The name Fountains of Wayne might sound familiar for two reasons. Perhaps you remember them from the two critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful late 90’s albums, where they mixed irresistible guitar pop hooks with uncommonly witty and surprisingly sympathetic descriptions of the quietly desperate lives of various suburbanites. Or maybe you’ve seen a garden furniture store of the same name used as a cutaway to add local colour between scenes of mob violence in the HBO TV series The Sopranos. Are the management of Fountains Of Wayne, the New Jersey garden furniture store, aware of Fountains of Wayne, the resilient New Jersey rock band who stole their name?
“They know about us,” admits Adam Schlesinger, the more affable part of the classic double act he forms with his less forthcoming song-writing partner Chris Collingwood, “We actually went by there when we first started the band, and let them know what we were doing. The gardening guy was a little wary. He said something like, “Well, let’s just stay in touch throughout all of this.” And we were like – ‘What do you mean? All of what?’” Collingwood laconically continues the story; “He wanted us to come down and say hi, so we did. He said, “I just want to make sure you guys aren’t gangster rappers or something, who will give the store a bad name.” I said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re nice boys.’ Sometimes people still say to us, ‘Did you know there’s a garden store called Fountains of Wayne?’ And I say, ‘No. Never heard of it. It’s just a f***ing coincidence you f***ing moron!’”
Inevitably, the Fountains of Wayne garden furniture store has become a place of pilgrimage for Fountains Of Wayne fans, who send photos to the band of themselves posing amid the lawn chairs. But the name the band chose has, belatedly, acquired a strange relevance to the characters that inhabit their songs. Just what kind of place is Wayne? “It’s in the Tri-State area, the most populated place of the United States, full of highways and suburbs and malls.”, Schlesinger answers, and after a brief squabble with Collingwood over what exactly comprises the Tri-State Area, elaborates, “It seems now it was a really calculated idea to name our band after the Fountains of Wayne store because it was going to tie in to the vibe of our songs. But at the time we just thought it was a funny name. We didn’t put much thought into it, but we knew it wasn’t going to make sense to anyone outside that area so we’d have a bond with everyone locally and everyone else in the world would at least be curious.”
An incisive American critic has described Fountains Of Wayne songs as taking place exclusively “between exits 10-14 of the New Jersey Turnpike.” After some discussion it seems the region is most closely analogous to the wilderness of the Thames Valley Corridor, the domain of David Brent and his co-workers in the office, full of IT companies, night clubs with drinks promotions of weekday evenings, new towns and roadside retail developments. For The Fountains of Wayne, and the people they write about, there is a sense that they are one step removed from the thrills of big city existence, and that life is elsewhere. The protagonist of Hackensack dreams of the high school sweetheart who is now a movie star. Little Red Light is the interior monologue of a businessman stuck in traffic. Hey Julie depicts an office worker thinking about his girlfriend between filing and phone calls. “We often set our songs on the outskirts of cities rather than within the cities themselves,” says Schlesinger. “Both of us grew up essentially in the suburbs. I grew up outside of New York in New Jersey, Chris grew up outside of Philadelphia, but a lot of our songs are set just outside of these cities rather than within then, and that’s somewhere that a lot of Americans live, and that’s something that resonates with a lot of people. When we were in our formative musical years the big bands of the day, U2 or The Police, were writing about these grand themes and we knew that wasn’t going to work for two guys from the suburbs. So we took our inspiration from English bands like The Kinks Or The Smiths that wrote about very specific things that they knew. We didn’t know those neighbourhoods that they were describing but the details made the songs more vivid and universal.”
Collingwood uses Bright Future In Sales, a song from the new Welcomes Interstate Managers album, as an example of their constituency. It sounds like it should be about hot-rods or surfing, but in fact describes the daily struggles of a commercial traveller. “When we write about that guy we’re not thinking ‘poor schumuck’. It’s just a funny little story. Some people said, ‘Why are you writing about somebody who has a horrible life and is really unhappy?’ The answer is it that, to us, it wouldn’t make a good album if all the songs were ‘Whooopeee! Life is great!’ There’s nothing interesting about that.” “People don’t sometimes realise that we don’t see ourselves as so far removed from these characters in a lot of cases,” adds Schlesinger, “There title track of our last album, Utopia Parkway, was about this guy that is getting a bit too old to be trying to be in a rock band but he’s still running around town putting his fliers up. Well, that’s us. We’re not making fun of someone else. That’s pretty much our life. And when people say why do you always write about these business travellers and so forth, well that’s our life too. Basically, we are business travellers and we spend most of our time in airports or on buses and commuting.”
After the commercial failure of their second album, time was very nearly called on the duo’s adolescent rock ambitions. The band made a strong start, and Schlesinger supplied the Oscar nominated theme to the Tom Hanks comedy That Thing You Do. Their eponymous 1996 debut had seen the pair create a set of classic power pop songs, offsetting fuzzy punk guitars with subversively tuneful melodies. Interviewed for this paper at the time Collingwood reacted resentfully to the suggestion that the band were academic rock nerds, studiously decoding the Rosetta Stone of classic American guitar pop with pointers from Big Star, The Posies and various early 80’s skinny tie sporting songwriters. “It’s not like I sit at home all day studying obscure Shoes b-sides.”, he sniped, understandably. 1999’s Utopia Parkway created a colder atmosphere, and new recruits Jody Portter on guitar and The Posies drummer Brian Young helped sustain a more melancholy mood. But despite mass critical approval, the band were dropped by Atlantic records three years ago.
Schlesinger is philosophical. “We realised that music was first and foremost a business and despite the fact that we had a lot of fans in positions of power at a lot of labels, and a lot of people really rooted for us, nobody could actually stick their necks out without hearing something that sounded like a hit. Everyone said the same thing. ‘I love Fountains of Wayne but do you have any demos?’ And we felt at this stage in our career it was demeaning to talk of demos. And not only that, but we also hadn’t written any new songs anyway so it was sort of a moot point. So we just kind of retreated and said let’s take our timer and make a record and one way or another we’ll figure out a way to get it put there.’ Virgin released the results, and, just when it was least expected, Fountains of Wayne gave found themselves with a weird Grammy nomination for Best New Artist and a massive American hit single, Stacy’s Mom.
Stacy’s Mom, released here next month, finds a sensitive subtext to a young boy’s crush on his best friend’s mother, and does it over an undeniably radio-friendly tune, once heard, never forgotten. Collingwood is comically dismissive of the reasons behind the song’s success. “It’s because Rachael Hunter is in the video,” he deadpans, “that’s a big factor.” “That’s two big factors.”, adds Schlesinger, and immediately asks to have his impetuous and off colour comment struck from the record. Inevitably, their sudden popularity at home has given them some anxieties. “Fountains Of Wayne fans of years back can put that single in contest of what the band do in general,” Schlesinger frets, “but there’s a whole load of people who just hear Stacy’s Mom on the radio and if they go buy the record thinking there’s going to be ten Stacy’s Mom’s … well, hopefully they’ll play the record and be pleasantly surprised. But we’re proud of the song. I guess the way I look at it is the fact that we’ve been around for eight years means we have some insurance against being perceived as a One Hit Wonder. The Best New Artist Grammy nomination is certainly ironic. But we’ll take it. Better to be best new artist than most washed up artist. It’s a new lease of life.”