In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers (and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two) in the process.
The musician: As half of the songwriting team behind Fountains Of Wayne, Adam Schlesinger has put his stamp on some of the catchiest, best-crafted pop songs of the last decade and a half, culminating with the breakout 2003 hit “Stacy’s Mom.” He’s also one-third of Ivy, whose back-catalogue includes the ebullient “This Is the Day.” Less known, however, is his substantial track record of writing hits for fictional bands, from The Wonders to Pop! to Josie And The Pussycats. Since writing his first fake No. 1 for the 1996 movie That Thing You Do!, Schlesinger has become one of Hollywood’s favorite songwriters-for-hire, writing ersatz chart-toppers in a wide array of styles. With Fountains Of Wayne’s Sky Full Of Holes out this week and Ivy’s All Hours due in September, The A.V. Club took the opportunity to riffle through Schlesinger’s back pages.
“A Road Song” (from 2011’s Sky Full Of Holes)
The A.V. Club: In between records, the band did an acoustic tour, which is the first time you’ve gone on the road that way. There were several songs in the set that ended up on Sky Full Of Holes. Did you find yourself writing differently for that configuration?
Adam Schlesinger: Chris [Collingwood] and I, more often than not, both write on acoustic guitar anyway. When we first started Fountains Of Wayne, it was almost a joke to us that we had Marshall amps and we were trying to use distortion, because we had played music together for years, even before that. I don’t know consciously if I did that while we were writing. I think it did consciously affect the way we put this record together, though. We did talk about, “Let’s not have quite as much of a wall of guitars on this record. Let’s find energy in other ways besides just volume and distortion.”
AVC: You and Chris Collingswood mostly write separately these days, right?
AS: We really don’t write together at all anymore. For the most part, I’ll just bring in some songs and Chris will bring in some songs. Once in a while we’ll make some comments about the other person’s song or maybe suggest an alternate line or something, but really they’re written entirely by one person.
AVC: Do the more sardonic songs come from you?
AS: You know, it’s always hard for me to try to say which ones are which as a general rule. A lot of times, my songs are a little more narrative and literal, easier to follow as a story. Chris tends to write a little more impressionistic kind of stuff.
AVC: Is “A Road Song” one of yours?
AS: Yeah, that’s one of mine.
AVC: It’s a fairly straightforward love song, if tinged with a bit of self-awareness. Were you striking out in a different, maybe more sincere, direction?
AS: I don’t know about that. It is sort of a genre unto itself, the road song. It’s a sort of ’70s kind of thing. I was just trying to do my own take on that idea. I guess some of those references in there were to make it seem a little bit more real or something.
“Richie And Ruben” (from 2011’s Sky Full Of Holes)
AVC: That level of specificity has been characteristic of Fountains from the very beginning. Like the line from “Richie And Ruben”: “They opened up a store they called Debris / Together with some kid from F.I.T.” I don’t know if the reference to the Fashion Institute of Technology will play to anyone who grew up outside the New York area, but it evokes something all the same.
AS: I find that even if the people don’t know exactly what you’re talking about, just the fact there’s something specific in there makes it seem more believable. I mean, there were references on Beatles records when I was a kid. I didn’t know what the Albert Hall was, but it made me want to go find out.
AVC: Is that something that you find yourself gravitating toward?
AS: I guess it’s something that you have to police a little bit, because you can overdo it. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of overdoing it at times. You know, when you’re writing a song, it’s not entirely like a conscious process. You’re just trying to follow the story. Like with “Richie And Ruben,” that just started because I had the first two lines [“They opened up a bar called Living Hell / Right from the start it didn’t go too well”] and I thought that was just a funny start of some kind of story. Then you just let it write itself a little bit: “Well, what else do these dumbasses do?” [Laughs.] You know? You think of something else that they did. It’s not like I sit down with a blueprint before and go, “Okay, I need three pop-culture references in this song.”
AVC: They’re not even pop-culture references.
AS: Right. Or just specific proper nouns or something.
