With a hefty resume that includes film credits, production work, Broadway scores and two critically lauded bands, Adam Schlesinger is power pop’s own Renaissance Man. The songwriter first rose to prominence in the mid-‘90s, when he penned the Grammy-winning title song to Tom Hanks’ “That Thing You Do!” while splitting his time between Ivy and Fountains of Wayne. The flair for multitasking continued into the following decade, where Schlesinger widened his expertise by penning tunes for the theatrical adaptation of John Waters' Cry-Baby, writing music for the Jonas Brothers, and producing Dashboard Confessional’s upcoming album. When Paste caught up with Schlesinger on a recent weekday morning, he cradled the phone in one hand while twiddling knobs in his recording studio with the other.
: Good morning.
Schlesinger: Hey! Hold on a minute. (noise in the background) Okay, sorry.
Paste: What were you playing there?
Schlesinger: I was just editing something.
Paste: Do you work in the morning a lot?
Schlesinger: I kinda do, actually. I like to come in and get going at 10:30 or 11, while my brain is still operating.
Paste: You’re a morning person.
Schlesinger: I kinda have no choice because I’ve got two kids. They’re usually up by 7, whether I am or not.
Paste: Are you in your recording studio [Stratosphere Sound] right now?
Schlesinger: Yeah. I’ve been working on a Christmas special for Stephen Colbert in the past few weeks. I’m working with David Javerbaum, who I just worked on this musical with, so we’re doing a bunch of Christmas songs for The Colbert Report. Which should be funny… I hope.
Paste: You worked with Javerbaum on the Cry-Baby musical?
Paste: Who initiated that collaboration?
Schlesinger: I got a call out of the blue from the producers of the show about four and a half years ago, and they heard my name from another composer. They asked if I wanted to submit a demo for it. I asked if they were interested in anybody else at that point, and they said there was this guy from The Daily Show named David Javerbaum that they liked a lot. So rather than try to beat him out of the job, I suggested working together.
Paste: You’ve never done a Broadway musical before. What was it like working with a new style of music?
Schlesinger: It was fun. It was a long process, and parts of it were actually really frustrating. Overall, I really enjoyed working with David Javerbaum and a number of people involved with the show, especially John Waters and the guys who wrote the book.
Paste: Did you learn any grand lessons from the project?
Schlesinger: Well, I think that world is very collaborative. You have to learn to work with lots of people at the same time because every single change you make in the show involves every single department. It involves choreography, lighting and sets, so you’re not really working in a vacuum. I mean, you can write songs the same way you always write songs, but then you have to be prepared to cut and change things to accommodate everything else that’s going on.
Paste: You’ve also done some work for movies, specifically That Thing You Do! and Music and Lyrics. Is there a dream movie project you’d like to be involved with?
Schlesinger: I don’t know if there’s a particular project, but one movie that I was really disappointed I didn’t get to work on was Judd Apatow’s Walk Hard
. A bunch of my friends worked on it, but I didn’t get the call for whatever reason. I was really disappointed because that’s the kind of stuff I love doing: parodies of different genres. But the people that wrote for that movie did a really great job—Mike Viola, Marshall Crenshaw, and a bunch of others—so I can’t say they were lacking my help.
Paste: Getting back to Fountains of Wayne, what was Chris Collingwood like in college?
Schlesinger: Ha! We went to a pretty small school, and there weren’t many people who were interested in music at all. So all the people who were into music got to know each other pretty quickly. He and I were probably pretty similar back then; we just wanted to write songs, play music, and weren’t super interested in the classes we were taking.
Paste: Were both of you playing in bands at that point?
Schlesinger: I played in a cover band; Chris was just playing by himself. We started writing songs and kinda had a band in college, but we never really settled on a name. We used to change it every time we played. That way, if we sucked, nobody could remember who it was the next time.
Paste: What were some of the names?
: We were called Three Men Who, When Standing Side by Side, Have a Wingspan of Over Twelve Feet. We had that name for a week or so. We were also called Are You My Mother? for awhile. We went through a lot of really dumb band names—almost as dumb as Fountains of Wayne.
