Pure pop music has a reputation as a minor, even mercenary art form, built on a few chords, simple hooks, and elementary guitar-bass-drums-vocals arrangements. But, when done just right, it can be one of the world's most transcendent and life-affirming sounds. New York's Fountains Of Wayne has made two near-perfect pop records, a self-titled 1996 disc and 1999's Utopia Parkway, each of which are among the most enjoyable and ingratiating summer listening imaginable. Of course, hits haven't always followed for the group, which is between labels and plotting its next recorded move between an assortment of side projects. Singer-guitarist Chris Collingwood plays in the country outfit the Gay Potatoes, for example, while bassist Adam Schlesinger produced a number of tracks on the best-selling soundtrack to Josie And The Pussycats, plays bass in Ivy (whose new album Long Distance comes out July 10), and produced David Mead's outstanding new Mine And Yours. Collingwood and Schlesinger, Fountains Of Wayne's co-founders and songwriters, recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the band's status, their many side projects, and Diane Warren.
The Onion: Where are you in terms of a new album and label?
Adam Schlesinger: I guess we're just starting to talk about making a new record now. We took a break from it all for a while, and I don't think either of us was in a particularly productive writing phase after touring for a year on the last one. Just in the last few weeks, we've been talking again about getting back into the studio and making more rock.
O: Have there been discussions with labels?
AS: Last year, we talked to a couple people, and they were like, "Yeah, we love you guys! Let's hear your next big smash single." And we said, "Well, we don't have one right now." That was kind of where we left it, as it became apparent that we'd be better off going in and recording, and then figuring it out from there.
Chris Collingwood: We did that on our first and second albums. We pretty much did it without the label even knowing we were doing it, and then said, "Here it is. It's done."
AS: It prevents label people from being able to come down and try to join the band during sessions.
O: Where do you find the budget to do that? A lot of bands are pretty reliant on that label advance in order to start making a record.
AS: We deal cocaine.
CC: We have friends who have recording studios, Adam being one of them. We do some work on spec with this guy in Boston. He's been pretty good to us.
AS: Our first record only cost about five grand to make. Then we spent a lot more money bringing in a big-shot mixer and stuff, but the actual recording only took about a week. We definitely spent more time and money on the second one. I think for us, it's so much about having the songs, and once we have the songs, we're actually pretty fast in the studio. We're not one of these bands that goes in and makes up the album on the spot, like Radiohead or something, where they rent somebody's castle for two years and figure it all out later.
O: You mentioned labels wanting the next big smash hit. A number of Fountains Of Wayne songs sound like big smash hits, but none have actually been big smash hits.
CC: Hey, fuck you. [Both laugh.]
AS: We're huge in Finland. "Sink To The Bottom" was #7 in Finland about four years after it was released, because apparently it was in some Finnish beer commercial. I think #7 in Finland is literally about 1,000 records, so we've been living off that for a while.
O: Seriously, "fuck you" aside, "Troubled Times" really should have been the biggest hit of 1999.
CC: That's what the label thought, and it was a scheduling thing. They kept putting it off. We actually went down to Florida and did a remix with… what the fuck is that guy's name?
AS: The guy that owns 40 Ferraris. Tom Lord-Alge.
CC: His machinery was broken, and his crew was just kind of walking around scratching their asses, so I went out to the beach for the day. The mix that he made came out sounding really good, but in the end, they decided not to even put it on their schedule.
AS: Yeah, we got misled on that one. It was kind of like, "Well, we can't go to radio with this ballad, because you guys are this modern-rock band. We'll put it out later in the year." And then it just… They have a very short attention span at these companies.
O: What does timing have to do with it?
AS: Oh, God. I mean, who knows?
CC: You know, you can't come out the same week as Bell Biv DeVoe, because their record people have to call radio stations and suck off the local guy that week.
AS: There's a theory that, no matter how big these companies get, they can really only work one record at a time. So, if Matchbox Twenty has something going on that week, you're fucked.
O: I've heard that, and yet each label puts out about 75 records a week. It's interesting how it's harder to get attention from your own label than to get signed in the first place.
AS: It's crazy, I know. The other thing is that the numbers are so overblown these days. If we were at this level in the mid-'80s, we would be considered an extremely successful band. Bands like R.E.M. and even The Replacements, during that initial wave of college rock, would sell 40, 50, 100,000 copies of a record, and that would be seen as extremely successful—and definitely enough to keep doing more. These days, you really have to sell at least gold [500,000] to even be on the radar. It's so much easier for them to keep making money by selling another two million Jewel records, or whatever it is.
O: When it comes time to pick a label, or let a label pick you, are you looking at independent labels? Are you looking at another major?
AS: We've already had a lot of independent-label offers, but we don't really know what route we want to go. We just want to see what the record sounds like, and play it for everybody, and see what the reaction is. We've just gotten to the point where we feel like we've got something going that is worth something, and that we like. Whether or not we sell 10 million the next time out, we do have a pretty loyal audience. We can kind of make the record we want to make one way or the other, and if it happens to have a smash on it, great. If not, there'll still be people who come see us play.
O: You do have a rabid cult following. It's kind of like Weezer, where they were perceived to have not sold very well and disappeared, and now they're back, arguably stronger than ever.
AS: I think that's great, and it's only good for us if they do well. It's inevitable that at some point, everyone is going to burn out a little bit on all this synthesized teen pop. Maybe there'll be more interest in guitar music, but the kind of shit we do is never really the top of the pops in America anyway. Every year, there's some band that plays guitar-oriented pop music that has a single, but for the most part, it's kind of relegated to the sidelines.
