Concert Preview: Fastball

Grant Walters Grant Walters Concert Preview: FastballPhoto by Sandra Dahdah.
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With their latest album "Step Into Light" arriving earlier this month, the Texas-based alt-rock outfit joins Everclear for a double-bill show at Express LIVE! on Sunday night

“But where were they going without ever knowing the way?”

Certainly Fastball didn’t intend the familiar refrain from their 1998 breakout single “The Way” to serve as an existential question for those of us who were on the cusp of our quarter-life crises at the time. But it just goes to show that a good lyric can transcend different contexts and meanings.

And a good band can prevail over two decades.

It’s taken some time for band mates Tony Scalzo (lead vocals and bass), Miles Zuniga (lead vocals and guitar), and Joey Shuffield (drums) to get their sixth studio album, Step Into Light, into their fans’ hands — eight years, to be exact (their last, Little White Lies, arrived in the spring of 2009). The set’s first single, “I Will Never Let You Down,” arrived in March. For those who have long appreciated the band’s infectious brand of alterna-pop, Step Into Light should be a well-received evolution of their sound.

“Yeah, it’s been a long, long time,” Zuniga confirms when asked about Step…‘s extended incubation. “It’s an interesting record because people that have heard it love it, but it was recorded because we were supposed to go on tour not last year but the year before. You know, this record was recorded a while ago, and it was under the premise that we were going on this big tour, and the tour fell through. And to get it ready for that tour…basically the tour was in the summer. It was Christmas, and we were looking at the year going ‘We should have some new stuff to sell. We should make a new record, man. And in order for it to be ready for this tour, we’ve gotta do it now.’

I was actually going to Africa — there were all these things in the way — and we had maybe a two, three-week window to get the record done. So we busted our asses, do the record in…I think it was two weeks without a day off. Just working — like, the fastest record we’ve ever made. I’d be playing guitar downstairs, and Tony would be singing a vocal upstairs. It was nuts. So we get done recording and they’re like ‘Oh, the tour’s off.’ (laughs)”

But Zuniga insists the added pressure may have been good for the final product from a creative perspective.

“Yeah, so it was a drag, but the conditions [the album] was created under made for a very air-tight…there’s no time to sit, you know, no time to waste. We kind of got it done fast, and the results of it are actually pretty great. And in this day and age…another thing is that if you spend a fortune or a lot of time recording something and you’re in a regular studio — even a cheap one — the odds that you’re gonna be able to get your money back are pretty slender. So, I think it’s getting back to, in a way, like the 1950s in a sense, like, ‘Let’s not fuck around. If the song’s any good, let’s do it.’ And I think that informed the record as well. There are a couple of songs we did that didn’t work out, you know, and fell by the wayside. But I’m pretty pleased with it, in retrospect. I think that sense of urgency definitely translated to the music.”

And with new music to celebrate — and the 20th anniversary of the band’s debut album, Make Your Mama Proud, just in the rear view mirror — they’re in the midst of a 34-city North American tour, sharing the bill with fellow rockers Everclear and Vertical Horizon.

“We actually toured with Everclear back in 1998, and I think Art [Alexakis] is a great songwriter,” Zuniga explains. “They’re a good rock band, and they’re just cool. We haven’t done a big tour like this in a while, so it just seemed like a good…it seemed to make sense. It’s rock and roll, it’s not…there are no gimmicks or anything. It’s just songs. We love that and it was kind of a no-brainer.”

Columbus fans can see Fastball and Everclear together on Sunday night at Express LIVE! (Vertical Horizon won’t appear with them for this particular date. They played a show earlier in the week with Blues Traveler at The Bogey in Dublin).

You’re now recording and touring fully and completely as an independent band, and the new album has been released on your own imprint, 33 1/3 Records. What does recording an album look like for you now that you’re not associated with a label?

“We just find a cheap studio and do it, you know? We don’t have our own studio and we just try to find some place barely affordable. In this day and age you can record an album on your laptop, but none of us are engineers. So we don’t know anything about that stuff, and I don’t really want to know about it. I just want to express myself. That’s a hindrance for us because we could…if we had those kinds of skills or had those kinds of personalities, then in theory, yeah, we could be recording all the time and making music all the time that way. But we’re just not those kind of people, you know? Tony and I especially are not the types who are going to sit here and flatten out the EQ or say ‘what hertz is that at? What’s making that noise?’ (laughs) We don’t care about that kind of stuff. It’s like speaking Mandarin to us.”

All of you met and formed the band in Austin in the mid-1990s, which I feel like would still be within an era where bands got together and sought out relevance and success in a pretty traditional way that maybe doesn’t exist now. What was most memorable for you in that process of trying to make it together?

