As a personal ad, it might read: "Acclaimed rock band, dropped by major label lost in corporate shortsightedness, seeks haven with small indie start-up, preferably staffed by like-minded refugees from major-label downsizing. Not yet desperate, but could fake it."
That's the situation for Fountains of Wayne, who made two critically acclaimed albums for Atlantic but were dropped soon after the release of 1999's "Utopia Parkway," which ended up on many critics' year-end top-10 lists but never broke into Billboard's Top 100. Now they're at S-Curve, a new label started by Steve Greenberg, former vice president and head of A&R at Mercury Records. FOW were brought to S-Curve by Steve Yegelwel, the A&R man who originally signed them to Atlantic. The band's new album, "Welcome Interstate Managers," could just as well have been titled "Welcome Displaced Music Lovers."
"The people at S-Curve, and a lot of the people who work in the music business in general, seem to be genuine music fans," says Adam Schlesinger, FOW's bassist and co-songwriter/producer. "I think there's a lot of people who want to be involved with records first and foremost because they like records and they like bands. Unfortunately, there's a lot of other factors involved in the record business."
Schlesinger and his longtime partner, singer-guitarist Chris Collingwood, probably learned this when they first teamed up at Williams College in the late '80s, bonding over a common affection for melodic, Beatlesesque power pop. They should have suspected something was amiss when their first album, recorded under the name Pinnwheel, was blocked from release by a legal battle over the band name. The two ended up going their separate ways, with Schlesinger founding New York-based indie-pop band Ivy and Collingwood winding up in Boston with Mercy Buckets, a country band. They eventually reunited in 1996 as Fountains of Wayne; the name derived from a landmark fountain and lawn ornament store in New Jersey that crops up regularly on HBO's "The Sopranos."
Schlesinger and Collingwood recorded their eponymous debut for Atlantic in 1996, later adding ex-Posies drummer Brian Young and Belltower guitarist Jody Porter. Things started promisingly as the album's first two tracks, "Radiation Vibe" and "Sink to the Bottom," got enough college airplay to warrant promotional videos. But no amount of critical support could ignite sales of either "Fountains of Wayne" or "Utopia Parkway," and Atlantic dropped the band.
"We had some success at radio, but not on the level of a Matchbox Twenty or Kid Rock, which were the acts keeping Atlantic Records afloat during that period," Schlesinger says. "It's funny, with this album there's been a couple of stories painting this real dire picture, and to be honest, we don't really feel like we had it so terrible. Sure, we wish that we had sold millions of records, but compared to the experiences some of my friends have had with record labels -- having their records just completely shelved or killed after two weeks -- we actually feel like we had an all right experience this far. We did get to put out two records that sounded exactly the way we wanted them to sound. . . . We never had any creative meddling from anyone. . . . We got to tour extensively behind both records. . . . We got to make some videos and all that stuff. So in the grand scheme of things, it really hasn't been the level of fiasco that is possible."
Part of the problem may have been the stylistic mantle FOW was saddled with -- power pop -- in a era dominated by grunge and gangsta rap.
"It was definitely a double-edged sword," Schlesinger says, adding "we never identified ourselves as power pop. We thought of ourselves as a rock band, and I guess just by nature of the way we wrote, it turned out as what some people would call power pop. But I think power pop has a negative connotation as well, sort of trying to rewrite something that's already been written a million times before and just doing it over and over in the same exact way, endlessly rehashing some fictitious golden era.
"We certainly don't set out with that as our goal," he insists. "We just try to write songs that we like and we like melody, so we focus more on melody than, say, guitar riffs. We feel like the music we're making is current pop or rock; we're not sitting around reminiscing about bygone days."
Which may explain the wider parameters of the new record.
"Your first record is something of a statement of purpose, the most basic version of what you do," Schlesinger says. "We wanted to make a more varied record than we'd ever made, which is a natural progression for a band."
There's still plenty of bright "power pop" on tracks such as the debut single, the nicely naughty "Stacy's Mom," plus "Little Red Light" and the Beach Boys-inspired "Halley's Waitress" (who doesn't come around quite often enough to refill that empty coffee cup). But there's a straight-ahead country track, "Hung Up on You" (with guest steel player Robert Randolph), the Oasis-like neo-psychedelia of "Supercollider" and a wistful ballad, "Hackensack," in which a stuck-at-home narrator recounts his unrequited crush on a classmate-turned-Hollywood starlet. ("Sometimes I wonder where you are / Probably in L.A. / That seems to be where everybody else ends up these days / I will wait for you.")
