Breaking the Austin cycle
There is something different going on in Austin music right now. For all its repute as a song's favorite town, Austin has never made much of a dent on MTV-fed America or the Billboard charts. The home of Willie Nelson has always been a blues town and a honky-tonk country mecca and a place where the Butthole Surfers, Poison 13 and Scratch Acid spliced punk and metal to send a shock felt all the way to Seattle. But Austin has had limited success in the field of pop (as in "popular") music. We like it bluesy and simple, with guitars all around. We like to gape at amazing (or merely long) solos, and we like to dance when we've got a few in us. Then, if we like the band live, we just might buy their record. With acutely accessible acts like Fastball, Spoon, and David Garza, however, the studio is becoming as important as the stage. We've generally had to listen to Austin recordings with a pre-fond heart and critics have had to grade this homegrown product on a curve, but with such fresh tracks as "Metal Detektor" and "No You're Not" by Spoon, "Discoball World" and "Float Away" by David Garza and "The Way," "Better than it Was" and "Slow Drag" by Fastball, Austinites have, for once, created music with a universal appeal. The lack of an "Austin Sound" helps these acts hoist themselves out of the Velvet Rut that has lulled so many local acts into making music that accepts Austin as a final destination. There have been Austin-based hits in the past: "Tuff Enuff" by the Fabulous Thunderbirds made it to No. 10 in 1986, Charlie Sexton's "Beat's So Lonely" was No. 17 and Timbuk 3's "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" hit No. 19 the same year. Just two years ago, "Pepper" by the Butthole Surfers was a No. 1 modern rock smash, and such Austinites as Dangerous Toys, Eric Johnson and Jimmie Vaughan have gold albums on their walls. (Shawn Colvin isn't an Austin musician: she just lives here.) But these successes are far overwhelmed by the list of Austin acts who've sold poorly for major labels: Poi Dog Pondering, LeRoi Brothers, Lou Ann Barton, Year Zero, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Kelly Willis, Will and the Kill, Will T. Massey, True Believers -- the list goes on and on. Too often, Austin acts have gone into the studio in an attempt to capture the live set, but what the best newer bands are doing is creating something that's not an accessory to the live act, but work that stands on its own. It's Austin music that can be thoroughly enjoyed without holding a $3 bottle of beer,and it's speaking to fans far beyond the rootsy sweathogs of Scandinavia.
Backstage with Conan
The members of Fastball seem understandably nervous as they wait to make their national network debut on the Conan O'Brien show. Road manager Brad First, who'll be driving the band's equipment to South Carolina the next day, is trying to find out which guitars Scalzo and Zuniga need for their "MTV Live" performance, but Scalzo just puts his hand on his forehead and says, "I . . . just . . . can't think right now." Meanwhile, Zuniga takes his seventh or eighth stroll down the hall to see if fellow guest Gwyneth Paltrow has arrived. "I don't know why Miles has been drinking so much cappuccino," First says. "He's going to pee his pants up there." The band relaxes during sound check, when Conan O'Brien gets up from his monologue-polishing and bobs his head enthusiastically to "The Way," which he would later describe as the kind of song you can't get out of your head so you hum it for two or three weeks until your friends beat you up. A fledgling guitarist, who goes through the day's rehearsal cradling and noodling on a big hollow-body electric, O'Brien asks Zuniga and Scalzo to show him the chords to "The Way." "Just get Guitar World next month," Scalzo says, and it almost seems flippant, but the no-nonsense Scalzo was being serious: The song is to be structurally analyzed in the next G.W. "The first time I heard this song on the radio, I was with my girlfriend late at night," O'Brien says, "and I started to get my guitar out, but then I realized: I'm with my girlfriend late at night. Just book the band on the show and let them show you the chords." Can we get a picture, too?
