Having tasted the good life with their smash hit "The Way" from their 1998 platinum-plus selling album "All The Pain Money Can Buy," Fastball's vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist Miles Zuniga, surprisingly, still has his feet planted firmly on the ground. Zuniga talks to ConcertLivewire's Tony Bonyata about their punk roots, fame, fashion and how he feels about their latest album "The Harsh Light of Day."
Livewire: You guys scored big with your last album "All the Pain Money Can Buy". Do you think that lightning will strike twice with "The Harsh Light of Day?"
Miles: Well, I hope so, but I don't really know. I always hate people that complain about showbiz after they've had a good run. To me there are so many great bands that never get their due, that are struggling away. And I'm like, if you hit the lottery, man, you can't expect it to come around every time.
Livewire: So you're not necessarily wishing for it.
Miles: Well, there's advantages and disadvantages to it. The advantage, obviously, is everything gets crazy and everything gets better, in terms of traveling and all that. And you get to open some bigger shows. I mean, we had Tom Petty ask us to go on tour but we were already doing the tour with the Goo Goo Dolls. Stuff like that, you know. That's all really exciting. But I guess the down side of it is that you're gone for like two years, whether you want to be or not, and it gets old after a while. I think it interferes with the creative flow. You change a lot in two years and you have a lot of music coming out of you that you'd like to put out. But the way things work now, if there's a hit then the pressure's there for you to milk it (laughs).
Livewire: Is your music on your new album a new direction for you guys or is it a continuation of what you've been doing?
Miles: I think it's a continuation of the last record. I don't know if you've heard our first album, "Make Your Mama Proud,' but it's a little more punk rock - it's not half as melodic and the tempos are way faster.
Livewire: Was that built on the success that Green Day found with that formula?
Miles: No, it was more that we were just playing clubs and at the time it seemed the best way to get the attention of a bunch of drunks - play loud and fast and stripped down. There was only three of us. There's always only been three of us [drummer Joey Shuffield, vocalist, bassist and keyboardist Tony Scalzo and myself], but when we first started we didn't have anybody augmenting the band, so everything had to be kinda to the point anyway. We did that record and toured a while on that, but I just got sick of playing it every night. It felt like doing push-ups to me.
Livewire: So you didn't really have the melodic pop sound that you have now?
Miles: Well, there was a lot of melody but there wasn't any slow songs. And those are probably my favorite to perform. Because if you do it really good, it really gets to people. It's a very rewarding thing. It feels good to play a slow track from the last record or "Funny How It Fades Away" from this record. It takes more finesse to do that, actually. It's easy to turn it up to ten and play as fast as you can. That's easier than trying to suck people in the other way.
Livewire: What's in the title of the album?
Miles: It's like 'all that glitter is not gold' type deal. Life is still life, even when things get really exciting and great. We have such a celebrity culture in America. We worship celebrities. It's like if you could only be a celebrity, life would be great. But that's not really true. Even getting what you want doesn't necessarily make everything great. It makes things great for a little while, but you are still stuck with you. That's the biggest problem (laughs). You go wherever you go, so you can never get rid of whatever neurosis you have. It's still going to apply in a new situation.
Livewire: Almost better to want it then to get it.
Miles: Yeah. The hardest thing to do in life - I think the thing that would bring you the most happiness - is to simply enjoy the ride and enjoy where you are. But it's really hard to do that, especially with our society and advertising, you know. It's drummed into your head 24 / 7 that you're not where you are, you need a bigger house and this and this. It kinda gets into your subconscience, even if you tune all that stuff out, it can still seep in there. Anytime you go to the airport and you walk into the bookstore, 'boom,' there's magazine after magazine of beautiful girls and perfect looking people. It's so silly, you know. I don't know how that relates to the record - only that we did have the success, but there was a price that came along with it.
Livewire: Your songs seem like well-crafted catchy pop. Do you think there's any room left in the rap/metal and teenybopper mainstream for a pop band to make it?
