ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 26, 1998
By Steve Newton
Fastball’s “The Way” is arguably the catchiest pop tune of the year. The bouncy ditty about a couple who wake up one day and hit the road, leaving their past lives (and current children) behind for “an exit to eternal summer slacking”, became an immediate staple on North American radio, rocketing the Austin, Texas, trio to fame. But according to singer-guitarist Miles Zuniga, he and his bandmates had no initial clue that “The Way” would be their way out of relative obscurity.
“We didn’t even think that song was a single when we finished it,” reveals Zuniga from an Illinois tour stop. “It was just another song on the record for us. I mean, that one was kinda interesting in that Tony [bassist-vocalist Tony Scalzo] had played the song for me on the guitar, and then showed me a demo he’d done of it on one of those Yamaha keyboards that had sort of a country-western setting on it that provided all the accompaniment for you. I really liked the demo and thought that’s the way we should do the song—real sorta lo-fi, like Beck might do it or something. But Tony wanted to do it more like the full band, so we compromised, and that’s what came out of it.”
“The Way” starts off with one verse in a lo-fi mode before a full-bodied sound kicks in and the tune’s infectious hooks command your noggin to bob up and down. It also features a snazzy little minisolo by Zuniga that brings to mind an off-the-cuff Joe Perry guitar freak-out or something.
“I was just screwin’ around,” claims Zuniga of the two-take wonder. “I had the guitar in my hands—it was a Jazzmaster, you know—and I was like, ‘Oh, just watch this.’ They let the tape roll and I just tried to be as wacky as I could—I was kinda like showin’ off. Everybody in the room was like, ‘Whoa, that was really good,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, that was shit, I was just wankin’ around.’ But they wouldn’t let me change it.”
As undeniably catchy as “The Way” is, pop tracks equally special are born every day of the week—they just don’t always make it to the radio. But it wasn’t some A&R rep with market savvy in spades who earmarked the tune as Fastball’s leadoff single. The band’s manager actually made that chart-shattering decision. “That’s what he’s earning his money for,” says Zuniga with a chuckle. “And that song took off like a rocket. It’s pretty crazy.”
Since most people had never even heard of Fastball until “The Way” worked its way under their skin, many may have written the band off as just another one-hit wonder. But then a second single, the Zuniga-penned “Fire Escape”, started to command its own heavy airplay. “It’s kinda daunting to have to follow up a Number 1 single,” says Zuniga, “but we’re mainly just trying to solidify our position, and show people that there’s two songwriters, two singers, and we have a lotta good songs on this record.”
Before Fastball came together, Zuniga paid his dues in a myriad of rock groups, but he wasn’t satisfied with just getting by from gig to gig. He wouldn’t stay with a band for long if it didn’t seem to have what it takes. “A lot of people were like, ‘Well, I know that guy can’t play or sing, but he’s my friend,’ and I’d be like, ‘Well, that’s fine and dandy, but this band isn’t gonna go anywhere.’ So I would just leave.”
When Zuniga hooked up with Scalzo and drummer Joey Shuffield in 1994 in Austin, Texas, his hopes for success brightened. “I knew that it was the best band I’d been in so far,” he says, “and there were always encouraging signs. Every month or two some other new prospect would come up that would encourage us to keep going.”
After changing its name from Magneto USA, Fastball released its debut CD, Make Your Mama Proud, in ’96. That bare-bones album featured three-minute outbursts of fuzz guitar and staccato lyrics; Zuniga claims the band’s evolution to a sleeker and more saleable sound was a “natural progression”. Since the band was based in Austin—a city better-known for rowdy blues-rock than infectious pop—that may have seemed more like an unnatural progression.
“It’s really hard to do anything as a pop band in Austin,” admits Zuniga, “because there are so many other musicians, and so much blues. There was a lot of swing bands there, too. I mean, if you do music that dancing goes naturally with, then people will come and see you even if they don’t know any of your songs. But as a pop band, until you’re basically on the radio, it’s a little harder.”
Now that the uncompromising Zuniga has found his place in a group that’s met the challenges of the pop world, he’s making sure that its grip on the brass ring doesn’t falter. Currently, that means working his buns off on an extended road trip—which brings Fastball to Richard’s on Richards on Monday (November 30)—and capitalizing on the band’s popularity while the gettin’s good.
“I’ve been on tour nine months,” says Zuniga, breathing a heavy sigh, “and it’s just a strange way to live—all hotel rooms and whiskey shots and sleepin’ at weird times and eating bad food. I hit the breaking point a couple of months ago, and I just went through it and came up the other side, you know. For a while there I was totally miserable, but there’s nothing you can do—you’ve agreed to do these shows, and you have to go out there and deliver. I mean, people paid their money to see you, and it’s all very flattering. I’m actually in a pretty good state of mind these days, though, because we’re gonna get a month off soon. And we’re playing really well, so it’s just like a downhill run now.”