Interview: Tony Scalzo and Miles Zuniga of Fastball
Walking into the backstage area of Express LIVE on Sunday afternoon, I was immediately confronted with the glamorous life of rock stars on the road - Miles Zuniga of Fastball loading dirty clothes into the washing machine. We then moved into the small green room area, and were joined by Tony Scalzo. Before we began our interview, Miles was excitedly sharing the sounds of the rattling washing machine that he recorded on his phone, along with a beat added by drummer, Joey Shuffield, that he is hoping will be the base of a future song.
Out on the road with Everclear for their So Much for the Afterglow 20th Anniversary Tour, Fastball just released their sixth studio album, Step Into Light, on May 19th. (Review of the show here).
Here are some excerpts from my extensive conversation with Tony and Miles:
Sean O’Connor, Listen LIVE Columbus: So the new album was just released, that's exciting. It's been like eight years since Little White Lies came out. Why was it time for a new Fastball album? Is this something you guys have been thinking about...
Tony Scalzo: Well, it's been time for a long time. It's not like we were just...”well, let's never make an album again. Oh and then let's finally decide to make a record again.” About four years ago, well, we were on the road with Sugar Ray, the Under the Sun tour. Through that we sort of started a relationship with their manager.
Miles Zuniga: It was actually the Gin Blossoms. Yeah.
Tony: OK so, he's trying to get our guarantees up and get us more shows and more tours like that. And we were lined up to do a tour with Smash Mouth, and we were all thinking maybe we should make a record, but we didn't have a lot of time to do it. We went for it and we went and recorded a record, but the tour fell through so we didn't really have anything going on. Nothing was happening and we didn't really feel like putting it out for free, or just not having anybody hear it.
"For everything to fall into place, it took a little longer
but now it's definitely found a place"
Miles: I'm a non-believer, but like the Bible says "to every time there is a season" you know. I really believe that there are times you could work so hard and beat your head against the wall and nothing happens. And then there's other times where everything just seems to flow and you don't know what it's just like it's like now's the time. So we had the record, like Tony said, for a while. For everything to fall into place, it took a little longer but now it's definitely found a place because it's night and day from the last time we produced a record. And the last time, with Little White Lies we probably did seven interviews. Felt like there was nothing happening, and there were no good tours. It was rough.
Sean: I saw you guys did the PledgeMusic thing for this album, and that you reached over 200 percent of your goal on PledgeMusic for this album. So, that had to be somewhat gratifying that there was hard evidence of people wanting this album, and wanting to get their hands on it?
Miles: I think the band would have broken up a long time ago if there was nobody who cared. We've never had that feeling like nobody cared. It was more like lots of people care, but we're not doing a good enough job of showing them that we're actually here.
Sean: It's tough. How do you do that, how do you stay out there all the time?
Miles: Well, you don't have to be out there all of the time, it's all about the behind the scenes stuff. There's a lot of moving parts to any organization, I was going to say any band, but really any organization whatever it is. There's all these things you don't see, and those people are just as important. The band is just the focal point. And without us there's no music and there's nothing to promote, but the fact is the management, the booking agent all work as a team in tandem. Otherwise you're just shouting into the wind, and no one will ever hear it, no one will ever know you exist. Those things are just as important. So it's an interesting puzzle to get it to all line up. It's tricky.
Sean: So, you guys produced and released this one (Step Into Light), and the last one (Little White Lies) all by yourselves, right? No label? How different is that, you know doing it yourselves as opposed to having to do it you know with the label now that you've done two that way do you prefer it?
Miles: It's exactly the same in a way. If you're signed to a shitty label they're going to do a bad job of it. If you're signed to a great label and you're not a priority you're not going to get any love. This way we have no one to blame but ourselves if things aren't working so there's more control and there's more reward but there's more risk because you're paying for it. You have to pay all the people, and outlay everything, and take all of the risk. Back then, the label absorbed all the risk and kept most of the money. They also had unlimited resources, relatively speaking, so when "The Way" hit they could literally spend a million bucks to promote it and make it a worldwide smash. We don't have a million bucks.