Paste: I actually like that name.
Schlesinger: I like it, too, but I think I’m just used to it.
Paste: When I saw that band for the first time, you were opening for the Smashing Pumpkins in 1997. You’ve worked with James Iha for a long time; did you meet him on the tour?
Schlesinger: I’d gotten to know James a couple of years before that. One of my old friends married the sister of D’arcy Wretzky, so I became friends with D’arcy through that connection and became friends with James through knowing her. James was really helpful in getting Fountains of Wayne off the ground, and the band offered us that tour. We also started our label together, Scratchie, around that time.
Paste: What’s currently on the plate at Scratchie?
Schlesinger: Nothing right now, because New Line has been funding Scratchie for the past couple of years and now they’re in limbo. Warner Bros. kinda took over New Line, and now we’re waiting to find out what that means for us. Everything’s on hold until that gets settled.
Paste: In the meantime, is there a new Fountains of Wayne record in the works?
Schlesinger: Yeah, I’m writing for it right now, and I think Chris is doing the same. We’re hoping to get into a studio this fall.
Paste: How are the songs shaping up?
Schlesinger: It’s too early to say, really. I just have a lot of half-baked ideas right now.
Paste: You could always write one about a music journalist. You haven’t done that yet.
Schlesinger: A song about a music journalist?
Schlesinger: Well, that’s an idea. I’ll see what I can do for you.
Paste: We haven’t heard from Ivy in awhile, either.
Schlesinger: We have an Ivy record that’s about halfway done, and we’re just continuing to work on it whenever we have the time. It probably won’t be out this year, but we’re hoping to have it out early next year.
Paste: Are you still in the studio with Chris Carrabba, working on the new Dashboard album?
Schlesinger: That record’s done, actually! We just mastered it.
Paste: What kind of record is it? A pop-based album like the last one?
Schlesinger: Well, his last one was great. This one is pretty diverse, but it’s got a lot of somewhat poppier stuff on it. Some of it is straight-ahead power-pop, while other stuff is more acoustic and intimate. He wrote a really great batch of songs, so we had a lot of good things to choose from. We worked really quickly; I think the record has a really nice spontaneity to it.
Paste: Were you co-writing with him at all, or were you only doing production?
Schlesinger: I think my role was to pick and arrange material. We worked on the songs a lot and tried different things out, but he did all the writing.
Paste: When you’re working with an artist, whether it’s the Jonas Brothers or America, what are some important rules to remember?
Schlesinger: I think the most important thing to remember is that it’s their record, not yours. You have to listen to them talk about the kind of record they’re excited to make. Your job as a producer is to make suggestions without putting your ego in front of everything else. Also, I think you want to focus on that artist’s best qualities and really highlight them. In the case of Dashboard, he has a really strong lyrical perspective and writes great melodies, so you just want to highlight that stuff and not obscure it with anything else.
Paste: Do you just call up these musicians and offer your help, or do they come to you?
Schlesinger: Most of the jobs I’ve gotten are from people calling me. I don’t actively solicit a lot of work like that, but maybe I should. In the case of America, it was slightly different because that grew out of a friendship with Gerry Beckley. We’d been e-mailing each other for awhile, and then we talked about doing some co-writing, and then the co-writing led to recording. Then James [Iha] got involved with it, too, and it evolved very organically into an entire album.
Paste: So what’s your focus right now: production or composition?
Schlesinger: I still feel like playing in my two bands is my real focus; all the other stuff is something I’ll do if I have the time. I’ve always seen my own songs and my own bands as the center of what I’m working on. But there are some things that you just don’t want to turn down, even if you’re busy. That’s what happened with the Dashboard album, since I wasn’t really interested in producing an album this spring; I wanted to work on stuff for Fountains. But when Chris Carrabba called me, I really wanted to do it and ended up clearing out some time to make it happen.
Paste: Now that the Dashboard record is done, I’m keeping my eyes peeled for a new Fountains of Wayne album.
Schlesinger: I really appreciate it, and we’ll try to get that record going before too long. We won’t take another four years for this one if we can help it.