Chris Collingwood remembers thinking it was the dumbest thing he'd ever heard. He and new pal Adam Schlesinger were looking for a band name to hang on the serious, introspective songs they'd penned together as serious, introspective college students. As they discussed various monikers, Schlesinger's mom overheard and had a suggestion. There was a statuary store just blocks away from Schlesinger's home in Wayne, New Jersey, called Fountains of Wayne. Mrs. Schlesinger always got a kick out of the name, and thought her son and his new college friend might, too.
"I told her she was crazy," Collingwood says now. "I told her it was the worst name I'd ever heard." Ten years later, having worn out a few other band names, Collingwood, 29, admits Schlesinger's mom was right--a point she often reminds him of when he sees her. "She's a sweet woman, and not really one to gloat," he says. "But she's not turning down any of the credit, that's for sure."
Collingwood and Schlesinger's 1996 debut album, Fountains of Wayne, is a brilliant CD stocked with sophisticated, smartly constructed songs that come off deceptively carefree and breezy. Many critics named it the top album of that year. It's certainly one of the best pure pop recordings of recent years.
Because Collingwood and Schlesinger co-write accomplished, well-crafted songs, it's tempting to picture the two as dedicated songwriters, huddled over guitars, sweaty hair falling over grimaced expressions as they search for the perfect placement of well-considered hooks and choruses. Not quite, says Collingwood. He says it took all of a week to write the CD's songs, and most of the songcraft took place on a pair of barstools at a neighborhood joint called the Radio Bar in Manhattan.
"Basically, we started all this by writing a bunch of titles on bar napkins and trying to get the other guy to laugh," Collingwood says. "We'd get drunk and just sit there writing and laughing. We wound up with a list of hundreds of titles. Then we'd decide between the two of us who was going to take which song, and then meet the next night and see what we'd come up with."
The barstool brainstorming was the first time Collingwood and Schlesinger had worked together since the days they were pooh-poohing the Fountains of Wayne name. Back then, the pair's first band, the Wallflowers, did little besides attract the attention of Jakob Dylan, who bought the band name. Their next group, Pinwheel, recorded an album for an independent label that not only failed to release the recording, but tried to keep the two songwriters from recording, sparking a legal battle that lasted for close to three years.
Once liberated of contractual bugaboos, Collingwood was hit with a creative impulse. He says he wrote three future Fountains of Wayne songs--"Joe Rey," "Leave the Biker" and the first FOW hit, "Radiation Vibe"--in about "half a day." He then called up Schlesinger and suggested they meet for drinks and try to get something going. Hundreds of bar napkins later, a band was born.
"It was deliberate that we were going to write the album and record it quickly, before we had time to think about anything," Collingwood says. The same cerebral method convinced him Fountains of Wayne wasn't such a dumb name after all. "Prior to this, Adam and I had both been careful, serious songwriters, in the vein of Simon and Garfunkel. We were much more careful about the arrangements and everything. But when we decided to make this record quickly and spontaneously, we figured that since doing it so fast was such a stupid idea, the band needed a stupid name as well."
Stupid never sounded so good. FOW songs like the stunningly beautiful "Sick Day," along with "I've Got a Flair" and the equally wonderful "Barbara H.," are pop masterpieces, with lyrics that lay easy around catchy melodies and memorable choruses. Other highlights include "Survival Car," a dB's-meets-the-Beach Boys romp, and "Leave the Biker," which mixes and matches major chords to charmingly plaintive lyrics. "He's got his arm around every man's dream," Collingwood sings. "With crumbs in his beard from the seafood special/Oh can't you see my world is falling apart/Baby, please leave the biker, leave the biker, break his heart." That same sense of a toothy grin amid aching observation charges almost every Fountains of Wayne song. Collingwood says the angst is nothing personal.
