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Life Throws A Fastball

And twenty years of pain …

 

INTERVIEW BY ALISON RICHTER

 

 

 

 

Miles Zuniga talks to Harmony Central through Gearphoria about the upcoming 20th anniversary of the band’s sophomore and breakthrough album, All The Pain Money Can Buy.

Fastball — Zuniga, vocalist/bassist Tony Scalzo, and drummer Joey Shuffield — was formed in Austin, Texas, in 1995. Three years and two albums later, they were riding the crest of chart and radio success. All The Pain Money Can Buy, the follow-up to their Hollywood Records debut, Make Your Mama Proud [1996], sold over a million copies within six months of its release and resulted in three hit singles: ‘The Way,’ ‘Out Of My Head,’ and ‘Fire Escape.’ The musicians that previously traveled in a van were now touring the world, earning two Grammy nominations and an MTV Music Awards nomination. More recordings followed — 2000’s The Harsh Light of Day, 2004’s Keep Your Wig On, and 2009’s Little White Lies — the first release on their own 33 1/3 label. Through it all, the tour dates never stopped. Last year, Fastball released their long-awaited sixth album, Step Into Light, and immediately returned to the road.

Over the course of two decades, Fastball continued hitting creative home runs, but the music industry kept changing, and so did Miles Zuniga. Music fulfilled him, but the extracurricular trappings of success and adulation didn’t, and so began years of personal and professional soul-searching, which he candidly detailed in a nearly 90-minute discussion.

 

Promo Shot: Fastball, with Zuniga checking his phone, pose for a publicity photo related to the band's new release Step Into Light.

 

GEARPHORIA: I thought we could do a “then and now” — recording then and now, gear then and now. “Then” being All The Pain Money Can Buy and “now” obviously being Step Into Light.

MILES: It’s a perfect kind of analogy, or perfectly fits with the way everybody’s lives have changed, I think. They used to spend more time, and stuff was more expensive and harder to do. It just was, because of technology. To make things sound a certain way you needed a lot of people who were skilled at what they did. Also, the standards were different. Everything has changed.
Today you literally can make records on your laptop, no problem, and people don’t really care. The sound
— it’s hard to quantify. We’re all used to listening to MP3s, which to me sound like shit, but I listen to them too because they’re so convenient. I’m not going to stop listening to music or wait until I get home to listen to music. I love music, so I happily listen to Spotify and all these other things, even though the sound quality isn’t as good as vinyl. But it’s there in your pocket wherever you go. It’s fantastic.

So, in answer to your question, the difference was primarily one of money, and also I guess you’d say importance, or in our minds importance, because back then you had one shot. We had one shot and blew it. Then we had one more shot, and this really was it, and we were lucky to be there. We all knew it was a freak of nature that we got a second shot because we should have been dropped. But it worked out that the president of the label got fired, so through some strange quirk of fate we dodged a bullet and had one more chance to have a music career. Whereas now, not only have we already had a music career, but the world really does treat music and new releases, and the way they’re consumed and the time frame that people talk about them, completely different. When Nevermind by Nirvana came out, that was like an earthquake, musically, and it lasted in the culture a long time. People were still talking about it, writing about it, buzzing about it for a year or longer. Fast-forward to now someone puts out a record — it could be the biggest artist in the world — they talk about it for maybe three days and it’s over. It’s so last week. People are on to the next thing because music is occupying the same space that pop trivia is, that games are, that movies are. It’s no longer off in its own little spot because everything is consumed on a phone, on a tablet; it’s all the same. It’s all competing for your attention, and by that very nature, it’s less important. It’s just one more thing. There are songs that still mean things to people, but it’s completely different the way we digest it. So all those things work in concert. I think every- body’s going through the same thing, in a way. Back then the gig economy hadn’t become the norm, so being a musician, and being someone whose livelihood is uncertain and sort of tied to the winds, to the ebb and flow of all these different things, that was a fairly unique experience. Now everyone lives that way.

Everyone has some job that might be gone tomorrow. So everything was different. It was night and day. I don’t want to sound like an old man, but I guess I will: It was a simpler, better time.

 

Was it? Or do we tend to romanticize the past?

I think when you’re younger, life’s easier, so it’s better. That’s a simple answer. How could you prefer being 51 to 27? I guess you could, but I loved being 27. It was great! I would go back there now. You’re young and you have no worries. You have worries, but in comparison, they’re not the same kind of worries, so there’s that. It’s hard to say, really, but I do remember that time with real fondness. There was optimism in the culture. Clinton was president and everybody liked it, for the most part. The stock market was booming and everybody was happy.

 

Aren’t people happy today?

