Pop music rarely reserves sympathy for the regional VP. One exception: Adam Schlesinger, bassist and part-time songwriter for rock darlings Fountains of Wayne. Schlesinger's characters on the band's third album, Welcome Interstate Managers, slog through Monday night meetings, circulate at office parties, and struggle with CRM software. "[People] say, 'You can't write a pop song about that! That's not cool!' " says Schlesinger, 36. But for him, nasty bosses and lackluster waitresses coolly capture what dominates his audience's life: work. The week the band's 1980s-inflected single, "Stacy's Mom," cracked the top five on MTV's Top 20 Videos, Schlesinger invited Fast Company to his Manhattan studio.
Fast Company: Where do your characters come from?
SCHLESINGER: I start by thinking of a scenario that's familiar to a lot of people. Most of your day is spent working, and being in a band is no different. We're just business travelers in a way. People ask, "Are you looking down on these characters because that's not what you do?" And I say, "No, it is exactly what we do!" Except, instead of going to an office, we go to a club.
FC: Did you have a lot of day jobs?
SCHLESINGER: Chris [Collingwood, the band's cofounder] and I did a lot of temping. Chris was Temp of the Month several times. We got glimpses into people's offices; probably a lot of this [record] came from that time. I had a job transcribing a biotechnology-litigation seminar. You put headphones on and fast-forward and stop with your feet. There were a lot of "um's." Out of boredom, I started putting them in. Notice I didn't get Temp of the Month.
FC: What's the deal with "Little Red Light"? You don't hear too many pop songs about electronic gadgets.
SCHLESINGER: I wanted to put the Tappan Zee Bridge in a song. So I started describing this guy sitting in traffic. Then I hit on this idea: His girl left him, which is the ultimate pop theme, but the way he keeps being reminded is he keeps checking these gadgets.
FC: Do people say, "Hey, you've got my life figured out"?
SCHLESINGER: Chris's brother works for Merck in Philadelphia. He and his buddies come to see us, and they're always high-fiving us—"Dude, that's me in that song!"—and buying us beers.
FC: Besides travel, are there other similarities between working for a corporation and being in a band?
SCHLESINGER: It's identical except that occasionally you have to write songs. In promotional mode, every day is a series of decisions. You can easily fill up your day with checklist stuff.
FC: The song "Mexican Wine" is kind of a departure for the band. (Sample: "I used to fly for United Airlines/Then I got fired for reading High Times.")
SCHLESINGER: A song sometimes ends up with its own internal logic. That song ended up being about, Enjoy life because you're going to die and crazy, bizarre things are going to happen, so relax and enjoy yourself a little bit.
FC: Not a very good business attitude.
SCHLESINGER: (laughs) Maybe it is!
A version of this article appeared in the December 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.