FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE singer-guitarist Chris Collingwood was born in 1967, which means he hadn't entered kindergarten when the '60s pop-rock that underlies the style of his band was banished by heavy metal and wimpy singer-songwriters. "I had really strict parents and they never had any money when I was growing up," he recalls by phone from his Massachusetts home. "I wasn't even allowed to buy records. I didn't really own an album until the Cars' first album and Meatloaf's `Bat Out of Hell.' Those were the first two things I was allowed to buy. Everybody had them in sixth grade, so I had to have them, too. Then after that, I kind of went nuts."
The ultimate result of that madness is two of the most melodic albums of the '90s, Fountains of Wayne's self-titled debut and the recent "Utopia Parkway," which the quartet is promoting on a month-long American tour that stops at the 9:30 club on Thursday. The 14 songs composed by Collingwood and the band's other writer, Adam Schlesinger, are brightly tuneful but tempered by satire of suburban life ("The Valley of Malls") or an empathetic view of middle-class regret ("Amity Gardens").
By the time the two musicians met, more than a decade ago at Williams College in western Massachusetts, Collingwood had become an expert on music recorded while he was still teething. "I went to an all-boys boarding school where it was really uncool to like anything new," he says. "At that point, everyone was listening to the Doors and the Beatles. The Moody Blues were huge at my school. I learned a lot about old music from going there. I actually had a much richer knowledge of '60s pop than Adam did when I first met him."
The two began playing together in college-town cover bands in 1986. "We tried to play one of our own songs every once and while, but they were so embarrassingly bad," remembers Collingwood. "And audiences just wanted us to play the Violent Femmes and the Police."
After college, Schlesinger returned to the New York area, where he joined the French-accented pop-rock band Ivy. (He was raised in northern New Jersey, not far from the garden shop that provides the band's name.) Collingwood, a Pennsylvania native, stayed in New England. Both continued to develop their songwriting craft.
"It was sort of a slow maturation, I guess, if you can call what we do `mature,' " says Collingwood. "Probably at some point we realized that it was okay to draw on our own experiences as opposed to trying to imitate the Kinks. Maybe that was a sort of breakthrough. Realizing that writing about American suburbia is just as valid. Americans are fascinated by songs about English suburbia. Maybe there are English kids somewhere thinking it's fascinating hearing about malls."
In fact, English kids have responded well to Fountains of Wayne, which toured Europe prior to this American trek. British CD buyers also still buy singles, so the band's British label has released three from "Utopia Parkway" -- the rollicking "Denise" and "Red Dragon Tattoo" and the lovely "Troubled Times" -- all with rare B-sides. "There's a lot of pressure to put non-album tracks on the singles" in Britain, Collingwood notes. "I don't mind. It's a good opportunity to put out stuff that's embarrassing and painfully bad," he chuckles.
The Kinks are an obvious antecedent of the Fountains' style, which has a narrative quality that the former says is "more folk than rock." Collingwood also cites the Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, "whose songs are so compact and so elegant. They read like short stories. Adam and I both have a lot of respect for that. There are a couple of songs I've written that are based on books. I'm a big fan of Martin Amis. But I take what's interesting me from all sorts of different things, from stand-up comedy to other people's songs."
Although the two Fountains discs are musically seamless, that's not because the band's composers, who share writing credits, work closely together. "We don't collaborate at all actually," Collingwood reveals. "We did a little bit on the first album. On this record, every song is either completely mine or completely Adam's. Since the first album, we've both built home studios. We did a bunch of demos before this record, so even the arrangements were figured out by the time we recorded."
On "Utopia Parkway," he notes, "it tended that my songs were the more serious ones. They occupy the middle of the album. The mood noticeably dips in the middle," the site of "Troubled Times," "Amity Gardens" and "A Fine Day for a Parade," which Collingwood says are all his.
"I think I was a little panicky after the first record as being perceived as a novelty band," he explains. "So I was trying to move away from making jokes on this record. That's why my contributions are more dismal."
Despite the songwriting divide, collaboration is important to the group, which only added guitarist Jody Porter (also of Astrojet) and drummer Brian Young (formerly of the Pixies) after its first CD was finished. "The new album was definitely recorded more like a band," Collingwood says. "We had been touring with them for over a year after making the first record, and it felt like second nature when we made the new record and it sounded the way the band sounds. The progression from the first record to the second was so gradual that I didn't really notice until I went back and listened to the first album and realized it really didn't sound like a band."
That unity and consistency is another lesson Collingwood learned from the records he bought in his youth, sometimes over his father's objections. "I went to buy an album by Tom Petty, and I had only heard `Breakdown,' I guess," he says. "I remember my father yelling at me for buying a record that had 12 songs and I'd only heard one of them, so it was like a shady investment." He laughs. "That was the beginning of a long, healthy relationship with my Dad."
FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE -- Appearing Thursday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from "Utopia Parkway," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8133. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
CAPTION: Flowing from left, Brian Young, Jody Porter, Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood are Fountains of Wayne.