Ever wonder which movies inspire your favorite bands or how filmmakers work with artists to compile your favorite soundtracks? Sound to Screen is a regular feature that explores where film and music intersect. This month, Adam Schlesinger discusses how he wrote The Wonders’ ‘chart-topping hit for That Thing You Do!
Adam Schlesinger’s career is not short on milestones, the first being signing a contract with Polygram Records in the mid-’90s. It was a musical rite of passage that every songwriter dreams of but few achieve, but the surprises didn’t stop there. Still years before Schlesinger’s own band, Fountains of Wayne, would achieve chart-topping success, he was offered a shot at penning the titular song for That Thing You Do!, a sweet, borderline-campy film paying tribute to a fictitious band swept up in the craze of ’60s Beatlemania.
Twenty years later, “That Thing You Do” still stands up as an irresistibly catchy piece of ’60s guitar pop pastiche, with or without The Wonders fronting it. We recently caught up with Schlesinger by phone to talk about the song, its enduring legacy, Tom Hanks, and what it’s like to have a tune shadow you for more than two decades.
Does it feel like it’s been 20 years since you wrote “That Thing You Do”?
It does feel like 20 years. It feels like it’s been 50 years, actually. [Laughs.] I think at this point, I remember it more through talking about it than I do through my own memory.
Yeah, I can imagine. People have really kept that song and the movie alive over time.
That time in my life was really crazy. A lot of things were changing in my life. Fountains of Wayne was just getting going. Ivy was just getting going. This opportunity to even attempt to write the song just came out of nowhere. The whole thing kind of took me by surprise, and it ended up opening a lot of doors for me.
How did the opportunity come about?
I had recently signed a music publishing deal with Polygram, which is now part of Universal. That was in a lot of ways my first professional contract of any kind. I had some friends there who knew that I liked writing ’60s-style, melodic sort of pop stuff. They heard about this movie that was happening, and they said, “You should take a crack at this. This is up your alley.”
What was your response to that? Had you ever entertained the idea of writing music for film up to that point?
I mean, it was just a shot in the dark. It wasn’t like I was hired to do it. I think they just put the word out about it. I definitely thought it was something in my wheelhouse, and the fact that it was a Tom Hanks project made it feel like it was worth a couple of days of effort. It was definitely worth taking a swing at it. I played around with some ideas for a couple of days. As I recall, I had three variations of the same song. They were all slightly different. I played them all for a few of my friends, and they all pointed to the same one. So, I went and did a demo with Mike Viola and Andy Chase, two friends of mine, and that’s what we sent in.
It makes sense that you’d write something to fit that film, given your ear for that kind of Beatles-esque ’60s pop. How did you arrive at writing and playing that kind of music?
I was definitely a Beatles freak as a kid, and for a long time I only listened to The Beatles, especially when I was very young. As I got older, my tastes expanded, but The Beatles were certainly the starting point in terms of my entry into pop music, as they were for many people. Whenever I’m given an assignment like this, the first thing I do is ask a lot of questions, just to make sure that I understand the assignment correctly. Sometimes you’re given really good information, and other times it’s really shoddy. In this case, the information was incredibly good and specific, and I think that really helped me out a lot. They said it should sound like an American band that was blown away by The Beatles right after they arrived and was trying to imitate them.
There’s an endless number of bands that sprung up after The Beatles. Did you find yourself going back to a lot of music from that area as you were writing the song?
I think I did a little bit. They mentioned a few bands, like The Knickerbockers, so I did go back to some stuff. But mostly I just went back to the early Beatles. If the goal was to write a song for a band that was trying to sound like The Beatles, that’s what I was doing anyway. I could cut out the middle man. It didn’t seem like there was a need to imitate the imitators.
Is there one Beatles song that you think “That Thing You Do” is especially indebted to? Was there one in particular that was floating around in your head as you were writing?
I don’t think there’s one in particular. I think it’s a hybrid of a few different ones. There’s a little bit of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” when it sort of goes to that minor chord, which I think is the best chord in the whole song. I tried to do that a little bit, where the song’s in E and then it goes to the C sharp minor. But it’s really a mix of a few. Mike Viola, who co-produced the thing and did the demo with me, is also well-versed in the correct parts to be playing. When I first submitted it to him, I sort of strummed it on the acoustic guitar. But when we got to the studio, he had a lot to do with figuring out the parts.
You’ve performed the song with Mike a lot over the years. Do you look at the song as being as much his as it is yours?
Well, it’s a funny thing. I think Mike’s attitude about the song has changed a lot over the years. At the time, he was sort of in the place of “I just wanna do my art, man. You’re the one who does movies and TV.” I think that sort of boundary has gone away. When I first got the assignment, I asked him, “Hey, do you want to work on this together?” He said, “No, it’s not really my thing.” He helped me do the demo of it, which was great. But in terms of sitting down and writing the song, he was sort of politely demur. But now, he’s gone on to do a lot of the same kind of thing. He’s done some great movie songs. I think it’s like you said, that there’s sort of this novelty to it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t exist on its own.
How long did the song take you to write?
I remember spending two or three days on it, which is usually what it takes for me to get something together. The first day is just about getting the initial inspiration going, then it’s a couple days of tweaking and polishing it.
I’ve talked to other songwriters who have said that their best songs are the ones that come together pretty quickly.