AVC: There’s definitely a cultural phenomenon you’re talking about, where these trend-chasing entrepreneurs open up one poorly conceived venture after another. There are whole neighborhoods full of stores no one wants to shop in and restaurants no one wants to eat in.
AS: I think a lot of what we do is take a semi-familiar subject that’s been done in some way a lot of times in pop songs and then try to put some modern or different or unique twist on it. With “A Road Song,” it’s funny because I was definitely thinking of ’70s soft rock, and I happen to be good friends with the guys in the band America. I produced a record for them five years ago or something. So Gerry Beckley from America was bugging me for new Fountains Of Wayne stuff for a while and I kept saying, “I’ll send it to you when I have some, but we don’t have the record done yet.” Eventually, just to get him off my back, I sent him “A Road Song,” saying, “I think you’ll like this one.” And then he’s like, “Oh, that’s great! We’re actually doing a covers record. Mind if we cover this?” And I said, “Well, maybe you can wait until our record comes out, at least, first?” But he just did it anyway. [Laughs.] So now there’s actually a version of that song on the new America record, which is coming out, like, this month. His version’s actually coming before ours. [Laughs.] But I thought it was very flattering.
“The Summer Place” (from 2011’s Sky Full Of Holes)
AVC: The last time I talked to you, you were at Martha’s Vineyard with your family. Is it safe to assume that’s the inspiration for “The Summer Place”?
AS: Yeah, I wrote that song at Martha’s Vineyard. Probably during that same visit.
AVC: The song covers quite a span of time, so it’s not just based on what you’re seeing out the window. Do you pick up on the general atmosphere, or extrapolate from things you see?
AS: I guess I was. I mean, I guess that’s where that idea came from. But again, it’s a little bit of an unconscious process. If you’re sitting in a place like Martha’s Vineyard, I don’t think you’re going to write a song about a ski resort. [Laughs.]
AVC: But there are a lot less jaded songs about Martha’s Vineyard you could write.
AS: Yeah. I don’t know. I just started imagining this scenario where this house has been in the family forever and there’s kind of a lot of good and not-so-good feelings with it.
AVC: You’re very good at portraying a kind of compacted despair, reducing an entire life to rubble in a handful of lines, like, “At 15, shoplifting was the only game she liked to play / At 40, so bored she thinks about it then decides to pay.”
AS: Thanks, I guess. “Compacted despair.” [Laughs.] The thing with a song is you can get away with suggesting things; just the music and the space and it helps to fill in the rest in your imagination. That’s a tricky thing. The music also changes the meaning of the words a lot. Sometimes, what I’ll do is I’ll start with some lyrics—maybe not a whole song but maybe a verse or a chorus—and then I’ll play around with it in different musical settings. If you play it as a ballad, it seems to mean one thing, and if you play as a real upbeat song, it seems to be another. It’s like you really don’t know what this thing is about until you hear it along with something and it takes on some kind of mood.
AVC: Is “The Summer Place” one of those songs?
AS: Yeah. I think I had written the first verse just on paper and then was playing around with it. But I was also feeling, at the time, like I wanted to write some higher-energy stuff that we could play live and have fun with. So I wanted to do something with that kind of fast, acoustic strumming feel.
“Radio Bar” (from 2011’s Sky Full Of Holes)
AVC: Speaking of high-energy, “Radio Bar” is quite a punchy little ditty.
AS: That’s one of mine, too.
AVC: It has a story that I think a lot of people have lived some version of.
AS: That one’s actually true. That song is not really made up at all. It’s just kind of nostalgic. Radio Bar’s a real place, and more or less everything in that song is for real. We would go there and just drink ourselves into stupors for years, and somehow we managed to start a band at the same time. That was our hangout for a long time. I actually met my wife in that bar. So all the little details in that song are pretty much true, which is not normally the way that I write, but I was feeling nostalgic.
AVC: It actually has a happy ending, which is somewhat out of character.
AS: Yeah. [Laughs.] Exactly. Ta-dah!
“Someone To Love” (from 2007’s Traffic And Weather)
AVC: Do you ever feel guilty about putting your characters through the wringer? The conclusion of this song is pretty tough. You’ve got two characters who seem to be all the way at the bottom, and you still find a way for one to fuck the other one over.
