DECEMBER 7, 1998: AT 3 A.M., somewhere in Europe, the phone rang and rang. Fastball drummer Joey Shuffield's life would never be the same after he picked up the phone and his manager told him that his band's CD, All the Pain That Money Can Buy, had gone platinum. He went back to sleep, and didn't remember it until the next day.
"We had that as a goal, I remember," says Shuffield from a hotel in Denver. "It didn't really hit us until we got back into the States. When we were overseas it was very abstract, but we returned to play a show in L.A., and during the show, Carson Daly from MTV surprises us and shows up to give us the platinum album. I saw the picture and I'll never forget the befuddled look on my face."
A lot of people were taken aback by the rapid success this Austin, Texas, trio experienced from their second CD--fueled by the almost non-stop, coast-to-coast embracing of the first single, "The Way," in the spring; and the current success of the second single, "Fire Escape." The infinitely catchy and clever debut "The Way" shot them from hardworking obscurity to the top of the charts. Chock-full of drum loops and vintage synthesizer flourishes, the song exemplifies the album's creative spirit. A tango beat lulls the listener while vocalist Tony Scalzo sings an escapist fantasy about two people who just take off. "They won't make it home, but they really don't care/They wanted the highway/They're happier that way," he sings. "Anyone can see the road that they're on is paved in gold." Oddly, it's a song that almost didn't make the record.
"It was one of the last days of recording," says Shuffield. "We were going to quit in half an hour, and Tony brought in this demo tape made with cheesy Casio keyboards. I knew it was good, but none of us had any idea it would become the monster hit. None of us thought it was going to be a single, and someone at the company thought better. Otherwise I wouldn't be talking to you."
Inspired by a news article about an elderly couple reported missing in their RV on the way to a reunion, "The Way" was an almost instant hit. The real-life couple, as it turns out, did not fare so well.
"The song was inspired from the first article," says Shuffield. "It has little to do with what happened, which was tragic. It was a romantic take on what might have happened, or what they might have done. We don't want to profit from anyone's misery."
In a similar twist of fate, it was the failure of the band's first record, Make Your Mama Proud, that made this latest release. Punkier and more positive, the first release wasn't supported by the record company. Fastball toured behind it, but it never took. Shuffield says that guitarist Miles Zuniga was depressed that it failed. All three of the band members were in their 30s, and perhaps their chance at success on their own terms would not come.
"We toured behind that (first release) for 18 months, and our record company never took it to the radio," says Shuffield. "You can only go so far. We were all bummed because of it. We decided to take a different approach to this one. They wrote demos, and instead of recording what our live show sounds like, we got together two weeks before the studio time was booked. So all of the songs were still elastic. We went in with open minds, and we just wanted to grow musically, which I think we did in leaps and bounds. Here you got horns, strings, drum loops--it's sophisticated. So much for the sophomore slump."
And it appears the trend will continue. Hollywood Records had never had a hit in its history, despite spending $150 million. But with Fastball, they'll probably keep releasing singles from the album--which may have a few more salable singles.
The songwriting, though spiked with wit and humor, is darker than the first release--obsession and escape are recurring themes. In the album, the song cycle examines a picture of small town life ("Sweetwater, Texas"); the weirdness of nostalgia ("G.O.D."); the fickleness of fame ("Warm Fuzzy Feeling"); and the feelings of ill will that accompany the betrayal of a loved one ("Slow Drag").
"We've all been in bands for 10 or 15 years, working at this," says Shuffield of the overnight success that was years in the making. "We decided early on that this was the last band that we would start from scratch. We've been through the ringer. You work and work, you get frustrated, and persist. Finally all of the work pays off. We went from nobody to being a platinum seller in no time; but in the bigger picture, it took 15 years. A short time ago, we could only draw 150 in Austin, our hometown, on a Saturday night. This time, when we come back, we've been asked to play Austin City Limits."
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