'Fresh Air' Remembers Fountains Of Wayne Co-Founder Adam Schlesinger
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to continue our remembrance of some musicians we lost this week to COVID-19. Adam Schlesinger was 52 when he died Wednesday. As Stephen Thompson of NPR Music wrote, Schlesinger's work spread joy and kindhearted humor. He co-founded the band Fountains of Wayne, was nominated for an Oscar for writing the title song for Tom Hanks' film "That Thing You Do!," wrote songs for the Drew Barrymore-Hugh Grant rom-com "Music And Lyrics" and won three Emmys for his songs for the TV series "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend."
He also co-wrote a song that I think is one of the best Tony Award ceremony moments ever. It was in 2011, when Neil Patrick Harris hosted. Here's Harris performing that song. It's a tribute to Broadway called "It's Not Just For Gays Anymore."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "65TH TONY AWARDS")
NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (Singing) If you feel like someone that this world excludes, it's no longer only for dudes who like dudes. Attention every breeder, you're invited to the theater. It's not just for gays anymore. The glamour of Broadway is beckoning straights, the people who marry in all 50 states. We're asking every hetero to get to know us better-o (ph). It's not just for gays anymore. It's for fine, upstanding Christians who know all the songs from "Grease." It's for sober-minded businessmen who yearn for some release.
So put down your Playboy and go make a plan to pick up a playbill and feel like a man. There's so much to discover with your different-gendered lover. It's not just for gays, the gays and the Jews, and cousins in from out of town you have to amuse and the sad, embittered malcontents who write the reviews and also foreign tourists and the groups of senior citizens and well-to-do suburbanites and liberal intellectuals - though that group is really only Jews and homosexuals. I've lost my train of thought. Oh, yes, it's not just for gays anymore.
GROSS: That was Neil Patrick Harris hosting the Tonys in 2011, singing a song co-written by Adam Schlesinger and D.J. Javerbaum, a former head writer for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
In 1999, I spoke with Schlesinger and his partner in the band Fountains of Wayne, Chris Collingwood. We started with the title track of the album they just released, "Utopia Parkway."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UTOPIA PARKWAY")
FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: (Singing) Well, I've been saving for a custom van, and I've been playing in a cover band. And my baby doesn't understand why I never turned from boy to man. I got it made. I got it down. I am the king of this island town. I'm on my own. I'm on my way down Utopia - Utopia - Utopia Parkway.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Chris Collingwood, Adam Schlesinger, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ADAM SCHLESINGER: Thanks for having us.
GROSS: What's the story behind this song?
SCHLESINGER: The song is about a guy who's playing in a cover band, and he's sort of a little bit too old to be playing in a rock band but can't quite give up the dream of it. And it was kind of making fun of myself, you know, the absurdity of what we do, in a way. But, you know, he's just - he's talking about the idea that he's going to take over the town. He's going to make it into New York and conquer the big city.
GROSS: Before you guys actually succeeded as a band, did you think that you were going to be in this perpetual state of adolescence and never quite making it as a band but being stuck in that place?
SCHLESINGER: You know, it's so hard to say, did you ever think that you'd be stuck in perpetual adolescence? (Laughter). It's like, being in a rock band, it's almost something we can't help, you know? You try to be an adult about it, but it is sort of a ridiculous thing to be doing. And I think we actually write about a lot of adolescent and sort of teenage scenarios and things, but for us, it's almost more because it's what's traditionally done with the form, and we're really interested in, you know, the form of pop songs. And I'd rather write about a high school prom or something than write about a midlife crisis, you know?
CHRIS COLLINGWOOD: Paying my taxes.
SCHLESINGER: Yeah, exactly. (Singing) Well, it's tax time again.
SCHLESINGER: (Singing) It's that time of year.
GROSS: That song is from your new CD, and I'm wondering if you think that you've headed in a new direction on the new CD from the first one.
SCHLESINGER: For us, it's not really a new direction; it's actually more of an old direction because we played in a series of bands together before we even started Fountains of Wayne. I mean, we've been playing together in one form or another since we were 18. And the stuff that we did originally was more kind of - I don't know how to describe it - I mean, less rock and more pop, maybe, you know? And I think that's where this record has gone. So in a weird way, it feels like kind of back to our roots.
