One thing Austin doesn't have is the Santa Monica pier. It stands in the water off the California coastline like a boy in short pants, a small city built atop its long, stretching surface. Behind it, the towering palm trees push the bluffs back from the beach, and on this balmy December morning, a construction crane lowers an enormous section of pipeline onto its deck. A helicopter flies in low overhead, and lands on the other side of the monolithic structure, closer up the sand to a boardwalk seen the world over through Hollywood lenses. Walking towards this concrete extension of beach and boardwalk -- keeping pace with a small school of dolphins swimming just off-shore in the same direction -- Miles Zuniga and Joey Shuffield have come a long way to be here.

Not that the recording studio is that far away, mind you -- about an hour down the Santa Monica freeway, tucked back in a warehouse off the Southern California commercial strip that is Sherman Way in Van Nuys. That's close. It's the Texas state capital -- where these two musicians make their homes -- that's a long ways away. Not that Shuffield minds the 1,500-or-so miles between him and Austin. After all, he's spent all but the first of his 34 years there. Time away is good. Laredo-born Zuniga, for his part, likes California, especially Berkeley, where he lay in exile for two years following the Big Car debacle. Big Car. Now there's something from which both men are far removed; the major-label wreckage of Austin's Big Car. Gone even longer is the day Shuffield jumped into a van with Michael Hall to plant the Wild Seeds all over America. Those days are hell and gone. So, for that matter, is Fastball's third member, Tony Scalzo. Where's Scalzo?

Off with his brother, who along with the Scalzo elders, still lives in Orange County's Tustin, where Tony grew up. It's a day off after all, and any day off is a good day. Yesterday, by contrast, was spent doing overdubs, and didn't go well. Things bog down in the midst of "Altamont," and the board bearing 18 song titles doesn't get a check mark in the "guitar overdubs" box. The group's A&R man, Rob Seidenberg, agrees to a day off, but only if the band works through the weekend. Deal. Not that Fastball is over its six-figure budget or anything. Rather it's that everyone involved wants this debut done fast. It's time that's ticking away, not the meter. Besides, money doesn't seem to be the issue when a walk down the Disney lot to Seidenberg's Hollywood Records office puts Uncle Walt's animation building in the background, revealing seven Mt. Rushmore-sized dwarves holding up the roof. Fastball is now part of the empire.

Which doesn't help "Emily" any. Under the ditch and over the wall, over and over and over again. Producer Jerry Finn makes Scalzo sing the line two dozen times (at least), and yesterday's dia libre fades with every new take. And the line sounds the same every time; just fine. But Finn's ear -- the one that got paid for making Rancid rich -- hears something. Or not. "He was just getting sounds," says Scalzo three months later back in Austin. "He wasn't even recording yet," adds Zuniga. Scalzo's laughing too over the fact that "Emily" was the next song up at Fastball's ARC rehearsal when this reporter came knockin'. The only difference is that this time around, "Emily" resides on the 14-song advance cassette of Make Your Mama Proud -- recorded, mixed, and finished only 30 days after the band's arrival in Los Angeles. The same advance burning in Hollywood's hot little hands -- as evidenced at the Coyote Cafe the next night, actually.

Seidenberg's in town to see Fastball's Saturday night gig at the Electric Lounge, and he's brought promotions and marketing with him. Marketing -- in the guise of an ex-William Morris guy -- has never seen Fastball live, and his enthusiasm has to cool its heels while the band looks at promo glossies, reads its bio, and is informed that producer Finn is now working on a trial basis with Soundgarden. Radio promotions, meanwhile, is across town wining and dining a radio station. The game's afoot, the major-label machinery on hand. Full speed ahead. Which is exactly how the band tears through its set that night. It's perhaps the best gig of Fastball's 19-month history, and it's played, as usual, to their small but loyal following ("about 40 or 50 people," estimates Zuniga). It's a set probably not unlike the Hole in the Wall set that convinced first-timer Seidenberg he wanted to sign the band. And it's a set that audiences around the country will have a chance to see after Fastball's SXSW, which includes a showcase, KUT "Live Set" taping, and perhaps some TV air-time if MTV or the local FOX affiliate makes it to the beer-bash the label is throwing at the ARC.

It's happening fast -- the pieces of the puzzle are coming together. Very fast.

"Yes, it's gone as quickly as you could want," says Seidenberg. "All the key players involved wanted to do it quickly. The band felt they were ready to make an album, I felt they were ready to make an album, the label felt they were ready to make an album."

"I don't think it happened fast," counters Zuniga. "Look at Sixteen Deluxe, they're getting national exposure, and we've been together the exact same time."

"We played their first show," injects Scalzo.

"That was one of our first shows," adds Zuniga. "To me, those guys are way ahead of us."

"I think it all happened just as it should," says Shuffield. "If it didn't happen when it did, then it probably wasn't going to."

"We started cold," concludes Scalzo, "and it leaves us with a feeling of pride that we got it going and off the ground ourselves; by sheer merit of getting it together, hard work, and talent. And songs. Good songs, and good playing."

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