A band that means business
Fountains of Wayne back with 'Welcome Interstate Managers'
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Fountains of Wayne can't buy a break.
Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, the co-founders of the power-pop band, are cooped up in their publicist's car, circling city blocks in lower Manhattan. The publicist is having trouble finding a parking space, so Schlesinger and Collingwood are conducting an interview over a cell phone, hampered by New York din, as they meander in search of a place to land.
That would seem to be all too indicative of the band's past few years. In 1996, FOW put out its first album, "Fountains of Wayne," and found itself with critical hosannas and an MTV hit, "Radiation Vibe."
Three years later the band, including drummer Brian Young and bassist Jody Porter, followed up with the remarkable "Utopia Parkway," named for a Queens, New York, boulevard. The record featured songs about hotshot travel agents, Long Island laser shows, the "Valley of Malls," and whiling away the summer with the senator's daughter -- all tied together with catchy melodies, nifty lyrics, and rock-solid musicianship.
But "Utopia" failed at the record racks and the group was dropped by its record company. So FOW's new album, the just-released "Welcome Interstate Managers" (S-Curve), was recorded piecemeal over the course of a year without a recording contract.
All this would seem to be depressing stuff, enough to force some bands back into the 9-to-5 world FOW writes so shrewdly about. But Schlesinger says the Fountains didn't get down about it.
"Atlantic didn't want to pick up our option, but it didn't slow us down. When this record was done, we just found a new home for it," he says.
"Our object is not to conquer the world," he continues. "We do what we do. We didn't set out to compete with the Godsmacks of the world."
'I just try to tell a story'
What Fountains of Wayne does is make polished pop songs with melodies that would be at home on any Top 40 chart and lyrics that address everyday concerns.
"Welcome Interstate Managers" paints a broader picture of the group's capabilities than its other records. The album's opening cuts -- "Mexican Wine," "Bright Future in Sales" and "Stacy's Mom" -- have a bright power-chord sound and an acerbic humor.
There are also songs about poor restaurant service ("Halley's Waitress"), songs with psychedelic touches ("Supercollider") and even a straight-ahead country tune ("Hung Up on You").
But the album grows more wistful with tunes such as "Hackensack," narrated by a deserted Jersey soul ("Sometimes I wonder where you are/Probably in L.A./That seems to be where everybody else ends up these days"), and "Fire Island," where a pensive melody plays counterpoint to the crowing of a wing-spreading teen ("All the kids from school/Will be naked in the pool/While our parents are on Fire Island").
Storytelling songs and mood songs such as these have a rich tradition, but they don't always have the universal appeal of an I-love-you-you-love-me ballad. Schlesinger, however, says he tries to draw from real life.
"I just try to tell a story, rather than present an open diary to the world," he says.
Many of the songs touch on the quotidian events in the lives of corporate employees. "There's probably just something about the rhythm of everyday business life that's fascinating to both [Adam and me]," Collingwood told Billboard magazine.
He told CNN.com he's pleased that "Welcome Interstate Managers" shows so many facets of the band.
"It's hard to put a single mood on it -- there are so many different moods," he says. "It keeps with the general theme that there is no theme."
A working band
Schlesinger and Collingwood met while students at Williams College in Massachusetts. The two shared a fondness for classic pop and played under amusing monikers. (Among early band names: Are You My Mother? and Three Men Who When Standing Side By Side Have A Wingspan Of Over Twelve Feet.)
Naturally, the band is hoping this third album's the charm when it comes to getting on the charts. The group just finished shooting a video for "Stacy's Mom," complete with guest shot by model Rachel Hunter. It also provided the original music for an as-yet-unaired VH1 series, "Hey Joel." A national tour kicks off July 3.
It's not like the brass ring has been completely out of reach. Besides the buzz that surrounded "Radiation Vibe," Schlesinger tasted a bit of the big time when he wrote the Oscar-nominated title song for the Tom Hanks movie "That Thing You Do!"
But FOW has spent a good part of its career with its fans wondering why the group isn't more popular.
James Iha, the former Smashing Pumpkin who co-owns a studio with Schlesinger, can't figure it out, he told Entertainment Weekly. "Who's to say?" he asked rhetorically. "Maybe they haven't fit into the trends of the time."
Schlesinger ponders a question about whether the band is set to become another in a line of critically praised, criminally catchy but commercially marginalized bands, such as They Might Be Giants or Weezer, and audibly shrugs.
"We do what we do, and build on our fan base," he says. "To that end, we're very successful."
After all, he notes, if you'd told him back in his college days that he'd be in a working band 15 years later, he would have been very happy. "We've traveled the world and have had people come to see [us] play," he says.
And, as the interview concludes, they've found a parking space and are strolling the streets of Manhattan. It's a pretty good life. Fountains of Wayne are on the move.