Miles: It sort of comes down to having a song that manages to punch right through everything and then people get turned on. I think that the advantage a band like Limp Bizkit, or whatever, has over a pop band, like our band, is it's more of a lifestyle band. There are so many bands that are like a lifestyle band. You've got your Grateful Dead-type bands like Dave Matthews and Phish. People will follow them all over, because it 's part of the lifestyle. Or bands that can tap into that whole skateboarding and snowboarding thing. I think the clothes you wear - with the backwards baseball cap and that - works real good. You're lucky if you're in one of those bands, you know.
Livewire: For now, anyway.
Miles: Yeah, for now. I've always liked bands that were more about the individual than some whole big movement. I like Bruce Springsteen, Squeeze and good songs, so I never worried about that. To answer you're question, I have no idea if there's room or not. I guess if I was a manager I would sign a band like a Limp Bizkit (laughs). I would go looking for a band that had more of that cache with it. But as an artist I can't really worry about that. I'm not going to go around and appropriate or approximate what people want.
Livewire: You've got a video for your hit "You're an Ocean" out. Is MTV showing it?
Miles: No, because MTV only has about two hours of actual music programming a day.
Livewire: It's all "Real World' crap.
Miles: Yeah, it's more of a regular TV channel. But if you're really hot, they will play your video. Like they played "The Way" a lot. It's all tied in. This time around the song "You're An Ocean" did okay, but MTV, of course, ain't gonna play it. But VH1 actually played it quite a bit. VH1 has been very good to us.
Livewire: I'm not even sure if it's still on, but do you think that you're music would fit into MTV's "120 Minutes" the weekly show (similar to their show "The Cutting Edge" in the late '80s) that would preview more unknown underground acts?
Miles: So you remember "The Cutting Edge" too. That was great program. I loved music back then. I sound like such an old...
Livewire: It was a great scene.
Miles: But when "The Cutting Edge" was on, I was like 12, and what was so great about it was that there really was an alternative. These bands would never get on the radio but they were great! You had all these bands on the radio, like your Bon Jovi's or whatever, but underneath all that you had The Pixies, The Replacements, Husker Du and all of this great music that didn't really need any help. It was never going to get played on the radio, but it seemed that the labels actually supported these bands. It was cool, because it was like being in a club. If you liked this band, there was this whole other subculture of people that liked this band. And you knew that if went to the show you were going to have a great time because you're sister didn't know about it, you know what I mean. If there is a scene like that today I don't know what it is (laughs). But to answer if we'd fit into that now, I don't know if they would consider us that or not - because we've been on Top 40 radio. But spiritually they should. I mean we're showing our credibility. We played Amsterdam not too long ago and Steve Earle was there and he loves our record, and he got onstage and played with us. We did a show with The Jayhawks. Actually one of our first tours was with Whiskeytown. To me that whole alt-country scene is maybe the closet thing that we have to the equivalent of the Replacements, Husker Du and early Soul Asylum sort of thing. But when you're on Top 40 radio all the time, like we were, people perceive you as something else, like 'they're just this one-hit wonders' sort of thing. I've been playing music for 15 years, so it isn't like I just picked up a guitar and suddenly I'm on the radio. I'm a lifer. I certainly belong with those other bands that have been doing it for a long time.
Livewire: You and Tony both share the songwriting responsibilities, but it seems that you both turn in your own compositions. Do you ever work on pieces together?
Miles: No, we don't really write very well together. Our styles are kind of different and there is definitely competition (laughs) to get as many songs as you can on the record.
Livewire: Looks like you won this one.
Miles: I won this round, yeah. But they picked Tony's song as the single so it's a relative thing in a way.
Livewire: I take it then, that you each sing you're own respective compositions - not unlike Lennon / McCartney.
Miles: Yeah, we do. But it works out well when we can harmonize. Like "Funny How It Fades Away" is all harmony almost all the way though. It's nice when he's doing the melody line and I'm doing this weird, kind of lower harmony. I love doing that. I think that's when we're probably at our best.
Livewire: I see that you worked with Billy Preston on your "You're an Ocean" how did that come about?
Miles: Our producer had his phone number and he had actually wanted him to play on the last record and he suggested him again and I just thought 'why not?'
Livewire: His honky-tonk style really gives your music a different element.
