When Fastball guitarist Miles Zuniga checks in from Idaho, he’s operating on one hour’s sleep. He mentions an overnight to Boise and the unfortunate physics of trying to sleep in the rear bunk of a bus carrying a trailer over twisted highway.
However, Zuniga has already found a solution (“Tonight, I’m switching with our tour manager,”) and all in all, he sounds fairly lively. The Austin resident is up for discussing the trio’s followup (The Harsh Light Of Day, ironically enough) to the platinum-selling All The Pain Money Can Buy, the frontman duties he shares with Tony Scalzo, and the state of music past and present.
Throw in a guerilla marketing plot for their next release and a reference to a 1970s Ugandan dictator, and we’ve got ourselves a conversation ballgame.
Somewhere Between Idi Amin and Rockpile
You guys are somewhat old-fashioned as far as song length, album length, some fairly sophisticated chord progressions …
Well, this guy at our show in Seattle last night came up to me and said, “Finally, man, finally there’s a band to pick up the mantle that Rockpile left behind, and Elvis Costello, and Nick Lowe. You guys are definitely that kind of band.”
And that made me feel good. I think there’s still a fairly big segment of people out there who want to hear the kind of music we’re playing. There’s not that many bands who are doing it, though. And the ones that are doing it, like Wilco and the Jayhawks, aren’t getting the attention they deserve. So I feel grateful and happy that we’re in this position.
I guess what you give up is complete control … in my case, it means not getting to be, like, Idi Amin. There is friction, there are difficult times, but I think all of that informs the music and makes it better than it would be on its own.
The band is also unusual in that you’ve got two quality songwriters and singers. What do you give up to be in this band, and what is it about Fastball that keeps you from trying it alone?
Well, I guess what you give up is complete control … in my case, it means not getting to be, like, Idi Amin. There is friction, there are difficult times, there are things you don’t want to put up with. But at the same time, I think all of that informs the music and makes it better than it would be on its own. Also, I admire Tony as a singer, and when we sing together, I think that’s when it gets really special.
I’ve seen a lot of my favorite bands really go to shit when someone goes solo. Even if they have a successful career, it just gets blander and less interesting. But I can understand why they do it! (laughs)
Dividing Talents & Attitudes
You are clearly not one of those “as often as possible, as long as possible” kind of soloists. What would you say influences the way you play lead?
I always loved the Beatles’ guitar solos, because they were always with it. You take a solo like “Nowhere Man”, and it was never like, “Oh god, he’s gonna go into his exploratory jams.” It was very succinct, and a real highlight of the song. So I try to play like that. I like a solo, no matter who’s playing it, to really go somewhere … I don’t want it to just be taking up space.
I worked really hard to become a better guitarist for a long time. But after a while, I started to get bored with the guitar and thought maybe if I did something on a different instrument, it might be cooler. I’d still like to make pop music that doesn’t rely on guitar/bass/drums, or even piano.
I think that’s kind of my role in the band, to push the band forward. Tony is way more of a classicist, you know? He can write a really good, pure song. If you strip it down to just the chords and the melody, it’s very good, and you don’t need any gimmick.
So in that sense, he’s more of a mind to say (in the studio), “Well, why do we have to do that? It sounds great the way it is.” And I’m more of the mind to say, “Because!”
Beastie Boys To Bee Gees
A song like “My Dark Street” is a good example of the kind of light/dark, morning/night imagery that runs through many of the songs and of course the record’s title.
Once we realized that, Tony suggested the title. I thought it was perfect given what you just said, the themes we seem to have running.
I think that helps the songs last — you’re not mentioning the kind of shoes you’re wearing, or some other detail that would really place the song in a certain time. You’re dealing with fairly universal ideas.
That’s what I really enjoy. The only band I like that drops pop culture names or fixes themselves in a specific time and place is the Beastie Boys. It doesn’t seem to take away from them the way it does from everybody else who tries it. In fact, I’ve been turned onto a lot of stuff that I normally wouldn’t come across because they mentioned it in a lyric.
Do you have any guilty pleasures, as far as CDs you pull out once in a while?
Well, I love ABBA, and I love the Bee Gees. I’m not sure that’s so surprising, but what is surprising is that I hated them at the time. I hated the clothes and the attitude, and the shag carpeting … when I was living through the ’70s, I hated it with everything I had.
And I hated the music. I thought it sucked. That’s why I became such a Beatles freak.
When I was living through the ’70s, I hated it with everything I had. And I hated the music. I thought it sucked. But then seven or eight years after the fact, when everyone disavowed disco, I really started getting into it.
