‘Trying to do something that you like is always a challenge’ An interview with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne
After 15 years together, New York-based band Fountains of Wayne has proven it has what it takes to withstand the test of time. Bassist and songwriter Adam Schlesinger attributes the band’s longevity to maintaining personal space and doing what feels right at the time.
By doing what feels right, Schlesinger has made some significant achievements as well, including writing the hit song “That Thing You Do!” for the popular Tom Hanks movie, being nominated for a Tony award and co-writing a Broadway musical.
Fountains of Wayne just released its fourth album “Sky Full of Holes” in August. The new record maintains the ever poppy and upbeat vibe for which the band has become known while also providing some relaxed and slightly melancholy ballads.
A few weeks following the album’s release, Schlesinger took some time out to talk with me about songwriting, Broadway and taking naps.
Jessica Lackey: I have to tell you, I’ve been listening to your recent album, “Sky Full of Holes,” and I’ve found myself singing “Richie and Ruben” in my head for about the last three days.
Adam Schlesinger: (Laughs) Yeah, sorry about that.
No, I love it! I’m excited, it’s a good thing. I find myself singing “Richie and Ruben” and “Action Hero” a lot. I know that those are more narrative songs. Can you tell me a little more about the process in writing those songs?
Those are both songs of mine. You know there are two songwriters in the band, myself and Chris Collingwood, and those two are songs of mine. A lot of times when I write I start out with a little lyrical idea of some kind and that was the case with both of these songs. I kind of started from the beginning and came up with a little scenario for each one and then just followed it. Sometimes I don’t really know what the song is going to be about, but I just keep adding lines to it and see what the story becomes. That’s kind of what happened with both of those songs.
What song do you think you relate to the most on the album?
Well, I relate to all of the ones that I wrote, to some degree. My songs aren’t usually directly autobiographical, they are usually indirectly autobiographical, like I’ll make up a story but I’ll put little details in from my real life sometimes, or at least, I’ll use a setting that I know.
The one song on the album that is pretty much directly autobiographical is called “Radio Bar” and that’s a real place in New York that we used to hang out at and all the people in that song are real and it’s kind of a nostalgic little song about a period in the mid ’90s when we used to hang out there a lot.
I read in an interview earlier this year with Chris, that you tend to be a little more disciplined when it comes to writing. With that being said, how do you maintain your focus as you are writing? I know you do a lot of writing outside of the band.
Well sometimes it’s just because I have a deadline and so I don’t really have a choice. I just have to get something finished. I mean, that’s especially true for, you know, television or for film. There’s not really time to sit around and have a existential crisis about it, you just have to do it.
Just knuckle down.
Yeah, well when you are writing for the band, it’s a little bit more of yourself inside it. Sometimes I try to treat it that way, you know, sometimes even if there isn’t a deadline I try to pretend that there is one so that I actually finish something. But it doesn’t always work.
Usually, more for the band, if I have just a little fragment of an idea or something that I get excited about then that will be the one that I’ll get done so that I can play it for everybody.
What do you think are some of your biggest challenges as a songwriter?
Oh I don’t know, I mean just trying to do something that you like is always a challenge.
I’m going to do just a question about the band in general. I know Fountains of Wayne has been together for about 15 years now, is that right?
And you have all of the original members as well. How do you think you have managed to stick together as a group?
Well, for one thing we haven’t been doing it for 15 years without a break. I mean, we kind of go through these periods of working really intensely followed by periods of not working at all for a while. I think just getting away from each other for a while is always a good thing and then when we get back together we are reinvigorated.
As a group, how do you think the band has developed over the past 15 years?
I think we’ve gotten to be a much better live band. I think the songwriting has gotten to be a lot more diverse. I think the production has gotten a lot more adventurous. You know, there are a lot of subtle ways, but I think it’s just been a natural progression. I don’t think we’ve ever really reinvented ourselves along the way, it just sort of happened kind of gradually.
Just from different experiences, just kind of molding yourselves to whatever felt good to you at that time?
I think you’re just trying to do whatever gets you excited at that time and I think Chris and I both just try to write things that we feel like writing at that point in our lives. You know, I don’t think we have really ever tried to write in terms of second guessing the market or something.
You’ve been doing a few performances lately and I was interested in your opinion, which one of the songs on the latest album do you think gets the most crowd response?
It’s hard to say because we’ve just started playing a lot of them. I mean, there is certainly “The Summer Place” and “A Dip In The Ocean” have been working really well live, “Richie and Ruben” have been, some of the ballads have been too, like “A Road Song” and “Cemetery Guns.” People seem to know them already, which is nice, you know. They don’t seem to be just hearing them for the first time.
What are some of your favorites to perform, either from the newest album or from past albums?
We play “Radiation Vibe” which is our first single ever, and we play that at almost every show we’ve ever played. And we always do kind of a medley and it’s a fun one to play because you never really know where it is going to go in the middle, and we always extend it and kind of mess around with it.
Whenever you are not working on any music projects what do you do? Do you have any other passions outside of music?
I don’t really have much in the way of a hobby, you know (laughs).
You stay pretty busy!
Yeah it’s really just music and taking naps.
Naps are good.
As you discussed before, you and Chris write all of the songs for the band. On your latest album, how much would you say is you and how much would you say is Chris…in terms of writing?
This album is almost 50/50. I think it’s like seven and six [songs]. It’s been a little different on different albums but we try to keep it as even when we can.
I have read in a few publications that the band is possibly considering relocating to L.A. sometime in the future. Do you have any feedback on that?
Well Brian, our drummer, already lives in L.A., I’m not planning on living in L.A., I think Chris has been talking about moving to L.A. for like 15 years but I don’t know if he’ll ever actually do it. And Jody just kind of floats around and he spent last winter in L.A. but right now he is in New York.
What do you think it is about L.A.?
Well I think for Chris, he is just sick of living somewhere freezing and so it might be nice to live somewhere a little warmer.
Do you know of any shows in works for St. Louis coming up? I wasn’t able to find any.
There are no Fountains of Wayne shows booked for St. Louis at the moment, but we are going to try and get there. But one thing that is booked in St. Louis is, I co-wrote a Broadway show called “Cry Baby” and it’s not on Broadway anymore, but they are actually going to be doing it in St. Louis next year so I may come up to St. Louis to see that production.
Have they talked about where it might be performed? Like the Fox?
Yeah, the theater company is New Line Theatre.
Are you able to talk a little bit more about “Cry Baby?”
Yeah. It is based on a John Water’s movie that Johnny Depp was in and we did a Broadway version of it with some of the people that have made “Hairspray” into a Broadway show. And I co-wrote the songs with a guy name David Javerbaum. It got a couple of Tony nominations on Broadway and had a short run, unfortunately, we wished it had run longer, but it was out for a few months.
But this guy at the New Line Theatre really liked it and wanted to do it in St. Louis so we are going to kind of scale it back a little bit from the Broadway version and do a leaner and meaner production of it.
It’s probably too soon to ask this question because you’ve just had the new album released at the beginning of August, but what do you see moving forward with Fountains of Wayne in the future?
I don’t know, you know, I can’t really say. At this point we are just trying to play some shows and support this record and it is always kind of pointless for me predict where it is going to go because none of our plans ever quite go where we think they are going to go.
Well I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. I know you are taking some time out from your family so I really appreciate that and so does KDHX.
Oh well, thank you very much for talking to me.
Have a good show on Saturday.
OK, thanks. We hope to get to St. Louis soon.