Fountains Of Wayne had released three albums and been together nearly a decade before they reached the Top 40 with their 2003 single “Stacy’s Mom.” A zippy new wave throwback indebted to the Cars’ chugging rhythms and keyboard-heavy power-pop, the song features a hormones-raging teenager fantasizing about romancing his friend’s mom. While on some level he knows the relationship is wrong, he also thinks age is no obstacle (“But since your dad walked out/ Your mom could use a guy like me”) because Stacy’s mom is just so hot.
The high-gloss “Stacy’s Mom” music video mirrored the song’s theme, with supermodel Rachel Hunter as the crush object and a nod to the infamous Phoebe Cates-in-a-bikini scene from Fast Times At Ridgemont High. (The clip also winkingly acknowledges the song’s Cars influence by featuring a group of kids dressed like the band and an “I <3 Ric" — as in Ocasek — license plate.) But even if the song wasn't deep, Fountains of Wayne's smart, slick execution and irresistible lyrical hook ("Stacy's mom has got it goin' on") elevated it beyond the realm of, say, a song you might hear in a raunchy '80s teen horndog comedy film. Decades later, vocalist-guitarist Chris Collingwood admitted to Rolling Stone that he initially wasn’t enthusiastic about recording “Stacy’s Mom.” Hearing the final version, which appeared on Fountains Of Wayne’s Welcome Interstate Managers, also didn’t sway him.
“When it was done, I didn’t think it belonged on the album,” Collingwood said. “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.”
This reluctance wasn’t necessarily due to a fear of success. In reality, Collingwood thought his songwriting partner in Fountains Of Wayne, vocalist-bassist Adam Schlesinger, deserved a better legacy than a trifle like “Stacy’s Mom.” (Schlesinger died from COVID-19 in 2020.) The pair had met in college and started playing music together in the early ’90s, writing songs indebted to UK pop savants and the classic rock on which they were raised. As Fountains Of Wayne navigated major label waters — and made small inroads at alternative radio with grungy power-pop songs like “Radiation Vibe” and “Sink To The Bottom” — Schlesinger branched out, penning the British Invasion homage “That Thing You Do!” for fictional movie band the Wonders and playing with the sophisticated indie-pop band Ivy.
“I tried to talk him out of ‘Stacy’s Mom,'” Collingwood told Rolling Stone. “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.”
That “Stacy’s Mom” even had the chance to become a hit was something of a surprise. Welcome Interstate Managers arrived four years after Fountains Of Wayne’s previous album, the suburban fantasia Utopia Parkway. The delay was partly due to the fact Atlantic Records had dropped the band after Utopia Parkway‘s disappointing commercial performance. “Look, every record company wants hits,” Schlesinger told American Songwriter. “When we became less and less hit- oriented, it started to fall apart.”
However, in a 2004 interview with PopEntertainment, Collingwood also blamed himself for the gap, because he was unsure about continuing with the band. “At the end of four years of the hardest work I’d ever done in my life, more traveling and being away from my wife the whole time, I had nothing to show for it. I got back home and I had nothing. I was broke, I was demoralized, I was exhausted. I think I just needed a year to recharge my batteries.”
That weariness permeates certain corners of Welcome Interstate Managers, in that the album’s characters are stuck in dead-end jobs with terrible managers (“Working all day for a mean little guy/With a bad toupee and a soup-stained tie”), drink to excess to cope with sadness (“No Better Place”) or boredom (“Bright Future In Sales”) or long for a past romantic partner.
Several songs also deal with the disorienting (and tiring) idea of being in a band, as on “Bought For A Song,” or dip into the band’s penchant for wry, observational humor: The joke on “Halley’s Waitress” is that she only comes around to serve customers as often as her namesake comet, while “Peace And Love” stars a daydreaming, aspiring hippie who “might just move up to Vermont” to “open up a bookstore or a vegan restaurant.”
