Brian M. Raftery
May 30, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Fountains of Wayne guys have plenty of stories about their major-label days, but none encapsulates eight years of curious luck better than the motorcycle-gang incident.

This was back in ’96, when the group was riding the success of ”Radiation Vibe,” an alarmingly catchy, chorus-saturated sing-along that had taken off on MTV. Hoping to goose the band’s momentum, Atlantic Records asked them to go on the stump for their new single, the problematically titled ”Leave the Biker.”

”We had an idea to go to radio stations with a bunch of bikers,” remembers bassist Adam Schlesinger. ”We went to Hogs & Heifers and rounded them up. What we didn’t realize is that we’d enlisted opposing camps who hated each other — 20 bikers, two rival gangs. We had to get out of there.” The promotional tour was scrapped, and ”Leave the Biker” fell off radio’s radar.

Schlesinger, 35, and his longtime songwriting partner, vocalist Chris Collingwood, 35, tell this mini-Altamont tale from Chelsea’s Stratosphere Sound, the studio Schlesinger co-owns with ex-Smashing Pumpkin James Iha. It’s summer 2002, and though the pair have assembled to record material for their third album, Welcome Interstate Managers, there’s no urgency. In part because their 120 Minutes of fame ran out in the late ’90s, Fountains of Wayne — which also includes drummer Brian Young and guitarist Jody Porter, both 33 — are working without a deal. It’s the kind of mid-career flux now commonplace in a struggling industry, with its shrinking bottom lines and rosters, but the Fountains’ record-collecting, power-pop-adoring fans (guys who ”live in Hoboken and run record shops,” as Collingwood describes them) don’t want to hear about corporate trends. Talk to FOW admirers and you’ll hear the same question again and again: Why isn’t this band famous yet?

”Who’s to say?” answers Iha. ”Maybe they haven’t fit into the trends of the time. They’ll have their fans, regardless. They’re making their own cottage industry.”

To understand why anyone would obsess over alt-rock castaways, you might take a trip to Queens or, specifically, the suburban wonderland illuminated on Fountains of Wayne’s neglected 1999 album, Utopia Parkway. On its 14 songs, the outskirts of New York — including Coney Island and the Jersey shore — are portrayed as a Shangri-la teeming with wistful prom attendees, tattoo-seeking .38 Special fans, and a knee-weakening Liberty Travel agent named Denise. The people are instantly recognizable, and thanks to a brew of pop influences (the Kinks, the Cars, the Beach Boys), the hooks instantly memorable.

”The songs are character studies,” says Steve Yegelwel, the former Atlantic A&R rep who signed the band to its first deal. ”They’re not necessarily the most flattering portraits, but…there’s sympathy there.”

Yegelwel first heard the Fountains under ideal circumstances: driving around on a warm afternoon in ’96, windows down and the band’s four-song demo blaring. By then Schlesinger and Collingwood had been writing together for years, having teamed up at Massachusetts’ Williams College in the late ’80s. Collingwood, a native of Bucks County, Pa., was into British art-pop like the Smiths’; Schlesinger, from Montclair, N.J. (the band got their name from a fountain and lawn-ornament shop in Wayne, N.J., not far from there), favored the big-chorus bravado of U2. But they proved to be an effective partnership, spending hours hanging out, jotting song names on bar napkins and challenging each other to write a song around them.

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