If they’re happy today, they’re happy in spite of current world events, not because of it. We’re living in an uncertain, possibly terrifying, interesting time. We’re living in a time when things are changing, and that’s good and bad. There are all kinds of exciting things happening with the women’s movement, and there’s a lot going on. Back then there wasn’t that much ... here’s an example: I know who all my state representatives are now. I had no idea who they were then. It was like, “Those guys are running the country and I play rock and roll. I don’t have to worry about that stuff. They’ve got it.” Now I’m like, “What are they doing? What are they up to now?”

Here’s a funny barometer that I use. Again, the culture’s changed so much that I can’t really tell you what our prevailing culture is, especially in rock and roll. I don’t even know if there is a rock and roll culture at large the way it was back then when you had Nirvana, Soundgarden, all these grunge bands that dominated. And here’s the interesting thing. Back then, everything was great and all the music was depressing and “My life sucks, and I’m so this, and I’m so that, and black hole sun, and I hate myself.” That was what everybody was writing about because they were spoiled little brats because things were so good they had nothing to complain about!

When life gets hard, people stop bitching and they start writing positive shit. It’s true! When life gets hard, no one wants to hear how hard life is. “Shut up. Get my mind off things, would you? Write me something good that will take me away from all this shit.” That’s the way it is. That’s the way it was during wartime. In the ’40s there were all those musicals because people don’t want ... they want depressing stuff when they have the luxury of being depressed. So I know it was good back then just based on the music!

 

In that case, explain the ’60s. Explain Dylan.

Well, that music is really brave. It’s not mopey music. It’s steel-eyed, determined music. Bob Dylan, especially in the early part of the ’60s, was courageous music, telling it like it is and pretty unadorned. I think that no one would want to hear a song about how bad life is. In fact, that didn’t really start to happen until the ’80s and ’90s, when the prevailing mood, song after song after song ... just look at the titles. Limp Bizkit had that song about how everything sucks. Remember that stupid song? [‘Break Stuff,’ 1999] You spoiled little brat! You’re a gazillionaire; what’s wrong with your life? If you had that song come out now, people would be, “F— off! What are you talking about, dude? You think your life sucks?” I don’t think I answered your question...

I don’t remember the question. I think we were making our way toward gear then and now.

 

I can circle back and tell you.

Let’s circle back... Then and now, the difference was pretty amazing in terms of what was available to us. Because we had a major label deal and the budget was pretty big, we were able to record at A&M Studios, which is a beautiful studio on the A&M lot. You’d drive onto the lot, the gate opens, there’s gardeners and stuff, birds chirping, the studio has these huge doors, the room is gorgeous, carpets everywhere, high ceilings, beautifully lit, with beautiful instruments.

Our producer, Julian Raymond, had the most amazing collection of instruments. He had, like, 50 guitars and basses. It was like going to the wine cellar to pick out what you wanted to play. These Anvil cases, I’ll never forget, would take up the whole wall. They were on wheels, they’d open them up, you would walk by, and inside were all these guitars. There was a whole range of different tones and moods. And then you had the amps, and we had an engineer and an assistant engineer, and someone to run and get us coffee and food. I felt like David Bowie! Fantastic! Versus doing it at our friend’s studio, which is just a tiny two-room thing, one room upstairs, one room downstairs, two guys — an engineer and a producer — and that’s it. No one to get you coffee.

 

You had to get your own coffee?!

Who can work in these conditions?! But also we were paying for it on our own dime. It wasn’t
a record company budget, which that’s a long, complicated thing, but they advance you money, so you do owe them money, but the only way they can get their money back is if you sell records. So it’s a kind of “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” type of thing. Whereas when you’re the guy writing checks, it’s psychologically different. It comes straight out of your bank account and you’re like, “OK, let’s get this puppy done.” Also, we had a self-imposed deadline because we were supposed to go on tour. The tour ended up falling through, but we thought we had to get this record done by that date. We had not just financial pressure but a hard deadline, so we were working hard on that. Whereas the big hit record, we didn’t even know if it was ever going to come out. We felt like we’d snuck into the studio on some fluke, we were in there recording, and we were under the guidance of this producer who really knew what he was doing. It took us a month, I guess, and this one took two weeks, so it’s not that drastic a difference, but it sure felt different. It was a magic carpet ride, but we didn’t know if all of our efforts would be for naught. We didn’t know if the record would even come out.

