Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Adam Schlesinger and Fountains Of Wayne were so much more than “Stacy’s Mom”

Clockwise from top left: Fountains of Wayne; Sesame Street; Adam Schlesinger, Rachel Bloom, and Jack Dolgen; That Thing You Do!
Clockwise from top left: Fountains of Wayne; Sesame Street; Adam Schlesinger, Rachel Bloom, and Jack Dolgen; That Thing You Do!
Photo: Giulio Marcocchi (Getty), Slaven Vlasic (Getty for HBO), Amy Sussman (Getty), Getty

When someone mentions Fountains Of Wayne, most Americans likely think of one song, “Stacy’s Mom.” And that makes sense. The Grammy-nominated 2004 single is the band’s only single to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at 21 and becoming certified gold. But Fountains of Wayne—whose co-founder and bassist Adam Schlesinger died Wednesday due to coronavirus complications—has a rich catalogue of music to enjoy beyond their sole Top 40 hit.

“It’s inevitable that at some point, everyone is going to burn out a little bit on all this synthesized teen pop,” Schlesinger told The A.V. Club in 2001, just before Fountains Of Wayne started to work on 2003's Welcome Interstate Managers, which contains “Stacy’s Mom” and garnered the band two Grammy nominations.Maybe there’ll be more interest in guitar music, but the kind of shit we do is never really the top of the pops in America anyway. Every year, there’s some band that plays guitar-oriented pop music that has a single, but for the most part, it’s kind of relegated to the sidelines.”

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Founded by Schlesinger and guitarist Chris Collingwood in 1995, Fountains Of Wayne (made complete by guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young) released four studio albums over fifteen years. And Schlesinger was even more prolific outside of Fountains Of Wayne. He received an Oscar and a Golden Globe nomination for writing the title song for 1996's That Thing You Do!, two Tony nominations in 2008 (Best Musical and Best Original Score) for the musical Cry-Baby, and two Daytime Emmy nominations for songs he wrote for Sesame Street.

Schlesinger was also nominated for six Primetime Emmys, winning in 2012 and 2013 for writing songs Neil Patrick Harris performed while hosting the Tonys and in 2019 for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s “Antidepressants Are So Not a Big Deal.”

Here we revisit The A.V. Club’s past Fountains Of Wayne coverage and share some new staff memories of Schlesinger’s work.

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Fountains Of Wayne (1996)

From our 2016 Hear This on “Radiation Vibe”: 1996 was a good year for post-Weezer power-pop. Not only did Nada Surf emerge with High/Low (which contained the indelible “Popular”), but Superdrag unleashed the classic Regretfully Yours, and both Nerf Herder and Fountains Of Wayne released self-titled debut LPs. The latter band—formed by Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger—immediately resonated thanks to its irreverent take on tunes inspired by the ’60s British Invasion and ’70s new wave power-pop. Taut harmonies tinged with falsetto, ramshackle guitars, and uncanny melodies gave Fountains Of Wayne’s music heft, while lyrics peppered with references to New York and New Jersey added a delightful absurdist bent.

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Fountains Of Wayne kicked off with the single “Radiation Vibe,” an appropriate placement since the song was “the inspiration to write that whole first record,” Schlesinger told The A.V. Club in 2011. “I don’t think we had quite broken out of imitating our heroes up ’til then. It was just fake Nilsson songs and fake Elvis Costello songs and fake Beatles songs and whatever we were listening to. You didn’t hear a lot of us in it, especially lyrically.” [Annie Zaleski]

Read more of Zalenski’s 2016 appreciation of Fountains Of Wayne.

“That Thing You Do!” (1996)

“I was up against Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren. You know, all my peers, basically,” Schlesinger said in that 2001 interview of losing the 1997 Oscar to Lloyd Webber for Evita’s “You Must Love Me.” “It was funny, because Diane Warren was sitting right in front of me, and she writes these really sappy love ballads, but her personality does not fit her music. When he won, she was like, ‘That piece of shit won?’”

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Utopia Parkway (1999)

I’ve been a Fountains Of Wayne and Adam Schlesinger fan since Fountains Of Wayne’s “Sink To The Bottom” hit while I was in high school, so I’ve got multiple favorite cuts. It depends on my mood, really. If I’m feeling 15 again, then “Sink To The Bottom.” If I want to drive around with my windows down, then I’m going to go “Denise.” And if it’s Christmas, I’m going to throw on that Colbert Christmas record and marvel at just how silly it is. Not to mention Schlesinger did multiple—multiple!—songs for Sesame Street, a show in the highest regards. If you’re going to try and pin me down, though, I’m going to go with “Red Dragon Tattoo,” off 1999’s Utopia Parkway. A song about a dude who gets an ill-advised tattoo in an attempt to impress a girl, “Red Dragon Tattoo” is pure sing-a-long joy, and one of the only songs I know that actually manages to work both Bactine and Basil Hayden into the lyrics, for crying out loud. It’s a pure pop song, but it also shows how expansive, smart, and infectious really great pop can be. Losing someone who can write a song like “Red Dragon Tattoo”—let alone any of the other wildly amazing songs Schlesinger penned—is a huge loss to the world of entertainment as a whole. [Marah Eakin]

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You can also read our 1999 review of Utopia Parkway.

