In an era where one hit wonders have become an excuse to peddle filler-laden CDs, the Fountains of Wayne-America’s first name in power pop-are true craftsmen of song. Best known for their 2003 runaway smash “Stacy’s Mom,” which not only revived the band but also brought model Rachel Hunter back from the dead, the Fountains ensure that at least one modern band is more than the sum of one or two iPod-worthy keepers.
Steered by the songwriting team of Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, a partnership that dates back to the mid-‘80s when they befriended one another at Massachusetts’ Williams College, FoW has arguably grown into one of the cleverest guitar pop bands on the planet. The group-which also includes guitarist Jody Porter and one-time Posies drummer Brian Young-has survived by operating on the theory that one tune is as important as the next.
From its beloved, eponymous 1996 entry, to 1999’s irresistible, Long Island-inspired rock opera Utopia Parkway, and on to 2003’s heralded Welcome Interstate Managers-replete with its Office Space-like observations, the group named for a Northern New Jersey lawn ornament retailer has persevered to triumph over music business politics and self-doubt.
Now, with Out of State Plates, Collingwood and Schlesinger have put their B-sides and rarities on display. And the two disc compilation affirms to passive fans what devotees have known all along-Fountains of Wayne’s “odds n’ sods” are far better than many bands’ regular album offerings.
When this is suggested to Schlesinger, he subtly dismisses the praise by explaining the motives behind Out of State Plates. “It was a combination of fun, nostalgia and embarrassment,” he says. “The reason we really wanted to do this compilation record is that we do like a lot of these songs and we do want people to be able to hear them. But there are also a few things that are tossed off and goofy and this seems like the proper context to present them in.”
From eccentricities like the gender-bending waltz “Half of a Woman,” to the shimmering pop nugget “Small Favors,” to covers of songs by the likes of Aztec Camera and Jackson Browne (not to mention two new hook-injected songs, “The Girl I Can’t Forget” and the set’s rollicking first single, “Maureen”), Plates is as alluring as it is intentionally uneven.
When Collingwood is tracked down on a Massachusetts golf course near his adopted hometown of Northampton, he concurs. “The album may not hold up thematically like some of our others, but I still really like it.”
Collingwood, who grew up in the Philly suburbs of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, is particularly fond of his band’s version of “Killermont Street,” an Aztec Camera cover. “When I got to college, I started listening to all of the English new wave stuff,” he says. “I was a big Aztec Camera fan when I was 18. Roddy Frame was the guy who made me feel like I could try to be a musician for real, because my voice kind of sounded like his. Some music you grow in and out of, but it hasn’t happened to me yet with Aztec Camera. When I first met Chris at college, he used to sing their songs all of the time at open mic nights,” Schlesinger laughs. “He can actually sound uncannily like Roddy Frame when he wants to.”
Schlesinger, who also doubles as a member of the band Ivy, was born in New York and raised outside the city in the tree-lined community of Montclair, New Jersey. When he was three years, old his aunt gave him an arsenal of Beatles records that he fixated over for years. “Later, when I was in middle school, I started to discover Steve Miller and the Cars,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Collingwood was obsessing over Damn the Torpedoes. “Tom Petty was my hero as a kid but, like Adam, I was also really into the Cars. It’s arguable that that was good songwriting, but it just felt a lot more fun than some of the other stuff. I was a crazy freak fan of it.”
Schlesinger says he had a “voracious” appetite for music in high school and college, which gave him “an extensive knowledge of pop music and an endless supply of things to draw on.” Among the bands he loved were U.K. pop purveyors Prefab Sprout and Australia’s Go-Betweens. Simultaneously, Collingwood was discovering Echo & the Bunnymen.
“I don’t know if I would call that great songwriting either or just really good theatre,” FoW’s singer chuckles before putting his cell phone down to take a swing on the fourth hole. “Shit” he yells, picking the cell back up. “That was a terrible swing!” the blond bard laughs. “You should see how crappy I’m playing…anyway, the Bunnymen are still amazing. And we actually got a chance to open for them at this big outdoor show [sponsored by KROQ-FM] in L.A. with the Cure and Duran Duran. So I got to meet [Bunnymen singer] Ian McCulloch and he had a little bit of Keith Richards attitude going on. But it’s astonishing how good they sounded for a band whose heyday was, like, 25 years ago.”