washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Music

Songwriter Schlesinger: His Expertise Is Catchy

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page N01


Dark, twisted, tortured to the point of bug-eyed madness: Adam Schlesinger, we are sorry to inform, is none of those things.

Unlike other masters of pure pop beauty (Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, Michael Jackson, Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, even the Beatles), Schlesinger appears to be as nonbonkers as the dude in the cubicle next to you. He considers his gift for churning out Skittles-sweet hooks and melodic goodness -- flawless songs that often address his fear of working in the cubicle next to you -- nothing more than a very cool way to pay the bills.

Schlesinger has written songs for films, TV and is working on music for a stage version of John Waters's "Cry-Baby." (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

"I sort of wish I was one of those writers who carry around a notebook and tape recorder at all times," apologizes the 37-year-old member of not one but two bands responsible for some of today's prettiest pop music: Fountains of Wayne, those smart-aleck bards of the office park who will issue a B-sides collection just in time for summer, and the fever-dreaming trio Ivy, who last month released the reliably gauzy album "In the Clear."

Sitting in Stratosphere Sound, the midtown Manhattan recording studio he owns with Ivy's Andy Chase and former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, Schlesinger adds: "The truth is that I don't work any harder than anyone else in the world. I don't work 18-hour days. I don't stay up until 4 in the morning trying to finish a line. I'm just like anybody else: I have stuff to do in the day, whether that's writing a song or recording a song. I try to treat everything I do as just work."

What a letdown. This is the man who wrote the subtly sordid Fountains smash "Stacy's Mom," a wink-wink bit of bubblegum that managed to beat Britney, Madonna and Santana to the top of the charts in the fall of 2003. At the very least, we had hoped to find him huddled in a corner, muttering snippets of radio-ready magic to himself.

"Sorry," he says with a shrug and a smile.

Schlesinger, who lives just a few blocks away from Stratosphere with his wife and daughter, has stretched his workday to its limits lately. As well as promoting one album -- Ivy will play the Black Cat on April 29 -- and whipping up some new tracks for the Fountains' B-sides collection, he's writing the music for a Broadway version of the 1990 John Waters cult film "Cry-Baby." (Emmy-winning "Daily Show" writer David Javerbaum is in charge of the lyrics.) He's been involved in two recent movie soundtracks: With buddy Iha, he recorded a cover of Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash" for "Because of Winn-Dixie," and he penned a Fountains of Wayne song, the corporate-speak tweak "Tell Me What You Already Did," for the animated flick "Robots."

And in March, Fountains of Wayne appeared as the Hollies, singing "Bus Stop," on the NBC drama "American Dreams."

"It's always been my philosophy to keep a lot of balls in the air," says Schlesinger. "With music, most things don't pan out, so you try to increase your odds by being involved with a million things at once."

When interviewing Schlesinger -- messy dark hair, slightly sunken eyes, fidgety hands (at least he looks a bit damaged) -- you find yourself talking a whole lot more than he does. He's an adept listener, a chameleon with a shrinklike talent for getting inside and understanding others. Although he plays a slew of instruments for both bands and has a likable voice perfect for harmonizing, he has no interest in the spotlight. He does enjoy being onstage -- just not near the front of the stage. ("I'm not comfortable as a lead singer. Maybe I could do it in the studio, but I wouldn't have the confidence to play shows.")

Instead, he writes solely for others, mainly Ivy lead singer Dominique Durand, a French chanteuse with breathy phrasing and an aloof album persona; and Chris Collingwood, the Fountains' frontman with the nasal delivery and a wicked dark side. Durand and Chase, who are married and have two children, also take songwriting credits for Ivy.

Collingwood is responsible for writing several of the Fountains' best tunes, including "Radiation Vibe," a hit from the band's 1996 self-titled debut album, and the heart-shredding ballad "Troubled Times," from their 1999 masterpiece "Utopia Parkway." Still, all agree that their bands would be lost without Schlesinger's songwriting, his producing, his tinkering, his perfectionist ear for pop deliciousness.

"Every song that he writes, there are going to be no holes," says Chase. "He's incapable of writing something shoddy."

When an Ivy cut is stretching out too long, perhaps getting a bit too lush and lost, "Adam can dive in and fix the things that aren't working" without fundamentally altering the song, Chase adds. "It'll still be quirky, but it will be a well-crafted pop song, too. That's the beauty of working with Adam Schlesinger."

From Ivy to Fountains of Wayne is a constant about-face for Schlesinger. Think of the bands this way: The schlubs in Fountains of Wayne songs -- always getting dumped, fired, stuck on the Tappan Zee Bridge, redirected back to the 'burbs to wage war with the mundanities of life -- would never have a shot at dating the heroines in Ivy songs: beautiful, breakable, serious women. (Oddly enough, the Farrelly brothers have used Ivy songs in several of their gross-out movies, including "There's Something About Mary" and "Shallow Hal.")

Fountains songs are usually linear, have a narrative, make you laugh. They are the sounds of '60s jukebox rock strained through an indie kid's modern-day cynicism. Ivy songs are about bittersweet nothings, layers and layers of lazy guitar and piano: the perfect soundtrack for sacking out or waking up.

"He's such a versatile artist that he's able to write very specifically for somebody," says Collingwood, 37, who's known Schlesinger ever since they were freshmen together at Williams College in Massachusetts in 1985. After graduating, the two men decided to start a band, briefly flirting with the names Are You My Mother? and Three Men Who When Standing Side by Side Have a Wingspan of Over 12 Feet.

