By Mark Guarino
The third album by the Fountains of Wayne is populated by people you probably know. They are middle managers, out-of-work airline pilots, up-and-coming salesmen and suburban dreamers stuck working the family business even if it doesn’t feel right.
“Welcome Interstate Managers” (S-Curve/Virgin) is steeped in the narrow constrictions of middle class America — specifically the Tri-State area — in the same way Randy Newman wrote about the deep South and Lyle Lovett writes about his fellow Texans. Hand-in-hand with the deadpan irony is empathy for the characters. There is a sense that the songwriters know these people intuitively and, for all their faults and silly normalcy, they sort of like them too.
“It’s a very familiar environment for both of us,” said Fountains singer and co-writer Chris Collingwood. He and fellow songwriter Adam Schlesinger met during their undergraduate years at Williams College in Northwestern Mass. After a stint playing together in bands, they went their separate ways to New York and Boston respectively. Ten years passed and they reunited in 1996 to form Fountains of Wayne, named after a lawn ornament store in Montclair, New Jersey, and founded as an outlet for their love of ‘80s guitar pop.
With grunge peaking and rap metal just on the horizon, it was an unusual time to wear your love for Squeeze, The Cars or The Pretenders on your arm.
“After Nirvana, drugs, depression and abnormal childhood were the brand themes to write about. It was assumed that what you were singing was about your own life,” said Collingwood. “But there’s such a thing as character study. (That’s why) the Kinks were the perfect band, telling little stories about mundane life. That’s what we grew up listening to. You could find a little irony in a small event opposed to (Pearl Jam’s hit single) ‘Jeremy’ going into the classroom and killing everybody.”
“Welcome Interstate Managers” is a flawless album with boundless variety. If the current Billboard chart was populated by the Cars and Squeeze instead of the likes of Nickelback and Staind, it would be recognized as an immediate classic. Besides the bounty of perfectly-crafted power pop songs (“Bright Future in Sales,” “Stacy’s Mom”), the album veers into country (“Hung Up On You”), ‘60s-era psychedelic (“Supercollider”), orchestral pop (“Mexican Wine”) and acoustic introspection (“Valley Winter Song”). Collingwood and Schlesinger take the convention of the three-minute pop song and from it wring a rare poignancy. “All Kinds of Time” freeze-frames a moment in Zen experienced by a teenage quarterback, “Valley Winter Song” examines seasonal depression and “Hackensack” follows a teenage crush that lasts into the thirties. “Now I see your face in the strangest places/movie and magazines/I saw you talking to Christopher Walken/on my TV screen,” Collingwood sings.
Throughout, they expand the limitations of pop music with complex emotional themes while at the same reaching for its most time-honored musical cliches, particularly from the ‘80s. “It’s an era with really great guitar pop, back when singable songs could still be found on the radio,” he said.
Since it was released in June, the album has fared better commercially than its predecessors, but at 160,000 copies sold, still relegates the band to cult status. Even so, it is a feat they made it this far. When the band’s second album, “Utopia Parkway,” was released by Atlantic in 1999, it received universal good reviews. But the label failed to push it to radio and the band was dropped. Schlesinger returned to New York where he worked on commercial jingles and TV themes and Collingwood retreated to his home in Massachusetts where he tried to find work as a freelance computer programmer.
“The last three years have been a real upheaval,” he said. “Since 1996 we were touring pretty much nonstop and it was pretty brutal. At the end, I had nothing to show for it. I got home and I was exhausted and broke and not sure if I wanted to go back being a musician anymore.”
Time was spent “in a funk…biding my time until something came across.” “That’s how depression works. You don’t know what to do and you don’t care,” he said. When Schlesinger called to say he was writing songs again, Collingwood worked to catch up but it was slow going. “Valley Winter Song,” a contemplative wish for summer to arrive after a long New England winter, was the first to come out.
Over one-week stretches that lasted over a year, the band (which includes drummer Brian Young and guitarist Jody Porter) recorded the album without being attached to a label. They eventually signed to the New York indie S-Curve that happened to be manufactured and distributed by Virgin.
Having made their most accomplished album yet, the band found itself in the strange position of being on an indie label but desirous of a wider audience. The result became “Stacy’s Mom,” a hyper-catchy radio-ready hit written mostly by Schlesinger borrowing heavily from the Cars and celebrating the teenage euphoria of discovering your girlfriend’s mom is most definitely a looker. (For the record, Stacey is not a real person, but is a name borrowed from Young’s wife.)
Collingwood argued with Schlesinger and their managers that it should not be the single with the fear it would give the impression they were a novelty band. “And where do you go after you have a novelty hit?” he said. He was voted down and the song ended up a hit anyway, thanks to a video featuring middle age model Rachel Hunter in the title role.
The success has meant more work. Collingwood said he expects the band to tour continuously for the next year with no promise of returning home with money in his pocket. He doesn’t plan to return to New England and face another winter in any case. Like a character in one of his songs, the small town Jersey guy who fantasies about L.A., Collingwood announced he is moving there next year. “It’s one of the few warm places where it is still affordable to have an apartment,” he said.