In 1998, it wasn’t possible to turn on the radio or MTV without hearing Fastball‘s “The Way” or seeing its music video. The song was one of the decade’s most successful alt/rock songs, and helped the band achieve big things with their sophomore album All the Pain Money Can Buy (a record that also featured hits “Out of My Head” and “Fire Escape”).
Well, it’s almost two decades since that era, and Fastball are still at it. Their new album, Step Into Light (their first since 2009) is out on May 19, and the band will spend the summer on the road with fellow ’90s stars Everclear and Vertical Horizon.
Guitarist/vocalist Miles Zuniga took some time out of his busy pre-tour schedule to speak with us for a chat about the ins and outs of the music business, record label life, the weird late ’90s scene and more. Enjoy it below.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You’re from Austin. Are you there right now?
Miles Zuniga: No, right now I’m in Portland. Our tour actually starts today. Today’s the opening night, and then … this is it. All the hard work we’ve put in setting everything up, now the fuse is lit and for better or worse, this is it. We’re getting started … which is weird. It’s weird, you know, a lot of this stuff you set up while you’re in pajamas, drinking coffee (laughs), and then you suddenly you have to go out and do it. That’s a whole different beast.
Now you have to get back to everyday tour life.
Miles Zuniga: Yeah, or as I call it, turning into a barbarian. The first week or two I’m always like, “Oh my God,” I’m so fragile and freaked out and don’t know how to handle it, and then within two weeks I’m like, “where’s the fuckin’ beer, where’s the stage? Get me the guitar!” (laughs)
Starting this tour in Portland is probably pretty cool for Art (Alexakis of Everclear), isn’t it?
Miles Zuniga: Yeah! I think so. We always usually start in the Midwest, I don’t know why but almost every tour we’ve ever done seems to start in the middle of America. It’s fun to start on the edge, and be on West Coast time, I dunno. It’s a different emotional … we’re on the edge of the world, it feels like, haha. And it’s a cool town, too, a great place to get the tour started.
So the tour starts tonight, and then Fastball will travel around with Vertical Horizon and Everclear for weeks as part of Everclear’s 20th anniversary of So Much for the Afterglow, truly one of the ’90s biggest records. Fastball’s 1998 album, All the Pain Money Can Buy, was also really big. With all that going into it, what are your expectations for this tour?
Miles Zuniga: It doesn’t pay to have expectations (laughs). We’ve toured with Vertical Horizon before, so I know all those dudes and they’re really nice, and we’ve toured with Everclear — but it was 20 years ago. So in a way, it’s a return to Saturn, because they were one of the first big tours we did. The record blew up. We’d been doing some dates on our own, and it was Everclear and Marcy Playground, we did a tour with them.
So it’s been not quite 20 years. 19 years. And I haven’t seen Art … I guess I saw him a few years after we toured with them, but I certainly haven’t seen him in 15 years or something. He’s a really nice guy, so I’m looking forward to seeing him again. I still haven’t seen him yet today, though.
You might see him tonight, though.
Miles Zuniga: His name’s on the bill, so… (laughs)
The bands on this bill all had pretty high commercial peaks 18, 19 years ago —
Miles Zuniga: AGES ago!
You look around, and a lot of other bands from that era are still doing their thing as well. Matchbox Twenty, Lit, Third Eye Blind, all these bands that were pretty big as well back then are still touring all the time. What’s that all mean to you guys, considering, well, 20 years ago feels like a long time?
Miles Zuniga: I’m just grateful that it is so, you know? A lot of our contemporaries are still out there doing it, but a lot of our contemporaries are gone, broken up, or whatever. And our band kind of stands out from some of the other groups still out there today in that we’re still the exact same three members.
Miles Zuniga: Most of these bands, and the bands we’re on tour with right now, they’re not all the original members. So we’re an anomaly in that regard.
Listening to the new Fastball record Step Into Light, that’s something that comes across pretty easily. It has the sound of music coming from a group of guys that have been together a long time. Eight years since your last album, what was the process like behind the new one?