AS: I know. It’s kind of a dark song, I guess. But it wasn’t really supposed to be an intentional fucking-over. It was more supposed to be that they’re just oblivious to each other and she’s just being a typical New Yorker and trying to grab a taxi. People do that in New York all the time: You see a cab coming, there’s someone standing in front of you trying to hail it, so you just walk half a block down. [Laughs.] It’s just a classic New York asshole move.
AVC: Do you feel a sense of ownership of the characters, like, “Sorry I’m putting you through all this?”
AS: Well, the song was supposed to be an update of “Eleanor Rigby” or something. It was supposed to be this lonely people song. It just would’ve ruined it if they weren’t lonely at the end. If it ended like a romantic comedy—first of all, I don’t know how I could write that in half a verse if they lived happily ever after. It seemed better to leave them lonely. It’s supposed to be dark humor, I guess. But it wasn’t supposed to be too depressing. Sorry if it was. [Laughs.]
“Bright Future In Sales” (from 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers)
AVC: While we’re dragging people all the way down to the bottom, “Bright Future In Sales” is another where the characters seem to have sunk as low as they can go, although it’s weirdly celebratory as well.
AS: Yeah. I mean, it’s fun because Chris’ brother works for Merck, the pharmaceutical company. He and his friends used to come to our shows and literally say, “That’s us, dude!” and high-five about it. That was true. Yeah. I don’t even remember writing that song now. It was so long ago. [Laughs.] But it’s really fun to play live. It’s fun to have an audience sing along to “Get my shit together.”
AVC: You stepped on your chances for airplay with that one.
AS: [Laughs.] Yeah.
“Radiation Vibe” (from 1996’s Fountains of Wayne)
AS: I can’t remember writing that because I didn’t write it. That was a Chris song. But that song really started the band. Chris and I had worked together for many years before that song existed, and we had kind of taken this break. All the stuff that we had written before that just had a lot less personality or something. I don’t think we had quite broken out of imitating our heroes up ’til then. It was just fake Nilsson songs and fake Elvis Costello songs and fake Beatles songs and whatever we were listening to. You didn’t hear a lot of us in it, especially lyrically. I think there were some good songs from that early stuff we were writing, but Chris wrote “Radiation Vibe” one day and played it for me. He just wrote it as a goof, but I was like, “Man, that’s a great song.” I don’t know what it is about that song, but it’s got some kind of magic, fun quality to it that we never really had in anything before. I got very jealous of that song, and then we recorded a version of it and it came out so great. It really was the inspiration to write that whole first record.
AVC: When people ask if you ever get tired of playing “Stacy’s Mom,” you invariably point out that you’ve played “Radiation Vibe” at every show since 1996 and you aren’t tired of it yet.
AS: Yeah, the only one we might not play it at is if we’re going to the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan. I’m not sure they want to hear a song with the word “radiation” in the title. Not quite sure how to play that. But anyway. Yeah, “Radiation Vibe.” That’s a good song.
“Distant Lights” (from Ivy’s 2011 album All Hours)
AVC: You’ve got a new Ivy record coming out in September. The first song is much more electronic than we’re used to hearing.
AS: That song is a little more of a groove. The whole record isn’t like that. But that song is a little bit more of a track. It’s got more programming and stuff on it. Andy Chase and I were keyboard players originally and we became guitarists later. But it’s fun for us to focus more on the keyboard stuff sometimes.
AVC: Is it just a coincidence that the two bands you’re in haven’t put out anything for a while, and now they’ve both got new albums on the way?
AS: It is pretty much a coincidence. It was different circumstances in each case that lead that to happen. I didn’t plan it this way.
AVC: Were you doing other things and then you had time to record with both?
AS: It’s a lot of different factors in each case. Real life intruding and all kinds of things. It’s not really a simple answer. Both bands were kind of working slowly and steadily over all this time, but for one reason or another, both records got done at the same time. It’s not my place to go and tell one band or the other, “You gotta wait a year because I’m busy” or something. Just put ’em out and we’ll figure it out.