We definitely knew that our little record would come out because we live in a different age. “At the very least, we’ll put it out ourselves,” and that’s what we ended up doing. Suddenly you have worldwide distribution with the press of a button. That doesn’t mean people are going to hear about it or listen to it, but it’s available everywhere. Back then, that was some sort of miracle.
You could have music and no one would hear it because the only way they could hear it was to go to a store and buy it, and how are you going to get it in every store in the country, much less the world? Impossible. You needed to be on a label. We had a lot more gear and stuff back then, beautiful guitars, Vox and Marshall amps, probably some Fenders. We had amazing engineers, and a string section came in. It’s completely different now. I think just across the board life has gotten way more efficient and a lot less glamorous.

 

For a guy who “could give a ‘f’” about gear and just wants it “to turn on and work,” did all that gear mean anything to you when you made All The Pain?

I was happy that there was all this gear around, but it wasn’t mine. Anything you own, you have to maintain and store, so I’m of the mind that you could give me a million dollars and I still wouldn’t race out and buy a bunch of stuff. I want essentials. That’s what I want. I want stuff that I want to play that’s going to sound good, and I don’t need a lot of it. I need a couple of guitars and a couple of amps and I’m happy.

I admire people like Rick Nielson, who has I don’t know how many guitars, but I don’t know how he keeps track. I imagine that a lot of them are sitting there collecting dust, but to his credit, he plays a lot of guitars at a Cheap Trick show! There’s a different one every song. That’s dedication there. Hats off to him. But I’ve never been that kind of guy. I’ve always been, “What can I get it done with, and what’s going to be the most durable thing that’s going to sound good on all of these tunes?”

I use two or three guitars. I love Les Pauls. You can play any style of music on that. I like Casinos. I have a John Lennon reissue that they sent me, and it’s amazing. I’ve had it for almost 20 years, it plays like a dream, and it sounds great. I also have an SG that my friend sold me that he didn’t like. I don’t know why, because it’s a great guitar. If you don’t want to lug around a Les Paul, that’s a happy medium — the tone of a Les Paul and something in the middle. I still haven’t been able to wrap my head around Telecasters and stuff. To me, they’re almost like a different instrument because they’ve got such a specific sound. I love NRBQ, and Al Anderson did a lot of that stuff on
a Tele. I love the way it sounds, but I haven’t been able to incorporate that biting, twangy tone into my stuff yet. I feel like I should have a Tele just to complete things, but as of this date, I still don’t own one.

 

You’re loyal to Alan Durham’s effects pedals. What do you like about them?

He has a company called Durham Electronics. He’s a great guy and he knows a lot about sound. The Sex Drive was the first one I tried. Lots of people in town were using it, so I was, “Let me check this out.” I’m friends with him, so I went over to his place and started playing it. It is a really nice, clean boost, and it sounds so good that oftentimes you just leave it on throughout, and now you have no boost because the thing is on, so that’s the new volume and that’s how loud you are. So if you want to be above that, you need something else, but I resist and dial in the tone on my amp and then use the Sex Drive. That thing’s an easy way to get there. When we do fly gigs and have to use whatever amp’s there, the Sex Drive is the great equalizer. It will make almost anything sound good, so I’m very fond of that pedal. The other pedal, the Crazy Horse, is a little bit more esoteric. I’m sure if I put in the time, but you know me...

 

Fastball Live: Zuniga and his Casino riffing at a concert in Houston, TX in 2013.

 

I’m starting to...

I’m sure if I put in the time I might be able to figure out all the ins and outs of the way to make it sound, but I just use it for single- note lead stuff, and I kind of know how to get that. But because it’s so specific, I don’t take it on fly gigs. The Sex Drive is really the instrumental thing.

Speaking of gear, I will mention that I bought a Matchless amp, which I’d never used and always been suspicious ... I’m pretty traditional about “Is it a Vox or a Fender or a Marshall?” To me, those are the holy trinity of amps, and if it isn’t, I naturally steer away. But the same friend that sold me the SG directed me toward this Matchless, and I could not believe how great it sounded. I bought it, we played a gig a couple of weeks ago, and I hardly needed my pedals anymore to get above the band. This amp had such great tone that ... you know when you play an acoustic you don’t need a boost; you play with a bunch of guys acoustic, you take as solo, and it’s going to jump out, usually. This was the same. It was like the tone was so good that the solos didn’t get lost in the shuffle the way they normally would, so I was really pleased with that. I don’t know what the voodoo is. I think this particular amp is from the early 2000’s. You would know; you work for Gear ... Geartopia? Is that it?

 

Gearphoria.

I should start my own magazine called Gearphobia. [Editor’s note: Miles will have to come to us for that URL.]

 

I love that. We’ll do interviews like the one you did with Kids Interview Bands. We’ll talk about your nightmares.