Miles Zuniga: I’m as amazed as anybody when I listen to what we did and go, “Wow, there it is. There’s that sound. How did that happen?” I don’t know how it happens. I’ve played with lots of other people, and I’m the constant in everything I’m in, but every project sounds totally different. Fastball has a super-specific sound that we don’t even have to think about. I never thought we had a sound, to be honest, but now I realize we really do. The sound of Tony & me, the way we sing together, just the way everything lays in there together. And Tony played bass on this record, which I think is important because we had a couple records where other guys played bass. He did play bass on the first three albums, so to have him back on bass is an important part of our sound.
Any of the new songs you’re most proud of?
Miles Zuniga: I love the first one, “We’re On Our Way,” I think it’s rockin’. Every time I hear it I think it’s great. I do think “I Will Never Let You Down” is classic Tony, a pure pop kind of song, and then I love “Frenchy and the Punk”, it’s weird, it’s strange.
“Behind the Sun” struck me as almost an homage to the Beatles. Was that the goal?
Miles Zuniga: Yeah. Well that song is all me, none of the other guys play on it. I am guilty as charged (laughs). If it sounds like the Beatles, you can’t blame anybody but me. I do love the Beatles, and I knew that was kind of … a Beatles rip, if you will, but I just couldn’t help myself. Sometimes, you’re like, “fuck it, the world does need another Beatles song.” (laughs)
Yeah, Oasis basically did the same thing for years, so why not?
Miles Zuniga: (laughs) Yeah, when it works, it works. So I just went for it.
What’s the songwriting process like for a Fastball song? Do you bring your material together in the studio or does it all sort of come together then?
Miles Zuniga: For the most part. Sometimes, we’ll have to hash out what we’re going to do. But we can work really fast, like, “Nah, that part sucks, get rid of it” or “Hey, this part’s boring, it repeats too much, go write another part,” or something. When you’re younger you think there’s a mystery to it, but it’s not a mystery, it’s just like cleaning your bedroom or anything else you don’t want to do.
If there’s creative snags, it just requires you to sit down and sweat it out mentally. And sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t, but there’s only one way to get it and that’s to actually sit down and do it.
And before, you might think there’s hocus-pocus or voodoo, or, “maybe I should consult the Ouija board, or do some heroin,” or whatever, but that’s all just avoiding the issue.
So who’s wearing the bunny suit on the Step Into Light album cover?
Miles Zuniga: (laughs) Your guess is as good as mine. I have no idea. We did do a photo shoot with a bunny in Austin, but it’s not the same bunny.
What’s the story behind the cover idea and the album title?
Miles Zuniga: Well, we came up with the idea of using the song “Step Into Light” as the title track, and we had a few different album cover ideas. There was one I really liked that the guys didn’t want to go for. It was a painting, with a woman opening the curtains. And she’s naked, it’s her backside, she’s opening the curtains in a cheap motel or whatever, gazing out the window and it’s from the perspective of whoever’s laying in the bed. I thought, “Wow, that’s trippy, it suggests all kinds of things.”
But then Tony found the bunny image. They didn’t really like my other idea, but with the bunny it was like, “Wow, it’s a bunny, but it looks like he’s had a rough one. He looks like he’s been on a bender. (laughs) So I liked it.
It was surreal, it was weird, and we knew the record would be coming out somewhat around Easter.
Besides the Beatles, as you mentioned earlier, which records did you wear out when you were younger that helped shape your songwriting skills?
Miles Zuniga: I listened to a lot of Cheap Trick, AC/DC, Van Halen. I grew up around that time when they were all making records, and one thing everybody had in common back then is that they were all pretty concise. They’re not going to waste your time. Usually it’s pretty amazing, usually it’s pretty galvanizing. You hear a Van Halen song or AC/DC and it’s fantastic. So all that, plus the Pretenders, the Sex Pistols, any those bands that…they got in, they got out.
I didn’t listen to a lot of Yes, let’s put it that way.
You went through a few different names before settling on Fastball, and then your Best Of album was titled Painting the Corners. Any correlation, are you guys baseball fans?