As on its previous albums, Fountains of Wayne's topical terrain is a middle-class suburbia populated by restless teens who play a little too hard while their parents are away at "Fire Island," disaffected blue-collar workers trapped in dead-end jobs ("Bright Future in Sales," "Hey Julie") and aging athletes reliving long-ago glory days in slow motion ("All Kinds of Time"). With their penchant for sensitively capturing seemingly mundane elements of everyday life and work, the group sometimes comes across as the rock equivalent of poet William Carlos Williams, the Pulitzer prize-winning poet laureate of New Jersey.
"That's a funny one, too," Schlesinger says. "Obviously the band was named after a store in New Jersey, and some of the songs are set in New Jersey, but really, the songs are about all different places. Somebody asked me once, 'So, is the whole point of your band to talk about New Jersey?' I said there's no point to our band! We don't have a mission statement; it's not like 'We will represent.' I mean, I grew up in New Jersey [Montclair], but I haven't lived there since I was 18 years old. Chris and I both lived all over the East Coast, and at this point we've traveled a lot and I think all our experiences find their way into the songs."
The long wait between "Utopia Parkway" and "Welcome Interstate Managers" was hardly dead time, particularly for Schlesinger. He received an Oscar nomination in 1997 for writing "That Thing You Do!," the title track of Tom Hanks's charming study of fictitious one-hit '60s wonders the Wonders. The song, a delectably clever pop pastiche that would likely have been a hit in that era, led to sporadic soundtrack work, including "Scary Movie" and Schlesinger's favorite, "Josie and the Pussycats," which was "another fictitious band movie. That was actually a fun project because there were a lot of really cool people involved -- Matthew Sweet and Kay Hanley from Letters to Cleo, who was the voice of Josie. And Jane Wiedlin [of the Go-Go's] wrote some stuff, so there was actually some very good music." Schlesinger's other band, Ivy, did the film score for "Shallow Hal."
Between records, Schlesinger has also become more involved in producing through Stratosphere Sounds, the New York recording studio he co-owns with ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha. There's also been some odd opportunities in television: FOW did original music for 13 episodes of "Hey Joel," a "Family Guy"-style animated sitcom spoofing society's obsession with popular culture via a "behind the scenes" expose of an egocentric VJ who hosts a tacky, wildly unsuccessful celebrity talk show. Created by Entertainment Weekly/Time magazine pop culture columnist Joel Stein, "Hey Joel" is currently airing on Bravo in Canada only, though "they tell us that it will air here sometime this year," Schlesinger says. "I'll believe it when I see it. But it was fortuitous because it helped finance the making of our new record when we were between labels. We were sort of working on our album and that show simultaneously for about a year.
"It's a strange concept, actually, and our involvement in it is stranger," he adds. "We're characters within the show but it's sort of like something Jonathan Richman did in 'There's Something About Mary,' where he just shows up in a tree and sings a song about the plot of the story. We're not actually involved in the stories, but we do two original songs specific to the show, as well as the score."
FOW also wrote the theme song for Comedy Central's "Crank Yankers," which features "prank phone calls with puppets," Schlesinger says with a laugh. "We only get involved in shows with very odd premises and that are very difficult to explain."
Much easier to explain is the new video for "Stacy's Mom," about an adolescent boy's burgeoning fantasies about a classmate's mom ("Stacy's mom has got it going on"). In the manner of Van Halen's classic "Hot for Teacher," the video gleefully tweaks that obsession, helped greatly by the fact that Stacy's mom is played by supermodel Rachel Hunter.
"We somehow convinced Rachel Hunter to star in our video, which is a very good thing," Schlesinger marvels. The video was directed by Chris Applebaum, who now directs videos for folks such as Britney Spears, Celine Dion and Mandy Moore, but got his start with FOW's "Sink to the Bottom." As for Hunter, Schlesinger says, "She was a fan, she liked the song and the band, and she thought it was a good idea, and who are we to say no? She was absolutely perfect for it, she totally got the song and did the video in the right spirit."
FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE -- Appearing Tuesday with Ben Lee at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Fountains of Wayne, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)