Interview: Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger
May 31, 2007 04:05 PM
By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Baggage claim, the Department of Motor Vehicles, a '92 Subaru and inexpensive hotels aren't exactly typical fodder for pop songs. But Grammy nominees Fountains of Wayne can turn ordinary, everyday happenings into pop gems.
"I don't really know what inspires them, but we just like writing about everyday things and keeping them grounded in reality rather than making up songs that are really general and vague," bassist/songwriter Adam Schlesinger told LiveDaily.
"We like to be very specific and write about things that people actually might see in their normal lives."
Right now, Fountains of Wayne fans can see the band's latest album, "Traffic and Weather," in record stores. The cast of characters on "Traffic and Weather," the follow-up to 2003's "Welcome Interstate Managers"--which featured the hit "Stacy's Mom"--is indelible. Featuring Hole/Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur on backing vocals, the first single, "Someone to Love," tells the story of two New Yorkers, Seth Shapiro and Beth Mackenzie, who cross paths. The main character in "Yolanda Hayes" is an object of affection behind the glass at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Schlesinger, who wrote music for the films "Music and Lyrics" and "That Thing You Do," talked to LiveDaily about how he's spent the last four years, the random song topics and his major summer tour with Squeeze (dates for which are shown below).
LiveDaily: One thing that I noticed about "Traffic and Weather" is that it's sonically fuller than your previous efforts.
Adam Schlesinger: I would agree with that. I think it's kind of the best-sounding record we've done in terms of the recording and the mixing and the arrangements. I'm really happy with the way it sounds. We never really plan it out too much beforehand. I guess that's just kind of the way it turned out. We did sort of realize as we were working on it that there weren't quite as many stripped-down, acoustic kind of songs on this record. There's more going on in general. There's a few more intimate ones.
It seems like you were able to experiment a little bit more.
Well, part of the fun of making records in general is you have this song that's just you singing with an acoustic guitar or piano or something, and then hearing it kind of come to life in the studio and trying different arrangements and trying different things. That's the fun of making records.
You wrote some of the music for the movie "Music and Lyrics." What other projects did you work on in between the albums?
Ivy, the other band that I play in, had a record out in 2005, so I was working on that for awhile. I did some touring with Ivy. I did some producing. I co-produced a record for the band America with James Iha [formerly of Smashing Pumpkins]. That came out earlier this year, but we were working on it last year. Just bits and pieces of a bunch of other stuff. I like to stay busy.
What was it like to work with America?
It was great. It was a learning experience for us, because those guys have made so many records. They worked with [The Beatles' producer] George Martin for years. It was very relaxed. We had a great time. We learned a lot from those guys as well.
What did you learn from them?
Well, they really know how to focus on the essential elements of the songs--the vocals, melodies, harmonies. Their biggest songs are actually kind of minimalist, and they just have a good groove and a nice melody. They don't let too much distract from that. I think they're good at sort of keeping that big picture in mind. That's what we tried to do with that record.
James Iha and Melissa Auf Der Maur appeared on your record. How did you hook up with them?
James and I co-own a recording studio with Andy Chase, who plays in Ivy. The three of us are partners. We own this studio in Manhattan. We work together all the time in different ways. Then, Melissa, I met through James many years ago. She just happened to be in our studio working on something else, so we asked her to sing on one of our tracks.
What did James and Melissa bring to the record?
They just came in for a day or two and added a track or two. I think it's always nice to have somebody else's sound on there a little bit. I don't think, in either case, it's really the featured element. It's more just fun for us to have guests appear, to have other people in the room once in awhile.
How long did it take you to record "Traffic and Weather"?
We were working on it on and off for about a year, but mostly off. We don't really go into the studio and do a whole record. We usually go in and do one or two songs, and then we come back a month or two later and do some more. We don't work straight through.
That kind of keeps it fresh.
Yeah, and you can get really burned out trying to do it all at once. It becomes kind of like an assembly line. If you just have one or two songs that you're really excited about, you can really just focus on them from beginning to end. It's more inspiring.
One thing I noticed, especially with "Someone to Love," is its Euro-disco vibe, and there's some '80s-inspired sounds throughout the album.
It's definitely got some synthesizers that are pretty prominent. Kind of a disco-y beat, which is kind of a different thing for us.
Did that come about naturally throughout the songwriting process?
That was actually a song that I wrote music to first, which is not usually how I work. I was kind of just playing around with this melody and this chord progression, that beat, I just thought it would be something fun to try. To me, I think more of a band like Blondie, where they were basically a rock band, but at a certain point they started incorporating these dance-y kind of beats into their songs. And it worked. But they were still a rock band, you know?
Did you record this album any differently than you did 2003's "Welcome Interstate Managers"?
Not so differently. We worked in some different places on that record. We were working with different people, but the process is more or less the same.
What is the recording process with Fountains of Wayne? Do you write in the studio, on the road?
We don't write in the studio, ever. There's always a song first, then we get together and set up and play for awhile as a group and try different tempos and different feels, and usually something clicks pretty quickly. Then we just record a basic track and start building up on it from there.
It seems like it would be difficult to write in the studio.
Well, I think it depends what kind of music you make. I think, for certain kinds of music, it actually makes sense to write in the studio, especially if you're doing something very track oriented. Like, a lot of today's hits are really just written on top of a simple repeating beat and you kind of have to be in the studio to be working on that. It doesn't really make sense to be sitting at a piano doing it somewhere else. You kind of need to hear the track to even know what the vibe of the song is.
Your music is perfectly tailored for the summertime.
First of all, thanks for saying that. I think that's a compliment. We definitely have learned that it's better for us to put records out in the spring so that they're kind of happening in the summer. I think we made a mistake on our first album. It came out in the fall. I kind of feel like we're a summery band too. It's better for the records to be out in the summer.
When you wrote "Stacy's Mom" did you know it was going to be a hit?
No. I thought that it had a shot, but I've thought that about a lot of the songs that we've done, so I'm used to being disappointed. [Laughs] I thought it had as good a shot as anything else. But I couldn't have bet on it.
When you write songs for movies, do you write them differently than your own material? Is it more difficult or easier?
It's different in the sense that, usually, for a movie or something, there's a specific assignment you're trying to fill. So you're not as free to write whatever you want. You have to do something that works in the movie. But, once you have the basic idea for the song, the process is more or less the same--just trying to finish it and make it work.
Do you write songs on an acoustic guitar or piano?
It changes from song to song. More typically, I'll write on an acoustic guitar, but not always. Sometimes, I'll try to write in my head without playing an instrument at all. Sometimes, it's actually easier. You can just be walking around and hearing it and thinking of what it could feel like. You're not constrained by your habits or chords that you sort of gravitate to on the guitar.
I notice I come up with my best ideas just as I'm falling asleep.
Yeah, exactly. There's that weird period between consciousness and dreaming where you can actually be really creative. Except sometimes you accidentally fall asleep and forget what you're thinking about. [Laughs] I do that, too. That's a very creative state of mind to be in. Your mind's drifting around and making all these connections on its own. Also, when you're in that sort of dreamy state, you're less self-conscious, so you don't censor yourself the same way as when you're wide awake. You kind of let ideas jell a little bit more without shooting them down.
Are you excited about your tour?
Oh yeah, very much so. It's been awhile. We're excited. We're going to be out on the road at least through the end of the summer.
Who are you touring with?
We're doing a bunch of shows on our own in clubs. Then we're doing a bunch of festivals. We're actually doing some shows with the band Squeeze, which is going to be good. They're doing a reunion tour. There's a bunch of stuff on the horizon, too. We were big Squeeze fans.