Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, the two pop-savant songwriters at the heart of New York’s Fountains of Wayne, are masters of the alt-universe hit. Virtually every tune they’ve penned together — from “Leave the Biker,” about why wimps make better boyfriends than tough guys do, to “Hackensack,” in which a guy (okay, a wimp) waits around for his high school crush to come back from Hollywood — sounds like the sort of thing the radio was invented to play. Yet for most of their career, the Fountains have operated as a shared secret among music geeks — until 2003, that is, when “Stacy’s Mom,” a synth-streaked ode to May-December romance, became a world hit. That single transported Schlesinger and Collingwood (along with guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young) to the rarefied air of Top 40 radio, where the Pussycat Dolls rub body-glittered elbows with the dudes in Nickelback. Last month, the Fountains returned with Traffic and Weather, their fourth studio full-length. We called Schlesinger to find out if he’s ready for another ride.
When you and Chris wrote “Stacy’s Mom,” did you have the moment where you looked at each other and said, “This is gonna sell like hotcakes”? Well, I think I’ve said that about every song we’ve ever recorded, so nobody ever believes me. I certainly thought that one had a good shot, but I’ve always been wrong, so that didn’t really mean anything. It’s funny — when we were looking for a new record deal [after Atlantic Records dropped Fountains following 1999’s Utopia Parkway], we sent “Stacy’s Mom” to everybody, and the only person who thought it sounded like a hit was the guy who signed us and made it a hit. A lot of other people said to me, “I like this stuff a lot, but I don’t know how you’d sell it.” And now, of course, when we hand in stuff, they say, “We don’t hear ‘Stacy’s Mom.’?”
What did “Stacy’s Mom” do for the band in the day-to-day sense? What it mostly did for us was allow us to keep going as a band. It brought us more attention than we’d had in a long time and gave us a reason to keep playing and keep making records.
Were you looking for a reason? Your previous records definitely had their fans. I think there was a point, right after Utopia Parkway, when we weren’t sure if we were going to keep going or not. Chris and I certainly would’ve wanted to continue writing songs and playing music, but as a band, we were sort of on the fence about it. I mean, we’d lost a record deal, we were sort of tired of touring, and we didn’t have much written at that point. But then we got hired to do some music for a television show; it actually never got on the air, but it forced us to keep working on stuff together. So we took it really slowly, and eventually, we had a bunch of songs we liked.
One of which became the honest-to-goodness hit you’d never managed before. Was that gratifying? Oh yeah. At the same time, you want to be careful of being known for only that song to most of the world, even though that’s probably the case for us at this point. I’m not somebody who won’t listen to difficult music; I like all kinds of stuff. But I think that what works for us is working within this very traditional pop-song structure. Writing stuff like that is more gratifying, because it either works or it doesn’t. Chris says it’s like doing a crossword puzzle: You figure out the theme of the puzzle, and then you just have to fill in the boxes. There aren’t really two ways to do it.
And exchanging scruffy indie-rock guys for airbrushed pop stars — Was hilarious. We loved it.
Did knowing what worked last time affect how you guys wrote the new album? Our process was pretty much the same. Usually, one of us brings in a song that’s basically written, and then we just kind of work it out arrangement-wise in the studio. With this record, there was a little experimentation early on of doing more jamming and stuff. When you build music up as a band — as opposed to writing by yourself — you hit on different rhythms than you would on your own. There are certain things you play on guitar or piano where you have your own little feel that you always come back to. Whereas if you’re bouncing off other people in the room, you might lock into different rhythms.
And how’d that work out for you? Eh. It sort of didn’t go anywhere.