Interview: Chris Collingwood, Fountains of Wayne

Note: Just heard that Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne died of complications from COVID-19 at a hospital in Poughkeepsie outside New York City at the age of 52. He had tested positive, and been placed on a ventilator for over a week before his death. Here is an interview I did with his chief collaborator, Chris Collingwood, back in 2007 (C.Liddell).
Collingwood (far right)

Offbeat band a hit with white-collar songs

American popular music is notoriously selective in its choice of topics. This is something that the New England power pop/alternative rock group Fountains of Wayne has tried to challenge with its quirky, humorous, and often incisive songwriting since it was founded by the two main songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood in 1995. With a new album of songs Traffic and Weather released in April this year, the band will tour Japan in October.
"I think the reason we focused on unusual topics in our songwriting, at least initially, was to get away from writing about cars and girls, these central two big themes in rock music,” Collingwood, who is also the band’s singer and guitarist, explained in a recent telephone interview. "Plenty of the songs that we really loved dealt with mundane themes or tried to point out the little idiosyncrasies of everyday life that might have gone unnoticed. The Kinks were definitely into that and Paul McCartney, of course."
Examples of their leftfield approach to songwriting on the new album include Yolanda Hayes, set in the Department of Motor Vehicles, Seatbacks and Traytables, which tackles the disorienting effect of frequent flying, and the album's title track Traffic and Weather, a song that explores the secret desires that sport, weather, and traffic reporters in a run-of-the-mill TV station might have for each other, all set to a skanky acid rock beat.

The album's first single Someone to Love takes a short-story or novelistic approach. By using echo and fader in the verse section, a sense of narrative distance is created to tell the stories of two thirty-something white-collar workers, both hard-working and lonely, who only meet at the end when one cuts in line and steals the other’s taxi. The lyrics with their telling details – "She takes the contacts out of her eyes/ sets the alarm for 6:45/ so she can get a little exercise" – create a vivid picture of the lo-fi angst of ordinary office workers living unfulfilling lives.

This staking out of a new musical territory – at least in terms of lyrics – has seen the band described as a Bruce Springsteen for office workers. It would be equally valid to call them a kind of musical Scott Adams, the creator of the bleakly humorous Dilbert cartoon strip that exposes the absurdities of office life. Rock has always been happy to celebrate the gritty lives of blue-collar workers and even the criminal class, but the petty concerns and nerdish inadequacies of office workers have been strangely neglected.

"Adam and I both had long and horrible experiences working in offices and dealing with that nine to five commute," Collingwood said. "So it's not a reality that's foreign to us."
While the group is usually happy to move out of the lyrical comfort zone of much US rock and pop, one of the standout tracks on the album takes a turn right back into it. 92 Subaru is a pastiche of the kind of road songs made famous by the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 38 Special, or Bruce Springsteen. But, instead of the usual hotrods and roadsters, it's a sensible and economic second-hand car with Greenpeace stickers bought off a couple of ladies upstate that is celebrated by the song's full throttle road rock. This creates an immensely funny as well as thrilling track.
"Actually, we did a show in New Jersey a few days ago that was sponsored by Subaru," Collingwood mentioned. "A couple of fans were asking whether we were going to play that song. We said no, because it doesn't really reflect well on Subaru, because it's about a beat up old car."
This song about a car by a band that set out to write songs that avoided mentioning 'cars and girls' typifies Fountains of Wayne's eclectic approach. This is also borne out by the music, which, in addition to the stylistic touches already mentioned, also references Beatlesque pop, country & western, and, on Strapped for Cash, ska-and-dub-inflected rock that bears an uncanny resemblance to the sound of the British group HARD-Fi.
"We made a record a few years ago called Utopia Parkway which was a very concerted effort to do something thematic," Collingwood reflected on the band's back catalogue. "With the next album, Welcome Interstate Managers, the goal was pretty much to do anything we wanted, and not rule anything out stylistically. I think the new record is just following up on that same idea, trying to not restrict ourselves."

Colin Liddell
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
3rd September, 2007
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