Fonts of Wisdom
You know the old story: well-respected cult band achieves mainstream recognition, and the faithful followers go apoplectic. Or, as Morrissey once crooned, "We hate it when our friends become successful." Well, after existing on the fringes of fame since their mid-'90s formation, New York City's Fountains of Wayne has finally arrived in 2003 with a nicely selling third album, a hugely popular single and video, TV appearances up the ying-yang, and a high-profile arena tour with the shockingly still-much-adored Matchbox Twenty. Yet Fountains cofounder Adam Schlesinger is pretty certain that the group's core of devoted fans is still solidly behind them.
"I don't get the sense that they're pissed things are going slightly better for us," he laughs. "I think they're actually pretty psyched about it, because they've been saying for years, 'I don't understand why those other songs weren't hits, so it's nice to see one of 'em finally breaking through.'"
Yup, the general public is finally catching on to the gospel those folks, not to mention a small army of rock critics, have practically been screaming about the quartet -- Schlesinger, fellow singer/songwriter/guitarist Chris Collingwood, bassist Jody Porter, and drummer Brian Young -- since the very beginning. No doubt it's fantastic to be "critically lauded," but it really sucks when that's immediately followed by the phrase "commercially ignored." (Be sure to ask Alex Chilton or the guys in Teenage Fanclub how they feel about all of their fawning press clips the next time you see them strumming for pocket change down at the bus station.) Now that the Fountains are shedding that caveat once and for all, Schlesinger seems genuinely thrilled and relieved, though he's not quite patting himself on the back just yet.
"We've seen it all in this business, and basically what's going on with us these days is all just a matter of luck and timing," he says. "I mean, we have friends who've signed to a label, then the album never came out, and they never got past the starting gate. And then there's these bands like Matchbox Twenty where it's like, since the day they started, they've been these megaselling superstars and they don't know it any other way. We're somewhere in between -- we haven't had it as easy as some or as bad as others. But the thing is, we've just kept doing what we've always done since day one, and our fans know we haven't changed our sound to sell more albums or whatever. It's not like we're Sonic Youth and then suddenly we put out 'Stacy's Mom.'"
Ah, yes. "Stacy's Mom." The lead single from Welcome Interstate Managers, FOW's ode to raging teen hormones (and nod to the Cars, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and The Graduate), got way naughtier with 30-something model Rachel Hunter's softcore romp through the TRL-conquering video. The clip did more to fuel the recent "mom I'd like to fuck" obsession than a hundred slutty Liz Phair photo spreads ever could. And those comically steamy three minutes and change did more to draw fresh fans to the band than seven-plus years of coast-to-coast touring and countless glowing reviews and articles combined.
But Managers is hardly the aural equivalent of American Pie, and any newcomers who give the entire album a listen -- or dive deeper into the Fountains' songbook, which includes their 1996 self-titled debut and 1999's Utopia Highway -- will discover a great deal of substance and variety. They're masters of ultracatchy power-pop character studies that smartly detail the middle-class, working-stiff lifestyle ("Bright Future in Sales," "Little Red Light") while packed with plenty of New York/New Jersey/Connecticut flavor. Much like the Kinks, FOW is adept at turning local mundaneness into universal significance. But some of the best moments on the latest disc occur when the band tells those tales with restrained, wistful tenderness -- the schlub with a heart of gold in "Hackensack" who can't give up his high school crush or the quarterback in "All Kinds of Time" who experiences a kind of emotional epiphany during a drawn-out pass play.
"We definitely tried to spread out a little stylistically from what we've done before," Schlesinger says. "Our first record was pretty much short and to the point, and all the songs sounded kinda similar. The second record we started diversifying, and this one we took it even farther.
"The whole way we got ourselves motivated for doing this record was to be like, write whatever you feel like writing," he continues. "I think we're really free to try anything. We wanted to make a record with a lot of different moods and feelings, one where you might want to hear a certain couple of tracks one day and some different songs another day rather than necessarily wanting to listen to the whole thing top to bottom."
Though his partnership with Collingwood has turned out some real gems over the years and he's hailed as one of the best working tunesmiths in rock today, Schlesinger admits that coming up with songs is far from effortless.
"I'm not a person who writes regularly at all -- it tends to go in spurts, and I think Chris is the same way. Chris is more the guy who waits for his muse to strike, but I'm more pragmatic about it. I tend to treat it like a job that has to get done, like, 'All right... Must. Write. Song. Today.' And I kind of force myself to put it together like a crossword puzzle. Still, I mean, you have to wait for a good idea to hit you, and you never know where that comes from."
Nor do you know when all the hard work and patience is going to pay off. For Fountains of Wayne, it's taken a little while, but that's made their recent good fortune all the sweeter.
"I would be lying if I said it didn't mean anything to us," Schlesinger says. "This has been a total blast. I have to admit, it's nice being able to play to 8,000 people instead of 800 people. Just getting more and more people interested in our music -- that's the whole idea, isn't it?"
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