Discussing Blessings, Curses and Everything in Between with Chris Collingwood

We’ve always been fascinated and a little saddened by the fact that an artist’s creative work can become an albatross that hangs over them for the rest of their career. Few musicians have managed to recover from being pegged a “One Hit Wonder,” as quite often, it seems the one wildly overplayed song is hardly representative of the rest of their catalog.

For this very reason and more importantly, because we really enjoy quite a few of their songs and believe they’re talented musicians, we were happy to get some time with Fountains of Wayne frontman Chris Collingwood to talk about that topic and more.

Fountains of Wayne, a group that we regularly defend as some of the best lyricists putting out hook-laden pop music today, will be playing The Crocodile tonight. As always scroll on to read our interview and get all of the pertinent show info. Be sure to watch the video for The Summer Place and check out other tracks from the band’s latest Sky Full of Holes if you like what you hear.

You and Adam are known for your ability to weave strong narratives through your songs. Are there other musicians or writers that you’d say have had the biggest influence on your style of writing lyrics?

I do read quite a bit, but I don’t think it’s the same set of skills you need to write a good novel that you need to make a three-minute pop song. For one thing, all my favorite writers are less interested in a coherent narrative than they are in electrifying language. Martin Amis is probably my favorite modern writer, and yet most of his books are more about the telling than the tale.

As far as other songwriters, I learn a lot from listening to people I admire. I think as I get older, I can appreciate a good turn of phrase or melodic hook, regardless of the context or delivery. You can learn a lot by tracing ideas back to the source, finding out who influenced your favorite contemporary writers and then in turn, who influenced them. Lately I’m revisiting some great songs by Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt.

We once got a stern lesson about the differences between a theme album and a concept album during a phone interview with Stephin Merrit of the Magnetic Fields. Given the band’s strong foundation of narrative-driven songs, has Fountains of Wayne explored the idea of doing a concept album… or theme album if we’re being strict with definitions?

I’m curious about what Mr. Merritt said. I read once where he said that when he’s writing an album, the first thing he does is visualize the poster for the theatrical production. I don’t know if that’s a concept or a theme. My friend Henning Ohlenbusch just did an amazing record called “Henning Goes To The Movies,” where he wrote songs about nine different movies that he liked for one reason or another. It holds together incredibly well, maybe because the rules he set out for himself were so strict that it really feels like a single piece.

I like other quasi-concept records, like “The Wall” and of course “Sgt. Pepper,” but in both of those cases, the concept is so loosely defined that it could have been applied after the fact. I should tell you that I hate musicals. Outside of a couple successful moments, I’ve never seen one that could sustain itself without feeling awkward and forced.

I guess that means I’m not cut out to make a concept album.

What’s the process that an idea goes through to become a source of lyrical inspiration?

It could be anything, really. Sometimes a turn of phrase suggests a character or a situation and then the rest of the song is built around it. In the more oblique ones, sometimes it just comes out all at once and other times I work hard to make it seem that way. And when it’s a mise-en-scene, like “Cemetery Guns,” it’s a matter of trying to fill out a three-dimensional space with enough detail to make the characters and scenario believable.

What should people expect from your show at the Crocodile on October 7th?

Well, we’re going to play some new songs, and probably some old ones. Also, sometimes one of us falls over.

A couple of years ago, we went to Harvey Danger’s final show (also at the Crocodile) and lead singer Sean Nelson made a comment after their radio hit “Flagpole Sitta” saying “Here’s to never having to play that song ever again!” By contrast, Matthew Caws and his bandmates in Nada Surf keep quite a distance from “Popular” and have re-emerged as a beloved indie rock act in large part thanks to 2003’s Let Go.

As you probably knew where this question was going by the time we mentioned Harvey Danger, we’ll get to the point – How do you all feel about “Stacy’s Mom” when it comes to thinking about the band at any level whether as an active group, when writing songs, considering “legacy” or anything else?

A blessing and a curse, for sure. A blessing because for a little while there, we occupied a space we had no business being in. A curse because it gave most people the impression that we’re a novelty act, and that’s not an easy thing for audiences to get past. It’s interesting that it’s almost become a rallying point for the real fans of the band to get indignant about people who only know that song.

Do any fond memories of Seattle come to mind from past tours or other experiences you’ve had with the city or its history?

Many of Adam’s and my college friends migrated to Seattle in the past 15 years, so whenever we visit it’s like a little college reunion. And Brian lived there for a while, so he’s got local ties as well. We always have a great time for a few hours at least. On my first trip ever to Seattle, it was sunny for an entire week and I got completely the wrong impression of the place. Now I know better.

Anything in particular you’re looking to do with your time in Seattle?

I don’t think there’s much time to hang around on this trip. I’m looking forward to seeing my college roommate’s new baby.

If you lived in an alternate reality where you forced to play the catalog of another musician/band for an entire year, which musicians or band’s works would you play?

Well, obviously it would be the Beatles, but that’s too easy. I also like the first two Rickie Lee Jones albums. Not only because they’re fantastic, but also because they’re so dense and layered that I hear something new each time.

What’s next for you and the band through end of the year?

We’re heading off to Europe in November and then shortly after that, back to Japan and Australia.

10/7 Fountains of Wayne / Mike Viola @ The Crocodile :: Doors at 8pm :: $20

5 Responses to “Discussing Blessings, Curses and Everything in Between with Chris Collingwood”

  1. Question I would have asked: Do you enjoy playing live? Being in a rock band is supposed to be fun. I like FOW’s albums, but every time I see them play, it looks like Chris can’t wait to get off stage. I mean, it’s like watching somebody work behind the counter at the DMV.

    • Ha! Would be interested to hear his answer to that one. Knowing he was the more cynical of the pair, we expected a similar waiting-at-the-DMV stage presence but we were pleasantly surprised when Chris actually seemed to be having quite a bit of fun this past Friday. Hopefully he is having a good time up there as the band can be really great live if everyone’s on.

    • Like Yolanda Hayes you mean? 🙂

      Did I read that last sentence right? Are they actually coming back here to Australia after 12 years? Could it be true?

      • Exactly! Haven’t seen the band put out the official tour schedule yet but you read that right. Collingwood and Co. should be heading to Oz in the not-too-distant future 🙂


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