Fastball's third act
Many things can happen to a band with a million-selling album, as was the case when Fastball, Austin's great white power-pop hope, hit platinum with "The Way" from 1998's All the Pain Money Can Buy. Seldom is getting dropped one of those things, as was the case following the poor sales of Pain's follow-up, 2000's The Harsh Light of Day. By that point, however, the local trio was having its own problems.
"We finished touring [The Harsh Light of Day], and speaking for myself, I was sick of the whole thing," admits Miles Zuniga, guitarist and one of Fastball's two principal songwriters. "I didn't like it; I just wanted out."
Tony Scalzo, author of "The Way," was also surprised by the lack of enthusiasm for the group's last major label effort.
"I thought, '[Pain] sold a million, this one will sell 3 million.' That's how naive I was."
What followed was the group's regrouping; Zuniga left Austin for Nashville and later announced his departure from Fastball. Scalzo and drummer Joey Shuffield, meanwhile, vowed to soldier on, adding a keyboardist and auditioning another guitarist. Both soon lost interest, as indicated by their joining local Seventies-grounded bombasters Young Heart Attack. By all appearances, Fastball had landed in the one-hit-wonder dustbin.
Then, a funny thing happened on "The Way" to obscurity: the band's fourth album (not including 2002's Painting the Corners: The Best of Fastball), this spring's Live From Jupiter Records. Turns out that with little fanfare, Zuniga had moved back to Austin and approached Scalzo with a novel concept: writing together -- something the two singer-songwriters had never done. Armed with a handful of new, collaborative compositions, and a few memorable catalog faves, the reconstituted trio put in a surprise acoustic appearance at the Hancock Center indie record store and taped it. Suddenly, Fastball was once again a going concern.
Or so it would seem. On this particularly balmy day in early June, Fastball seems anything but together. Whereas all three members of the band were scheduled for an interview at Quackenbush's, only Zuniga shows up, noting that his bandmates won't be joining us as expected. Scalzo is pinpointed soon after at the Dog & Duck Pub having lunch, while drummer Joey Shuffield is busy prepping for a London visit with side project Young Heart Attack.
What might look like a much more sensational story is chalked up to scheduling conflicts, because in reality, Fastball is very much reunited and very much bent on reinventing itself. Not that this erases the past, but then again, what doesn't kill your band hopefully makes it stronger.
"There were problems in the band from the beginning that I couldn't ever figure out," says Zuniga candidly. "I think what it was, was that from the beginning, Tony and I never really were friends. Joey and I had been friends a long time. Joey introduced me to Tony, and we just started gigging around, and stuff started happening pretty fast for us.
"We were always working, so I never actually got to be friends with him. I didn't actually think it was important. We were bandmates. We became friends, but not good friends, which I think is a crucial difference."
Scalzo, for his part, is less forthcoming.
"Maybe we felt a little threatened of each other," he offers.
"There was always this competition," adds Zuniga, "which is healthy. But at the same time maybe a little too competitive."
Such competition is what drives many bands -- and also tears them apart. This is especially true when songwriters within a band are doing battle for their own material as opposed to the band itself. It was while living and working in Nashville that Zuniga realized that sharing songwriting duties with Scalzo might be the best thing for everyone.
"I was living in Nashville, and I was writing all the time," explains Zuniga. "I was co-writing as much as I could. I was like, 'This is ridiculous. I'm writing with people I don't know, and I haven't written a song with Tony -- and we're in the same band!'"
When Zuniga approached Scalzo about writing together, the latter paid a visit to Nashville, and the collaborative process began. The only problem was Zuniga wasn't ready to return to Austin and couldn't envision Fastball as an active entity unless all the members resided within the same city limits. Since both Scalzo and Shuffield hoped to keep the band going, Zuniga gave his bandmates his blessing to move on and find a replacement.
When they never did, Zuniga decided it might be a good idea to head back to Austin, a town he missed if for nothing else than for its eclectic mix of artists and thinkers. The only snag: There was still tension between Zuniga and Scalzo.
"That's when I said, 'You know, if I'm gonna do this thing, I really want to get to know you better,'" Zuniga remembers telling Scalzo. "I thought the best thing to do was just get in a car and go play."
So that's exactly what the two of them did. Scalzo and Zuniga hopped in a car and toured the country under the Fastball moniker, playing acoustic sets wherever they could.
"We realized that this is a core, and we need each other," agrees Scalzo.
After many cross-country miles of warm-up, the band -- with Shuffield -- reunited for the Jupiter Records in-store. The result, available both at Jupiter and at the band's shows, includes the breezy co-write "I Get High" and thoughtful "Falling Upstairs." Fastball plans to take these new songs and more into the studio for a more "fleshed out" interpretation that will become a studio record sometime in 2004.
After the sour experience with Hollywood Records, would the band ever consider another major label deal? They're not totally opposed to the idea, but they aren't begging for a contract either. Regardless, they hope to sign with a new label that understands them a bit better.
"[Hollywood Records] just totally turned its back on us," he says. "What we wanted was not really drastic. We weren't allowed control."
As hardened as the men of Fastball may sound, their music remains as catchy as it is on their four albums. They'll continue playing shows throughout the next 12 months, both as the duo and a trio. And, despite their hard feelings for the music business, they're probably a lot smarter thanks to the trials and tribulations of being, as Zuniga calls them, "a two-and-a-half hit wonder."
"We made some money, and we got to go all over the world, and it was exciting," concludes Zuniga. "When I started, all I wanted to do was hit the big time. Now, having done that, I think I'd rather do something else."
Fastball plays the Cactus Cafe Saturday, June 14.