Sean: Looking back through the new album and all the previous stuff, you guys have nearly evenly split all the songwriting and vocals throughout Fastball's history. Was that a conscious decision from the very beginning or has it just kind of always been that way?
"There were no conscious decisions in this band"
Tony: There were no conscious decisions in this band. But now, we're starting to be mature enough to make conscious decisions. But for the most part our songwriting is just how to get songs. We can collaborate and we can write some songs together. He (Miles) writes a lot, writes with the people. I write and sometimes we just bring stuff that's already existed. Any old way we can get those songs happening.
Miles: We've never had to be like, well I want all of my songs, and so I'm going to ignore his great contributions. We've never done that to each other. It's never been that way. He (Tony) could very easily have said "I wrote the hits I'm a hit maker so I should write all the songs. The market has spoken." He never did that, he never developed any kind of big head about having written those wonderful songs that really are the only reason we're here. Without those songs we wouldn't be where we are so I'm happy that he never did that.
Tony: At the same time, I think that maybe if I had, you know, established myself as a focal point in the band, maybe "the front man" maybe they'd have been less confused as to what we were about. You know we put out a second single on All the Pain Money Can Buy, "Fire Escape". Made a high budget video for that, you know and tried to work that as a single and it did OK. And "Out of My Head" did OK.
Miles: I still think that that video (for "Fire Escape"), what the label was doing...
Tony: Was killing us...
Miles: Well no, I think what they were doing, without coming out and saying it, they're like “well this other guy really is the singer, but this guy sings this song. Let's make a video where they're not in it, like hardly in it at all.” It was not a performance based video. It made me really mad you know, like I've been waiting around for 10 years to get to sing and be on MTV. And they're like "yeah you're not going to be in the video - you're going to be in the video for like half a second."
Tony: And you're going to be dead.
Miles: So, if there was better communication all around between the band and between the label maybe we could have addressed some of these concerns head on. But I think it was more about the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" - it was just this weird environment.
Sean: That had to have just happened so fast, right? When "The Way" came out, and everybody loved it. I mean it just went from down here to just insanity. I can't even imagine - so you're just along for the ride at that point?
"I can safely say there's nothing I'm embarrassed about,
and I'm really proud of that"
Miles: You're just trying to keep yourself together. It's like things start moving so fast. And maybe the people managing you don't completely understand what you want. Also like he said we weren't the most detail oriented people, you know like great artists are that way, they control, they want control over everything and they want everything to look and sound a certain way and they're going to say no a lot. You have to say no a lot to things you think are bullshit. Just say no. I'm not doing it. No no. We're not doing this, we're not doing that. I don't want this. I don't want...you know forget it.
Looking back on all the records and videos and everything, I can safely say there's nothing I'm embarrassed about, and I'm really proud of that. There's nothing we recorded where it's like, "Why did you record that?" That's just such an obvious trying to have a hit song you know some Diane Warren song or something. We never did that, never once. We stuck true to really who we are, so I think over time when you look back your like, "Wow. Right. Yeah. I'm proud of that."
Sean: But I mean I think you guys said you know that you guys have always been different. Your sound was always different than some of the contemporary bands to you. With both of you guys singing and just your sound. It was always slightly different, so you can see why people might not have known quite what to do…
Miles: Also, the environment back then was very different than now. Now people are like you guys are great musicians, you're survivors you know. People are giving us these props now. Back then they're like "you're a one-hit-wonder, you're going to be gone next week, you're disposable..." BS, you know. Rolling Stone has never given us a good review. There's a lot of critics that at the time didn't like us, and the beauty is now I don't actually care whether they like us or not.
We have proved that we have staying power. We proved our consistency over the years through the records and everything and I'm like "fuck you man, I've been doing this forever now, so I don't give a shit what you think.
Sean: It's the only way you could survive...
Miles: I wish I had this attitude back then. I really do, but back then we were still finding our feet.
Sean: Well, just the fact that the three of you have been together through this whole thing that's so unique. When you look at any bands that have been around for 20 plus years how many of them have had the same lineup. It's very few and far between. That's something that's super impressive.