Gearphobia. In parentheses, it could say, “Am I doing this wrong?” So this Matchless amp is somewhere from... I think it’s one of those deals there, “Oh, the company changed owners,” or “That one guy that worked there left.” That’s what makes the gear...gear, right? “Oh, that’s when they started making them in Mexico instead of here.” It’s knowing those things and serial numbers and stuff. That’s why it clouds my head over. If you know all that stuff, you can get really specific and get great gear. I’d rather pay someone to do that for me. I’d rather be writing songs.

But this friend of mine is very knowledgeable, and he directed
me toward this amp and it really
is great. We just got off the road, and I’ve only used it once in a local show. But it will be on the road. After one show it’s become my favorite amp. It’s a beast. It’s heavy and it takes up a lot of room in the sound, so I’m still learning. I’ve been playing the same way for years and years and years, stomping on certain pedals during certain songs, so all that stuff is muscle memory and trained, and to suddenly have this amp where maybe you don’t need the pedal on that song is going to take a little getting used to, but it’ll work itself out. I’m excited about it. That’s the newest thing to my collection. And I do play acoustic too. I do solo shows, and I’m starting to experiment with a loop pedal. I might add a delay pedal, and I might add two loop pedals, so that could get really freaky really fast.

FLOORED: Zuniga’s board rotates around the same three dirt pedals: a Durham Sexdrive, Durham Crazy Horse, and an Ibanez Tube Screamer.

 

Are you going to take two amps on the road or just the Matchless?

I might actually take that step and have two amps. The same friend that turned me on to the Matchless told me two amps is the way to go. I said, “Why?” And he said, “It’s just better.”

 

But do they go to 11?

These go to 11. You see most performers that are of a certain level, they always have two amps, so it must be better. I’ve just been doing it wrong. You usually have at least two. You can do all kinds of fun things with them. You can run a delay through one, there’s a stereo split where you’re getting ... again it starts to ... right away I start to bristle when people talk about it because I don’t want to know about it. I don’t know why I am this way. I just believe in the magic, and I just believe in twisting the knobs around until it’s like, “There! It’s great! Record it!” As opposed to “You need to cut the 5k by half a decibel.” Once it starts to get mathematical, I get ill. My brain isn’t wired for that. It becomes scientific, and I know that’s important, you couldn’t make great records without it, but to me, that’s someone else’s job. That’s the province of ... the same way a race car driver doesn’t need to know how to change all the tires. Someone else is doing that, someone else is tweaking the engine, someone else is working on the car. The racecar driver is trying to win the race. That’s it. He’s focused on the race. It’s the same. There are different jobs for everybody. But if you can do both, I think you’re quite an asset to any organization if you know all about sound and you’re also an amazing musician.

Zuniga Gear: An example of what Mile's used during a 2013 Fastball Live Performance in Houston.

 

You said you’ve been playing the same way for years, the muscle memory. Then and now: How would you describe yourself as a player 20 years ago, making that album, versus the player you are on this album?

I think I was running on arrogance and fear and insecurity all bundled into one. I thought I was really great, and I also thought I really sucked, and I was afraid I was an imposter and everyone was going to find out. So it was kind of all together. And I didn’t practice very much. I was just doing the best I could at the time.

In the intervening years, I’ve learned a lot about all the different things that go into playing live. On the musical front, I’ve learned a lot about music theory and why this note sounds good over that note. Things I didn’t know back then I know now, so I know, of course, that’s going to sound great, or of course, that’s going to sound dissonant, and here’s why. I don’t even need to try it. I know it is. So when I go for it now, I have the theory
to back it up, and it always sounds great because it’s in the scale, or it’s not in the scale and then it sounds edgy and weird, or dissonant, and you might want that too. So I have all that. And I’ve become a better musician through sheer repetition and having hundreds more shows under my belt.

But also philosophically everything’s changed. Back then I wanted to meet girls and get drunk and be a rock star. My motivations were different. Once you have all those things you begin to realize, OK, these things are all great and everything, but this isn’t it. This isn’t why you’re playing music. This isn’t what it’s for. I started to realize that what it’s for, all over the world, is a form of communion, a form of people getting together, letting their hair down, forgetting about their problems for an hour or two, dancing. From the most primitive cultures all the way up to the most sophisticated societies, music has many different uses, but one of the ones that’s been there throughout is celebration and a kind of joy. I realized that that’s my job, and that was a big shift because before that it was all about me. What am I getting out of this? How much am I making tonight? Am I going to have fun tonight? Me, me, me. Once I realized, No, asshole, your job is to make other people have fun. Your job is to entertain. You’re an entertainer. Your job is to help them forget about all their problems, and if you can do your job well, you will spread joy. You will relieve somebody’s anxiety if you do your job right for even just an hour. And that’s a beautiful thing.

