All the Pain Platinum Can Buy
By Andy Langer
DECEMBER 14, 1998: "Here today, gone later today."
It's hard not to notice that in separate interviews, months apart and fully outside each other's earshot, Miles Zuniga and Joey Shuffield both quote the same music industry dictum as a way of explaining what keeps them going when they're already going around the clock. "Anytime I start to lose focus, I remind myself of being in the van and wondering if my day job was going to take me back six weeks later," says Shuffield, Fastball's drummer. "I know we can be replaced immediately. If we drop our guards for a second, the million bands inches behind us get to move forward."
Even with those nameless, faceless replacement killers on their trail, keeping focused isn't always as easy as it looks. Since the Austin trio's smash single "The Way" -- arguably the most notable radio hit of 1998 -- started its ascent up the pop charts last February (and descent into the public consciousness), Fastball has not only surfed Jay Leno's couch on The Tonight Show, they've also shake 'n' faked with Hanson on the MTV awards, been interviewed by seemingly every media outlet in the country, and criss-crossed the nation with everyone from Art Alexakis and Everclear to the tribes on the Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere tour (HORDE). Oh, and they sold a million records, too. Not bad for a local band that couldn't get arrested at the Hole in the Wall back in January. "We're not taking this for granted," says the group's guitarist, Zuniga. "It's the music business. It's not like I invented Liquid Paper or some kind of drug that cures cancer and I've got the patent. The nature of this business is you're here today, gone later today."
Exactly what being "here today" will ultimately earn the band, Fastball's going platinum (a million copies sold), a feat in and of itself -- the last Austin act to go platinum with a new release was the Fabulous Thunderbirds in 1988, and before that Christopher Cross in 1981 -- isn't nearly as interesting as what it actually takes to sustain a platinum album. You want numbers? Forget units sold and dollar amounts for income derived thereof. Try instead the number of tasks that a touring platinum act like Fastball must accomplish on just one three-city swing through Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Boston on the band's current tour:
Undeniably, Fastball is a band willing to make that promotional commitment. Just as they know their run of success could end tomorrow, they also know that standing out from the platinum pack is almost as difficult as going platinum in the first place. In Fastball's new world order, the opportunity for casual radio listeners to connect a name to a face or an artist with a song is an opportunity to make a legitimate fan. To that end, it's the same routine in every city: One of their label representatives picks up the band somewhere between 9-11am, loads them into a Blazer, Suburban, or Town Car, and takes them on a guided tour of the city's radio market. For the next 10 hours, Fastball will devote its time to servicing radio -- offering interviews, wacky station IDs, acoustic sets, and private performances to stations that have supported "The Way" or its follow-up, "Fire Escape." If it seems that a Fastball tour is as much about radio as it about live performances at night, it's because it is.
"Everything is about exposure," says Zuniga. "If you stop at a radio station on the way to a gig, you're being exposed to so many more people than could ever hear you at a venue. It's like a virus passed through the subway system: It's capable of infecting so many more people than if you just coughed on them."
Washington, D.C., October 28: Fastball's first radio appearance of the day is for DC101, the modern rock station that two of radio's best morning hosts ever, Howard Stern and the Greaseman, once called home. "This station has a history of great radio shows, and this isn't one of them," admits music director Buddy Miles, who's preparing to tape a Fastball interview and live set for the next morning's program, which for whatever reason is the morning after Fastball has left town. So much for getting people to the gig.
While the music director is busy finding tape and tracking down a batch of baseballs he wants the band to sign for a charity auction, Fastball soundchecks with a letter-perfect version of Everclear's "Father of Mine." Either from touring with Everclear or just hanging around so many radio stations, Zuniga has picked up every lyric and Scalzo has learned each solo. After an intern stops by the studio and listens to a few verses, he backs into the hallway with a concerned look.
"I thought Fastball was stopping by, so why is Everclear in town? Is their show advertised?"
When radio interns, let alone listeners, are this easily confused by platinum bands, the uphill battle Fastball faces is all too obvious.