I mean, when we made our first album, we went into a studio with a Marshall amplifier and just made a lot of noise. And we had never really recorded anything like that before. So to us, you know, it was like this big rock extravaganza, although it probably doesn't sound like that to your average teenager; it probably sounds like a wimpy pop band. But on this record, we wanted to have, you know, different kinds of textures on the record - some subtler stuff, some slightly more introspective stuff mixed in with the kind of jokey, fun, loud stuff.
GROSS: Well, don't sell that first album short. I really like it. And...
SCHLESINGER: Oh, I don't mean it that way. I mean, you know, the first album was just - it was written in about a week. It was recorded in about another week. And it was just this kind of blast of energy. And I think it's great. I think it's a - you know, it's the perfect way to approach a first record, just have a good time and, you know, create this kind of blueprint for yourself. But we wanted to try to expand on that a little bit and not just do the same thing again.
GROSS: When that record came out, when your first record came out, rock critic Robert Christgau said that he thinks you sing the kind of words every shy guy who didn't get the girl thinks of.
GROSS: And I think a good illustration of that point is the song "Leave The Biker," which is a really catchy song. Why don't we play that?
SCHLESINGER: All right.
GROSS: This is "Leave The Biker" from the first Fountains of Wayne CD.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVE THE BIKER")
FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: (Singing) Seems the further from town I go, the more I hate this place. He's got leather and big tattoos, scars all over his face. And I wonder if ever has cried 'cause he couldn't get a date for the prom. He's got his arm around every man's dream. The crumbs in his beard from the seafood special. Oh, can't you see my world is falling apart? Baby, please, leave the biker - leave the biker. Break his heart. Baby, please, leave the biker - leave the biker. Break his heart.
GROSS: That's from the first Fountains of Wayne CD. Do you think Robert Christgau was onto something? Do you think of yourselves as former shy guys who didn't get the girl?
COLLINGWOOD: (Laughter) I think there's a lot made out of that, actually. And it's funny because...
GROSS: Too much, you mean?
COLLINGWOOD: Well, I think that if people are really eager to call you geek rock or whatever, it sort of lumps you into this convenient category which ignores the subtler aspects of some of the songwriting, which...
SCHLESINGER: Not that that's the most subtle song that we've ever put out, but - (laughter).
COLLINGWOOD: Right. And - you know, I mean, to some degree, it might have been a mistake to put that song on the record because I'd hate to sort of go down in history as this joke songwriter.
GROSS: Oh, but it's catchy. I don't think - I think it's a good song.
SCHLESINGER: No, it is. And, I mean, I think the thing is that, you know, obviously, that song's supposed to be fun. And a lot of them are. But at the same time, you know, people, especially in America - I think more so even than in Europe - assume that any voice that you have in a song is you confessing, you know, your inner thoughts. And the idea of writing from, like, the perspective of a character or something is a little bit confusing to people.
So a lot of times, there's songs written that are not literally supposed to be us speaking our minds. And that sometimes gets missed.
GROSS: Well, there's nice lines in the song, like the line about the guy having crumbs in his beard from the seafood special.
SCHLESINGER: I think the main thing with that whole sort of geeky sort of tag or whatever is that neither of us would be comfortable writing a song that had a really kind of macho, aggressive pose to it. It definitely does come more naturally to us to write from, like, a weaker perspective. And just - maybe it's just because it makes the song more sympathetic or something.
GROSS: Well, there's that line - I wonder if he's ever cried because he couldn't get a date for the prom. And then there's a prom song on your new CD also that I think is kind of mocking that stereotyped emotion you're supposed to have on the prom. Like, this is the crowning moment of my life, and after this, I'm going to, like, have a receding hairline and...
SCHLESINGER: (Laughter) Right.
GROSS: ...You know, just work all the time, and life will be over. It's, like, the oldest cliche in the book about how you're supposed to feel on prom night.
