Welcome (Back) Interstate Managers
My unhealthy obsession with Fountains of Wayne’s third studio album.
Record Store Day is a strange proposition in 2020. So I haven’t participated in many RSD events this year, at least until I heard Real Gone Music was re-issuing Welcome Interstate Managers. The two LP, gatefold set represents the first time this Fountains of Wayne masterwork is available on vinyl. That was reason enough to get a power pop fan like me out (a few days after Black Friday crowds dispersed, thank you very much) to happily plunk down $40 for an album I’ve already listened to hundreds of times this year.
Let me explain. Late last year, I co-edited an essay collection with Paul Myers called Go All The Way: A Literary Appreciation of Power Pop. My written contribution was “Power Pop for Slackers,” a deep dive on Fountains of Wayne. I was very fortunate to interview one of the band’s two extremely talented songwriters, Adam Schlesinger, for the piece about a year before his life was tragically cut short by COVID-19 at the age of 52. As FoW’s bassist, Schlesinger was the McCartney to guitarist Chris Collingwood’s Lennon for 15-plus years and across five studio albums. (You can read my whole FoW essay for free on Medium.)
The band first got on my radar with their self-titled 1996 debut featuring quirky, hooky songs like “Joe Rey,” “Survival Car” and “Leave the Biker.” I bought the follow up, Utopia Parkway, right when it came out in 1999, and did the same with Welcome Interstate Managers in 2003 (the last of their CDs I purchased as it was released). All three are great, but my fascination with the band waned over those seven years so I never gave WIM the careful consideration I now strongly believe it deserves.
What changed? In doing my due diligence for the Schlesinger interviews, I revisited the band’s entire catalog. I fully expected my focus to be on the first two albums, but returned to specific songs from their third album most often. Before I knew it I was obsessed with an often overlooked album by a band many consider a one hit wonder thanks to “Stacy’s Mom.”
I listened on my home stereo, at the office, in the car and while exercising. In time I came to think of WIM as a reluctant concept album, on par with Gen X rock opuses like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco, OK Computer by Radiohead and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by Flaming Lips. (Some of you are undoubtedly yelling “Blasphemy!” at your screens right now; such is the power of musical opinions.) WIM was no longer a mere collection of catchy pop songs to me, but a turn-of-the-Millennium mash up of Death of a Salesman, Glengarry Glen Ross and Office Space. With themes of careerism, alcoholism, technophobia, teen angst, unrequited love and regret, this album perfectly captures a critically-acclaimed 90s band coming apart at the seams.
The characters in these songs aren’t just whining about soulless jobs in songs like “Hackensack” (“I used to work in a record store, Now I work for my dad”). What I hear is a band singing about getting dropped by Atlantic Records after their second album and having to self-fund their third release (co-produced by Schlesinger, Collingwood and Mike Denneen and eventually released by S-Curve/Virgin). It’s all right there in the first few lines of the opening track, “Mexican Wine” (incorrectly listed as “Mexican Summer” on the vinyl re-release): He was killed by a cellular phone explosion (they were critical darlings whose sales fell short at the dawn of the file-sharing/streaming age); They scattered his ashes across the ocean (the label dropped them, pronouncing them dead); The water was used to make baby lotion (the label quickly moved on, signing new bands to replace FoW); The wheels of promotion were set into motion (the whole cycle starts over again). And echoed throughout tracks like “Bright Future In Sales” (“I gotta get my shit together, Cause I can’t live like this forever”) and “Little Red Light” (“Stuck in a meeting on a Monday night, Trying to get the numbers to come out right”). Once you’re down this rabbit hole, it’s hard to know if they’re singing about dead end cubicle jobs or writing hit songs for a record label.
Insane pet theories and opinions aside, a lot was clearly on the line for Schlesinger, Collingwood, guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young back in 2002. It was put up or shut up time and, like one of the aspiring sports stars featured in FoW songs like “Radiation Vibe” or “All Kinds of Time,” they delivered with a hail Mary called “Stacy’s Mom.” Fountains of Wayne had finally arrived, thanks in part to the 1980s-influenced music video for “Stacy’s Mom” starring Rachel Hunter. The track charted around the world and they were even nominated for a couple Grammys that year (including “Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal” for “Stacy’s Mom,” and “Best New Artist”… on their third album…). Pretty impressive for a band that seemed down for the count only a few years earlier, but their mainstream success was short-lived. And so was born another power pop one hit wonder, although they released two more solid studio albums (Traffic and Weather and A Sky Full of Holes) and an impressive compilation (Out-of-State Plates).
My full-blown obsession with WIM subsided a few months before I snagged my copy of the re-issue, so it’s fun to listen again with fresh(er) ears. It really does sound great on vinyl, but the two LP format has done some interesting things to my relationship with these songs. The first nine tracks (spanning sides 1 and 2) are flawless in my opinion, including favorites like “Mexican Wine,” “Hackensack,” “Little Red Light” and “Hey Julie.” With the first track on side 3, however, things get a little uneven — something I was only vaguely aware of while streaming feels much more pronounced with these new groupings. Maybe it’s the extra effort of getting up to flip the record over, but “Halley’s Waitress” and “Peace and Love” might persuade me to skip side 3 on repeat listens if it weren’t for the playfully wistful piano ballad, “Fire Island.” (“Hung Up on You” is not without its charm, but honky tonk always feels a little out of step on this album, at least to my ears.)
More blasphemy? Perhaps. Either way, side 4 gets the album back on track, opening with the excellent “Bought For A Song” (an angry rant about road life in a band — “It all looks the same when you stump for the man”) and closes with the Oasis-tinged bonus track, “Elevator Up.”
Whether or not you agree with me about the subtext of Welcome Interstate Managers, the songwriting is undeniable. Schlesinger and Collingwood both continued to write and perform separately after FoW disbanded in 2013, but what they created together remains some of the best modern power pop around. So go ahead and revisit this fantastic album, wherever and however you listen to music. You likely won’t get obsessed like I did, but you might fall in love all over again — and not just with “Stacy’s Mom.”
NOTE: I found out after purchasing the vinyl re-issue that none of the band members were consulted about this release. A Nov. 13 post on Collingwood’s Instagram account (@lookparkmusic) had this to say: “The LP was licensed by Universal to a label called Real Gone Records. Universal is within their rights to do this. However the band was not asked or informed about any phase of this agreement, and we learned about it the same way you did — on the internet. As such we never saw the artwork and didn’t approve the master, nor the pressing.” Caveat emptor.