Think of New York and rock musicians and you might well think of Lou Reed, whose identification with his home town is so secure that he remains the only rock star with the guts to actually title an album “New York.” Even Billy Joel restricted himself to “52nd Street.”
But only a fraction of Reed’s New York fans probably have any direct experience with the downtown demimonde of hustlers, junkies and sexually ambiguous types that serves as the setting of his better-known songs. Most are suburbanites from the Tri-State region around the city who as kids went to Manhattan to party and as adults now go there to work.
Their imperfect lives of privilege receive closer scrutiny from Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, the songwriting team behind Fountains of Wayne. Since their eponymous 1996 debut, the pair, with the help of stalwart instrumental partners Jody Porter on guitar and Brian Young on drums, have addressed what they know with just as much insight as Reed has his world. And what they know is growing up in bland suburbs, commuting to office jobs, staving off boredom, and wondering why life isn’t as good as their guidance counselors promised it would be.
Look hard enough and you can trace a thematic trajectory from the mostly adolescent concerns of their debut to the mature worries of the group’s newest album, “Traffic and Weather,” even if Schlesinger resists the analysis.
“I kind of hate to use the word ‘maturity’ when talking about pop music,” Schlesinger says over the phone from his home in New York City. “There may be some songs on this record that talk about older people, but I think we try to balance that with some really juvenile stuff.”
“Juvenile” is not a pejorative term to FOW, whose sense of melody is grounded thoroughly in the pre-1980s pop canon, mainly The Kinks and Paul McCartney. But Schlesinger and Collingwood are careful not to limit themselves and take creditable stabs at psychedelia, power ballads and country and western. “That may explain why the records are a bit schizophrenic,” says Schlesinger.
Collingwood sings all the songs in a sweet, dorky tenor, so it’s easy to believe that they are total collaborations, a notion Schlesinger dispels: “We share the credit but we really don’t write songs together. We did early on when we started the band, but now we write separately, both lyrics and music.”
With other such combinations, say The Go-Betweens’ Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, it was easy to tell who wrote which song, not only be cause the writer sang his respective material, but because the styles were so distinct. Such distinctions are more difficult with FOW.
“If I had to generalize, Chris has written more songs that are directly autobiographical and I tend to hide behind characters and make things up,” says Schlesinger. “If there’s stuff from my real life in a song I obscure it. There’s a song on the new record called ‘Hotel Majestic,’ which is Chris’ song. It’s like his diary, about staying in this hotel and describing what happens to him. A lot of the songs that are mine, like ‘Strapped for Cash’ or ‘Someone to Love,’ are just made-up vignettes. They didn’t come from my own life.”
Still, there’s something very personal about “Someone to Love,” which relates the parallel tales of two thirtysomething workaholics too busy to find love when there’s so much on TV and so many calories to burn. In the disarmingly affecting “Yolanda Hayes,” the protagonist does find it, in the unlikeliest of places (the Department of Motor Vehicles).
“It’s all in the execution,” Schlesinger says. “Sometimes you write about yourself without really knowing, and even if you think you’re making up a character you’re revealing stuff in your psyche.”
With this sort of nuanced approach, it’s not surprising that FOW is more popular with critics than it is with the public at large, a situation that speaks volumes about the kind of pop music that would have sold like hotcakes in the ’60s and ’70s but which is now mostly the bailiwick of indie bands. Nevertheless, after four albums and a B-sides compilation, none of which has sold exceptionally well, the group is still on a major label.
“I’m not sure what that means these days,” says Schlesinger. “Who knows what we’ll do a year from now or five years from now. Access to distribution is becoming less difficult and that’s really what major labels used to have a stranglehold on.”
Schlesinger betrays more sympathy for the record industry than a lot of artists in his position. Asked to comment on a rumor that FOW refused to allow their previous label, Atlantic, to release their cover version of Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” as a single, he says, “I sort of understand why they reacted that way, because they were just thinking of what will most likely make it on the radio, and in that sense they were probably right. The album would have done better if we’d included it. But in the long run it wouldn’t have been as good for the band.”
Schlesinger’s knack for catchy tunes has earned him a reputation as the go-to song writer for movie producers who need original pop songs for their soundtracks. He wrote the title song to Tom Hanks’ movie about a fictional 1960s one-hit-wonder band “That Thing You Do,” as well as a few songs for “Music and Lyrics,” in which Hugh Grant played a washed-up ’80s pop star. He also runs his own recording studio in Manhattan.
“One of the reasons I like working with other bands is that you always learn new things from different people,” he says about producing. “Even if they play a different style of music than you do, you gain something from collaboration.”
And if you hang around long enough, you may get to collaborate with your idols.
“Somebody brought to our attention that Glenn Tilbrook was playing one of our songs in his solo sets, and Chris got in touch with him and they started corresponding. Glenn and [co-songwriter] Chris Difford are enormous heroes of ours. Especially early on, we would try to imitate them pretty blatantly.”
As a result, FOW opened in August for Tilbrook and Difford’s band, the new-wave English pop group Squeeze, on some of the U.S. dates of their reunion tour. “The weird thing is that when we played in London, Glenn actually opened for us,” says Schlesinger, “which we were totally embarrassed about.”
Fountains of Wayne play Oct. 16-18, 7 p.m. at Ebisu Liquid Room, Tokyo ( 3444-6751); Oct. 20, 7 p.m. at Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Osaka ( 6535-5569); Oct. 21, 7 p.m. at Nagoya Club Quattro ( 264-8211).