Fountains of Wayne: Ironic No More

Music Features Fountains of Wayne
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“They put our song in the jukebox
It was a hit with the drunk jocks
Even the guys with the dreadlocks
Sang along at the Radio Bar.”

(“Radio Bar” from Sky Full Of Holes)

A couple of years back, the prolific New York rock sophisticates Fountains of Wayne officially outlived the Wayne, N.J., lawn-ornament shop from whence they got their name. But as Chris Collingwood, who co-founded the band in 1996 with former college buddy Adam Schlesinger, tells us, they almost didn’t make it to their just released fifth official album, Sky Full Of Holes.

While their lineup has remained the same since adding Jody Porter and former Posies drummer Brian Young shortly after the eponymous debut, the band almost petered out entirely after the release of their second album, Utopia Parkway, in 1999. Schlesinger (who had written the theme song for the Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do!) pursued his other band Ivy and outside production work while Collingwood decamped to New England for his side project the Gay Potatoes. After the hiatus, the Fountains emerged in 2003, with Welcome Interstate Managers. Buoyed by the instantly hummable and Grammy-nominated “Stacy’s Mom,” FOW conquered MTV with an eye-catching video starring yummy mummy Rachel Hunter. But despite the acclaim and sales, trouble was brewing inside the band. It was two years before the stop-gap B-sides compilation, Out-of-State Plates, and then another two years before the release of Traffic And Weather, which failed to approach the heights of Interstate Managers.

But as Collingwood reveals from a Tokyo hotel during a promotional tour for Sky Full Of Holes, the real trouble began prior to writing and recording Traffic And Weather, for which he says he only contributed three songs. Then things got worse on the tour when, worn down by depression and alcohol, he had to beat a retreat and seek professional help.

“I wasn’t in a good place mentally,” he admits, “I had a psychotic break, and shortly after that I spent some time in a mental hospital back home. For the next year or so I was in recovery, with about a pound of brain pills three times a day and a more healthy diet.”

Collingwood emerged 30 pounds heavier and with a better sense of what he wanted to say with his songs. Ever since, he says he’s written fewer of the band’s “funny” songs, and surprisingly, considering the band’s seeming love for clever wordplay, admits he doesn’t much care for contemporary “ironic” music at all.

“Some music cracks me up,” he says, “Nickelback and Jewel for example—but I don’t think that’s their intention. My favorite acts, like Fleet Foxes and Ron Sexsmith, are without a trace of irony. I think that ‘Stacy’s Mom’ was both a blessing and a curse for FOW. A lot of people heard that song, but most of those people are the kind who listen to the radio and don’t get passionate about us or anyone else. As a result our typical audience is split between crazed pop enthusiasts and the suburbanites who hold up signs saying ‘HOT MOM.’ I want to make records for the people who get the whole picture.”

While the commercial fortunes of Sky Full Of Holes are yet to be determined, it’s the band’s best album since Welcome Interstate Managers.

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Get a load of the light in the trees
And the sweet decay on the maritime breeze
The sun’s hitching on a weather balloon
And the heat off the tarmac
Burning a hole in a gold afternoon.

(“A Dip In The Ocean,” from Sky Full of Holes)

They seem like a good team: Collingwood’s flair for wistful, quasi-literary turns of phrase places him as an American Ray Davies, and Schlesinger has an ear for comic wordplay and hook-filled arrangements. But Collingwood says the two have rarely written together at all.

“I’ve tried to do co-writes at several points in the last 10 years,” he says, “but I’ve never understood how to do it, even with people whose musical instincts I trust. Maybe it’s because I can’t convey the idea in my head, or maybe because I can’t surrender a piece of it to someone else’s imagination. I’m baffled by cases where people split up the words and music and it works, like Difford and Tilbrook, or Elton and Bernie. Adam and I both write songs, and we don’t live in the same city anymore. This time around, neither one of us knew what the other was up to until we were ready to go in. I can tell you a little about my state of mind, though.”

Collingwood’s state of mind is evident on “Cemetery Guns,”, which contains the title of the album: “Cemetery Guns go bang bang bang / Shooting all the sky full of holes.” The song came to him after a foreign journalist asked if the American band ever felt compelled, in light of Iraq and Afghanistan, to “address the serious shit in the world.”

“I thought about it for a minute, and what was I supposed to say? No, we only write about hot moms and bikers? [It] was like a light bulb over my head—that the band is a natural extension of my personality, and Adam’s, and why the hell shouldn’t I write about the things that move me? Incidentally, I went to a military funeral for the first time in my life last year, and for the first time witnessed the contemplation of bleak, cold impermanence meeting the pomp and pageantry of the military process. It made for quite a surreal afternoon.”

But Sky Full Of Holes isn’t all downbeat. There are plenty of fun songs like “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart,” “Richie And Ruben,” and “Radio Bar”—any of which deserve a place on your party-ready Spotify playlist. His demons hopefully behind him, or at least out where he can see them, Collingwood is upbeat about the band’s future.

“Each record is a picture of what’s going on in our lives at the time. Usually after we put a record out I start retracing the steps and wishing I had done one or another thing completely differently. This time around I don’t find myself doing that; maybe that means that my contributions to the album feel more honest to me.”

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