Just before Fastball left on tour with Everclear last April, they ran into Blues Traveler frontman John Popper in an MTV studio. On tour together later that summer, both bands shared a few stories, but at the time, Scalzo casually mentioned that he and Shuffield had quit their day jobs (bagel-baking and frame-making respectively) only three months earlier. Popper was impressed enough to initiate a wave of awkward high-fives and handshakes.
"This has all got to be pretty fucking phenomenal," observed Popper. "It took us 12 years." It wasn't the first time Scalzo had interrupted a new fan and explained Fastball isn't the overnight success most people imagine.
Few outside Austin know Zuniga, Scalzo, and Shuffield each have more than 15 years invested in rock & roll, and until the arrival of "The Way," few bothered keeping score anyway. Even though all three musicians possessed the potential to become rock stars, everyone knows rock stars generally don't hail from Austin. If anyone had thought that Zuniga or Shuffield would one day be members of a platinum band, they might initially have guessed it would have been as part of a local band called Big Car, who released one disappointing album on Giant in 1991 and disbanded shortly thereafter. Following that breakup, there were even bigger hopes for the Shuffield/Scalzo rhythm section that backed Austin's Beaver Nelson on his 1993 Sony debut, which was rejected by label brass and broke up the band.
As Magneto and later Magneto USA, the trio-soon-to-be-known-as-Fastball played local live music venues like Flamingo Cantina, Electric Lounge, and the Hole in the Wall for a year and change before signing with Hollywood Records, the beleaguered Disney imprint that didn't own much more than the Queen catalog and a few soundtracks. Today, Zuniga calls Fastball's debut, 1996's Make Your Momma Proud, and three subsequent tours with Matthew Sweet "dress rehearsals," but back then they were just plain ol' disasters. Hollywood never released a single or video from the album and Fastball failed to develop a live fan base -- either on the road or at home.
"We tried to be a band like Blues Traveler, but we couldn't get anyone to come to shows or buy the records," says Zuniga. "It's not that we weren't good, it's just that it wasn't easily classifiable. You say, 'Come see Marilyn Manson suck his own cock,' and people will go. Or if it's a band like Korn, where people will get off on aggression, people will go. But you say, 'Hey, come see these guys plays some original songs,' and why should they?"
Of course, the irony is that it only took one original song to turn Fastball's future from aluminum into platinum. Last January, Hollywood shipped to radio "The Way," the lead-off song and first single from the band's sophomore release, All the Pain Money Can Buy, titled as a not-so-subtle reference to the first album's failure. By March, "The Way" was well on its way to the top of Billboard's Modern Rock chart. The surprise success of a song inspired by the mysterious disappearance of an elderly Salado couple -- Hollywood's first Number One single ever -- had South by Southwest organizers scrambling to find Fastball a bigger venue and accommodate an industry buzz that led to the band signing what was reportedly a six-figure publishing deal.
As Fastball toured clubs opening for Whiskeytown shortly after SXSW (Ryan Adams referring to his Austin tourmates as "Goofball"), the band began fielding better tour options -- turning down a road stint with Van Halen for an Everclear/Marcy Playground bill. In between appearances on Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno, and David Letterman, Fastball also accepted an invitation for a month of HORDE dates with Blues Traveler, Ben Harper, and Barenaked Ladies. By August, All the Pain Money Can Buy had been certified platinum.
Philadelphia, October 29: After two phoners and a pair of radio interviews and performances, Fastball has finally made it to the Philadelphia venue, the Theater of Living Arts. After a quick soundcheck, Zuniga decides to get an hour's sleep on the Wave Dancer, Fastball's rented bus. Shuffield and Scalzo are equally tired, but decide to cover for Zuniga by attending a retail dinner down the street at a restaurant called Manny Brown's. Through a series of missed communications with Hollywood's local rep, however, the pair wind up with an hour to kill in the dressing room of the tour's opener, Austin's Davíd Garza. Before long, a couple of joints and an offhand joke have yielded the skeleton of a country shuffle, "I'm So Miserable Without You ... It's Almost as if You Were Here." It's the Garza band's title and Scalzo's melody, and it's damn near brilliant. The smoke in the room and lack of a pen and paper means it's also not destined to make it through the dressing room doors.
