Fountains of Wayne: Everyday people

New York's Fountains of Wayne mine gold from the small lives of ordinary folk. Kevin Harley meets the Steely Dan of power pop
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The Independent Culture

They may not be strutting in stadiums worldwide, but for New York's Fountains of Wayne, things are looking pretty rosy right now. Thanks to minor record company irritations, among other things, the band were out of circulation for almost four years until their third album in seven years, a nigh-on perfect pure pop record called Welcome Interstate Managers, was released Stateside earlier this year to huge acclaim. What's more, "Stacy's Mom" - a lusty little number reminiscent of The Cars, about a teenager under the delusion that he's fit to get it on with his girlfriend's desirable mother - has been receiving heavy radio play and a nice MTV boost, thanks to its cheeky, Eighties teen-movie pastiching video.

Backstage before a New York university show, Adam Schlesinger, thirty-something (but still pleasingly pop-kid scruffy) bassist, sometime songwriter and producer for hire, and half of the Fountains songwriting team, looks happy with the situation. "What I'm personally enjoying," he smiles, "is that when we lost our record deal, we talked to different labels who said, 'It's a great band, but we'd have to hear your new material because you haven't sold that much.'

"We just thought, well, we're not going to do demos for people, so let's just make the record. So we did, and played labels 'Stacy's Mom', and they'd say, 'This is funny, and it's the kind of stuff I'd listen to, but how are you going to sell it?' And I'd say, 'You send it out to radio stations and they're going to play it because, well, y'know, just listen to it!' They would say, 'Oh, I don't know about that.' But then the record came out, and it's getting more play than we've ever had..."

It's about time, too. Having been writing together since college in the late Eighties, Schlesinger and singer/guitarist/songwriter Chris Collingwood released the debut Fountains of Wayne (named after a New Jersey gift shop) album in 1996, the band filled out by guitarist Jody Porter and ex-Posies drummer Brian Young. Songs such as the cracking "Radiation Vibe" picked up a decent slab of airtime by proving they had the art of the guitar-powered three-minute pop song nailed.

Critics and aficionados fell for them: this was a band who had taken in a lot of music, from Sixties British pop through singer-songwriter material to new wavers such as XTC and the aforementioned Cars, and made it sound fresh and poignant. Little wonder that Schlesinger earned an Oscar nomination for the everyband-ish song he contributed to Tom Hanks' pop movie, That Thing You Do! Still, their sophomore album, 1999's Utopia Parkway, didn't catch on with the public and Atlantic Records dropped the band without ceremony.

Schlesinger is far too genial to carp. "Well, obviously we want commercial success to a degree," he says, "but we want to make records we're proud of more than we want to be huge. We know the music we do is not always an easy sell - it's not Justin Timberlake or Ashanti. Then again, we are a pop band at heart. We write simple, catchy songs, and when people get a chance to hear them, they're not hard to like."

Happily, Virgin Music's S-Curve Records felt likewise, and snapped them up so that Welcome Interstate Managers could prove Schlesinger right: there's not a dud among the 16 tracks. What grounds the songs is the duo's keen lyrical eye, which makes the mundanities of day-to-day routine matter by combining pop's perennial yearnings with the kind of richly detailed subject matter you don't often find in pop. "I guess what you hope," says Schlesinger, "is that putting all these details in a song makes it universal by making it more vivid. Like with songs by Ray Davies - I've never been to most of the places he's singing about, but I can still enjoy the song.

"As for why we gravitated towards these themes on this record, to us, that's just real life, y'know? Chris and I have worked in more typical jobs, and it's not so different from what we're doing. We peddle our wares like anyone; the daily grind of being in a band is not so unlike being a salesman in an office. And it's fun to create real settings."

It's the fact that Schlesinger and Collingwood relate to, rather than simply satirise, their characters that makes their songs so winning. Indeed, the reason why Collingwood can't make the interview is almost too perfect. Somehow, the tall, skinny, apparently injury-prone singer has broken a rib. "Yeah, Chris is the fragile one in the band," Schlesinger smiles, adding that one reason why the new album took so long coming was that his co-songwriter's songs had to be prised out of him. And you can't help but recall the terminally lovesick narrator of Collingwood's song "Red Dragon Tattoo", quivering under the tattooist's needle in the hope it might win him his dream girl. "Will you stop pretending I've never been born," he sings, "now I look a little more like that guy from Korn?"

Later that night, Collingwood somehow makes it through an only slightly truncated set without missing a note. It's a student-only show, rather than a public one, which probably explains why half the crowd disappears after "Stacy's Mom".

If WIM sees the band making perfectly perky pop out of songs about growing up and doing what you do, without a hint of condescension towards its characters, and with total disregard for record company aggravation, it's surely because Schlesinger and Collingwood are happy where they are.

"It's like on our last record," Schlesinger says. "There was this song called 'Utopia Parkway', about a guy who was maybe getting a little too old to be in a band, still flunking about putting up flyers, trying to promote the next gig.

"People would ask us, 'Are you making fun of this guy?' And we'd go, 'No, don't you get it - that's us!' We're all in our mid-thirties, still out here playing gigs, doing all the things that guy's doing. That's our life!"

'Welcome Interstate Managers' is out now on S-Curve/Virgin Records