O: Why is pure pop music seen as a commercial, almost mercenary medium, and yet it's never in fashion?
AS: If it's so commercial, don't you judge that by how much money it makes?
O: That's what I'm saying, but people are like, "Oh, that's just three-chord pop music for the masses."
CC: Whereas the grunting, brooding shirtless guy is an artist.
AS: Hey, I'm brooding. I was just brooding when you called.
CC: It's probably because of bubblegum. That whole era soured people on pop.
AS: Maybe the people who like us predate the average age of the record-buying audience right now. We seem to appeal to people who are kind of into music to a different degree. Guys who have a lot of records and want to talk to us about The Shoes after the show, or The Raspberries or something. That's not your typical high-school freshman right now, I would imagine.
CC: There's also identification with a lot of the people that we worship, like The Beach Boys. Most people think of "Little Deuce Coupe" or their really crappy music. They don't know about Pet Sounds. Even the younger audience now, The Beatles to them is "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and old black-and-white movies. They have no idea.
AS: I saw Destiny's Child being interviewed on MTV, and Carson [Daly] asked them, "What's your favorite Beatles song?" There was this dead silence, and then one of the girls was like, "You know which one I like?" [Sings.] "I want to hold your hand…" You could tell that was the only one she knew.
O: How prolific are you guys? It seems like there are a lot of B-sides and things like that.
AS: We go in spurts. When we wrote the first album, we were on this roll for a couple of weeks where we wrote a huge batch of stuff. We don't just sit around writing all year. We have to get back in the right frame of mind. So there are these spurts where we end up with a batch of stuff, and then a long period where we sit around and drink beer and watch soap operas.
CC: I start writing silly country songs, and I'm kind of in that phase right now. I have this band called The Gay Potatoes. We're based in Northampton [Massachusetts], just playing around and doing some recording. I actually got an e-mail from this guy who's moving a theater production to Broadway, saying he wanted to use a Fountains Of Wayne song. I was like, "Well, give me the details. As long as you're not saying the Holocaust never happened or anything good about George W. Bush, we can probably work something out." So he sent this thing back saying he wanted to use this particular song, and it was a Gay Potatoes song.
AS: What song?
CC: I didn't even write it. It's called "Sort Of True," and it's by one of the other guys in the band. So I'm kind of bummed out.
O: Is there a Gay Potatoes record?
CC: No, he just got this live recording from Napster. This guy who follows Fountains Of Wayne all over the place drove up here for one of our shows and recorded it.
O: The David Mead album turned out great.
AS: Thank you. I don't know, I've always been kind of the music whore of the two of us, so I've been doing a lot of different stuff in the meantime. I actually produced a few different things recently. I just did three songs with They Might Be Giants, and I worked on the Josie And The Pussycats record, which is doing surprisingly well, considering the movie completely tanked.
CC: I was just thinking that. What happened to that movie?
O: We were the critics who loved that movie.
AS: I think you were the only ones.
CC: There's that one English guy, the scrawny guy with the big nose.
AS: Yeah, he was in Spice World, too.
CC: That's the guy you cannot have in your movie. Alan somebody?
O: Alan Cumming.
CC: Yeah, you cannot have him in your movie.
AS: Well, he played the same guy that he played in Spice World. That's the weird thing. It was, like, the exact same part. You know, it's weird, because they sent me that script a year and a half ago, and I actually thought it was really funny, and that the idea behind it was pretty smart for that kind of thing. There were a lot of interesting people involved in the music one way or the other. Jane Wiedlin wrote on it, and Matthew Sweet played on some stuff. It seemed like a fun thing to be involved with, but I went to see the movie the weekend it opened, and I think there were six people in the theater.
O: Did you like the movie?
AS: Um, you know, I thought it was okay. I thought the message they were trying to put across probably went over most people's heads, but it was a good message. It was anti-commercial: "Don't be brainwashed by the pop-culture machine."
CC: Ironic that a huge Hollywood production with all these up-and-coming stars is telling you, "Don't be brainwashed."
AS: "And, while you're at it, buy the soundtrack album."
O: You were nominated for an Oscar [for writing The Wonders' "That Thing You Do!"].
AS: I was, indeed.
O: Who were you up against?
AS: I was up against Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren. You know, all my peers, basically.
O: Who won that year? Was it a Disney thing?
AS: I swear to God I don't remember.
CC: I think it was Andrew Lloyd Webber.
AS: It probably was. It was funny, because Diane Warren was sitting right in front of me, and she writes these really sappy love ballads, but her personality does not fit her music. When he won, she was like, "That piece of shit won?"
O: I've heard she's really salty, yeah.
AS: She's funny.
CC: On her web site, if you go to dianewarren.com, there's a listing of all the songs, and about 75 percent of them have "love" or "heart" in the title. So we were gonna do this Diane Warren tribute called "Suck My Heart." What was the other?
AS: "Blow it Out Your Heart." Chris and another guy actually wrote this song once, which thankfully they didn't submit, for the Wilsons' comeback album.
CC: Wilson Phillips.
AS: It was actually after [Chynna] Phillips left, so it was just the Wilson sisters. They wrote this song called "For All Time," and the first line was, "For all time, there was always tenderness," which is an anagram for "fat twat." We were hoping that they would love the song and put it on the album, and you'd sort of leak this rumor about it later.
CC: I have no idea what you're talking about. I had nothing to do with that.