“Well, I think what made it so great — it was almost like last call…probably for all of us. Especially…at least for me, I was twenty-seven and was feeling like ‘Alright, this joke isn’t funny anymore. Am I really going to be sleeping on people’s couches when I’m forty? This sucks.’ I didn’t really have a Plan B. But, you know, I’d had a record deal with Joey in a band called Big Car — and that failed. They put that record out and it was dead on arrival. So a lot of disappointment and frustration, things succeeding somewhat and then having everything go south. That happened enough that when I met Tony, [he] and Joey and I seemed like the right combination. And there was a sense of ‘Alright…this is it. This is it! We’re gonna go for it, and if this doesn’t work, I’m out.’ I think that helps because I was just completely focused on the group, and everyone else was, too.

And it was just fun. It was a lot of fun because I met Tony…we kind of looked at each other’s record collection and decided this could work. And then originally I thought ‘Oh, you know every band I’d been in I’d been the singer and songwriter.’ But it became apparent very quickly that ‘Man, he has great songs, and he can sing!’ So then we decided to make it a two-man, two-headed beast in terms of that. And we rehearsed one time, and then I got home that night and there was a phone call from Joey, and he said ‘Do you want to play a gig tomorrow?’ So we played our first gig, you know, a day after our first rehearsal. And the whole thing kind of went like that. We were signed within a year. Everything just…everything moved really quickly. And we kind of expected it to move quickly because we weren’t wet behind the ears. We’d all been doing this and kind of knew the ropes, and everything.

We knew the steps — back then it was a well-marked trail of what you had to accomplish if you were going to try to be successful on a major scale. I don’t know…I have no idea how a band does it now because there’s no Medici…no patron in the sense of the record company. Say what you will about them — back then if you could snag a deal, that bought you time…a year maybe to where you could hone your stuff and work on your art and hopefully tour. Maybe they kicked down a little tour support, you know? I don’t have any idea how people do it now, but it’s obviously way different. I mean, now you have access to the world – the distribution systems are wide open, but the problem is there’s so much traffic. To get noticed is really tough.

Back then it was kind of inverse. There were gatekeepers and you kind of had to get past [them]…and if you got past enough gatekeepers, they would expose you to the general public. It seems strange now, but it worked in terms of, like ‘Well, okay. This is what you need to do.’ And so we’d all been through it. Joey and I had already been through it once and experienced the whole thing. And we knew that if you couldn’t get the record company to make you a priority, you weren’t going anywhere. When we put out our first album, I don’t think they printed up a poster for Fastball. So that first record was just dead on arrival, too. We thought we were done for, you know? But we managed, through just a strange turn of events, we were able to get another record, and that was the record that did it.”

And Fastball found success at a point that I felt was sort of an end point for radio and records as we knew them. I think that changed heading into the early 2000s.

“There were interesting songs on the radio. It was cool. The radio hadn’t completely…what’s the word…vulcanized? I don’t know. It hadn’t turned into…it’s so rigid now. We had this big song because of Machine Gun Kelly, who did a remake of [“Out Of My Head”] and I haven’t heard it once because I don’t listen to the stations it’s on. Back when I was growing up, you would’ve heard of a song that went to number one on the pop chart, whether you liked it or not. I heard all of Madonna’s music even though I wasn’t like ‘Oooh, I want to listen to Madonna!’ It was just on the radio. It was around me. It’s really different now. People listen to their own radio stations that only play a certain kind of music. You’re never gonna hear R&B on the alternative rock station, or vice-versa.”

Fastball is now past the twenty-year mark in the industry. What are the three of you still hoping to accomplish or overcome as a band?

“Yeah, I mean we just want to…I still think a lot of people have no idea who we are. (laughs) They know the songs, and yet they probably don’t know we sing them. So that’s a mission that we’re out to…people love our music, but there’s a disconnect where it’s like ‘Oh! They sing that song?’ I think that’s a challenge for us. But in terms of accomplishing…you know, back then when we had those hit songs, there was a sense of ‘Oh, yeah, these guys will be gone in a year or two years,’ or whatever. You could feel people trying to count you out. And now it’s a moot point. We’re still here…it’s almost been twenty years and we’re still here. And more importantly than that, we’ve grown as musicians. I’ve devoted myself…I’ve really investigated and learned about music. I’ve played in all sorts of situations. Tony’s been in other bands, Joey’s been playing with other people, too. We’ve been doing other stuff — it’s a lifelong pursuit. We’re a way, way better band than we were in ’98. We weren’t as articulate as we are now. We didn’t have all the musical knowledge we have now. It’s been almost twenty years of learning under our belts, and twenty years of playing. Not just with Fastball, but playing with all these other situations and setups. So I think we’re way better than we ever were, so that’s exciting, too.

I’m not really worried about my career anymore the way I was back then. It’s almost like ‘What can you do to me now?’ you know? We’ve been through the highs and all the lows. I mean, we’ve seen some pretty low points in our career as well. It’s just great that we’re still intact and still swinging.”

Fastball will be at Express LIVE! (along with Everclear) in the Arena District (450 Neil Ave.) this Sunday, June 4. Doors open at 6 p.m. General admission tickets (note: this is an outdoor show) are $26 plus fees and taxes, and are available via Ticketmaster. Fastball’s new album, Step Into Light, can be purchased via the band’s official website.

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