Miles Zuniga: No, in fact I resent that Best Of record. We had nothing to do with it.
Was it one of those record label things?
Miles Zuniga: The label, looking to just…after they drop you, looking to squeeze a few more dollars out of you. It’s so pathetic, they drop you because in their mind, your day is done as a commercial entity. And they own the masters and stuff, so they can do that. And then people are like, “What? These guys think they merit a Greatest Hits record?”
I don’t! But I can’t control the record company, and I guess they came up with the title, which I thought was stupid as well. But those days are gone, there aren’t really as many record labels anymore.
Sometimes, bands in that situation wind up re-recording their hits since their old labels kept the masters or whatever. Did Fastball ever consider doing anything like that?
Miles Zuniga: People have said we should re-record our stuff, but I’m kind of a purist. That was it, that was the one, that’s the way that song sounds. So even if we could make more money re-recording it, part of me is like, “fuck that.” I don’t want to hear another version of “Whole Lotta Love,” you know?
Fastball’s debut album in 1996, Make Your Mama Proud, didn’t do very well commercially but then All the Pain Money Can Buy was a huge hit, the video for “The Way” was on MTV roughly every 15 minutes. It was intense. Was that all a surprise?
Miles Zuniga: Yeah. We thought we were gonna get dropped. We were supposed to get dropped. Because to say the first record didn’t do much is an understatement. It didn’t do anything, but part of the reason it didn’t do anything was because nobody knew it even existed.
The record company didn’t do anything. And we would and should have been dropped, but the record company president got fired. So there wasn’t anyone at the top to say, “Get rid of these guys,” so we dodged a bullet.
We asked the accountant there if we could do another record and he was like, “I don’t give a fuck. I’m probably gonna get fired too,” and signed off on it.
So then we thought, “OK, we’re making this record but we’re gonna get dropped as soon as this new guy takes power,” but we got another lucky break in that someone at the label started working the song “The Way” before the new guy arrived. So by the time he arrived, it was already becoming a hit. So it was a no-brainer, the guy starts his first day of work and he already had this song on the radio.
To answer your question, no, we didn’t think anyone would ever hear it, but then once we realized it was coming out and there was some radio action, then … I did think it was a great record, I really did. And then everything changed.
Your description right there of the music business in the late 1990s explains a bit of the chaos going on around then. Given that environment, Fastball must have been on some pretty wacky festival lineups or played some wild gigs, right?
Miles Zuniga: We played a show with Kathy Lee Gifford, actually. Some radio blowjob show, you know, where you gotta go kiss the ring of the radio station. They threaten you – OK, they don’t threaten you, but it’s all implied, like, “Man, it’d be a real shame if you didn’t come play our Christmas Jingle Ball show,” which means of course, “If you don’t come play it we’re gonna drop your fuckin’ song.” So there was that, and then we did a thing with the Baha Men — remember them? You’d just be handed this itinerary, and it’s like, “Here’s who you’re playing with.” You’d think your management would be like, “This is shitty. Not a good look.” But I think they just said yes to everything, so that’s what was happening.
From where Fastball’s been to where you are now, how would you define the word “success” and how does that apply to your goals for the new album and being this far into your career?
Miles Zuniga: I think selling out shows is great. Success is on a lot of levels, it’s not just the band doing well, it’s also communication within the band, feeling good about what you’re putting out there, and for us there’s no excuse not to do that. It isn’t like we’re on a major label and they’re breathing down our necks about what we should do. And even if they were, well, we’re 50 years old, we’re not going to listen to them. We’re not kids anymore.
You’re not going to play that Jingle Ball?
Miles Zuniga: Nah, sorry, the Jingle Ball’s been canceled (laughs). I guess success is just doing it for me, personally, since I’m the only one to really speak for. To do the best job you can on a given night. Give it all you got. Some nights are gonna be better than others, but the main thing is people paid money to see you, they’re gonna be there, give it everything you’ve got. Otherwise you’re just wasting time and taking up space.