But what’s clear about Welcome Interstate Managers is that the goofy shtick of “Stacy’s Mom” was an outlier. The album brims with emotional sincerity and a distinct lack of cynicism. The protagonist of “Hey Julie” and his terrible day job found a silver lining: the presence of his caring partner. “Valley Winter Song,” meanwhile, is a lovely, low-key folk-rock tune about finding comfort within the uniquely dark New England winters. And the gleaming, chiming “All Kinds Of Time” — which featured James Iha on guitars — marvels at the idea that a very small window of time (in this case, a quarterback ready to execute a play) can be transformative.
Even better are the moments where Collingwood and Schlesinger allow sadness to creep in. On “Hung Up On You,” the narrator muses, “Now and then I wonder why this painful memory/ Can never find its way to you from me,” while the slightly anachronistic “Little Red Light” is about the yawning chasm between someone and their ex.
The wallowing-in-sadness highlight, of course, is the aching, meditative “Hackensack,” a song about someone who didn’t leave home pining for someone who did; this someone then became famous. The pair shared songwriting credits, although Collingwood noted in an interview that “Hackensack” was a Schlesinger tune. “Usually, a rule of thumb is if one of our songs has a New Jersey reference, or is about high school, that’s one of Adam’s,” Collingwood said in a 2004 interview. Even if you aren’t dreaming of someone you had a crush on decades before, “Hackensack” is relatable as a song to play when you’re musing about roads (or life paths) not taken.
Musically, Welcome Interstate Managers is also far more earnest and genuine than “Stacy’s Mom” might lead you to believe. Co-produced by the band and Mike Denneen (the latter had worked with Guster, Letters To Cleo, and Gigolo Aunts), the album scans like a trip through rock history: the ’70s AM Gold trip “Fire Island,” the boogie-rock epic “Bright Future In Sales,” the shiny ’80s rock radio nod “No Better Place,” punkish power-pop of “Little Red Light.”
This music isn’t cheesy, however, or something meant to be a spoof of these genres. The style of each song fit the themes, for starters: “Valley Winter Song” felt like the kind of song you’d play as snow fell gently outside your window, and “Hey Julie” is a bouncy, acoustic campfire jam. But the band’s musicianship and taut arrangements give Welcome Interstate Managers a modern and visceral vibe. It isn’t uncommon to have songs that start off like a Beatles-esque pop song and then crest to a churning, grungy conclusion (“Mexican Wine”) or embrace a more psychedelic side (“Supercollider”).
Welcome Interstate Managers and “Stacy’s Mom” boosted Fountains Of Wayne’s status. The band was nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal and, inexplicably, Best New Artist. (They lost in both categories.) In the coming years, Fountains Of Wayne went on to release two more studio albums before effectively ceasing activity in 2013.
However, the group’s pop culture footprint remained strong in the years after Welcome Interstate Managers. “Stacy’s Mom” of course loomed large, leading to appearances on late-night TV and bigger tours. (Recently, the song was adapted for a Maytag TV commercial, during which “Stacy’s Mom” became “Maytag Month.”) But “Valley Winter Song” also made its way into used in a warm-and-fuzzy L.L. Bean commercial in 2008; “Hey Julie” appeared on Scrubs; and Katy Perry did a lovely acoustic version of “Hackensack” on MTV Unplugged.
Schlesinger for one was content with Fountains of Wayne’s status, telling The Guardian in 2011, “We’ve always been off in our own little corner. That one moment when we were on top 40 radio was a fluke, and we knew it was.”
After Schlesinger’s death, the members of Fountains Of Wayne reunited with Sharon Van Etten for a distanced, melancholy version of “Hackensack.” Understandably, the performance was somber and permeated with grief, its message of longing for a long-ago crush transformed into what felt like a message for Schlesinger instead: “But I will wait for you/As long as I need to/And if you ever get back to Hackensack/I’ll be here for you.”
It was the very definition of bittersweet, although it did at least fulfill one wish Collingwood had for Schlesinger. As he told Rolling Stone while talking about the catch-22 of “Stacy’s Mom”: “He deserves to be remembered for more than a punch line.”