There in the wings, seconds before Fastball was to take its place on the Conan O'Brien stage, Miles Zuniga sees it. A bottle of Jack Daniels. How did they know? Is this a cool show or what? Taking this vision as some sort of divine rock 'n' roll providence, Zuniga decides to knock back a belt before going onstage. It is iced tea. "I should've known it was too good to be true," Zuniga says. It turns out he didn't need that shot of courage. The band is great on "Late Night," with Scalzo hitting every vocal peak and Zuniga turning in a couple of short but adventurous solos. A charmed O'Brien seeks Fastball after the show and jokes about their Buffalo Springfield sideburns look. "You oughtta grow your sideburns so they meet at the chin, give you that monoburns look like Elvis had for awhile," O'Brien says. When the band asks if they could take a picture together, Conan says, "We can't have that," feigning a superior air. As they finally take a picture together, O'Brien a full head taller than the three diminutive 'ballers, the talk host says, "Hey, whose hand is on my ass?" then he adds, "No, don't move it. Keep it there, ah." As the band leaves the NBC studio to get in the black Range Rover that will take them back to the hotel, Zuniga says, "Wouldn't you think they'd at least send a stretch limo?" When the band gets inside, a Puerto Rican couple from the Conan audience comes over to the car and asks for autographs. "Can we get a picture, too?" the guy asks. "You guys were great." "All right," Scalzo announces, "everybody out." The driver takes the photo of the band and their newest fans, standing and smiling like it'll always be like this.
Meet Miles Zuniga
Miles gets his real drink after the Conan taping at a funky yet charming restaurant/bar on Eighth and 45th called Smith's. After the O'Brien triumph, Zuniga is wound up and wants to do some celebrating, but neither Shuffield nor Scalzo drink, so he hits the joint across the street from the hotel. "I've never been in the cool band in Austin," says Miles, whose resume includes stints in Go Dog Go (a band whose ex-membership includes Joey Shuffield), the Neptunes, Band From Hell, Chinese Cowboys and Big Car. "I've been pushing for success for 10 years solid, but I wasn't ready for it earlier," he says as he sips a Cape Cod (or vodka and cranberry juice to the Irish-accented bartender who had never heard of a Cape Cod). "During the Big Car period (early '90s), I was so full of myself. If I'd 'a had a hit then I'm pretty sure I would've self-destructed." You're not supposed to crave success over the pleasure of playing in Austin, but from the very start Zuniga was pegged a hustler, a self-promoter, a rock 'n' roll kid into all the trappings -- fame, groupies, parties. Even as his songwriting improved steadily, from the Neptunes standout "Johnny Speaks Spanish (and He Carries a Gun)" to the more introspective numbers he'd sing in acoustic solo sets, Zuniga was hard to take too seriously. Partly, that's because he's a real funny guy, able to do a wide range of impressions, from Ronald Reagan to MTV's Matt Pinfield. But also, Zuniga just wanted it too bad. If it hadn't been rock 'n' roll, it would've been stand-up comedy, acting or as a presidential assassin, but Miles Zuniga was going to be famous somehow. Hollywood Rec publicist Sharrin Summers likes to tell the story about how, two years ago at SXSW, Zuniga spent more than an hour bonding with some little guy at a party, and when it was time to leave and the guy gave his card, it was Neil Strauss of the New York Times. Well, Golly Geewiz. Anybody who knows Miles sees another scenario: Zuniga arrived at the party and quickly cased the crowd for the person who could best further his career. He settled on Strauss. Miles Zuniga has dreams that you can't take away, and the main one is of him singing a song he wrote late at night in front of a predominantly female audience on a nationally televised program. That the Fastball moment finds Scalzo in the spotlight must be such a double-edged sword in Zuniga's gut that you can't really ask him about it. The song's a great piece of ear candy, sung splendidly by Scalzo, and it's taken Zuniga as far in his career as he's ever been. But, if he were a basketball player and the score were tied with three seconds to go, Zuniga would want the ball. "I think this band has a lot more than one hit in us," he says, sensing the unasked question. "The label's looking at one of my songs for the next single." The inside word is that the radio promo people at the label have suggested Zuniga's "Fire Escape" as the followup, though the guitarist thinks either "Slow Drag" or "Sooner or Later" has a better chance of clicking. What no one will tell Zuniga is that "Better Than it Was," the stirringly sung Scalzo number, is the song on "All the Pain" that could best follow-up "The Way." Zuniga has talent, to be sure, but Scalzo is a world-class pop singer and constructor of melodies. It seems clear that Hollywood wants to promote Fastball as a band with two front men, but what happens when Zuniga's single stiffs?
