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It's telling that songwriter Adam Schlesinger has written more fake hits for fictional rockers than real-life hits for his bands Fountains Of Wayne and Ivy. The wry, literate story-songs and affectionate satires of middle-class angst that Schlesinger has written with singer Chris Collingwood have helped make Fountains Of Wayne a critical darling and a cult favorite. But Schlesinger is also a throwback to Brill Building craftsmen who could be counted on to deliver catchy ditties for any occasion.
In the latter capacity, Schlesinger first rose to prominence as the author of "That Thing You Do!", the insanely catchy, Oscar-nominated theme song for Tom Hanks' directorial debut. Since then, he's written songs for Josie And The Pussycats and Joel Stein's short-lived cartoon Hey Joel!, as well the new Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore vehicle Music And Lyrics, a romantic comedy about the relationship between an '80s has-been and his plant-watering muse, girlfriend, and songwriting partner.
Fountains Of Wayne has released four studio albums and a rarities collection; its most recent release is this year's Traffic And Weather. In 2003, the group scored a rare smash in "Stacy's Mom," an infectious new-wave anthem propelled up the charts by a ubiquitous music video featuring scantily clad supermodel Rachel Hunter. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Schlesinger about Music And Lyrics, opening for Jessica Simpson, and fighting to receive less credit for his work.
The A.V. Club: So assuming that Music And Lyrics is a docudrama about Fountains Of Wayne, at what point in the songwriting process do you normally bring in an adorably quirky yet neurotic plant-waterer to write your lyrics?
Adam Schlesinger: That's usually, like, step two or three. I usually come up with a few ideas on my own before I bring in the plant-waterer. You know, I actually didn't write all the music for that movie. It's weird, because I ended up with this credit for it ("Music By Adam Schlesinger") on the front of the movie, which is completely inappropriate. I mean, I tried to get it taken down, because I only wrote three songs. There were a lot of other songwriters involved.
AVC: The "music by" credit generally goes to composers. Did you compose the incidental music?
AS: It was just this crazy thing where it was all pre-negotiated, and I was supposed to do the score, but in the end, there really isn't a score. And the little bits of incidental piano music and stuff, I didn't even do. So it was just one of those movie-biz things where at the 11th hour when it was all getting blocked and mixed and everything, the credits were already in there, and I actually went to the director and said, "You should probably take that down, because it's wrong." And they said it couldn't be done.
AVC: You didn't have a credit for "Pop! Goes My Heart," which is a central song in the movie.
AS: Yeah, I didn't write that song. I wrote a version of "Pop! Goes My Heart," but they didn't use mine, which I was pretty bummed about, because I thought mine was pretty good too. But I think the one that ended up in the movie was better. Definitely better for the movie.
AVC: Does writing fictional hits for movies help you write actual hits in real life?
AS: Well, I haven't written that many actual hits in real life, so I guess you could say no. But I kind of do approach it in the same way, in that if I'm asked to do something for a movie, there's usually a very specific assignment, and they usually need a song about a specific thing that works in a specific scene, so it gives you these very clearly defined parameters before you start. And I try to force myself to do that when I'm writing for my own stuff, as well. I don't know if that makes sense, but I kind of try to treat it like a job with a deadline, because otherwise, I don't do anything. I just take naps and watch TV.
AVC: Music And Lyrics is about people hired to write songs for a specific context. You in turn were hired to write songs in a specific context. How accurate did you find the film's depiction of the creative process?
AS: Well, obviously, a lot of it is just total Hollywood make-believe. But there are bits and pieces of it which ring true. Just basically sitting there at a piano or staring at a blank pad, trying to do something That basic thing is right. But my favorite thing in the movie in terms of inaccuracy was the pre-recording-session party. I've never thought to throw one of those, but that seems like a really good idea. "Come by, we're having a pre-recording-session party!"
AVC: You've done a lot of music for television. When you're writing for a specific thing, do you feel like an actor playing a specific role, or more like a writer telling a story?
AS: It depends on what the thing is. I don't ever feel like I'm being an actor. I mean, I'm definitely trying to imagine what that character would say, but not by putting myself in that place, so much as the way a writer would try to punch up the script or something.
AVC: Could you relate to Hugh Grant's character at all?
AS: Only in the sense that he and I are both considered very sexy men. So I know what that's like.
AVC: Fountains Of Wayne is known for very tight pants and hip-shaking.
AS: We had to get past the sort of good-looking band thing in order for people to take us seriously, you know? And that was hard for us.
Irony comes across really well in print, and I'm going to look like the biggest asshole on the planet. It's like trying to be ironic in e-mails. It just doesn't work.
AVC: You produced Hugh Grant's songs, right? What are sort of his strengths and weaknesses as a singer?
AS: He actually has a perfectly good voice. He was very self-deprecating about it. But at the same time, he has never listened to any pop music in his life, and doesn't really have any idea what it's supposed to sound like, and he was sort of the first person to admit that. He kind of had some knowledge of maybe Wham! and some of the other massive things of the '80s. But if you mentioned anything even slightly more obscure, he would have no idea.
We brought in Martin Fry, who's the singer of ABC, to do some backup vocals and vocal coaching and stuff. And he had never heard of them. And that was a huge band with a huge string of hits, especially in England.
AVC: Did he spend the entirety of the '80s doing Shakespeare?