"I don't think there was any deliberate down-ness in the lyrics," he says. "There's a lot from the point of view of the outsider and the loner, but that's not necessarily from personal experience. It's just an easy thing to write about. And since the '60s, there's been a boy-meets-girl, boy-can't-get-girl sort of theme in music, so that's kind of an easy viewpoint to adopt, too."
Collingwood also shrugs off the crooked smile inherent in the clever "Please Don't Rock Me Tonight," a sneaky swipe at post-Spinal Tap bands that cling to rock 'n' roll cliches. ("Please don't rock me tonight," Collingwood croons wearily. "I'm not in the mood.") The song's aimed squarely at grunge bands, a special sore spot with Collingwood.
"Grunge music has taken the emphasis completely away from melody and songwriting, things sorely needed in music right now. Fortunately, some bands are going back to melody and harmony, and they're getting attention now because people are just sick of grunge."
Other musicians may have had enough of the Seattle sound, too; even musicians from Seattle. Soundgarden, for example, recently called it quits--an event Collingwood jokingly wonders about.
"Can you imagine if they had some sort of press conference and they're like, 'Well, we decided that Chris from Fountains of Wayne was right and we really should just be quiet,'" he says, laughing.
As for bands on Collingwood's good side, he lists the Beatles, the Hollies and especially the Zombies as major early influences. He's also a big Marshall Crenshaw fan, and has no problem championing the likes of Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout, two effete bands from the early '80s that knocked Collingwood out with their featherweight punch.
"The wimpy thing never bothered me, especially back then," he says of easygoing '80s twee. "I've since grown to love the newer distorted-guitar stuff, but those bands are always citing Sonic Youth and those sorts of groups as influences. I never listened to any of that stuff. I don't consider that songwriting in any sense. I was much more influenced by the Naked Eyes, the Aztec Cameras. I think Paddy McAloon [of Prefab Sprout] is a genius. His pop-writing smarts seem to come from Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim. It's so much smarter than anything else considered pop music."
Collingwood has a soft spot for country music as well. He's in an alterna-twang outfit called the Mercy Bucket, which he hopes to get in the studio once FOW wraps up touring. He's also involved with the Lounge Losers, a casual series of shows in New York put on by Jules Shear, ex-Bongo Richard Barone, Marshall Crenshaw and others. The basic idea is that local pop scenesters get together and do a tribute to a traditional songwriter--Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, etc. Collingwood says it's a good chance to play with new people and do some networking on the side.
All of which makes the FOW singer almost as busy as bassist bandmate Schlesinger, who has another band, Ivy, and who co-founded Scratchie Records with James Iha and D'Arcy of Smashing Pumpkins. Schlesinger's also a known name in Hollywood, having earned an Oscar nomination for his work in the Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do!. Schlesinger wrote the song that the film's fictional band, the Wonders, took to the top of the charts back in 1964. Schlesinger didn't sing the song in the film--that honor went to Mike Viola of the Candy Butchers, whose voice was lip-synched by actor Johnathon Schaech--and Fountains of Wayne doesn't play the peppy tune in concert. Schlesinger reportedly considers the song a fluke, saying it has nothing to do with FOW.
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Something that does concern Messrs. Collingwood and Schlesinger is their CD's attention-grabbing cover art. The photo is a killer shot of a young boy, dressed like a makeshift superhero, clutching a startled-looking rabbit he's apparently just rescued. The boy's earnest expression gives the photo the same kind of humorous but bittersweet feeling that charges Fountains of Wayne's songs.
Too bad another band--from England--has the same photo adorning its CD. Even worse, that band's name, the Flamingoes, puts the two CDs almost exactly side by side in record bins.
"This English photographer licensed the photograph to both bands," Collingwood says with disgust. "Worse than that, he was directly asked by us if he had licensed it to anybody else and he said no. So, basically, the guy's a complete asshole. We're changing the cover in Europe, but we're keeping it the same in the States. It's just too good a picture."
Fountains of Wayne is scheduled to perform on Sunday, May 4, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Chainsaw Kittens, and ednaswap. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).