Whereas Ivy is a more collaborative effort, Fountains is about two "ego freaks," says Collingwood. Fountains songs are credited to both Schlesinger and Coillingwood, but the truth is that the men write songs separately, collaborating very little these days. If you had to break down who does what, he adds, "Adam is more of the punch-line guy" while Collingwood writes more of the group's woe-is-me love songs. (A sample Collingwood lyric: "It may be the whiskey talking, but the whiskey says I miss you every day." A sample Schlesinger lyric: "I used to fly for United Airlines, then I got fired for reading High Times.")

With Fountains, which also features guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young, "most people can't figure out which song is mine and which is his, and I think that's sort of intentional," says Schlesinger, adding that he rarely collaborates on songs with Collingwood these days. "We both write for the band as opposed to for ourselves, and we both have an idea of what the band is. Plus Chris sings everything, so it gives it all a certain sound."

Whatever Schlesinger writes, it's usually catchy enough to stick in your head, and still be swirling around in there when you're showering the next morning.

Case in point: In 1996, he penned the title song for "That Thing You Do" -- basically the only thing anyone remembers from the Tom Hanks-directed movie about an Erie, Pa., band in 1964 hoping to become the American Fab Four. "They wanted it to sound like an American band imitating the Beatles," he says, laughing, about the Oscar-nominated song, "and I thought that was something I could certainly do."

Indeed: Raised by musichead parents in Montclair, N.J. -- not far from a kitschy lawn-ornament store called Fountains of Wayne -- Schlesinger was "given all the Beatles records when I was 3 by my dad's sister. I didn't understand that there were other music groups for a long time. Literally, until I was 10, my records were just Beatles records . . . and maybe 'Free to Be You and Me.' "

"The thing that I liked about the Beatles," he says, "is they could write a song about anything and make it work. No subject matter was off-limits. There are songs that don't make any sense at all, just phrases, nonsense."

Take the Fountains song "Halley's Waitress," for instance, a classic example of Schlesinger's offbeat humor and ability to turn what should be a novelty song into something much richer. The track, from the Fountains' 2003 album "Welcome Interstate Managers," is essentially about a crummy restaurant experience -- "She's hiding in the kitchen / She's nowhere to be found / I just want some coffee / Is that too much to ask" -- but Schlesinger sets it in a sad, somber framework.

"It started as an inside joke on tour, sitting around waiting for bad service," Schlesinger says. "Chris always made fun of me on the road for being the impatient New Yorker. We'd be in Nebraska, and I'd be like, 'What the hell is going on? This place would never make it in New York!' So I started playing with it against this wistful piano music, and it gives the song this weird melancholy that isn't there in the lyric."

And so on: "Stacy's Mom" ("the catchiest thing I've ever written," he says) is from the viewpoint of a pipsqueak high schooler longing for a gal-pal's parent, who's "got it going on"; the soaring Beach Boys-inspired counterharmonies, however, give the song an adolescent longing that belies its lustful surface. The swelling ballad "All Kinds of Time" is about a quarterback dropping into the pocket during a game and reflecting on his life; it's a heart-tugger that the NFL used in commercials for the league.

(Oh, and would people please stop calling Fountains a New Jersey band? "That's the biggest misconception about us," Schlesinger laughs. "No one in the band actually lives in New Jersey.")

With apologies to Durand, Collingwood is an ideal mouthpiece for Schlesinger. Adam can write a wicked punch line about life's cruel ironies -- but only the darkly comic Chris can deliver it with the right mix of heart and heartsickness. "Apart from the fact you're a teenager and miserable, I had a pretty good time at high school," Schlesinger says about his younger years. Collingwood, on the other hand, despised high school. "I went to a meathead school, an all-boys boarding school," he sighs. "You can't be a smart guy at a meathead school."

Collingwood, on the phone from his home in Northampton, Mass., then segues into an utterly bizarre story about being left outside as an infant and having a nose-diving small plane barely miss him, crash into the house next door, and "cut up a neighbor woman to bits. My mother says she was pulling this woman's fingers out of our garden."


"Chris and I both did a lot of temping during our early days out of college," Schlesinger says of the unique bond with his band mate. "I think a lot of Fountains songs about the workplace come from that period. I did some temping where I was transcribing a biotechnology litigation seminar. I had the headphones on, the foot control, the whole deal. Eight hours of listening to lawyers mutter. Chris was temp of the month twice in Boston, and he still has the plaque."

In 1994, however, they went their separate ways. Collingwood stayed in Boston; Schlesinger moved to New York, where he soon met Durand and Chase. Collingwood would eventually move down to New York, too, and things took off from there.

Ivy and Fountains of Wayne recorded their first albums for Atlantic Records within a year of each other -- 1995 and 1996, respectively -- commencing Schlesinger's decade-long ping-pong.

With an upcoming tour and an album that Chase says was "inspiring" to make, Ivy is on solid creative ground. Fountains, however, is a more iffy situation. Collingwood claims to still be "burned out" from the touring behind "Welcome Interstate Managers."

"I was happy in my personal life, and that was the problem. I wanted to be home," he says, adding he's not sure when an album of new Fountains songs will come out.

"Between me and Chris, he's definitely always the negative one, and I'm the positive one," Schlesinger explains. "I'll always be, 'This is great,' and he'll be, 'This sucks. We're wasting our time.' That's sort of like the yin and yang of the band."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company