Machine Gun Kelly incorporated “Out of My Head” in a big single last year. Did you guys have nothing to do with that, since you don’t own the masters and all that? how’d that come about?
Miles Zuniga: It felt great (laughs). We did get paid for that. And they didn’t use the master, so they recreated it. I believe the proper term is “interpolated.” It was a great thing to happen at just the right time. It was fantastic when it happened, it went all the way to No. 1 and stayed there for three weeks. And it really exposed the original song to a whole bunch of people.
I never thought I’d be able to say that. “We’ve had a No. 1 on the hip-hop charts.” But we have, essentially!
And now that song is going to be performed all summer long to huge audiences since Machine Gun Kelly’s touring with Linkin Park.
Miles Zuniga: Oh wow, are they going out with Linkin Park?
Miles Zuniga: Oh, shit. Yeah, that dude did us right. It’s one of those things you just can’t plan, and we didn’t really have anything to do with it. On the other hand, I know how hard it is when you do have a hit song in terms of how taxing it is. You have to get up, and do all this morning radio, go shake hands, then you gotta play the show, meet contest winners and all that. Every day you’re out there, promoting your stuff. I was just laying in bed, this time, while he’s making this new thing go, so I was really happy with it. (laughs)
The Harsh Light of Day, the follow-up to All the Pain Money Can Buy, allowed Fastball to work with icons like Brian Setzer and Billy Preston. What was that like?
Miles Zuniga: To be honest, I wasn’t such a fan of that stuff. I think…the record before was All the Pain Money Can Buy, and the next one ought to have been called All the Guest Stars Money Can Buy. That’s part of an indication of how little faith they had in us. “Even though you guys had some massive hits and been this huge band, we still don’t think you’re that good, really, to pull this off. So we’re gonna put a bunch of people on there.” I mean, they’re people I really admire and they were super cool, super great to work with, but the band back then wasn’t really the kind of unified front we are now so it was easier to get something like that put together.
You released a solo album in 2011, how was that process different from the usual band experience?
Miles Zuniga: That was great, really empowering. I had just gone through a divorce, it was a pretty rough time for me emotionally, so it felt great to have the catharsis that came with that. I had a few people help out but for the most part it was all me. It made me feel like, “Wow, I really know how to make a good record.” It bolstered my confidence for when I went back to Fastball again.
And that’s the same creative process behind Ryan Adams’ latest album Prisoner, too, coming off a rough divorce.
Miles Zuniga: Uh-huh! Yeah. Use your pain! (laughs)
You’re in Austin a lot of the time. Do you soak in all the music the city has? Do you go out?
Miles Zuniga: I don’t go out that often, so the answer would be no, but I am very proud of my hometown’s music scene and the different people that are there. On any given night you can hear amazing music.
After asking Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath this same question, and also because I heard “You’re an Ocean” at the supermarket last week, I have to ask: when you hear one of your songs at the store, is that still as surreal and weird as the first time?
Miles Zuniga: Ehh, I wish they were playing it somewhere cooler. Is that a spoiled brat thing to say? I mean, I hear it, but I”m like, “Aw, man, I’m at the fuckin’ HEB.” While I’m shopping for dog food or something. I’m friends with a guy in Spoon and I hear their music when I’m in a really nice restaurant and there are beautiful girls and stuff, a glamorous setting. That’s where I hear his music. And when you need to get some fertilizer from the store, that’s when you hear our music. (laughs)
I don’t know, it’s surreal, it doesn’t…the real answer is it’s us, and yet sometimes there’s a dislocation there. Yeah, it’s me, but it’s not me, ‘cuz it’s so long ago. I’m a totally different person now than I was then. But I’m happy it’s there.
New music, now that’s what I like. That’s why we’re out here. I heard “I Will Never Let You Down” at Whole Foods in Santa Cruz, actually, and I was so thrilled. So excited. You know, I’m a veteran. This isn’t my first rodeo, but I had the same reaction as when I first heard “The Way” on the radio. It still gets my blood running, I still go, “Oh man, I can’t believe they’re playing it!”