John Waters’ Broadway musical, Cry Baby. How is 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’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 the top people from that world. The guys who wrote the script are the guys who wrote Hairspray and The Producers and Annie. 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 are just trying to deliver songs that fit into their script.

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)

Is there pressure in promoting a record as opposed to just playing the odd gig here or there?

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.”

Unedited Interview Transcript

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