So I suddenly stopped, I kind of inverted the equation, and it made a big difference. I started to play better because I wasn’t all in my head about me. I was like, Play the best show that you can. I became more of a missionary. I became more service-oriented, like, I want to do a really good job for these people, and that made a big difference in the way I approach a gig. Let’s not get drunk before the show. Let’s not get completely f’d up the night before, because we have another show, and don’t you want that show to be as good? Of course, you do. So let’s go to bed. It became more of a vocation, I guess is the short answer.

Also — and this is going to sound like the biggest cliché — I’ve been meditating a lot. I didn’t know anything about that before, and now I do it on a regular basis. The whole thing with meditation is you bring back your attention. Your mind is invariably going to wander, and what do you do? You have to bring it back to the breath, over and over and over again, and it’s kind of a Sisyphean task because you keep pushing the rock up the hill and it keeps rolling down the hill. Why it’s handy when you’re playing music is the same thing will happen. Your mind will invariably drift. You might be out of the present, or you might really ‘f’ up a song and play it terribly. That happens. Sometimes you flub a note or sing badly. Traditionally I would beat myself up the rest of the gig and then the whole show would kind of suck. So now, if I’m having a bad night, I go, That’s OK. We’re starting over again right now and begin. I just reset, and that makes the shows better for me because it doesn’t matter what’s gone before. All that matters is what’s happening right at this second.

And so all that mumbo jumbo does help. It has an effect on the music. Just taking your time, playing music well, there’s no hurry. Get into it, really get into it, and be part of this thing that’s happening now because it’s the whole deal, it’s the whole reason you rode 500 miles. This is it. This is the only reason you’re here. The rest is just... parsley.

 

When did this change happen? Was it a slow transition? A “eureka” moment? What brought it on?

Because I was miserable. I wasn’t any happier once I’d gotten all the things I wanted. And then they disappeared just as quickly. It wasn’t like I suddenly became David Bowie and was rich and famous until the day he passed. I was never famous and I was never rich. We had some success and just as quickly it was gone.

What taught me these things was ... well, first of all, having everything I wanted for however many years that lasted, four years or whatever, didn’t make me any happier. I was just as or maybe more miserable than I was before, and I realized, This is empty, there’s nothing here. No wonder so many people kill themselves when they get to this point because what you thought was going to fix everything, doesn’t.

So then I began perceiving, well, the road is really well marked. There’s a lot of people who turn to spirituality. George Harrison is one of my heroes, and I remember interviews with him where he was like, “If all you’re living for is the trappings of Western civilization, then you’re in for a really rough ride,” and that appealed to me I thought, That guy is really on to something. I started investigating those things, and I’d find that it’s your brain that’s making you miserable because your brain is evaluating. It’s a giant judgment machine, a giant filter, and that works great if you’ve got to worry about, like, Which way does the trail go, or Is there an animal here that might kill me, or Do we have enough food. All that’s important, but in our society, a lot of if not
all those challenges are removed until your brain has nothing to do and invariably turns its incredible powers of judgment and discernment on itself. You’re a loser. Why are you a loser? I could come up with forty reasons. This always happens to you because you’re an idiot. It’s this echo chamber. I wanted to work on that, and I started to do that.

I also played a lot of gigs subsequent to all the success where there’s nobody there, or there’s ten people there, or there’s three, or no one’s listening all these different things, and it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself, but you’ll go insane. So a better route is like, If I’m going to do the gig, if I say yes to the gig, then I have to play the best gig I can play, and I don’t care if it’s at some ‘f’n’ farmer’s market in a tent and people are just walking by. I’m going to pretend I’m at Carnegie Hall. That doesn’t mean I need to be jumping around or “Hey, everybody, look at me.” It means the integrity of the music. Play the music as good as you can, or why play it at all? There’s no point. So anytime you pick up your instrument, have some reverence for the occasion and for yourself. Have some reverence for the time you’ve put in. Play that fucking thing and play it well. Don’t phone it in. Don’t get drunk and play the show. Do the best you can. Every time is going to be different. Every time it’s going to come out different. Every time make it sing.

 

Gigging and Yang: "If I say yes to the gig, then I have to play the best gig I can play!" —  The ying to Zuniga's yang is guitarist/keyboard player Tony Scalzo - shown rocking his Gibson Explorer.