Miles: You know it's the good ones - U2, Radiohead, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Those are the ones that don't change personnel.
"If Tony said he didn't want to play music anymore . . .
or somehow died in a bizarre gardening accident.
I wouldn't be like well let's just find a guy that sounds like Tony . . ."
Well it's just, you know, if Tony said he didn't want to play music anymore, or whatever, or wanted to do a solo career, or somehow died in a bizarre gardening accident. I wouldn't be like well let's just find a guy that sounds like Tony that can do it. And let's keep going - he can sing those Tony songs, and I have a ton of songs. No no that's not going to fucking happen, you know. That'll be the end of the band.
Sean: It's interesting you brought up the "Fire Escape" video because I re-watched that today, and it got me thinking about that because part of your PledgeMusic campaign you had some of the items from that video. Have you guys ever met any fan who was that obsessed?
Miles: Yeah, but in a different way. First of all, it's not a beautiful girl, it's some 55 year old man. You know it's never some beautiful girl like that and there are people that are kind of...yeah, I guess obsessed, but not like that.
Our fans are pretty great for the most part, but there was one guy I remember telling my wife at the time that if I disappear it's because of this guy - it would be these long screeds and he would be talking about what a piece of shit he was, and how great our music was. It was creepy and I was just like, "this guy's scaring me," and I think he lived in town. But he just eventually went away.
Sean: I wanted to ask you about, specifically a couple of songs on the new album that really stuck out to me, starting maybe with "Tanzania" because it's instrumental, and it's such a cool song. How did that come about?
Miles: It's a great story behind that. I went to go to Africa. That was right before the recording of this album.
Tony: We had to hurry because he was going to Africa.
"There was no escape from the wind. It starts to
mess with your sanity after a while"
Miles: Actually I came back from Africa and we started the record. This woman who had been arranging all my travels said "you should go to Mafia Island. This beautiful island in the Indian Ocean. It's really small. It's the best." So, I get to Mafia Island and the wind is blowing like 50 miles an hour. Never let up. I was there a week. The wind is like in a wind tunnel and I was in a room that was like an open hut on stilts and the wind was coming through. But that was good because it was hotter than this, but there was no escape from the wind. It starts to mess with your sanity after a while. And I went swimming in the beach and it was full of seaweed and giant jelly fish everywhere.
It was like you couldn't swim in the water. You couldn't walk around outside. You could have lunch and dinner - all our meals were at this beautiful little restaurant.
But other than eating I was stuck on this island with nothing to do because it wasn't this placid beautiful place, it was this violent weird place. So I said you have to get a guitar or you're gonna lose your mind. First I asked the staff, "hey, can you get me a guitar?" "No." And then I just found this dude walking around, and I go "Can you get me a guitar?" He says, "Yeah, how much?" I say, "I just want to rent one, not buy one." He comes back, and goes "$60?," and I say "Ok." And his eyes just lit up, and he goes running off because he probably made the deal with whoever he made the deal with for $20. That guy comes running across the thing with the guitar and it was so cool because it was a nylon string guitar but the E-string, the high E, was a steel string guitar so that E would ring out on any song you played. I might have to try that. And I barricaded myself in the bathroom. The bathroom was the only place that the wind wasn't like, "(wind noises)". And I just started writing songs and I came up with that song there, wrote it and recorded on my iPad so I could remember it.
Sean: And, of course the new video that you're also not in, "I Will Never Let You Down".
Miles: It continues! It continues!
Tony: There is live footage that we shot. But we looked....we looked about the way I look right now, kinda tired.
Miles: We looked so terrible. We shot all three of those videos in a row and the other two videos I think we looked pretty good. You haven't seen "Behind the Sun" yet, but that one video is just like "oh my god it's like a funeral in here." So we were like no let's scrap the band out of it. That's one good thing about getting to make all the decisions. You don't have a friggin' record company or the manager saying, "No you gotta be in the video."
Sean: Tell me about the song "Best Friend".
