Even in a decade where pop music as a whole has been falling off a barstool into topics of absolute partying and crunkage, Fountains of Wayne has consistently separated themselves from the norm by creating songs that are as poignant as they are humorous. With their latest album, Sky Full of Holes, the band delivers some of their most richly textured songs to date, with songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood trading off writing credits on detailed portraits of travel as well as rich character studies on persons both real and imagined.
Schlesinger recently spoke to True Endeavors about the inspiration behind four of the songs he wrote for the album, as well as his own writing habits, musical influences, and yes, even Stephen King.
“Richie and Ruben”
A lot of times when I write, I start just with a couplet or maybe half a verse, and sometimes don’t really know what the song is going to be about. “Richie and Ruben” is a song that just started with the first couple of lines, because I liked the idea of a bar being called Living Hell. We used to sit around and make up bad names for bars a lot. So that’s where it started, and then it just grew into this story about these two guys with a bunch of bad ideas for businesses.
Did you know people like Richie and Reuben growing up?
These are fictional characters, but I suppose they are loosely based off a few different people that I actually knew. A lot of times I’ll set songs in places that I actually know, let’s say, in places around New York that seem familiar. It’s a way to throw in specific details that just make the story seem more real.
“A Road Song”
That song is sort of a genre exercise. There were all these road songs, especially in the 70’s. It was a very standard, singer-songwriter move to have a song about touring and being lonely on the road. So that was my attempt to update that and make a genre pop song. I think I had the song beginning in Wisconsin though mostly because it just rhymed [laughs].
That’s another one that started with the first verse and I didn’t really know what the song was going to be about. I started with this little scene in a restaurant, and I wasn’t really sure where to go after that. I just liked the idea of this guy sitting at a table while his kids were throwing peas. So that one is set in New York. I had that verse without a chorus for a long time, and then I had this idea of the chorus being this imaginary life in his head that was in contrast to what was actually going on.
It reminded me of how I’ll sometimes get the urge after watching an action movie to duck behind a car and start shooting imaginary bullets with my hands.
Yeah, they say that everyone is the star of their own movie. When it comes to life, people impose this narrative on their own life in some ways.
“Hate to See You Like This”
We’ve had people over the years who say things like, “Fountains of Wayne aren’t heartfelt enough,” or something like that, which I don’t really think is the case, but this was my attempt at writing a straightforward love song. I mean, it’s a love song, but it’s also really just a friendship song. That one isn’t really set in a specific place the way some of the others are, and the details aren’t as specific.
Do you have a set space you usually like to write in or do you do it wherever you can?
I don’t really write all the time; I sort of go in waves of writing and not writing. If I know I’m trying to get a record together, there will be a time where I’m trying to at least write a little bit everyday. Although I sometimes have better luck when I’m just away from my house, like on a vacation or somewhere different. A fresh setting just helps to get some new ideas going. But I do also just write at home a lot.
Are there certain artists in particular that inspired you while writing songs for Sky Full of Holes? They don’t necessarily have to be music-specific influences, either.
There’re lots of musical artists I look to for inspiration, but sometimes I get indirect inspiration from a film or a book. It’s hard for me to say what may have inspired me during Sky Full of Holes. I guess I remember reading a lot of Gary Shteyngart while I was writing some of these songs. I like his mix of humor but also the heart of his stories as well. But I don’t really have those moments where I read something or watch a movie and I’ll say, “Hey! I’m going to go write a song!” I just sort of do it. It just might be that certain sensibilities are just floating in the back of my mind somewhere when I’m writing.
In terms of songwriters, our biggest influences in the band are classic things like The Beatles and stuff. But I’d say Randy Newman was a very big influence on me in terms of creating characters and also having the narrator of the song be a character too and not necessarily the singer himself, you know? “Richie and Reuben” is sort of an example where the person singing the song implicates himself in the story and the chorus.
I read that Stephen King gave you an end of the year shout out in Entertainment Weekly calling Sky Full of Holes one of his favorite albums of 2011. Are you a fan of his work?
I am. You know, I’ve actually spoken to him in the past. He used some Fountains of Wayne music in a television show he did awhile back called Kingdom Hospital. I think he used a song of ours called “Red Dragon Tattoo.” So yeah, I’m definitely a fan of his, and I’m happy that he’s a fan of ours and has continued to follow us. It’s great.
Did he approach you personally to use your music for the television show?
Yeah, he actually called my house [laughs]. I remember he left a message saying, “Hey, it’s Stephen King, the Kingdom Hospital guy.” As if I didn’t know who Stephen King was [laughs]. It’s always very flattering when someone of that stature—whether they are a writer or a musician—knows that you even exist.
Is it a strange experience to see your songs used in another medium? Kingdom Hospital after all was a horror show.
It is, but it’s really fun too. It’s fun to hear your music in a movie or on a television show. And we’ve had periods of good luck with that kind of thing. These days, there’s just so much more music in the world in general now, so there’s a lot more competition to have their songs used on film or television. But even ten years ago, it seemed like it was easier to have that kind of stuff happen. Really what it comes down to is having someone on the creative side of whatever television show or movie being a fan of your music. Usually that’s how it happens. It doesn’t happen from someone pitching it.
Have you ever had an experience where you’ve seen a Fountains of Wayne song used in a way that you were unhappy with?
You know, not really. I wasn’t actually unhappy about this, but there was one movie whose name I can’t really think of the name right now, but it had this character who decides one day to become a painter. And then they show him listening to “Stacy’s Mom” while he’s painting. I guess the point was that he was this uncool painter, sitting in his studio rocking out to “Stacy’s Mom” while he’s working [laughs]. We all thought that was really funny.
—interview by Austin Duerst
See Fountains of Wayne live in Madison tomorrow night (Sunday, April 29, 2012) at the High Noon Saloon. Ticket are still available here.
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