Q&A With Miles Zuniga

Exactly 11 years ago, Miles Zuniga was jetting off to Amsterdam with his Austin-based alt-rock outfit Fastball to try to put some touring muscle behind its latest release, The Harsh Light Of Day. Expectations were high, given the surprising mainstream success of 1998’s All The Pain Money Can Buy, which the band milked for almost two years. Fast-forward to today, and Zuniga has humbler aspirations for his first solo effort, These Ghosts Have Bones (33 1/3), a wrenchingly personal, fitfully melodic ode to the breakup of his 10-year marriage. Though Fastball is still very much a working entity, Ghosts’ quirky centerpiece, “Marfa Moonlight,” would’ve undoubtedly been a much different animal with bandmates Tony Scalzo and Joey Shuffield involved. The same goes for the rest of this inward-looking song cycle. MAGNET checked in with Zuniga as he motored around Austin (his mom riding shotgun part of the way), tying up loose ends the day before a string of tour dates with Matthew Sweet. Zuniga will also be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.

“Marfa Moonlight” (download):

MAGNET: The last time we spoke was about 10 years ago, and you were pretty pissed off at Hollywood Records and the way the label was handling The Harsh Light Of Day.
Zuniga: I wasn’t happy, but I might have been happier if Light Of Day had been more of the record I wanted to make—if I’d even known what kind of record I wanted to make. It’s not like the label was pressuring us; we were pressuring ourselves. All The Pain had a statement and a purpose because we thought we were gonna get dropped. So we thought, “Well, let’s make one really kick-ass little postcard.” We didn’t think anyone would hear it, but that’s a wonderful place to be. You’re just doing it for yourself. 
If you have a song as big as we did (“The Way”), you’re judged on that going forward. Everyone called us a one-hit wonder even though we had three songs that were technically hits off that album. I’m very proud of what we accomplished; I stand by that music. I think it’s really good.

Then again, it’s all relative. Light Of Day moved 85,000 units, which ain’t so bad these days—even if All The Pain did sell more than a million.
Our success was such a brief walk in the park. I look at it as an aberration. We sold a million records, and I’m thrilled that we were able to do it, but I feel like it was an earthquake. Our first record sold like 2,000 copies. If you go from 2,000 to 90,000 to 200,000 to a million, no one complains. Everyone’s happy.

Unfortunately, it got flipped around for you guys.
Yeah … Hey, hang on. [Dropping his mother off, Zuniga sets the phone down for a few minutes to honor her request for a tour T-shirt]

Your mother wanted a shirt?
Yeah, I have two designs: One is the album cover, and the other has a “Goodbye” with a hand flippin’ the bird. I really couldn’t give her that one. [Laughs]

The music on These Ghosts Have Bones emerged out of a pretty dark and chaotic set of circumstances. There’s not much of an upside to a soul-bearing number like “Elizabeth.”
It’s just me expressing myself, and it was easy to do when I felt so depressed. I felt like I was fuckin’ drowning, and songwriting helped me a lot. I knew what I wanted to say, and I didn’t have to think about it at all.

You do seem pretty resigned to your fate on the next tune, “Now She’s Just A Shadow,” which has a distinct Texas twang to it, by the way.
I co-wrote that with my friend, Adam Levy. He’d lost his wife, as well; but she died. My marriage was dead. It’s probably the darkest song on the album, but all the guitars make it almost breezy.

“Marfa Moonlight” deals with the physical distance that now separates you and your six-year-old son, who’s in West Texas with his mom. Do you see him on a regular basis?
Not frequently. We spent most of the summer together, but he goes to school now. There are days when I miss him so badly it kills me. It’s my little cross to bear—everyone’s got one. My life had been pretty free of any real heavy emotional pain up until that. Now, it’s just something I have to live with.

“Marfa” almost sounds like a few songs in one.
I’d literally write a section, we’d record it, and then I’d think, “How am I gonna get down from this tree?” I just kept doing that until I finally got down.

It’s definitely an unusual choice to lead off the album.
I made it the first track because, to me, it was the most interesting, the least conventional. It might not be the best song on the record, but it is the strangest.

Fastball has always been a retro-leaning band, whether it’s the revved-up punk leanings of your debut or the more polished Fab Four-ish touches on the two albums that followed. The Lennon influence really comes out on Ghosts, especially on “Wicked.”
I almost didn’t finish that because it was so Lennon-y. My wife remarried almost immediately, so when I found out she’s moved in with another man, I spit that song out. I felt really betrayed, and I just let it rip. Then we started recording it, and the guy I was working with (engineer Lars Göransson) said it was one of his favorites. He convinced me to keep it.

One of the cool things about Fastball is that you guys never broke up. How have you kept it together all these years amidst the adversity?
We just kept going, and now it divides into two camps. There are people who think we’ve broken up, and there are people who think we’re this legendary group, like we’re the Zombies or something cool like that. It makes me happy that some people think of us that way.

And when you have to play “The Way” for the millionth time?
I’ve met a lot of people who wouldn’t know who the fuck I am if it weren’t for that song. So when people ask me if I’m sick of playing it, I say, “No, not really.” When you think about the effect it’s had on my life, it’s a small price to pay.

—Hobart Rowland