By the time Shuffield and Scalzo decide to find their own way to Manny Brown's, they're tired and hungry, which passing a pair of authentic-looking Philly cheesesteak dealers doesn't help. Had they'd known dinner would be an hour late, they too would be on the bus catching some Zs with Zuniga. Worse yet, Manny Brown's specializes in Tex-Mex food.
"Every one of these dinners is Tex-Mex," says Shuffield wearily. "The reps think it's cute to bring a band from Texas to Tex-Mex. They don't realize it's just annoying."
Except for the rare occasion when their promotional schedule bumps up too closely with showtime, Fastball typically reserves 45 minutes a night for a new pre-show ritual: a dressing room jam designed to loosen up, work out the last set's kinks, dream up covers, or sketch out new material. It's no three-man acoustic jam either; road manager and ex-Cannibal Club proprietor Brad First is responsible for setting up amplifiers and a drum kit every evening.
"It's something we picked up from watching Blues Traveler on HORDE," says Zuniga.
The jams themselves are closed-door sessions, open only to Fastball and Garza's band, and it's obvious why: Promotion is for business, the shows (and Zuniga's hotel room) are for fans, and the jams are purely for Fastball -- for their sanity and to draw some semblance of a small line between their art and their commerce. Even if the jams serve a purpose other than professional, however, Fastball has been coming onstage swinging. Fastball at the Hole in the Wall was good, but Fastball with 45 minutes of preparation and nine months of touring under their belt is far better. From start to finish, Fastball's headlining sets have been airtight and unyielding. Dead-on. And if there were ever any fears that All the Pain's pop melodies wouldn't fare as well as Make Your Momma
En Route to Boston, October 30: It's 3:30am and Miles Zuniga is slouched on a couch in the back compartment of the Wave Dancer. This particular interview with Zuniga is for a story on Fastball's finances, the only personal or Fastball-related topic he doesn't typically discuss freely. While he's consistent about ducking questions that require him to disclose figures, he's more forthcoming about how his life has changed with the success of All the Pain Money Can Buy; Zuniga knows a good rags-to-riches story doesn't do as much to diminish the rock star facade as fans knowing the number of zeroes on his publishing advance. Among other things, Zuniga admits he's spent years living off his credit cards and cash advances on his inheritance.
"Day jobs always seemed unacceptable to me," he says. "They felt like such drudgery, and not a fair trade on my time."
Big Car's dismissal from Giant Records, on the other hand, was.
"We were guaranteed to make two records for Giant, so they had to pay us to go away," says Zuniga. "We probably lost $250,000 for them and they still said, 'Here kid, take this huge check and do nothing for eight months.' I know of no other business where you get paid to be fired. I was off scot-free, and it pretty much sold me on the music business. It's where I said, 'Man, this business is my kind of business.'"
Zuniga may say this tour is an element of Fastball's "prime," but unfortunately there haven't been that many people around to witness it. In most cities, ticket sales for Fastball's first headlining tour have been lower than expected. Typically, Fastball has been playing to half-filled houses in Liberty Lunch-size venues. According to conventional wisdom, the concert marketplace is soft, yet overcrowded.
In D.C., for example, where Fastball plays the 9:30 Club, their performance follows recent shows from Alanis Morissette and Lenny Kravitz by one night and one week respectively. Can the average music consumer or radio listener afford to buy tickets to all three gigs? Probably not. Which ones will they most likely choose? Probably Morissette and Kravitz, who simply have more hits and higher profiles. For proof that the market is indeed soft, think about what multi-platinum acts like Kravitz and Morissette are doing stuck playing clubs in the first place.
The good news is that Fastball's headlining sets have been far more compelling than their opening slots. Judging by the post-show crowds around the merchandise booth and the high percentage of fans who stick around that same booth for autographs, it's clear Fastball is making fans the old-fashioned way -- one by one, city by city. Few are going home unhappy. And as Fastball knows all too well, until they can fill a venue with diehards, their future is tied to radio success. Should their January '99 single, "Out of My Head," do at least as well as the moderately successful "Fire Escape," Fastball could automatically jump to the next level. The market is tough, but there aren't many current bands with three bona fide radio hits that can't fill a club.