Tony: Well, actually, that started when we were recording quite a while ago, doing some stuff for our old label actually trying to work out material for a new record. Adam Schlesinger, from Fountains of Wayne, came to help us. We were working, and we were doing some really cool stuff that I had never known how to do any of this stuff before. It was really cool. He was actually taking snippets of little jams we would do, little grooves. And then we added an acoustic thing, and then the drum line and we just sort of looped it and we were able to add in little fills and whatnot. You know with using the ProTools, using digital recording stuff to be able to come up with the bed. If you noticed, that song's not like a typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge, whatever it is. It's more of a groove and then Miles actually came up with most of the ideas lyrically for that, but I came up with the verses. But he had the whole "wouldn't you like to be my best friend?" part. And it just came together pretty quick. It was a bunch of great stuff that came from those sessions, but they just sat there forever and it kept popping up you know I'd go, "man, we gotta do something with that."
Miles: We had that recording, Schlesinger's recording, forever. But for some reason decided not to use it. We were like well let's just rerecord it and it was so kind of unique it was kind of like we're never going to be able to rerecord it but we did all we did was just put it on and have Joey (Shuffield) play over it.
Tony: Right, use it as a scratch.
Miles: And then now we have this new drum track that was it was basically him playing along with the old one and then we just built the track up.
Tony: So we were able to reproduce the groove pretty well. It was same thing with "Secret Agent Love."
Miles: That's from the same period. So we were coming off of The Harsh Light of Day and we were working with Schlesinger to do something for the next record. Ended up getting dropped by Hollywood Records. Some of the Schlesinger stuff made it on to Keep Your Wig On. Like "Someday" is a Schlesinger tune.
Sean: Fastball toured, I think, 20 years ago with Everclear right? Way back when All the Pain Money Can Buy came out. So what has it been like touring with Art (Alexakis) again?
Miles: Great, it's almost, I mean, it's the same vibe. Yeah, he's a wonderful guy. They're great, just good rock 'n' roll. You know, Matthew Sweet sticks out in my mind as a tour we did where you just want to see the band every night, and Everclear is that kind of band. So it's fun.
Sean: So ,you guys are about halfway through this tour I think now. At this point how have people been receiving the new stuff?
"We're blessed with a full house,
almost a full house, every time we play"
Tony: It's been really amazing. We would have thought that once we started this tour, as the first band on the three band bill (Vertical Horizon was on most dates, but not Columbus), it would be a lot of empty seats and people milling about. And we're blessed with a full house, almost a full house, every time we play. If they're not all the way full on our first song by our third they start coming around and they pay attention and they're in to it. Plus, we keep them interested, and then we throw in the hits and it's pretty easy. It's been really fun. I'm waiting for that shitty show and we haven't had one yet.
Sean: Fingers crossed that it's not tonight.
Miles: Ha ha ha! The show you see!
Sean: I was here two years ago when you guys came through with Gin Blossoms. That was a great show. That was the first time I ever saw you guys live.
Miles: That was the first night with a new touring bassist. I remember sitting right here and showing him the songs and wanting to do something new and he's like "oh come on man." Well, I'm glad you liked that one, this one's going to be better because this band has been on the road now for three weeks.
Tony: We rehearsed.
Miles: We rehearsed a lot, which we never do, before we even went on the road. Repetition is the key, it really is there's just no substitute. You have to do it over and over and once you do it enough times you can then forget all about it you know exactly how the song is going to play them and then you can really express yourself but when you're still worried..."wait, was that a B or a C-sharp - I can't really remember," then you're still thinking and you can't actually perform.
Sean: Looking somewhat to the future. Next year is obviously the 20th anniversary of All the Pain Money Can Buy…
Miles: People keep asking about this, so I guess we're going to have to do it. Tony brought up a good point that Hollywood Records still owns it, so we've got to figure that out. But everybody seems to want us to do it and you know, why not, I'd do a tour of that. We've never played some of those songs.
Tony: A vinyl release would be excellent. We don't have to do the whole album…
Miles: That's the whole idea, that's what people want.
Sean: It would be so great to hear some of those deep cuts, "Warm Fuzzy Feeling," or "G.O.D. (Good Old Days)."
