Chris Collingwood met Adam Schlesinger in the mid-1980s, when they were both freshmen at Williams College. Over the next 25-plus years, they would be each other’s closest creative partners, forming the band Fountains of Wayne and recording five acclaimed albums of wise, witty music between 1996 and 2011. The work was truly collaborative; both of them wrote songs, and Collingwood sang them as the band’s lead vocalist.
After Schlesinger’s death at age 52 from coronavirus complications on April 1st, Collingwood shared his memories of his late friend in correspondence with Rolling Stone. While Fountains of Wayne had been broken up for years, and the differences between them remained fresh in memory, theirs was one of the most special creative bonds in rock.
Read more about Adam Schlesinger in a new deeply reported feature on his life, and read Collingwood’s responses below.
When you first met Adam at Williams College, what impression did he make?
We were best friends really quick. He borrowed my albums and ruined most of them because he didn’t put the vinyl back in the sleeve when he took it off the turntable. He was holding my copy of Pirates by Rickie Lee Jones and walking to the door, and I said, “Don’t leave that on the floor,” and he made a big theatrical gesture with his hands, saying “What the hell could possibly happen?” — and as he did, the album came flying out of the sleeve and hit the wall.
He didn’t know cars needed oil changes, and at one point his car seized up on the highway and he had no idea what was going on. At one of our first shows, he broke a bass string and he didn’t know that bass strings could break or how to put a new one on. Fortunately, he was a good enough player to play the rest of the set on three strings.
A lot of the music we liked was the same, but he also liked a bunch of stuff that made no sense to me — dance-pop like Taylor Dayne and that awful ’80s Steve Winwood record. He noticed that people were impressed that Steve Winwood played all the instruments on the album, and he was like, “I could do that, what a bunch of bullshit.” I think he liked the idea of that album more than the album. He liked a lot of music I hated, though some of it I’m sure he just appreciated as product.
A lot of our time was spent listening to records and saying to each other “This band made it, how hard could it be?” We played albums by bands like the Replacements and R.E.M. and had long conversations about what their daily lives must be like. Both those bands were perfect if you were learning guitar, because it was just crafty enough but not too hard. So we learned to play guitar from R.E.M. and Replacements albums and got to know each other’s voices by singing that stuff, and of course the Beatles.
He had a cassette answering machine, and we recorded an outgoing message that was the two of us screaming and grunting and banging a hot pot, which I think was the hardest I ever laughed in my life. We sat there waiting for people to call so we could laugh.
We took the same sculpture class, and the final assignment was a self-portrait, which we did together, something we didn’t even think was an odd choice until the professor brought it up. We made an installation in the basement of the sculpture building, with a VHS video of ourselves playing vodka Scrabble, something we did all the time. We borrowed some giant PA speakers from the music department and recorded about an hour of deafening, screeching guitars and an awful programmed drumbeat, so you had to walk into this dark musty basement and get your ears blown out while watching two guys get drunk and play Scrabble.
I was jealous of how supportive his parents were of his making music. This became a running joke for many years in FOW, that his parents gave him expensive piano lessons and bought him whatever he wanted. I spent most of our breaks from school at Adam’s parents’ house, and I took to them right away. I love them like my own. Before long they were also very supportive of me making music. My heart aches for them right now.
We went on road trips together, driving to Boston or Northampton to see shows. We made our way into the basement of the Iron Horse once and cornered Paul Kelly and asked him if we could play him a song. He sent his roadie for a guitar and we made him listen to an awful country song we wrote called “Leap Year.” I asked Paul Kelly many years later if he remembered this and was relieved to learn he did not.
Neither one of us had written a good song, and I remember we were both going about it all wrong in so many ways. But he was always so confident, even then, something that never wavered his whole life. He never doubted himself, even when it made sense to. That’s an incredibly powerful asset.
When you reconnected in New York in the Nineties, did the idea of starting a new band with him immediately appeal to you?
It wasn’t going to be that way. I had written some songs, and when I played them for him he was going to produce my record. He was anxious to get some producer credits under his belt, and I had enough songs to make a demo and that’s how it started.
We had recorded some other songs of mine, some of them that later ended up on FOW records, and those were much more careful and pristine. With the new stuff, we deliberately wanted to keep it loud and simple and bash it out before there was any time to think about it. The way he played drums was perfect for the first FOW album [1996’s Fountains of Wayne] – bouncy and sloppy and full of spirit, which I think really helped those songs along.
There were four of mine that we started out with: “Radiation Vibe,” “Leave the Biker,” “Joe Rey,” and I think either “Survival Car” or “Barbara H.” Adam got inspired by that batch, and I think the first thing he came in with was “Sink to the Bottom,” and then we both started adding songs to the pile. We didn’t really think about it being a band until the album was done and we had to tour, which was a point we weren’t even sure we’d get to.
Who wouldn’t want to be in a band with their best friend? We had both had the same dream since we were teenagers, and the idea that some giant company was going to give us more money than we’d ever seen to go around the world playing music seemed too good to be true. We got to see the whole U.S. and most of Europe and Japan, drinking and acting childish the whole time, and someone else was paying for it. It was a really good feeling.