I think so. If the idea is strong, then you know where to go even after just messing around with it. After that, it’s just sort of about forcing yourself to do the work. I’m inherently very lazy, but I know that if I have a deadline, I will get it done by that deadline. That’s part of the reason why I like doing this kind of thing. There’s no time to wait around for your muse to strike. If you want to have a shot at it, you have to get it in.
How did you find out that the song had been chosen?
My memory of it was it wasn’t just one call. It was a long process of people saying, “You’re in the running” or “We like your song.” It was a period of several months at least of not having a definitive answer. Ultimately, someone called and said, “We’re using it.” It was a lot of second-hand information for a long time, but finally I heard from the people on the movie.
What kind of input did you have on the film beyond them selecting the song? Did they consult with you at all once production began?
Everyone had a very bad case of demo-itis. We made an incredible demo that was really spot on. I think they tried to get a different singer, but they ended up hiring Mike to be the voice of the guy in the movie. That was a big decision. Then they asked me to send the multi-track of the demo out so they could kind of study it. There’s a lot of different versions of the song used in the movie. The original demo we did with me on drums, that’s in the movie somewhere. Then there’s sort of the ultimate version, which is the one that Don Was produced, which was pretty close to the demo. They added a few things, but it’s pretty close to the original.
Did you come up with the title?
No, they had the title before I even started writing the song. In fact, one of my first questions was “’That Thing You Do’? What does that mean?” I don’t think anyone had a specific idea of what that meant.
But it sounds like a ’60s song.
Yeah, right. It’s a great title. It totally works.
What was your first impression of the film when you saw the final cut?
It was completely surreal. A lot of things in my life were pretty surreal at that point, so I was just enjoying the ride.
One thing that really jumps out to me about the song is how many times it’s actually used in the film. It’s almost impossible to keep track.
Yeah, it’s nuts. I remember being almost embarrassed by it (laughs). It almost felt like it was too much. But it’s funny because 10 or 11 years later, I worked on this movie called Music and Lyrics. It’s this other music movie that Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore starred in. The plot again hinges on this one song that they’re writing together throughout the movie, and at the end there’s this big, debut performance of the song in an arena. When they cut the movie, they didn’t use the whole song in that scene. They cut away from it, and I told the director “Really? You’re not going to play the whole song?” It was kind of the opposite experience.
Yeah, almost like That Thing You Do kind of spoiled you a bit.
I just always wondered if they consciously did that, but maybe it’s just a commentary on how ubiquitous a song can be when it catches on with radio and mainstream audiences.
It’s that, but it’s also a reflection of being in the bubble as a band. I know this from my own experience with my own band. People all of a sudden know you for this one song. It just follows you around, and you have to play it over and over again. It comes to define you, but you have to find a way to stay fresh with it and enthusiastic about it. It’s a weird thing.
Was that how you remembered it being with “Stacy’s Mom?”
Yeah, for sure. But it’s any band. You look at some bands who have these careers that are 30 or 40 years long, and they’re playing these three or four songs that they wrote when they were in their teens or 20s that everyone still knows. So you spend an afternoon writing these songs as kids, then all these years later you’re still playing it, trying to remember where it came from.
It’s kind of a double-edged sword in a way. Most songwriters can only hope for one of their songs to endure in that way, but at the same time you can be boxed in by that kind of success.
It’s a happy problem to have, really. Before “That Thing You Do”, I hadn’t written anything that anybody knew. Then I had one thing that people knew, and then a few years on I had a couple other songs that people knew. When you’re just starting out and you want to be a songwriter, you want to be able to mention something that people have heard of.
I’d imagine the element of surprise that came with the success of “That Thing You Do” has to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the song. The opportunity to write it came to you unexpectedly, but 20 years later we’re still talking about it.
Yeah, it’s amazing that that happened. It’s crazy looking back to think that Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, his partner, had the confidence to pull a song out of a pile and say, “Yeah, we like this one.” So much of what gets done in the music business comes down to “Well, let’s get this guy that did this one thing.” People often don’t trust their own ears. There’s so much money riding on these things, it’s easier to go, “Let’s get the guy that wrote these five things, because he’s hot right now.” But these guys based an entire movie around a song written by some kid who they never heard of. We actually didn’t even know how to submit it, so Mike and I made up a band name and put it on a cassette when we sent it in. We said it was by a band called Scientist Alexis (laughs). It doesn’t exist. It was just me, Mike, and Andy. Tom Hanks just pulled it out and said, “Let’s use this one.” That’s a miraculous thing.
Did you have any conversation with Hanks during the course of making the film? Did he ever give you any direct feedback on the song?
I did. Once they actually settled on it, I met him. I’ve hung out with him since. They’re very nice. The people in the (Playtone) office are very friendly. It’s the same core group of people who have been there since the movie. I try to stop by there once every couple of years to say hello, and occasionally Tom is there.
The song feels like a very genuine documentation of a specific time and a place that I think a lot of people are still nostalgic for.
Oh, well thanks, man. For at least a decade, there’s been talk about turning the movie into a stage musical. Whenever they decide to actually do it, I’m here. They can call me up, because I think it would work.
It obviously lends itself to a musical, and there probably would be an opportunity to write some more Wonders songs.
Yeah. There’s a lot of good songs in the movie, but you could also do a lot of musical-type songs that help tell the story. Or not. maybe you just write more songs that kind of fill out the band’s world.