Welcome Interstate Managers (2003)

Across a lifetime of collecting music, I don’t remember how every album came into my possession—but I distinctly recall picking up Welcome Interstate Managers at a Best Buy during the summer of 2003. Maybe it’s because I was about to leave for college, so my memory-making instincts had kicked into hyperdrive; maybe it’s because I got Make Up The Breakdown by Hot Hot Heat and A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar by Dashboard Confessional in the same trip. Or maybe it made such an impression because Welcome Interstate Managers fully engulfed me in the weeks the followed—in the bittersweet melodies of “Mexican Wine” and “Hackensack,” in the working-stiff narratives of “Bright Future In Sales” and “Halley’s Waitress,” in all the character-study details that show why Schlesinger was such an in-demand collaborator for movies and musicals. Most likely, it’s because, three years later, I met somebody else who owned Welcome Interstate Managers, she tolerated my affection for The One With “Stacy’s Mom” while making sure I learned “Radiation Vibe,” “Hat And Feet,” and “Red Dragon Tattoo,” too. We’re listening to “Leave The Biker” as I type these words. [Erik Adams]

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You can also read our 2003 review of Welcome Interstate Managers.

Music And Lyrics (2007)

Can you even imagine being Adam Schlesinger and being tasked with, “Hey, go out and write a song that could easily be a worldwide hit single.” After all, if it was that easy, we’d all be millionaires, right? But Schlesinger pulled this Everest-sized task off a few times, not just with the famous title track to That Thing You Do!, but with the song that is the focus of the lead characters’ songwriting efforts in the 2007 rom-com Music And Lyrics. Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore play a musician and lyricist trying to craft the song that will mean the ultimate career comeback for Grant’s Andrew Ridgely-like character Alex, and the entry point for Barrymore’s Sophie into the world of songwriting. The two come up with Schlesinger’s chart-ready “Way Back Into Love,” an addictive contemplative pop hit about overcoming the obstacles that keep you from ultimately connecting with people. But it’s the movie’s other Schlesinger composition, “Don’t Write Me Off Just Yet,” that turns out to be the real showstopper. The heartfelt plea is perfectly self-deprecating, urging “please forgive these few brief awkward lines,” as Alex uses the song as a last-ditch effort to coerce Sophie back into his life. Such is the power of Schlesinger’s hooky, hypnotic songwriting that of course the effort works, of course “Way Back Into Love” is a big hit, and of course Music And Lyrics remains an underrated gem in the rom-com canon—in large part due to Schlesinger’s efforts on the ear-candy soundtrack. [Gwen Ihnat]

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Traffic and Weather (2007)

From our 2007 review: It’s been four years since Welcome Interstate Managers made Fountains Of Wayne unlikely hit-makers—if only because songs as good as “Stacy’s Mom” seldom make it to MTV—but thankfully, little has changed: The loveable losers in Traffic And Weather could easily be the cousins or brothers and sisters of the suburban dreamers documented on previous FOW albums. As always, Fountains Of Wayne has a keen ear for the lies people tell themselves and others to keep the desperation of their lives from sinking in. On “Strapped For Cash,” a synth-fueled slice of new-wave perfection, a gambling addict running out of excuses keeps telling people he’s “just a little strapped for cash,” as if those words form a magical mantra that will make his creditors disappear. “Michael And Heather At The Baggage Claim” illustrates Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood’s genius for indelibly capturing moments in time that are simultaneously unremarkable and freighted with significance. [Nathan Rabin]

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Read more of Rabin’s 2007 review of Traffic and Weather.

Schlesinger also blogged about his experience on tour with Fountains Of Wayne to promote Traffic With Weather: “Hi, it’s Adam from the band Fountains Of Wayne,” he began his blog. “The nice folks at The A.V. Club have asked me to write an occasional few paragraphs describing what our life ‘on the road’ is like. I suggested they just watch the Mötley Crüe Behind The Music and imagine us instead of Nikki Sixx, Mick Mars, etc. But they knew that was bullshit. So I guess I’m actually gonna have to spend at least five minutes writing something. That’s cool, though, ‘cause it’s not like I have anything better to do, like shooting alcohol into my veins or putting on elaborate face paint...”

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You can read Schlesinger’s full tour diary here, here, and here.

Sky Full of Holes (2011)

From our 2011 review: Having already addressed the end of adolescence (on 1999’s Utopia Parkway), post-collegiate doldrums (2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers), and thirtysomething single life (2007’s Traffic And Weather), Fountains Of Wayne dutifully settles into adulthood on Sky Full Of Holes. It isn’t an easy process for the protagonist of “The Summer Place,” who daydreams about her days as a teenage shoplifter and swallows psychedelic mushrooms by the handful to alleviate her grown-up boredom. The business partners in “Richie And Ruben” haven’t given up on their dreams, but considering that they can’t get their shit together—illustrated via a long list of failures recounted by Collingwood in his reedy, vaguely detached tenor—perhaps that isn’t a good thing. [Steven Hyden]

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Read more of Hyden’s 2011 review of Sky Full of Holes.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019)

Schlesinger served as executive music producer for the CW musical series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and one of his last tasks was crafting an epic medley for the series finale. “I was trying to think, logistically, how to do it, with all these tempos and keys,” Schlesinger told The A.V. Club in 2019. “And I told Rachel, ‘I think what you should do is go in front of a microphone, and just sing it the way you would do it onstage, a capella, even if the keys aren’t right, just so we can get the rhythm of how you would actually do this. Then we’ll build a track to your vocal.’ The whole thing was built off of Rachel’s natural ebb and flow as a performer, rhythmically.”

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Read Allison Shoemaker’s full behind-the-scenes account of Schlesinger’s work on the finale.

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