AS: Yeah, I don't know what he was doing, but it wasn't listening to music.
AVC: What's Martin Fry up to these days? Is he still a suave individual?
AS: Yeah, he kind of is, actually. One of the more surreal days I've ever had in the recording studio was Martin Fry teaching Hugh Grant his old dance moves. Showing him how to do the hair-flip and the point, and all these sort of trademark moves of his.
AVC: What was the most surreal aspect of having a giant ubiquitous hit?
AS: Every aspect of it was surreal, to be honest. It's hard for me to pinpoint one moment. We were always described as a band that would have had huge hits in an alternate universe. So it felt like we had entered an alternate universe for at least a few months.
AVC: One of the big paradoxes of pop culture is that the kind of power-pop you guys play is historically not very popular. Why do you think that is?
AS: I don't know the answer to that question, really. I think people sometimes confuse "catchy" with something that should automatically be a hit in today's world. I mean, obviously we write a lot of stuff that's catchy, that sticks in your head. But that doesn't necessarily mean that middle-school kids are going to want to listen to a song about a lawyer or a Subaru, or whatever. There's the subject-matter problem, and the attitude problem too. I think if there's any kind of distance between the person who's singing and the voice of the song, that throws people, or can throw people. At least with rock bands today, it's definitely more about opening up your diary to the world. And that's just something that we've never really done, or at least not directly.
AVC: Is it validating to finally have such a big hit, or does it feel more like a cosmic fluke?
AS: It was sort of a confluence of events and luck and timing and all that stuff. It did seem a bit fluky, and obviously, the song has a sort of novelty aspect. And the video was basically soft porn. You have all those elements, and I can't say it was a vindication or anything, really, because I think most people in the world still don't have any idea who sang "Stacy's Mom." Everybody knows that song, but most people don't know who we are. So it didn't really change that much in terms of the day-to-day operations of our band.
AVC: When "Stacy's Mom" started to hit, did you see a change in the kind of people you played in front of?
AS: You could see the people at our shows that had just discovered the band, or that song especially, because for a while, we were being sent out to play at these Top 40 radio festivals where we literally, like—us going on before Jessica Simpson, that was the only song that we could really play out there. But I think for the most part, our audiences—maybe there's some younger people who discovered the band because of that that got into more of it, but I think the audiences, if they're going to actually bother to come and see an entire show of us, it's because they like more than just that one song. In fact, they probably don't even really want to hear that song.
AVC: That's the irony. You've become a success because of that, but it's probably easy to get sick of playing it.
AS: We've played "Radiation Vibe" a lot more than we've played "Stacy's Mom" at this point. We've been playing that song at every single show since 1996, and I still love that song. That's okay with me.
AVC: How much of "Stacy's Mom"'s success do you attribute to the video?
AS: A lot. I mean, I think the song obviously worked too. But the video was great. And we kind of snuck under the wire with that video, because it was right before the whole Janet Jackson Nipplegate Super Bowl fiasco. And I think if we had handed that video in six months later, they would have just not touched it with a 10-foot pole.
AVC: Do you think the characters in your songs would listen to Fountains of Wayne?
AS: That's a weird question. I suppose in most cases, you could say that. It's funny, Chris' brother works for Merck down in Pennsylvania, for the drug company. And whenever we play in Philadelphia, all the dudes from Merck come to the show. And they're always high-fiving us like, "Dude, that 'Bright Future In Sales' song That's us!"
AVC: "We totally have drinking problems and are deluded!"
AS: You know, we really aren't trying to make any point about anybody or put anybody down in any of our songs. And I do also think that we try to make music that anybody could listen to and sort of get. We're not trying to be too cool.
AVC: Your music is very affectionate as well.
AS: I hope that comes across. I think in most cases, when you're writing a song, you're just making up a little story, and you're not really thinking about making a point one way or another about it. You're just coming up with a little scenario and seeing it through, and that's it.
AVC: Do you do any writing outside of songwriting?
AS: I haven't really experimented too much with that stuff. You can get away with a lot of stuff as long as it's got music to it. The melodies can make things work that don't necessarily work on paper at all. Bad rhymes, or sort of like half-baked thoughts seem like they make more sense than they do if you sing them nicely. I really wouldn't know what to do, to write anything longer than a three-minute song.
AVC: Being around movies hasn't infected you with that bug, to write longer things?
AS: The problem with it is, I don't think I have the attention span. Like everybody else, there have been times when I've thought, "Oh, I've got a great idea for a movie," but then to actually spend the years it takes to see that through, and to spend all this time thinking about this one story that ultimately gets boiled down to an hour and a half I don't think I would have the faith in my own ideas to extend them that far. With a pop song, it's like maybe you write it in 10 minutes, or maybe you write it in whatever—a few months, for some reason. Still, at the end, if it sucks, it sucks. Big deal. It's only just one song. But if you work on a movie or a novel and you get into it, after two or three years, then you look back and you're like, "Shit, I don't like this," then that'd be rough.
AVC: The follow-up to "Stacy's Mom" was "Mexican Wine"?
AS: Well, so to speak.
AVC: What happened with that?
AS: Again, I think it's a catchy song, but it wasn't really a hit song. When it comes down to it, the song is just a little too weird for Top 40 radio or whatever it is. And then we also had the problem of We made this expensive video and MTV wouldn't go near it. That's kind of the story of our lives.