When you think back on making the second Fountains of Wayne album, 1999’s Utopia Parkway, what memories of Adam come to mind?
We did the first album in about a week, mostly just the two of us, and the second album was a real undertaking with a full band. I remember getting together to play each other the songs we’d written and being really excited to get started. We were both writing songs with the full arrangement in mind, and it was generally understood that if you wrote the song, you produced it. The version of “Denise” that he first played for me was a completely different song, same lyrics but a gentle melody that I preferred over the one we recorded. That’s when it really occurred to me that we weren’t really writing the same way. He compiled sets of lyrics, and he seemed to try on different music like an outfit until he settled on one he liked. A lot of the running jokes we had found their way into songs, along with some of our own experiences. In a way, now that we had actually done something besides just going to college, we both felt there was a kind of license to write about our real lives.
We joked about calling the second album This Time We’re Ready, since the first one was such a tossed-off thing. We were playing around with new instrumentation, and there was still kind of a ”why not” approach to sessions, with the piano and strings creeping in. Our sensibilities were very much in sync, and with only a word or two, he could understand exactly what I meant. Part of that is being a great player, but part of it is a kind of synergy that’s rare between musicians. I certainly haven’t had it with anyone else. There were a lot of things I took for granted in FOW that I assumed all other bands had, but have since learned are rare. All four of us could play pretty much any song just by hearing it, in any key, and it was often like self-stump-the-band during sound check, with someone starting a riff and the rest of the band jumping in. We got really good as a unit, and would play whole songs we hated just because we could and it was funny.
At that time Adam was starting to take on projects that had nothing to do with us, something that would continue from then on. We could always hear him talking to some asshole about the bumper not being upbeat enough and such, presumably music for some business purpose. We teased him about it, but he was getting paid.
Like a lot of workaholics, he kept a million different things going at once, and was incredibly restless just sitting around. He couldn’t really sit in the sun doing nothing, or read a book, or go to a movie theater, because it felt like wasted time.
How did things change in the band after the third album, 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers, and “Stacy’s Mom”?
I tried to talk him out of “Stacy’s Mom.” I could see exactly what was going to happen, and when it started happening in slow motion it just felt inevitable. He was too good a writer to have that be his calling card, and the success of a novelty song means that’s just what you are to the public, from that moment on forever. It’s sad to me that people reading his obituary will all know that song, and only a very tiny percentage of them will ever hear “I-95” or “The Girl I Can’t Forget.”
I was reluctant to [record] it at all, but in the moment you don’t want to kill the session by not being a good sport. There were other things we did, kind of joking around, that we would put out as a B-side or whatever. When it was done, I didn’t think it belonged on the album. Even on a record that was stylistically all over the place, that song didn’t fit in. It sounded like a different band.
I knew it would be a single, and I knew it would be a hit, and everyone else knew it too. But I was the only one who didn’t think a novelty hit was a good thing. We had done a version of “Baby One More Time” because we needed a B-side for something, and our label at the time took it to radio and tried to make it a single. I was like, “What? We wrote a bunch of songs, what about those?” Literally any other band in the world could have recorded that Britney Spears song. Then some other bands did. Probably had the same fight with their label.
It’s like being able to tell a really good story — like “Fire Island,” which he wrote for that album — but deciding instead to tell a joke and jump off stage. He deserves to be remembered for more than a punch line.
But bigger tours and venues meant more time to act like idiots — throwing deli trays out the bus window, smashing shit just for kicks. We got a big stuffed gorilla from somewhere that was leaking its innards all over the place and we asked the bus driver to run it over, which he did, and then the hotel manager took us up to the roof so we could throw it off. We drank a lot.
We fought a lot, sometimes about shit so inconsequential that I gave in because it really didn’t matter. Sometimes about music, sometimes about art direction, set lists, musical keys, often about the different ways we thought the band should be perceived. I loved him, and from my life with him I realized it’s true that people you love can piss you off more than anyone else.
Looking back on it all, how would you sum up what Adam brought to Fountains of Wayne? As a fellow songwriter, what do you think made him a unique talent?
Adam’s greatest skill was distilling a genre to its essence and recreating it flawlessly, something he understood about himself and said all the time. That kind of ability comes from being fluent in the language of pop music, from years of listening analytically and being able to play many different instruments. It wasn’t until after FOW that I realized some of my guitarist friends have no idea what their drummer or bass player is doing at any given moment. Adam could have played every instrument on every FOW song, and it seemed to me he carried around in his head some idealized version of each of his songs that nothing real could measure up to.
I really miss the feeling we both got watching each other’s wheels turning when bringing a new song to the band — “Here’s where the tambourine comes in,” “What if there was a drum break here,” “Here’s the backing vocal I’m hearing” — most of that shit going completely unsaid, because it wasn’t necessary. Sometimes he would start air-drumming while I was playing him a new song, and it felt like one singular idea that was born in the air in front of us.
He viewed himself as a craftsman and not an artist, a word he considered pretentious. He worked diligently every day, even when he didn’t feel like it, which is true of a lot of successful people, and probably the greatest single difference between us.