"I'm glad it was my song that became the hit," Scalzo says the next day in his Times Square hotel room. He's got MTV on and he's eating soup from one of the many gourmet soup kitchens that have sprung up in NYC since "Seinfeld." "You go through so much rejection in this business that you become this ball of self-doubt," he says. "Hearing your song on the radio or playing it on TV just validates what you've been doing for half your life." As if on cue, the video for "The Way" comes on MTV and Scalzo straightens up at attention. "Whenever I hear them mention Fastball on MTV, it's as if sparks are flying from their voices," Scalzo says. Don't let his holdin'-on-to-the-day-job attitude and constant pining to be back in Austin, where his wife Nanette is seven months' pregnant, fool you: Scalzo is digging every minute of his band's success. But he does think that the band's expense account is getting out of hand. "The wine was flowing at dinner last night," he said. "At $130 a bottle, I might have to start drinking again, as long as I'm paying for it." Most of the band's expenses, including the $1,500 suit Zuniga bought to wear on "Late Night" (before deciding to slum it in a $300 shirt), are recoupable, which means the money is taken out of future royalties. In other words, Scalzo is paying for it. But the 33-year-old, who looks like "Mean Streets" era Robert DeNiro's kid brother, has been around the block enough to know he's lucky to be in this position. The son of a career Marine, Scalzo moved around a lot as a kid before settling down in Orange County, Calif. He started drinking at age 13 and then moved onto the hard stuff for teen-age years that he was lucky to live through. Scalzo gave up alcohol 10 years ago, with the drugs soon to follow. It was a promise of a job as a working musician that moved Scalzo, his then-girlfriend and daughter Scarlet to Austin in 1992. Light Storm Records, owned by "Titanic" director James Cameron, had signed an Austin singer-songwriter named Beaver Nelson; Scalzo and drummer Jamie Riedling had been hired as the rhythm section. When Riedling moved back to L.A., cursing Austin's lack of surfing, ex-Wild Seeds drummer Shuffield was brought aboard. Guitarists Paul Minor and Nelson rounded out the band. "I was promised $1,000 to move to Austin, but, of course, when I got here there was no money. Paul and Beaver were out of town, so there was no place to stay for a couple days. Here I was, virtually broke and homeless, with a baby to take care of -- Welcome to Austin!" To make matters worse, Scalzo and Shuffield were fired from the band after recording an album that was never released. Seeing this crack rhythm section suddenly available, Zuniga decided to lick his wounds from the demise of Big Car and start another rockin' pop trio, which he would call Magneto. When it was discovered that there was a popular band in Mexico called Magneto, the Austin trio added USA to its name. When they signed to Hollywood, the band decided to go for a whole new name, first choosing Starchy, but then settling on Fastball after Spoon's Britt Daniel told them from the stage of the Hole In the Wall: "I like you guys too much to allow you to call yourselves Starchy." When the NY Daily News writer asks Zuniga why the name change from Magneto USA, Zuniga says, "I don't know if they even have the 'Rock In Rio' festival anymore, but all I could see was us getting the chance to play, but then losing the gig because the Mexican band Magneto was popular in South America and there would be confusion over the name." Miles Zuniga has always thought big.
This one's for the Howards
It all boils down to a song that people can't get enough of. When you hear "The Way" on the radio or see it performed in a pop culture context like the Conan O'Brien show, it just seems so perfectly placed. The lyrics appear to be as uplifting as the melody, so people are always asking what inspired the song, but Scalzo has become more evasive about what it means in recent weeks. "It wasn't written as a tragic song. It was written before they found the bodies," he says. The bodies belonged to Lela and Raymond Howard, an elderly Salado couple who went out for a cup of coffee and ended up driving all the way to Arkansas. "I read the first story in the Statesman, that they'd disappeared, and the first thing that hit me was that this older couple could have just decided to chuck the straight life and headed out on an adventure. I got caught up in the romantic notion." The Howards were found two weeks later in their car, which had tumbled over a 25-foot cliff in Northwestern Arkansas. Asked what he tells interviewers who press on the fate of the couple, Scalzo says, "Sometimes I tell them that they were found, that everything was cool. Everybody loves a happy ending."
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