Boston, October 30: Of all the "listener appreciation" parties Fastball has played, the gig at Ft. Apache Studios for WBMX ranks amongst the best. First, there's the fact that they're visiting Ft. Apache at all; the indie rock mecca is legendary for having birthed albums by the Pixies, Hole, Weezer, and most of the 4AD roster. The compound is huge but understated. There are no gold albums on the wall and not a single photo of a musician. Instead, there's lots of stained glass and a new backdrop tailor-made for Fastball: a leopard-skin pattern and hanging leopard-printed coats that match a Fastball promotional poster with the same backdrop. This is the first sign Fastball has seen that a studio cared which band they were hosting.
The element of Ft. Apache that most impresses Zuniga is Juliana Hatfield, who's stopped by because her manager owns the studio and she's vaguely interested in seeing Fastball live. In the midst of Hatfield and Zuniga's conversation about her new album, the Electric Lounge, and Lisa Mednick, Hatfield mentions she's just heard Garza's "Discoball World" on the radio. She wants to know if his set is worth catching. Zuniga, who helped Garza land a spot on the tour in the first place, says his set is a can't-miss. Although she says she's having "dog problems" and might have to miss the show anyway, she asks to be placed on the guest list and promises to consider Zuniga's offer of a pre-show or encore jam. Later, at the show itself, Hatfield leaves after seeing most of Garza's set and half of Fastball's. On the way out, she has only one comment about her evening with Fastball:
"Where has Davíd Garza been all my life?"
Score one for the home team ... sort of.
Considering the relative speed of Fastball's success, the hometown backlash pundits predicted has been limited. Most local musicians and fans see it for what it is: three locals who paid their dues getting an unlikely payoff. For every Austin musician who's had and lost a major label record deal, or who can't draw 50 people in local clubs, Fastball is a ray of hope -- this town's everyman. The quick rise of "The Way" also seems to be more evidence that great songs rise to the top, even if they were written by an Austin songwriter. But "The Way" created whispers nonetheless, mostly along the lines of Scalzo vs. Zuniga and whether the two songwriters' relationship (each writes his own songs) could withstand Scalzo penning the band's initial hit. As early as April, Zuniga was shrugging off charges of jealousy.
"A hit with a song I wrote would be wonderful, but it doesn't do anybody any good to think 'my song, your song,'" commented Zuniga at the time.
Scalzo was more succinct.
"Miles is my ticket and I'm his," he said. "Any friction or jealousy would be stupid."
Capitalizing on the theory that Fastball's two vocalists and two songwriting voices might slow burnout in the marketplace, Hollywood's decision to release Zuniga's "Fire Escape" as the band's second single seemed almost as savvy as it did risky. And despite the lack of much MTV or VH1 play for the video, which had some at home prematurely dismissing them as one-hit-wonders, "Fire Escape" seems to be doing better than even Hollywood predicted. While "The Way" was a career single, the type of chart-dominating song that comes once or twice in a career for most mortal bands, "Fire Escape" is not that kind of song; it's catchy but not unforgettable.
And yet, last week it was being played on 194 of a possible 208 CHR (contemporary hits), Hot AC (adult contemporary), and AA (adult alternative) stations. Though it's also faring well at alternative rock and traditional Top 40 outlets, the glass ceiling that may stop it from climbing the charts like its predecessor is that "The Way" has been such a slow burn; research shows listener response is still strong six months later and many stations still have it on regular rotation. With playlists as tight as they are, only the biggest superstars in the rarest of cases have a chance to take two slots.
On the road, it's easier to feel the real impact of "Fire Escape." Programmers seem happy that Fastball's shorter acoustic radio performances feature only "Fire Escape" and not "The Way," with the former song clearly the live set's highlight. Better yet, Scalzo seems happy to have fallen out of the spotlight a bit. And Zuniga? He's loving it. As tough as it may have been for the guitarist being the only one who knew his studio role in crafting and arranging "The Way" into a hit, hearing his own song on the radio so often is obvious justice.
