WEST SIDE, MANHATTAN: Don’t get too comfortable. When your band is a model of rock song consistency like Fountains of Wayne, there’s only one way to keep your fans on their toes: Make those album releases few, far between, and well worth the wait.
With the release of Sky Full of Holes this week, FOW plays out their strategy to a T. The latest collection by songcraft experts Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger follows the group’s last album by a full four years, giving their followers 13 more of everything they’ve been longing for: 13 hooks to get addicted to, 13 characters to get intimately acquainted with, 13 more three-minute stories to get gloriously absorbed in.
Their fifth full-length release since their 1996 inception, Sky Full of Holes continues on FOW’s tradition with the original lineup of vocalist Collingwood, bassist Schlesinger, guitarist Jody Porter, and drummer Brian Young, smashingly intact. Also on board for a return trip at the Neve 8068-endowed Stratosphere Sound was engineer Geoff Sanoff and mixer John Holbrook, both of whom were fundamental in shaping the sound of classic FOW albums like 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers.
Schlesinger is the unassuming force behind the band and a laundry list of high-stakes cultural cornerstones. He’s written the star songs of the films That Thing You Do and Music & Lyrics, dozens of TV themes, collaborated on the Cry-Baby Broadway musical, and produced for the likes of America and Tahiti 80. With so many balls in the air, you’d think having a band like FOW to come home to would be a beautiful thing to one of NYC’s master craftsmen – and you’d be right.
This is FOW’s first new studio album since 2007. Does that feel too long, too short, or just perfect?
It seems to be the amount of time it always takes us. There’s no easy answer as to why. There’s always a lot of stuff that gets in our way, sometimes professional, sometimes personal.
What’s gone on for you as a producer in that span of time? How did that change the way you approached putting together Sky Full of Holes?
I did Tinted Windows — that was kind of a year making that record. I did that Broadway show Cry-Baby, and I did a lot of random productions for TV. I’m drawing a blank right now! I don’t know if those projects influenced our record. I think you learn stuff from every project, whether you realize it or not.
Working on this new record, Chris and I had a few discussions about keeping it a little more organic and open-sounding. We wanted to hear more space in the mixes, not just a wall of guitar. And we had gone out and done an acoustic tour — we liked the idea of having just a little more focus on acoustic guitar and piano, which are the instruments that we tend to write on.
What was different about the way FOW approached the actual recording of this album at Stratosphere?
I don’t know if our process changed so much. But I think we’ve gotten better at having a looser quality, not totally ironing out everything to perfection. There are songs on the record where you can hear us fucking around in a good way. “Acela” has a bluesy groove, and that was a loose, improvisational take. We left a lot of that initial looseness there.
The first track, “The Summer Place,” we had done an earlier version of that song, and then played it live as part of the acoustic tour. When we listened to the recording after that, it felt lifeless and stiff. We threw it out, and the subsequent version we came up with breathes a lot more.
It sounds like there’s a lesson in that – what do you find out about songs from playing them live?
That is something new for us. We never did that before. I think, that a song evolves after you’ve played it for a while on stage. Things happen on stage that you can’t predict when you’re writing it.
Some of the songs from the new record we still haven’t played live. We’re just in rehearsals this week, trying these songs for the first time on these upcoming shows. We usually find that there’s a handful that work great live, and others that don’t work live — then we just never play them. I think we know going in which will be the hardest to pull off. But we’ve also gotten looser about finding a good live arrangement and not having it match the song on record.
What do you predict will work well at this point? Got an idea yet?
We’ll see. I think “Action Hero” will be a little tough. We cheated in the studio, moving the capo around recording the different parts, so I don’t think you can play it through the way we do on the record! But it’s got a lot of texture that I like…by this afternoon I may change my mind.
In addition to the band lineup staying unchanged for 15 years, you’re obviously also in a groove with your in-studio collaborators, Geoff Sanoff engineering and John Holbrook mixing. What’s the benefit of keeping the team together for each album? Is there any danger to this approach – can consistency lead to complacency, or a lack of risks?
With those two guys, they just know us so well, and they’re easy to communicate our ideas to. We all have similar tastes as well. It’s a good team. Chris and I have definitely worked with people in the past, where we’ve had a tougher time establishing that easy communication. So when you find someone where you’ve got something that works, hold on to that.
Hey, there’s a song in that Adam! How did you and John collaborate to meet the stated objective of “getting more space in the mix?”
By the time we got to John, a lot of that was a function of the arrangements. But we did also talk to him about not feeling the need to have every song punch you in the face with compression and treble – which really isn’t his style to begin with.
What new bands, artists, or producers are out there now that are inspiring you?
That’s always changing for me. I listen to all kinds of stuff. A lot of it has to do with what I might be working on at the time. I’m a fan of Greg Kirsten, who’s in a band called The Bird and the Bee. He’s a great producer. He’s worked with Lily Allen, and a lot of other very cool pop records — very sophisticated and always very groovy.
This has nothing to do with any music that I make, but Die Antwoord is a South African group that does this crazy rap performance art thing. On paper it sounds like something I would absolutely hate, but it’s awesome and funny and you would really have to get into it to understand it.
What are the other projects you’re involved in now/recently, outside of FOW?
Ivy has a record coming out in September – the first Ivy record in six years. That’s big for me, and we’re very excited about that record. I’m also doing some songs with Emmanuelle Seigner, she’s a very famous actress and singer in France, and she also happens to be married to Roman Polanski. She was looking for a change of direction, and I was recommended by some people working with her.
That’s great – to get calls like that.
I’ve always been a collaborator at heart, and never a front person. One of my favorite things is working with a new singer, figuring out what they can put across, and put myself in their head.
It sounds very psychological.
That’s a big part of it. There’s the technical part of it, but there’s also trying to imagine being them while being you. You have to be true to both of you: I want to write something I like, but also something they like and want to put across.
With all the music that you make, why does FOW continue to be an important outlet/expression for you?
Well, I think at the risk of sounding egotistical about it – Fountains of Wayne is a great band! That’s something I don’t take for granted. It’s really hard to find a great band, and it’s really hard to find that chemistry between people. Even though we sometimes fight a lot and don’t see each other for a long time, we all appreciate that it’s a good band. If we don’t do it for a while, we all start to miss it.
– David Weiss