AVC: With the Ivy record, what sort of feeling did you go into it with? Was there a mission statement?
AS: We had a couple of false starts. That’s part of what took us a long time. We probably made a whole other record’s worth of songs that we decided we just weren’t very excited about. And at some point we turned a corner and hit on something that seemed more fun and had a little bit more life in it and we just got more excited about it. Some of it was a little bit more electronic. But it’s often the case that you’re floundering around in the studio and then suddenly you come up with two or three things that get you excited and then that inspires a whole other batch. I think that’s what happened in this case. After having done a couple of years of fruitless work, we came up with a couple things that we really liked. And suddenly it was like we were on a roll and we wrote the whole rest of the record fairly quickly.
AVC: When you’re writing, do you know you’re writing a Fountains Of Wayne song or an Ivy song?
AS: Yeah. I always have to be thinking about who’s going to be singing this song, what the context is. I don’t sit around just writing in a vacuum, ever. And the process is different, definitely. With Fountains Of Wayne, I almost always start with lyrics, maybe not the entire lyric, but I almost always need a couplet or something and then I work from there. With Ivy, it’s much more about the atmosphere and the vibe. More often than not, we’ll start with music and maybe build up a track or maybe just write something on guitar or piano, then see what that inspires lyrically and melodically.
“This Is The Day” (from Ivy’s 1997 album Apartment Life)
AS: That one was written on guitars. It was this jangly thing and then we thought it’d be fun to give it a ’60s horn flavor. As I remember, lyrically, we all sat down and wrote that one together, which we do sometimes. I mean, that was a long time ago, too. I think we just wrote that in Andy and Dominique [Durand]’s apartment, where I’m just sitting around with an acoustic guitar. That wasn’t written to a track in a studio or anything.
AVC: When an element like the horn parts come in, is that present at the inception or does it come in later?
AS: I kind of remember singing those horn lines before. We sort of conceived it that way from the beginning, going “Baa-daaaa!” [Laughs.] You know, just with our mouths.
“Way Back Into Love” (from 2007’s Music And Lyrics)
AS: “Way Back Into Love” was actually a tough assignment. It had to work between three characters in the movie, two of whom would end up singing it to each other but were not in love with each other, so I had to figure out how to make it this general thing about love but not “I’m in love with you, baby.” I was stuck for a while, and I was kind of freaking out because that movie production schedule was looming and I was like, “Oh shit, I’m not gonna be able to come up with something that works here.” Eventually, I had this thing and the director really liked it right away, so that was a big weight off my shoulders.
AVC: It’s in the movie twice, and once it’s a big production number.
AS: Yeah, and there was a demo version.
AVC: You’ve got Haley Bennett singing the hit-single version and the demo sung by Drew Barrymore who, by her own token, is not a singer.
AS: She’s pretty good, actually. She professes not to be good, but she’s actually a better singer than a lot of people I work with that call themselves singers.
AVC: Does that affect how you write it at all, in terms of writing for someone who’s not a professional singer?
AS: In that particular case, no. It needed to be a big, sweeping song. So I knew that for the big, produced version, that would be okay. And Drew did a really good job of it. I wasn’t thinking of reining it in for that purpose, because I just felt like it wouldn’t work for the movie unless it was a big, swooping movie song.
AVC: It makes sense in the context because professional songwriters are writing for other people. It’s not necessarily about what they can sing themselves.
AS: Well, sometimes I do that. If I’m writing for someone in particular, I’ll go check out what their vocal range is, what they’re comfortable with. Sometimes people’s voices just sound cooler when they’re not trying too hard, whereas other people want to be really acrobatic. I do think about that stuff sometimes.
“Meaningless Kiss” (from Music And Lyrics)
AVC: That song is meant to be the big ’80s hit for Hugh Grant’s faded pop star. There’s a lot of “Careless Whisper” in there, and you brought in ABC’s Martin Fry to coach Grant. When you’re doing something like that, rooted in a specific time and sound, do you do research in terms of specific sounds or instrumentation?