So, how is Fastball itself holding up? Relatively well, considering they're often cramped into the back of a Blazer together. (There aren't many waking moments on the Wave Dancer, a bus that's more necessity than luxury). They occasionally snap at each other and whisper behind each other's backs, but not more than any three guys thrown together for a year-long stretch might.
"We're always together, so we've gotten familiar enough to be sensitive about what we say and do to get on each other's nerves," explains Scalzo. "We try to show each other respect. I guess it comes down to some variation on whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger."
Maybe so, but there's obviously still some feelings of general homesickness. Scalzo's wife Nanette delivered the couple's first baby in July; to date, he's seen his infant daughter less than a few combined weeks. Shuffield hasn't seen much more of his new bride, who he married during the break Fastball took for Scalzo to attend his daughter's birth. Meanwhile, Zuniga is essentially homeless, with only a couple of storage lockers in Austin and Los Angeles.
The good news is that Fastball's band-on-the-run lifestyle means they're not spending much of their publishing advance. So far, Scalzo and Shuffield have made payments on their houses and Zuniga has beaten the band to Europe twice for a week's vacation. For Scalzo and Shuffield, who have each waged battles with drugs and alcohol in the past, it's clear their financial success couldn't have come at a healthier time.
"If you took the three guys in this band and gave us this kind of success 10 years ago, we'd be a mess," posits Shuffield. "I was a mess 10 years ago with no success."
Scalzo's prediction is more grim.
"I'd be gone," he says. "One of my major incentives for stopping drugs was that I didn't have enough money to maintain any kind of worthwhile habit. With money, I'd have probably been like a Shannon Hoon."
Currently, just keeping Fastball from turning into Blind Melon or any number of other falling stars like the Spin Doctors, Gin Blossoms, or Better Than Ezra seems to be the first priority. The office of Russell Carter, who manages Fastball, the Indigo Girls, and Shawn Mullins, handles most of the band's day-to-day details, but Fastball has more than their say, whether it's helping choose opening acts like Garza or rechecking ASCAP statements and contracts for movie licenses. With their third single set for January, an Austin City Limits appearance to tape at the end of this month, and at least another eight months of roadwork, Fastball has obviously come a long way since Shuffield managed the band's van tours and Carter couldn't be bothered to return their phone calls.
"We've all done our time in the trenches, know we deserve this, and are dedicated to making the best of it," Shuffield says. "Ultimately, we all know the reason we're here is because those guys are great songwriters, we made a killer record, we're a great live band, and we can be even better. Sure, all the work that goes along with that is definitely real work. But it's a good job to have and a hard position to get. It took me 16 years to get here and now that I'm here I'll do everything I can to hold onto it."
Boston, October 30: After the Boston gig, a great set in front of a truly intimate crowd, Fastball is ready to pack up quickly and move out. They're not being thrown out per se, but the venue is turning into a disco at midnight whether Fastball hangs or not. The good news is that the Damnations are across town in Cambridge and Shuffield and Zuniga think they can make it there in time -- if only they knew the name of the venue or had a way to get there.
Fortunately, there's a bleach-blonde, leather-clad, hanger-on offering her services. She says she'll gladly drive the band over in her van and drop them off at the hotel. But if finding a well-worn copy of Will & the Kill's MCA debut in her tape case wasn't alarming enough, Zuniga gets an even better idea of what they're dealing with when he notices her license plate after getting out at the venue. "POISON," reads the vanity plates. Before Zuniga can ask, she points to the souvenir Brett Michaels pin on her leather jacket. Zuniga isn't one to point fashion fingers, however, as he's still wearing a leopard-skin coat he pillaged from Ft. Apache.
"The Damnations are going to think I've turned into Elton John or somebody," says Zuniga, realizing that a quiet entrance into a club this tiny isn't possible. In fact, the venue looks like every shitty room Fastball visited in their Make Your Momma Proud days. Neither the irony nor the big rock star entrance are lost on t\he Damnations.
"Hey Miles, remember these days?" asks Damnations/Prescott Curlywolf guitarist Rob Bernard from the stage.
"Yeah," Zuniga yells back. "I was in the middle of 'em about an hour ago -- at our gig."
Some things never change.
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