 

It became the culture I built for myself that’s really helped. If I think a gig is going to be stupid, I do my best to avoid it. My personal thing is, Is it lucrative? I’ll do it. Is it fun? I’ll do it. Is it somewhere in between? I’ll do it. But is it not lucrative and not fun? I’m not doing it. I’ll play it for free because I love to play, but it’s got to be fun. I don’t want to play it for free if it’s going to suck if it’s out somewhere in miserable conditions, and the sound sucks, and there’s nobody there. Then what’s the point?

But sometimes people pay you a shitload of money, and more often than not, if you could chart it on a graph, there’s almost an inverse relationship to the amount of money you’re making to how much fun you’re having. That’s not exactly true, but the thing is, a big pharmaceutical company or someone will hire you, they’ll pay you a shitload of money, you’re at their big weekend in Orlando or whatever for the rollout of their new antidepressant, they’re all there with their badges and their buffet tables, and you’re not going to reach some sort of musical climax with the audience at a gig like that. It’s just not going to happen. They’re going to be doing their thing and maybe paying attention to you. It’s not going to be the same as playing some small room where everybody paid to see you and they’re there to see you. That’s a whole different deal. You’re not going to make anywhere near as much money on that one night as you would for the pharmaceutical company, but which would you rather do? I’d take the small gig any day of the week. So it’s a mixture. To survive as a musician, you have to be open to everything and you have to make the best of it.

 

If you play the pharmaceutical gig, you’ll be able to buy that Tele and pay your mortgage.

That’s funny. If you do the big pharmaceutical gig, you can do ten of those little gigs.

 

You have projects outside of Fastball. Did I understand correctly that some of the material on the new album was fleshed out during those gigs?

Yeah. I have a weekly gig with these guys, The Resentments. It’s every week when I’m in town. The gig is this rolling thing of five songwriters. Sometimes there’s three of us, sometimes there’s four, sometimes there’s five. As long as there’s two guys, the show goes on. It’s really loosey-goosey. It’s a standing appointment every Sunday at 7:30 in Austin at the Saxon Pub. I think of that as kind of a gym. I go there to keep my chops together because if you don’t play music, it’s easy to let them go, and suddenly you haven’t picked up the guitar in a long time, so getting to play every week is important.

Tony has a kind of similar situation, but his is more formal. He plays in a band called the Texas Tycoons, but that’s more organized. This, you can walk in with a song you wrote in the parking lot and play. The guys are all really good, and they can pretty much do justice to any type of song. So I brought in a lot of songs there and tried them out because that’s ideal. The audience is a great way to tell if something’s working or not. You might think you wrote “Hey Jude,” but then you play it in front of an audience and it just isn’t so. You’re like, oh, this isn’t really that good. So I found that to be a good way to see which songs are going to make it on the record. I’ve been doing that gig now for ... I guess it’s been seven years, so a lot of time. A lot of material has been hashed out there before I brought it to the band.

 

What is the writing process like for you?

Some songs I write on the piano, some on the guitar, some I just hum to myself and figure out later on whatever instrument’s available. Some songs come from a drum loop that inspires a guitar riff that turns into something else. There’s no set way of doing it. And then it’s figuring out which way the song would best be served. Should it be a full-on rock and roll song, or should it be this, or should it be that? Nine times out of ten, if you can’t play it on the acoustic guitar, it’s probably not a good song. If you can’t pick up a guitar and just sing it to somebody, it’s probably not that good. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t theoretically be a hit song. I mean, I don’t know if “SexyBack” is a great song, you know what I mean? I was thinking of songs from the past, flash-in-the-pan type songs that these huge artists like Justin Timberlake or whoever can do, and they don’t matter that much because he’s going to have another hit next week. It’s just like one after another, boom, boom, boom. It’s more like it’s him making them hits. Not always, but a great song’s a great song, like all of a sudden Christina Aguilera comes out with “Beautiful.” Linda Perry wrote that, and that’s an amazing song. Amazing. On any instrument, whoever sings it. To me, that’s the definition of a great song. Someone said it’s something that can walk on its own, which is true. Usually, you should be able to sing and play it on some instrument, really simply, and then the song will tell you whether it’s any good or not. That’s why that [Saxon Pub] show is so invaluable for that.

 

One of the go-to questions is one where the artist selects one of their songs and tells us about the process from writing to recording. Your choice.

It would probably be ‘Fire Escape,’ which was on the big record and was a minor hit. It started out really droney. It was slow and more of a moody piece when I wrote it. I wrote the lyrics real quick, I had the tune, and we started playing it live. It was more grungy-sounding, more Drop D tuning, and when I started working with the producer, we tightened it up. We made the tempo faster, we came up with the harmony guitar part, Tony added the bass line that really drives the tune, and the harmonies, and everything. It changed significantly from the demo. That’s one example.