SCHLESINGER: Yeah. I actually went to two high school proms. I went to my own, and then I went to the prom at the high school my girlfriend at the time went out on Long Island. And they were both pretty much identical, these kind of suburban proms. And even though I was only - whatever - 17 at the time, I was already too cynical to enjoy it, so I kind of ruined it for both of us.
SCHLESINGER: And she never really forgave me, you know? I think that was the beginning of the end of our relationship.
GROSS: We're remembering Adam Schlesinger, who died Wednesday of COVID-19. We're listening to the 1999 interview I recorded with Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, with whom Schlesinger co-founded the band Fountains of Wayne. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE SONG, "A ROAD SONG")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Adam Schlesinger, who died Wednesday of the coronavirus. Let's get back to my 1999 interview with him and Chris Collingwood. They co-founded the band Fountains of Wayne.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: How did you first meet? You've been playing together a long time.
COLLINGWOOD: Yeah. We met in college. We were both, I think, about 19 at the time. And we've sort of been playing steadily in bands ever since then. We had about 10 different bands throughout - since about 19 - or actually 1987...
SCHLESINGER: Six or seven, yeah.
COLLINGWOOD: ...To the present, most of which were incredibly terrible, and they all had really horrible names. And we actually...
GROSS: Such as? Such as?
SCHLESINGER: We used to change our name, you know, once a week.
COLLINGWOOD: Because people who saw us once, like...
COLLINGWOOD: If we advertised with the same name, they'd never come back. We were called Woolly Mammoth...
SCHLESINGER: That was about a...
COLLINGWOOD: ...Three People who when Standing Side by Side Have a Wingspan of Over 12 Feet...
SCHLESINGER: Are You My Mother.
COLLINGWOOD: ...Are You My Mother.
GROSS: (Laughter) Why did you call the band that?
SCHLESINGER: That's a children's book, actually.
COLLINGWOOD: Oh, yeah - Green Light Go is another children's book.
SCHLESINGER: The silly thing is that Fountains of Wayne was just one of these - you know, in the pile of names that we would just kind of rotate, and that ended up being the one that we got stuck with. But I kind of prefer Are You My Mother, actually. Maybe we should switch it.
GROSS: Well, how did you come up with Fountains of Wayne? And why is that the name that stuck?
SCHLESINGER: Fountains of Wayne is a store in the town called Wayne, N.J., which is near where I grew up. And I think it was something that my mother actually suggested at some point. She works in Clifton.
COLLINGWOOD: (Unintelligible) about 10 years ago.
SCHLESINGER: Yeah. While we were probably...
COLLINGWOOD: While we were tossing around all these bad band names.
SCHLESINGER: And she was always full of, you know, really horrible ideas for, you know, things we should do to help the band out. So she would suggest these terrible names. And we'd say, oh, God. That's a horrible band name. And she would also say things like, you know, why don't you guys play shows where you have two pianos on stage, and you can both play piano, and that'll be your gimmick?
SCHLESINGER: And you - I'd just say, you know, I really don't have time to explain why that's a bad idea right now. But some at some point, I will.
COLLINGWOOD: My family was always saying, you know, why don't you go on that "David Letterman Show?" That seems to do those bands a lot of good.
GROSS: Was she offering to get you on?
COLLINGWOOD: OK, I'll just call him up.
COLLINGWOOD: No, she's just - you know, that was her idea for promotion.
GROSS: Your knowledge of rock and pop goes back a long way. And I'm wondering, what - do you remember the first records you each bought?
COLLINGWOOD: I think the first full-length LP I was ever allowed to buy was "Bat Out Of Hell" by Meat Loaf.
COLLINGWOOD: My parents obviously had all those Beatles records sitting around and stuff. But I remember I think I was in sixth grade when "Bat Out Of Hell" came out. It was that record...
SCHLESINGER: You were, like, woah.
COLLINGWOOD: It had a really cool motorcycle on the cover. It was just so excellent.
SCHLESINGER: The first record I ever bought was this exercise record that they made us buy in first grade. It was called "Chicken Fat."
GROSS: Oh, you - oh, God. We had to...
SCHLESINGER: Do you know that record?
