'98's Best: Fastball Strikes Bull's Eye With 'The Way'

Single from second album helps pop-wise Texas trio climb modern-rock chart.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at

1998's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Tuesday, Mar. 24.]

Whether he likes it or not, Fastball frontman Miles Zuniga found his way into

public consciousness.

And it's all happened pretty fast.

"Things are going really well," acknowledged guitarist/singer/co-songwriter

Miles Zuniga during a tour layover in San Francisco. Ironically, that's mostly

thanks to his energetic rock trio's first big hit,

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Fastball/The_Way.ram">"The

Way" (RealAudio excerpt), the first single off the band's sophomore

disc, All The Pain Money Can Buy, which currently is #3 on the Billboard

Modern Rock Chart.

And the album has been out for less than a month.

According to Zuniga, 31, and the rest of his Austin, Texas-based band, the

haunting, yet uplifting song that evokes the rambling musical ruminations of

folkie Tom Waits is based on the true story of a wayward couple headed to a

family reunion that they never reach. But it's only one example of the varied,

dynamic sounds found on All The Pain....

A certain maturity informs the album's 13 pop-wise songs. From the spartan

acoustic strains of "Sweetwater, Texas" and the raucous, Chicago-like horn

arrangement on "G.O.D. (Good Old Days)" to the fuzz-laden keyboards on

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Fastball/Which_Way_To_The_Top.ram">"

Which Way to the Top?" (RealAudio excerpt), it's obvious that the band

took its time exploring the subtle nuances and possibilities in each song.

With the pop-music pendulum swinging back toward frothier sounds, it'd be

easy to lump Fastball in with that trend. Their songs don't try to tackle serious

issues or point fingers. Still, beneath their shiny exterior lies some serious

thinking.

"In society, you're constantly bombarded with messages: 'Make this much

money'; 'Get this car and everything's going to be great.' That's bullshit," Zuniga

declared. "Underneath it all, there's a fundamental human problem, an aching

for God, love, belonging, whatever. And that shit ain't on tap. Life's a rough

ride."

So Fastball don't try to toss any curves. Rather, they seek to serve up a brief,

glimmering respite from the drudgery and longing.

They've even got some help along the way from a new friend, rock diva Poe,

who appears on their album. "She was recording in a studio next to us," Zuniga

explained, "and we invited her in to sing backup on 'Which Way to the Top?.'

She added her own ideas. It was great."

The songwriting credits are split pretty much in half between Zuniga and

bassist/singer Tony Scalzo, 33. "Tony and I like a little competition," Zuniga

said, laughing. "We try and out-write each other. May the best song win."

Rounding out the band is drummer Joey Shuffield, 35.

Not many bands could survive such a competitive situation, let alone reach the

upper echelons of the charts. Consider the possibility of bruised egos. But egos

are kept well in check within Fastball's ranks, Zuniga said.

"Tony and I aren't attached to any one sound," he explained. "We just want

it to be cohesive. If I feel that a song he's written will sound better if we do it a

little differently, I'll say something. As will he, with one of my songs."

Producer Julian Raymond was brought in to work the controls on this album

after a successful collaboration with the band on a track for the Lounge-a-

palooza compilation. He confirmed the group's service to the album.

"When these guys went into the studio to record their first album [1995's

Make Your Mama Proud, on which Raymond served as an A&R

representative], they were a club band, and they went into the studio and

just banged out the songs, with little interaction," Raymond said. "They wanted

them to be exactly like they sounded live: short, power pop/punk songs. Now,

however, it's a unique situation where they totally trust one another and just

wrote songs, not caring what they'll sound like live."

"I was in a bar with some friends before we recorded All the Pain...,"

Zuniga recalled. "And a Led Zeppelin song came on. I'm a huge Zeppelin fan,

and I asked all my friends if they'd ever seen the band live. None of them had,

but we were all huge fans. It made me realize that it's all about the

record; we had to focus on the record."

That said, Fastball thrive on live shows as well. They recently had a successful

homecoming at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, and they are

preparing to embark on another tour with rising folk-rockers Whiskeytown.

"It's just all about the sound; you trust your heart and let it happen," Zuniga said.