But then seven or eight years after the fact, when everyone disavowed disco, I really started getting into it. I love it, and now I wonder if the same thing isn’t gonna happen with the Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears. Once no one wants to hear their name, maybe I’ll hear their music honestly for the first time. But it doesn’t quite seem like the same thing, you know?
As for modern stuff, I really enjoy the Eminem record. It reminds me of Friday The 13th or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I can’t tell if he’s kidding or not … it’s almost like he’s got his tongue in his cheek the whole way through. It’s pretty fascinating; he’s a great emcee.
You might not expect that from me, because I definitely love melody and musicality, and I don’t think there’s a single curse word on any of our records. We cuss a lot in real life … but musically, it’s not part of our vernacular.
There Are Worse Jobs. But …
Yeah, what about the Austin scene. It seems very eclectic.
Very eclectic, and really pretty cool. I like a lot of Austin bands that nobody knows about. There’s a band called Cotton Mather that’s really good. And one called Spoon, who I love.
There’s not a lot of music business there, which is a double-edged sword. A lot of bands can’t get out; they are unable to meet the people that can help them get their music to a larger audience. But at the same time, if you can find these bands, they’re definitely making music to make music, and not to be a big star.
I like a lot of Austin bands that nobody knows about. There’s a band called Cotton Mather that’s really good. And one called Spoon, who I love.
Tom Petty once said that no one should try to make it in rock and roll unless they just can’t make a living doing anything else. Would you agree with that?
(laughs) Well, in my case, he’s totally right. If I didn’t make it doing this, I don’t know what the fuck I’d be doing. All the jobs I had were minimum wage, or stupid with no chance for advancement, and I hated every job I ever had.
What was your last day job?
Believe it or not, it was selling funeral plots over the phone. Nobody bought ’em, and people hang up on you instantly.
That’s gotta be tough work.
Well, I liked it better than anything involving heavy lifting. I always figured that if I could make it through being a musician, it was worth it to have the time to daydream and write songs and whatever.
But that gets harder as you get older. When you’re 20, you feel invincible, and you think life won’t deal you anything you can’t handle. But you get older, and you realize, “Shit, I could be 45 and still have no money or job, and then it won’t be so swashbuckling or cavalier or cool!”
Dues Behind The Hit
Speaking of free and not free, what do you think of Napster?
I don’t really like Napster. People who argue that you don’t make any money off your records … in a way, they’re right. In a way, you don’t. However, how many records you sell does affect everything else. Therefore, it directly affects your income.
[Napster] is no big deal if you’re Kid Rock or Madonna. But there are a lot of new bands who have just one song, just like we did. And if people can download that one song, why bother picking up the record? Basically, where I’m standing, I’m not seeing many people who don’t have millions of dollars being in favor of Napster.
Basically, where I’m standing, I’m not seeing many people who don’t have millions of dollars being in favor of Napster.
That being said, I also don’t know if you can stop it. I just think musicians should be paid for their work, plain and simple. Everyone else is paid for what they do, and the musicians who have actually gotten to the point where you want to download their song have usually worked for years to get to that point.
So if you prorate their pay, it’s not as impressive as it looks. It’s often a lot of years of dues-paying for nothing.
Time To Play C-Sides
One more question about the record. I noticed the little “hey!” at the end to wrap up “Goodbye”. Did you keep much live group work from the basic tracks? Any one-takes?
“Vampires” is one take as far as the band, not the vocal. We were just trying to get the drums, but when it was time to overdub the bass, we were like, “Oh, we shouldn’t touch that.” And later we decided we shouldn’t touch the guitar, either. It was a feel thing.
I was singing at the same time the band was playing. I could listen to it for two days and try to ape it, but that’s stupid. It’s like the opposite of music. And with “Goodbye”, we did leave the “hey” in from the original scratch vocal on the basic backing track. We try to keep as much of that stuff as we can, but there is a certain standard we do follow, and we throw out a lot of stuff.
But you know, maybe if I tell everybody this, the label will do it: We have a bunch of songs that we call “c-sides.” We want to release those because they span pretty much our whole career. They’re really off the cuff, but they’re fun. And I’d like to just throw ’em out there as a record, with no pressure.
I think I saw something about that being an EP ….
Yeah, Tony told someone in an interview that it was gonna happen, because he was being Tony. But we haven’t even talked to the label about it!
Well, good, we’ll do our part to spread the misinformation and hope reality catches up to it.
(This interview ran in the October 2000 issue of the Music Monitor. Thanks to then-editor and now Record Store Day empress Carrie Colliton for her blessing to share it here.)