GROSS: ...Listen to that, too. Yeah.
SCHLESINGER: It was like, (singing) pushups every morning...
GROSS: Ten times.
SCHLESINGER: ...Not just now and then - 10 times.
GROSS: One, two.
SCHLESINGER: And they make you exercise to it. And then they'd also make you buy it.
GROSS: Oh, give that chicken right back - give that chicken fat back to the chicken, and don't be chicken again.
SCHLESINGER: I can't believe - you're the only person I've ever mentioned this to that knows what the hell I'm talking about.
COLLINGWOOD: I want to know what kind of fascist elementary schools you two went to.
COLLINGWOOD: Chicken fight.
SCHLESINGER: "Chicken Fat."
GROSS: No, "Chicken Fat."
COLLINGWOOD: "Chicken Fat."
GROSS: It was this really funny...
COLLINGWOOD: Kill all the weak students. The strong students will survive.
SCHLESINGER: Kill the weak.
GROSS: It was this military-style workout record, yeah.
SCHLESINGER: Oh, man.
COLLINGWOOD: That's just horrible.
GROSS: So you really liked it? This is an influence on your music?
SCHLESINGER: Oh, I never said I liked it.
GROSS: Tell me again why you brought it up.
SCHLESINGER: You asked us the first record we ever bought.
GROSS: Oh, and they made you buy it.
SCHLESINGER: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: They made you buy it.
SCHLESINGER: It was forced purchase.
GROSS: That's right.
SCHLESINGER: I should suggest to our record company that strategy of forcing first-graders to buy our album.
SCHLESINGER: Because there's a lot of first-graders out there, you know, and they've all got lunch money.
GROSS: That's a good idea.
COLLINGWOOD: We could just go rob them instead of making them buy the record.
SCHLESINGER: (Laughter) Yeah. Why bring this whole record thing into it?
GROSS: Adam, I have a question for you. You wrote that song "That Thing You Do" for the Tom Hanks movie.
SCHLESINGER: I did.
GROSS: (Laughter) And I thought that was a surprisingly good movie that had a really kind of knowing and loving sense of '60s pop.
GROSS: What - how did you come to write the song? Was there, like, a national audition being held for the song or...
SCHLESINGER: Not really. I mean, it was just - somebody in the music business that I work with at a music publishing company heard about the movie and said that, you know, they were looking for a song that kind of sounded like this era and asked me if I wanted to take a stab at it. So I did a demo recording of it with two friends, and we just sent it in. And, you know, we did it really quickly because we just kind of assumed it was such a long shot it wasn't worth spending that much time on. But, you know, they actually listened to it, and they actually liked it. So it was a lucky break.
GROSS: Yeah. And the movie's about a band that's a one-hit wonder, and the only hit that they have is this song, "That Thing You Do," and it's a really catchy record. What did you think about when you wrote this song, knowing that it needed to be a period song?
SCHLESINGER: Well, the obvious reference for the time period they were talking about was The Beatles, but they actually had - as part of the instructions for it, it said that, you know, we'd rather sound - have it sound like an American band that's, you know, kind of a cheap imitation of The Beatles, you know, 'cause there were a lot of bands sprouting up then.
COLLINGWOOD: The Knickerbockers.
SCHLESINGER: Yeah, that kind of stuff, you know, trying to capitalize on what The Beatles had done. So that's what I was going for.
GROSS: Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood founded the band Fountains of Wayne. Our interview was recorded in 1999. Schlesinger died Wednesday of COVID-19. He was 52. Our sympathies to his family and everyone who was close to him. Here's "That Thing You Do." I love this song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT THING YOU DO")
MIKE VIOLA: (Singing) You doing that thing you do, breaking my heart into a million pieces, like you always do. And you don't mean to be cruel. You never even knew about the heartache I've been going through. Well, I try and try to forget you girl, but it's just so hard to do every time you do that thing you do. I'm...
GROSS: After a break, we'll remember musician and educator Ellis Marsalis and hear a couple of the things his sons Wynton and Branford said about him on our show. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELLIS MARSALIS' "CHAPTER ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.