A Conversation With Fastball’s Miles Zuniga And Tony Scalzo

There really couldn’t have been a more unlikely hit single than Fastball’s “The Way”—especially in the post-grunge cesspool that was 1998. With its delayed chorus, rinky-dink keyboard line and mariachi undertones, the tune was basically an afterthought on All The Pain Money Can Buy, an album of world-weary rock and power pop from a band nobody outside of Texas had ever heard of.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, Omnivore has reissued an expanded version of All The Pain Money Can Buy with all the expected demos, b-side and outtakes. Perhaps most impressive is how well it all holds up two decades later. Then again, great songwriting is anything if not durable. MAGNET reached out to Fastball’s Miles Zuniga and Tony Scalzo at home in Austin to discuss the making of All The Pain Money Can Buy, its surprising success and why they never get sick of playing “The Way.”

So how did the reissue come about?
Tony Scalzo: I was on Facebook one day, and I noticed Ronnie (Barnett) from the Muffs had announced that they were putting out a reissue of their debut album, and I was like, “Hey, that sounds like a good idea.” So my manager called Omnivore, and they were like, “Sure, sounds good.” I think we had it all sewn up by the end of the day. The only issue we had with (former label) Hollywood was keeping them on task.

To this day, I’m sure a lot of fans don’t realize—or care—that All The Pain wasn’t your debut. For the record, I actually liked that first album (1996’s Make Your Momma Proud).

Miles Zuniga: It has its charms, but I didn’t think it was that great. There’s a certain cool energy to it, but when we were recording it, there was a lot of pressure to try to put us into a box they could market. Green Day was all the rage, and we were a three piece, too. So they hooked us up with Jerry Finn, who mixed Green Day … That’s the way record companies think.

Everything is so fast on that first album.

Zuniga: It seemed to be an effective way to get people to pay attention, I guess.
Scalzo: We couldn’t pull it off live any other way back then.

It’s so cool to listen to Tony’s demo of “The Way.” It has a quirky Spanish flavor to it.

Scalzo: I didn’t really expect the guys to latch onto the whole keyboard vibe, but they wanted to do it that way—and they were right. I was probably the one who most wanted to conserve the sound of Make Your Momma Proud. Miles was being more progressive, and it was hard for me to break out of certain shells back then. Once we got into the studio, the producer (Julian Raymond) and Miles were like, “Let’s make that loop happen.” And we brought the actual keyboard I used on the demo into the studio.
Zuniga: The song ended up being this gumbo where everyone threw in ideas. Tony wanted to hear it one way; I wanted to hear it another way; Julian had another take on it. But all of us felt intrigued and interested. It led us down this path, and it was really fun to work on. I think that if we’d tried to make it this massive hit song, we would’ve fucked it all up.

How did the song get so big so fast?

Zuniga: It was like an unstoppable beast. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and I remember driving up to see my sister in Santa Cruz. At the midway point, we stopped at this steakhouse so I could check my messages. I was so broke I didn’t have any kind of a phone. I had this voice mailbox that floated in space, and that day I started getting these calls about stations adding the song. Once K-Rock added it, it was all over. Very quickly, even pop radio stations were adding it. I remember the radio guys saying to us, “You’re doing really well, man, but don’t get too excited. You’ve got some big boys ahead of you … You’ve got Pearl Jam, Green Day, whatever.” We just blew right past all of them—I couldn’t believe it. That tune was really a force of nature.
Scalzo: There was the weird novelty of how it was recorded—the radio thing at the beginning, the tinny first verse. Then it explodes sonically in the second verse, and then the chorus finally comes along. It takes you from a minor verse into what Leonard Cohen described as the major lift. It makes your senses wake up.
Zuniga: More often than not, hit songs are unusual, intriguing, different. We still love doing “The Way” live. It’s a fun song to play.

Was it intended to be the album’s centerpiece?
Scalzo: We thought it was a b-side.
Zuniga: It came along almost last in the song selection. Stuff like “Fire Escape” and “Warm Fuzzy Feeling” were more indicative of where our heads were at—loud guitar music. We thought “Sooner Or Later” would be the hit song, which shows you how much we knew. Luckily, there were other people around us who were pointing to “The Way.”

At the time, you were being introduced as this new act. But if you listen to the themes on the album, they’re coming from the perspective of a band who’s been there, done that.

Zuniga: Well, we thought we were gonna get dropped. The only reason we got to do another record was because the president of Hollywood got fired. Someone asked the de facto president if we could do another record, and he was like, “Sure, whatever. I’m probably not gonna be here in a few months anyway.” Our mental state was, one, we’re probably not going to be able to do this again and, two, they probably won’t even put it out.

If the situation wasn’t as dire, do you think you would’ve made the same record?

Zuniga: The album would’ve sucked, I think. [Laughs]
Scalzo: There was no pressure, and the producer and the A&R guy were our buddies. It was like nobody cared. Like, “You can use the studio—just lock up when you’re done.”
Zuniga: There was a magical thing about it. I haven’t had a recording experience quite like that since.

And the album still sounds fresh today.
Zuniga: There’s no DJ on there toasting, and there’s no one mumbling, “I hate myself, and I want to die.”
Scalzo: Yeah, that whole period reeked of this fake drama-queen vibe. Everything was just so passionate, and it was so lame. We did it fairly deadpan.
Zuniga: Coming from Austin, Texas, all that stuff was all bullshit. 
We were coming from a totally different perspective. I was 30 years old at the time, and my heroes were Joe Ely and people like that. I like the Beatles and Badfinger, but I also like Jimmy Vaughan and the Paladins and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. That was the restaurant I was eatin’ at, and I didn’t really care about that other shit.
Scalzo: I was coming from a Southern California DIY environment, where that shit wouldn’t fly.

What about the post-success hangover that came with the follow-up (The Harsh Light Of Day)?
Zuniga: There was just all this pressure that wasn’t there before. We didn’t work hard enough and didn’t write enough songs. We’d been touring for two years, and we didn’t take any time off. We finished touring in October, and we were in the studio in January.
Scalzo: I was sort of detached; complacency had set in. I’d managed to write a few songs that had gotten successful, but I still didn’t have any real grip on writing—and Miles and I hadn’t done any writing together. He seemed to really know what he wanted, and just deferred to him. I thought our success was something that was there and would just stay in place.
Zuniga: The band has gotten into such a wonderful spot now. But then it was a lot more competitive and not as collaborative and supportive. When I look back on our career and myself as an artist, I realize that I just didn’t have the skills yet to do the things I wanted to do. I just couldn’t pull it off.
Scalzo: And we didn’t have any showbiz skills, either. We should’ve gotten our heads together and formed some solidarity—but we didn’t. We responded to success differently. I reacted in an extreme way. It was really weird for me and hard to manage psychologically. I like the way things are right now. I like to be able to go wherever I want and not have people be like, “Oh my God.” And for a little while there, it really happened that way.

Anything new coming?

Zuniga: We have a new album in the works, but we don’t know when it’s coming out.
Scalzo: It’s our Chinese Democracy. [Laughs]

—Hobart Rowland