Miles: That's what people want. They're going to want it in order, so you might have to reconsider.
Sean: A vinyl release would be amazing too.
Miles: That's what we need.
Sean: Step Into Light is your first album to be released on vinyl, right?
Miles: Yeah, because no one ever wanted to do it. I always wanted to make a record and I never got to make one until my solo record I made a vinyl record. But this is the real thing with this band you know because there is big audience for it.
It's a superior medium and the industry, in it's ever rapacious greed, just blew past it, and it ended up shooting them in the foot but it was the perfect medium. I mean when Neil Young is talking about Pono and all this stuff, I'm like what you're really trying to do is get back to vinyl which is here now and it isn't like Pono sounds better than a vinyl record.
Sean: The thing for me is that it really promotes active listening. You physically put that record on the turntable and then you have to flip it when it comes time.
"It's kind of ironic that in this information society we live in now . . .
that vinyl would make a resurgence"
Miles: Also, it's the perfect length. Because you can put on one side if you like; that's 15 minutes that's the perfect length to sit and really listen. And then if you want to keep going you can flip it over. But you've got such a personal relationship with records. Like have you ever heard Fair Warning by Van Halen? There are songs on there that I would never listen to if it was on a CD because they're not that exciting. But there's some deep cuts on there that are pretty cool, but you have to give them time. You have to listen to them a few times and then they start to reveal their pleasures. It's kind of ironic that in this information society we live in now where everybody is like "I want now and I want it fast" that vinyl would make a resurgence, but I think people need it. And it's a lot more fun. I still have my records from when I was 12 years old.
Sean: What bands are you guys listening to right now?
Miles: I didn't realize it was such a thing, but I've gotten really into Ethiopian jazz. I was talking to some girl and we were talking music and I go "have you ever heard this?" and she goes "oh yeah I've heard that" like it's pavement or something. But there's a record called Ethiopiques that I just discovered. I grouse sometimes about technology and stuff, but it is amazing as a consumer of music what you can do, and how great it is in terms of discovering new stuff. I was in a coffee shop and I heard this most beautiful song and luckily have SoundHound, and then I discovered others through a playlist. I listen to a lot of things but really it's that kind of music where you can just listen. I love jazz the same way, there's not a singer and you can just let your mind go and the music is there and it's providing this beautiful background.
Tony: I was into it enough to get it myself. I've been listening to a little bit of Trans Am and Maserati, two of the same sort of name. A lot of instrumental stuff a lot of mixtures of electronic music, and like punk and metal, surf guitar...I like a lot of guitar stuff. I like Sonic Youth, I like Spiritualized, and I've been listening to classical piano music and piano violin concertos and Haydn and Mozart and Bach.
Miles: His name is Mulatu Astatke, and the song is called "Tezeta" and it's off the record Ethiopiques, Vol. 4, Ethio Jazz 1969-1974. This song, this kind of thing is just so...if you can't afford a vacation just listen to this song...and you can have a vacation. This is like going on vacation to me, it's so cool, it's so beautiful, it's so mellow.
You know, 40 to 50 years after the fact, whatever it is, I discovered The Damned and for some reason never really listened to them before. I'd heard about them of course but never bought a record ever. No one ever really played them for me. Now I'm all into The Damned, like a half century after they made the album. But I think that first album with Nick Lowe, Damn Damn Damn, that he produced is amazing, and those songs, "Neat Neat Neat," "New Rose," "Fan Club," I could listen to those all over and over and over again.
Tony: I love any of that Stiff Records stuff, 1970s and on.
Miles: We're music lovers, but lately that's what I've been going for is either super high energy - right before the show I like to get all amped-up if I can - and then but the rest of the day, I like silence or something that's going to resemble some sort of chill and peace and quiet.
Sean: Especially being on the road too, it's constant...
Miles: It's a lot. And then you've got this shifting crazy political climate in the world. Feels bananas right now all over the world, so having that calm is, I think, important.
Sean: Well, thank you guys so much, I really appreciate it.
Miles: Yeah, cool interview.