AS: In that case, I didn’t really have to go back. I know that era of music so well. I grew up in the middle of all that. That one was actually much easier for me than “Way Back Into Love.” That one really was a straightforward assignment in the sense that it was just supposed to be the standalone ’80s pop ballad. The lyrics didn’t really have to have any relation to the story in the movie. So I got to be a little ridiculous with the lyrics.
AVC: It’s also not necessarily supposed to be great.
AS: [Laughs.] Hey! What do you mean? No, of course. Of course.
AVC: I’m not saying it’s not.
AS: Right. It’s supposed to sound of the period, mostly.
“Pretend To Be Nice” (from 2001’s Josie & the Pussycats)
AS: You’re digging deep here.
AVC: What was the brief for that song?
AS: They just really said, “We just want a pop song to be a hit for these guys.” Again, it didn’t really have to do lyrically with anything that was going on. That was it. I don’t know where the idea for that title came from. I remember I was staying at a hotel in L.A. and I just wrote it in the hotel room. The directors came by to check it out and they just liked the basic idea of it. And that kind of “ooh-we-ooh” in the chorus? I thought that was going to be an instrument and I wasn’t sure what. I went in and Babyface was producing part of that record. So I went in to the studio where they were working on some other stuff and I played it for Babyface and I think Matthew Sweet was there. It was a crazy session. And I think Dave Gibbs from the Gigolo Aunts.
AVC: There is a crazy amount of talent on that album, people who would never have been in the same studio otherwise.
AS: Yeah! I think Ric Menck was playing the drums; he was in Velvet Crush. They were all there working on some other stuff, and I just stopped by. I played them this song, and I said, “I don’t know what this instrument’s gonna be.” And Babyface was like, “Oh, that’s the vocal! Are you kidding me? That’s the hook of the song.” I was like, “Okay. Well, you’re Babyface. I trust you.” [Laughs.]
AVC: You produced some of the sessions as well.
AS: They did, I think, five or six songs in L.A. and I wasn’t even there. That included “Pretend To Be Nice,” which I didn’t even produce even though it was my song.
AVC: But you produced “Shapeshifter,” right?
AS: Basically, they just needed to flesh out the album, so the people from Playtone who were working on it called me and said, “Do you just wanna go in and do another batch of songs for this?” So we went into Boston and did the rest. And I went in with Kay Hanley and Michael Eisenstein [who wrote the song]. We did it in Boston and just sent everything in, with Jason Sutter behind the drums.
“That Thing You Do!” (from 1996’s That Thing You Do!)
AVC: The Playtone connection takes us back to Tom Hanks’ directorial debut. How did you get involved?
AS: That Thing You Do! was my first real break in the movie world. It was kind of a miracle in retrospect, because I didn’t know anybody there. It was just a cattle call. I sent in a demo that I did with Mike Viola and my friend Andy Chase. And Tom Hanks had the confidence in his own taste to say, “I wanna use this song.” Which is just amazing, because most of the time in that situation, it’s just based on somebody’s track record, what they might represent in terms of sales or something. So the fact that he was willing to take this song from some unknown guy was unbelievable.
AVC: The song appears something like two dozen times throughout the movie.
AS: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s a lot of times.
AVC: Did that factor in, that it has to be something you won’t get sick of hearing so many times in an hour and a half?
AS: It wasn’t part of my process when I was doing it, because I had no idea what it was going to be at that point. All I knew was that it was supposed to sound like a one-hit wonder from 1964. And it was supposed to sound like an American band imitating The Beatles. That’s something that I’ve pretty much been doing for years, anyway. [Laughs.] Just imitating The Beatles.
AVC: How different is it when you get an assignment for a song versus coming up with one on your own? Is it a totally different process?
AS: It can be, but I try to create assignments for myself even when I don’t have them. I think having some kind of parameters is important no matter what you’re working on. Even if you’re just writing for yourself or you’re starting a new project or new band or something, I think the first order of business is to set some limits, like, “All right, I’m gonna do something that’s inspired by this.” You just want to get some direction in your head. In a sense, that’s an assignment.
