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No expectations from Fountains of Wayne writer

Story Highlights

• Fountains of Wayne's new album due out Tuesday
• Songwriter Adam Schlesinger concentrates on details
• Band known for distinctive pop songs
By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- Adam Schlesinger is in demand.

The Fountains of Wayne bassist and songwriter doesn't just write songs for his band, he also writes for his other band, Ivy, as well as for the movies. (The film "Music and Lyrics" featured three Schlesinger songs, including the film's central creation, "Way Back Into Love.")

But despite the ability of Schlesinger and his FOW bandmate Chris Collingwood to write power-pop confections -- often about the elements and characters of everyday American life -- the band has notched just one Top 40 hit, "Stacy's Mom," off the group's 2003 album, "Welcome Interstate Managers."

The group, also consisting of drummer Brian Young and guitarist Jody Porter, is releasing its fourth album of new material, "Traffic and Weather," Tuesday. Schlesinger talked with CNN about songwriting for the band -- and other jobs -- from his home in New York. This is an edited version of the interview.

CNN: When you sit down to write a song, is there a particular philosophy? There are character types -- people from the [New York] area -- who tend to pop up in your songs over and over.

ADAM SCHLESINGER: I certainly wouldn't call it a philosophy, there's no sort of big idea that gets funneled into smaller song ideas. Something sparks an idea for a song, whether it's a couple lines or whether it's a situation or sometimes even a fragment of a melody. Most of the time, I don't even have an idea of what I'm writing about until I've gotten halfway into it.

CNN: Your songs are often so detailed, but there's always a risk, in including these details, in having the song become dated instead of timeless. Does that concern you?

SCHLESINGER: To me, we're not necessarily trying to make something timeless. ... [Yes,] it runs the risk of placing itself in a certain period. But I think that's OK. I think that we really try to make a lot of this stuff seem real and based in the real world, and all that kind of crap -- like band names and brand names -- I think all those things are part of day-to-day life, and I think it gives it more of a flavor of reality.

CNN: When I listen to the songs, I'm sometimes reminded of Randy Newman. He can be generous to his characters, but in other songs he seems glib and snide. Is that a difficult line to walk for you guys?

SCHLESINGER: We don't ever create a character in order to make fun of him. I don't even understand what that means, to be honest. We just make up a song and tell a story about somebody doing something.

CNN: But I hear [the new album's] " '92 Subaru" and ... it's easy to look down your nose at someone like this. I'm not saying you guys are -- it also comes from the listener, what the listener brings to it, which may say more about me than it does about you.

SCHLESINGER: Well, the song's supposed to be funny. It's not really supposed to be an indictment of somebody. ... That whole song was about what if you took this macho classic-rock sounding track, a little bit Doobie Brothers or Little Feat or something, and had him singing about a really weak car. (laughs) But that's it to that song. There's not much more to it. ... It's just about a guy who bought a crappy car and is thinking he's going to make something out of it, and that's it.

CNN: Are you the kind of person that if [a song] doesn't work right away you set it aside, or do you just try to bash through it?

SCHLESINGER: Sometimes it can be incredibly hard to finish something. There are certain songs that come together really quickly, and others I feel like I have something that's good and something that I don't want to throw in the garbage, but I can't figure out what to do with for a long time.

Actually, there are a few of those on this record. The first song, "Someone to Love," I had incarnations of that kicking around for a really long time and in fact I had the verses and I had these character ideas and I couldn't figure out what to do with them. For awhile I was actually just using the chorus from "Eleanor Rigby" as a placeholder. I had this idea of lonely people and doing something about lonely people and I couldn't figure out where to go with it, and I suddenly hit on this chorus idea and it came together. But it went through a couple earlier passes that didn't work.

Even with some of the seemingly more frivolous ones, like " '92 Subaru" or "Strapped for Cash," I'll have the basic layout of the song and I'll have the idea and I'll have the hook, but it'll take me awhile to flesh out every line, because I don't want to have any duds in there.

CNN: I've noticed that. Nothing seems tossed off.

SCHLESINGER: Yeah. That's the thing, with the kind of writing we do, there's sort of nowhere to hide. If you have a line that doesn't work it sticks out really badly. That's not to say that what we're doing is such incredible high art, but it's the type of song that we're writing. ...

I've seen people write things online where they'll go in [and talk about lyrics]. I saw something the other day about the song "Hackensack" from our last record, where someone was saying, "You know, they really crapped out on this one verse because it says, 'Now I work for my dad,' and the rhyme they came up with was 'The hours are pretty bad.' " The guy was giving us [guff] for not coming up with a better second line. And maybe he was right. But that's the thing.

CNN: Does the record company say, "Give us another 'Stacy's Mom' "?

SCHLESINGER: I don't really think there's any pressure. I'm sure they'd like it if there was a song that they think sounded like a hit.

But the weird thing is nobody thought "Stacy's Mom" sounded like a hit when we handed that in, either. We didn't have a record deal at the time we recorded that, and we took that song around to just about everybody. The only guy that heard a hit with it was the guy who signed us, Steve Greenberg, and he made it a hit.

CNN: I'm sure people come to you with preconceptions of what Fountains of Wayne should be about, because "you guys can be the ..."

SCHLESINGER: After all our records people sometimes write what we should do on the next record -- that we should go this direction or that direction -- as if we have any kind of meetings about directions. (laughs) People don't realize that when you're writing songs you're just trying to write whatever you can write. ... We just basically keep writing songs and pick the best of the batch and that's pretty much as far as we plan it out.

CNN: What's going to happen with this album?

SCHLESINGER: We're very excited about it and we're going to go on tour. ... You know, we're just happy to be out doing it again and having a new batch of stuff to play.

As far as our expectations -- we never have any. We just keep doing what we do.


FoW

Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, left, works hard to give his songs a "flavor of reality."

A TOP FIVE

(Some of) Adam Schlesinger's desert island discs:

"The Beatles" or "Abbey Road," The Beatles ("but any one of them would do")

"Paul Simon," Paul Simon

"Imperial Bedroom," Elvis Costello and the Attractions

"Little Criminals," Randy Newman ("I think it may not be the best one but it has a [special] place for me")

"Deja Vu," Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

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