That Thing He Did

updated 03/17/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/17/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE MEMBERS OF FOUNTAINS OF Wayne huddle around the open Manhattan manhole where they have dropped fishing lines during a video shoot for their second single, "Sink to the Bottom." So what's the song about? "It's the story," bassist Adam Schlesinger says, "of a boy who is deaf, dumb and blind—but plays pinball."

Of course he's just kidding. Still it's no surprise that Schlesinger's humor has a retro feel. The debut album Fountains of Wayne, which he cowrote with partner and lead singer Chris Collingwood, oozes Beatle-juiced melodies and sports catchy hooks that add up, says Musician magazine, to "witty, whizzy pop songs with nods to '60s classics." Gushed music magazine Pulse after the CD's autumn release: "This is the most perfect pop record anyone has made in years."

In fact it was Schlesinger's preternatural knack for crafting effervescent, irresistible rock and roll melodies that caught the attention of Tom Hanks when the actor needed a title track for his 1996 directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, the story of a one-hit rock band. The song has since earned Schlesinger, 29, an unexpected Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, putting him in competition with Andrew Lloyd-Webber/Tim Rice and Diane Warren. "It's just so improbable," admits Schlesinger, who composed "That Thing" alone over one weekend. "The whole thing's been a laugh."

But Schlesinger was serious when Hanks, in the summer of '95, put the word out to music-publishing companies that he was shopping for a "very energetic" song. Polygram knew of Schlesinger's prowess with giddy pop and asked him to submit an "upbeat song" that smacked specifically of 1964, the year the film's fictional mop-top band, the Wonders, conquers America with their infectious smash.

"There was an actual sound to that year, which I seemed to nail," says Schlesinger. In his Greenwich Village apartment with bandmates Collingwood, 29, and guitarist (and roommate) Jody Porter, 27 (drummer Brian Young, 30, was home in L.A.), he says, "I looked at some Billboard charts and saw what was going on. Obviously the Beatles were the big thing."

Hanks received around 300 submissions but selected Schlesinger's buoyant demo. "One day, Tom just came into the office," says That Thing You Do! producer Gary Goetzman, "and said, 'That's the one. That's the one.' It was exactly what Tom had envisioned." While he was out in L.A. on other business, Schlesinger visited Hanks twice during production. "I have this memory of him picking up an acoustic guitar," recalls Schlesinger. "He strummed it well enough for me to say, 'Hey, you can play' "

So can Schlesinger, who, with sister Laurie, 24, grew up in Montclair, N.J., and whose "musical interest started about 30 seconds after he was born," recalls his mother, Bobbi, a publicist and amateur pianist who is married to horticulturist (and amateur clarinet player) Stephen Schlesinger, Adam's father. "He was always at the piano. He began listening to the Beatles when he was a year and a half. He would know all the words!"

In 1985, Adam, who'd been playing in cover bands, enrolled at Williams College in Massachusetts and soon met Collingwood; the two clicked and roamed the campus with their guitars, ever ready to play. Seven years after graduation the two formed Fountains of Wayne (named after a garden-statuary store in Wayne, N.J.) and began collaborating on humorous, hummable songs. "People are tired of grunge and rightly so," says Collingwood, who wrote the CD's first hit, "Radiation Vibe." "When they talk about the return of American pop bands and mention our name, I really like that."

For a time before their album came out, Schlesinger, who has a girlfriend he won't name, supported himself writing music for Fox's short-lived House of Buggin' (starring John Leguizamo), as well as for Dana Carvey's ABC show last spring. He says he hasn't yet seen a windfall for "That Thing You Do!" "I wasn't in any kind of position to demand some sort of huge, up-front fee," says Schlesinger, who refuses to disclose the amount he did get but adds that by the fall he'll have made a small sum. "It was extremely modest, but then again, they knew in a million years I would never say no."

And while he's thrilled about his Hollywood minute, he is certain it is not related to the success of the band, which recently toured with the Smashing Pumpkins and before that the Lemonheads. "The song has nothing to do with Fountains of Wayne," says Schlesinger, who never plays the song live. Collingwood, while delighted for his friend, agrees that the nomination has created misconceptions. "People just think Adam wrote all the songs on our record," he says.

Nothing an acceptance speech on Oscar night can't clear up. And what exactly would he do with an Oscar? "I think I would keep it on my amp," says Schlesinger. "So that during our show, Chris can turn to me and say, 'On bass, Oscar-winner Adam Schlesinger!' "

PETER CASTRO
CYNTHIA WANG and MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City

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