AVC: One of the things you’ve shown over the years is that you can write convincingly in a lot of different styles, which some people either can’t do or don’t want to.
AS: Yeah, I do have a weird ability to be a chameleon like that. And I just think that comes from A) I’ve just been exposed to lots of music and I like lots of different music, and B) It’s seeing the similarities between all these genres. On the surface they seem really different, but when you really get into it, they’re not that different. They’re superficial things.
“Not Just For Gays Anymore” (from the 2011 Tony Awards)
AVC: Do you have an innate sense at this point? If you need to write a ’50s rockabilly song for Cry-Baby or a country-ish number for Stephen Colbert, do you know that that sort of song is probably in such-and-such a key, or uses such-and-such instrumentation?
AS: Well, yeah. If I don’t totally know it, I’ll go and do a little homework and study it. But especially when you’re doing a comedy thing, you almost want it to be semi-cliché just to support the joke of whatever you’re doing. I just co-wrote the opening song for the Tony Awards this year, and the joke of that was basically that it was supposed to be the most Broadway song ever, like, “How Broadway can you make a Broadway song?”
AVC: Does that mean a lot of punch and percussion?
AS: It’s just kind of a tempo thing. A lot of that stuff is just instinctive, but I also had the help in that one of working with a serious pro Broadway orchestrator. I kind of punked it out on the piano and gave it this oompah kind of feel. Then the orchestrator was really able to Broadway the fuck out of it. [Laughs.]
AVC: It must be challenging but also thrilling to have the huge machinery of a Broadway orchestra at your disposal.
AS: Oh, that was the greatest thing ever. Just so great. That’s why, if anything, I would like to work in that world again. Because it really is exciting to work with the orchestrators and the arrangers and all those great players and everything.
“Screw Loose” (from 2008’s Cry-Baby)
AVC: You’re taking another run at the musical of John Waters’ movie Cry-Baby next year, right?
AS: Somebody’s doing a version of it in St. Louis, and that’s as far as it’s going right now. We do have hopes to streamline it and give it a shot to be done elsewhere. Some of us who were involved with it always felt it would have been better off as a leaner and meaner thing, anyway, but somewhere along the way it kind of got overblown. We’re seeing if we can strip it down a little bit, especially musically. I always felt like it should have been a rockabilly band and it shouldn’t have really been an orchestra. For many reasons, I kind of lost that argument. But I think if we could reshape the show a little bit so it was a smaller cast and a smaller band, there might be a shot of it having a second life somewhere.
AVC: You never did a cast recording of the Broadway show.
AS: No. I mean, we’re going to do one still. It just hasn’t happened. It’s really weird, but with Broadway, there’s all these crazy union rules and one of them affects the way cast albums have to get made and it’s incredibly expensive to get them made.
AVC: You have to pay scale for the entire session.
AS: Right. It literally costs almost a half a million dollars to do those cast records sometimes, because between the orchestra and all the actors and everything. By the time we thought about doing that, the show was already on its way out. Nobody wanted to spend the money.
AVC: I’m sure you know there are bootleg recordings out there.
AS: There are some songs that I’m really proud of from that show. And I’d really like them to at least exist in some proper form.
AVC: Do you want to name one?
AS: Well, there’s this song called “Screw Loose,” which is sung by the crazy girl character that falls in love with Cry-Baby. It’s a great standalone song. You don’t necessarily have to know the show. We were told that a lot of people were actually using it as an audition song, which is a big compliment to a songwriter.
“Cold, Cold Christmas” (from 2008’s A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All)
AVC: You mentioned comedy being close to cliché. “Cold, Cold Christmas” is very much playing off the cliché of the downbeat country song.
AS: It was really fun for me because I got to do all these different genres and styles. That was really fun. I mean, DJ [David Javerbaum] is a really funny, brilliant lyricist and all the lyrics stuff in there was his. In “Cold, Cold Christmas,” he wanted it to be this Elvis-y thing. I think he wrote it straightforward and I asked him if we could do it as a waltz, and he liked it and Colbert liked it.
AVC: Colbert can actually sing pretty well.
AS: Yeah, he’s good. He’s really good.