Miles: You know what's hilarious? That song was our first single [from the new album] and it did okay. But at radio they test market everything, and they thought the piano was too old-timey. That was one of the theories of why this song didn't really go big. It was just hilarious to hear the label and everybody bitch about it - when they all loved it. When Billy came and did that, it just took the whole song to a new level. I really thought it was amazing after that. Before I thought it was a really good catchy song, but when the piano was there it made me feel like 'wow, this is cool.' It certainly is something that no other band on Top 40 radio was doing. I really like it and I don't really care if it fit into their demographic or whatever (laughs).
Livewire: How did you get Brian Setzer to help on your song "Love Is Expensive and Free"?
Miles: I ran into him at the House of Blues, and I'd always loved his guitar playing. We just started talking and he told me, when he realized I was in the band that sang "The Way," that he loved that single and blah, blah, blah. So I just invited him to come play guitar on this one song. That was maybe one of my favorite days in the studio. It was just so much fun to talk to him. He told all these great stories. And I told him that I learned the solo from "I Won't Stand In Your Way" from The Stray Cats when I was a kid. But it turns out I learned it all wrong. He showed me the way he played it. It was in a different key and everything. It was more musical than the way I learned it.
Livewire: You guys are from Austin...
Miles: Well, yeah, but Tony's originally from Orange County, California. He moved to Austin to play with this guy and they did a record, which never came out. Joey played on it too, and that's how they met. And then Joey introduced me, and that's how we kinda got together.
Livewire: Is your sound indicative of any particular music scene that's going on down there?
Miles: Actually, in the beginning people like Joe Ely influenced me a lot. When I first moved to Austin in 1984, Stevie Ray Vaughn was becoming this big huge star, so consequently everybody was playing the blues all of a sudden. I'd never been exposed to that before, so it was great in a way to see that suddenly blues was king, and I'd never listened to any blues. It really influenced me in a way - just as a guitar player. I got to see a lot of really great blues artists too, like Albert Collins and Buddy Guy and people like that. The ritzy side of Austin and that whole honky-tonk, country, blues guitar playing climate did influence me. I would have turned out totally different if I had gone somewhere else, because I already had this really strong pop background. I grew up in Larado which has no scene. I guess it's good if you want to play mariachi music, but I was never attracted to that. So I soaked up all this pop music. If I had gone straight from there to some other town I probably wouldn't have any blues influence or country shadings. I think I'd probably be singing in an English accent (laughs).
Livewire: You've almost got the Elvis thing down pat.
Miles: Elvis Costello?
Miles: That's actually Tony you're thinking of. I'm the other guy (laughs).
Livewire: Do you prefer recording or performing live more?
Miles: It really just depends. I love performing live, but I hate traveling now. But unfortunately you can't have one without the other. And that really gets to be a drag, because you're only onstage for an hour, or an hour-and-a-half and the rest of the time you're in transit or in a hotel room or whatever. I do like recording but I like it under the right circumstances. Sometimes you get engineers that are too anal retentive and want the sound to be perfect and you end up waiting all day to do your thing. I like recording to be real organic. I like recording at home because I can just go and start working on something. What really makes recording magical are the accidents. When you didn't mean to do something and it happens and it's great. That's what usually makes a song go to the next level.
Livewire: Sounds like Brian Eno's recording philosophies?
Miles: (Laughs) Yeah, it's really true, though. That's the inspiration. If you go in and just record something and everybody plays well and it sounds fine, in a way, it's kind of sterile. It's great when people are really inspired or they take a chance and try something where they're not sure of what's going to happen. That's what can make a record special.
Livewire: What can your fans expect from your live performance?
Miles: Well, I think that if you listen to our record you'll be surprised when you see us. We're a little more rockin'. It's different. A record is meant to be played over and over again, so you try and craft it as well as you can. You try to make it really durable and interesting and put new things in there for the listener to discover. But when performing live, you have just one shot to make an impression. So you go for the strongest thing you've got and you try and wow people with that. We're a little louder and you'll hear more of our roots influences coming out.
Livewire: Now that you've gotten a taste of fame, which is it - the sex, the drugs or the rock-n-roll?
Miles: (Laughs) It depends on which day it is, I guess. It certainly was nice being able to go out on the road and have girls think you're attractive and all that. Although I kinda got that out of my system. It was a healthy thing to do, though, because women can be so cruel, you know? (laughs) So it's nice when they're temporarily hypnotized like that.