Another one is ‘Soul Radio,’ on Little White Lies. That song really changed. That song was a million different things. We kept trying it different ways and I was persistent with it. We had it recorded pretty much, I went back and listened to the track, and I think the producer or somebody was fooling around with it. There was a piano part, and I said, “Could you play that backwards?” In this day and age, it’s so easy — you highlight something and push the little button. Back in the day, it was a big thing. He played the piano backward and I was like, “Oh, that sounds so beautiful. We have to redo the whole song.” We already had it recorded, and I rewrote it. I started to think of it more as a conversation of two voices instead of one. I’m singing my part and you’re singing another part, not necessarily an opposing point of view, but a different side of it. My voice does one thing, Tony’s voice does another thing, comes in at different times, and we’re both kinds of talking over each other, but they harmonize.

It was pretty ambitious. That song went through so many rewrites, and then we completely trashed it and started over, kept some of the elements, and ended up with what I think is an amazing song. So that one went through a lot of permutations. I think in some ways those are more instructive than something you just write and record because that’s the norm, but it’s worth going the extra mile to see if something more interesting might come out.

 

Most of the coverage you receive talks about Fastball’s pop sound, the harmonies, the Beatles influences, and then you wrote a tribute to Malcolm Young, which may have surprised some people. The hard rock side isn’t prominent in your music, but bands like KISS, Van Halen, and AC/DC factored significantly in your musical education.

Well, I appreciate the testosterone of all those bands, and I appreciate the simple, getting it done kind of thing. It reminds me of work boots and blue jeans — just no frills and it is what it is. AC/DC was the gold standard for me. It was like my Little Richard. It terrified me in the best possible way. I was a scrawny little kid, there were bullies at my school, and I felt like AC/DC were those bullies singing, so I was appalled and attracted at the same time because they got all the girls and they seemed to know what was go- ing on. They were the ones smoking dope in the parking lot. AC/ DC seemed to be that soundtrack of not doing the right thing. Doing the wrong thing. Doing things that your parents most definitely did not want you to be doing.

They were unsavory characters, particularly Bon Scott — just terrifying! A terrifying man when you heard him sing. ‘Problem Child’ still sends chills down my bones. His voice is so powerful, and when he says, “Every night, street light, I drink my booze, some run, some fight, I win, they lose,” he’s like, “Get out of my way, step aside or pay the price.” Wow. When I was 13, I knew what he was talking about. There were guys you just didn’t want to ‘f’ with, man!

 

And you wanted to be one of them.

Yeah, and at the same time, I wanted to be one of them. Totally. So that music represented everything. All the contradictions and all the excitement were there. I knew at the same time, Those guys are 4 feet tall! They’re not that tough! It’s their imagination and creativity that’s making them tough, and I wanted that. I was like, This is the way you do it. This is the way out of here. I can do this too. It was exciting! I don’t have to learn how to fight. I can just play guitar and people will love me. And it’s true. As soon as I started playing guitar, the bullies were nice. They were like, “Hey, you play guitar, that’s cool.” My status changed almost overnight. And I wasn’t any good at it; it’s just that I had a guitar. I was playing electric guitar, people started knowing about it, and it eased the pressure a bit.

So they were a huge, huge band and they came along at the right time as far as my age. I was 12 or 13, I was starting to go through puberty, all of that, all those hormones, all the confusion, all of that stuff that happens to you as you make the transition was happening to that soundtrack. “She was a fast machine ... Knocking me
out with those American thighs.” Your body’s on fire when you’re a 13-year-old boy, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s so cruel! You don’t have a car, you can’t drive, you can’t pick up a girl, you couldn’t take her anywhere if you could pick up a girl — you’re living with Mom and Dad! Impossible situation. That’s another reason I was so attracted to the music. These guys knew what they were doing, or sounded like it. “The girl’s got rhythm!” They know what they’re doing. They can drink. They’re living the life, man. It was captivating stuff for a young lad.

 

What do young lads listen to now?

I don’t know, but I know that was the last gasp of a certain kind of masculinity. It is just gone from the culture. I was talking about this with my girlfriend. I showed her a video of Van Halen at Oakland. They’re doing ‘Unchained,’ and David Lee Roth does a split off the drums and is dancing around, and I’m like, “Look at this guy. Are there any guys like this anymore?” And she’s like, “No, there aren’t.” I said, “That’s right. There aren’t.”

There isn’t anyone who has long hair like a woman and yet is so hyper-masculine; just a ferocious male, like a lion. There’s not. Everyone’s too self-conscious now. Something happened in the ’90s, where you got guys like Kurt Cobain instead, where it’s not cool to be that. It’s not cool to be all ‘show-boaty.’ It’s not cool to be that flamboyant and over the top and that masculine. It’s just gone. Even guys that were openly gay, like Freddie Mercury, still had that machismo, that kind of big, grand, declarative ... the grunge thing happened and everything following that is very different. That guy is gone, that David Lee Roth type of guy, that character is gone.

Bon Scott was the same. He wasn’t as Mae West as David Lee Roth. Roth was very much “Come on up and see me sometime,” but it was still the same, it was the very masculine thing. AC/DC in particular, because metal could go off in all kinds of weird Game of Thrones type of direction. What I like about AC/ DC is there’s no songs about dragons, there’s no songs about castles. Their songs are all about women, cars, booze, and fighting. You can’t mess with sheer perfection.

My analogy is the blues is basically someone gives you an onion and a potato and maybe a little hunk of meat and says, “Make me a masterpiece. Make me a meal I’ll never forget.” Somehow the blues does it with the sparest of ingredients. You hear something like John Lee Hooker or Howlin’ Wolf and some of those iconic tunes or Muddy Waters ‘Got My Mojo Workin’’ — that stuff is really high octane, but AC/ DC souped it up even further and took it to a whole new level.

But it’s simple. It’s hard to be that simple and that good. It really is. And the words are perfect. They all fit. “Working double time on the seduction line,” or ‘Back In Black,’ when he says “I’m let loose from the noose,” and “Forget the hearse ’cause I’ll never die, I got nine lives, cat’s eyes” — that’s hard to write.

It’s all got to fit, it’s all got to rhyme, the cadence has to be right. It’s perfect words, so it’s not just the music. The lyrics are incredible. “Back in the back of a Cadillac, number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack, I’m in a bang, with a gang, they’ve got to catch me if they want me to hang” — yeah, man, that’s hard to do, really, really hard to do, so that’s what I mean. It’s deceptive because it seems so simple, but the songs are so well constructed that the raw material before they even record it is pretty amazing. It’s like nitroglycerin. And then they record it and it’s just phenomenal. So all the way around those guys just blew my mind.

But at the time it was very simple: they sounded like the bullies in
my school. I couldn’t analyze it all like I can now. It was just a flood of emotion. ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ is another fantastic one.

 

Those bands also came up during “then,” during the era of record labels, advances, five sets a night, and hope you get signed. Can you imagine starting a band now?

No, I can’t. You wouldn’t do it the same, obviously. You might not even need a band. The only way to hear an idea fully realized back then was to get in a room with the guys and do it. Now I can hear an idea in ten minutes. I can put up a track, do something on my laptop with the stuff that’s bundled in there — but I do have Logic, which cost an extra $200! — so the barriers to getting these tools are nothing. You have this stuff and what would it sound like with a saxophone? I didn’t know anyone who played saxophone when I was a kid. Now I just plug in a keyboard and I can play saxophone. What would it sound like with a horn section? You have a lot more choices, and you might not need a band at all, but you miss out on the camaraderie. Half the fun of being in a band is hanging out and go- ing down to the practice room and trying things. It’s different now. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse because I don’t know. It was what it was when I was growing up, and the way it is now is only going
to be this way for “x” amount of time. Eventually, it will be different again because change is inevitable ... except from a vending machine.

 

To this day, Fastball is identified with ‘The Way.’ Do you feel locked in by that song? Is it ever “Oh no, time to play that one again,” or does it have some sort of nostalgic feel to it?

No, I love playing ‘The Way.’ I don’t get nostalgic, though. I never did. The song doesn’t treat me
the way other songs do. When I hear something from the past, just like anyone else, I’m like, Yeah, I remember, I was dating Susie, and I was driving that car ... Songs can really take you back, but my songs and our big hits don’t take me back at all. We put so much work into them, and you play them all the time, so it doesn’t work that way.

But I love playing those songs because I know what's happening to the audience, and I know they want to hear those songs. I have no problem with that because those songs have given me a great, great life. Plus they’re great songs. It’s not like playing some terrible novelty song. It’s not like having to play ‘The Macarena.’ The songs are great, the lyrics are great, the chords are great, and I love playing them. I look forward to playing them. The audience is going to love it, so you know at least of that part of the show, that’s done, you don’t have to worry about that. You just have to worry about the rest of the show! – HC -

 

Republished with expressed written permission

 

 

____________________________________________

 About The Author

Alison Richter interviews musicians, producers, engineers, and other industry professionals. She's a regular contributor to Gearphoria.

 

 

 

____________________________________________

Who Are Gearphoria? 

Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25 foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.

 

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