As the saying goes, “better late than never”. Words were never as true as when I stumbled across a rock trio hailing out of Austin, Texas by the name of Fastball. That was in 2008, ten years removed from their smash hit “The Way”, which charted at number 4 on Billboard in 1998. It was on the strength of that pop single that I purchased the album “All the Pain Money Can Buy” and immediately found myself listening to it from track number 1 to track number 13 as it kept looping through my car’s compact disc player. The songs were each distinct, catchy and guitar based. Every song was a short story that could stand alone on its own. It left me wanting more. That’s what great songwriting does I have found, it leaves the listener wanting more.
At the same time that I was discovering a band that was already a decade old, Miles Zuniga and Fastball were hard at work putting together their fifth studio album, “Little White Lies”. The songwriter who always believed that he would make it big someday had done exactly that. On the strength of the single “The Way”, 1.25 million copies of “All the Pain Money Can Buy” were sold. Fastball collected two Grammy nominations and was on a path that would land them in the Austin Music Hall of Fame. They had made late night appearances on Leno and Conan and were riding a wave of success that every aspiring musician dreams about as they plunk out their first chords on a guitar.
Miles Zuniga and Fastball have survived and thrived for nearly two decades now. He has released one solo effort, “These Ghosts Have Bones” in 2011 and promises another is in the works. He was getting ready to play a show in Austin on the night I spoke to him and then he will be off to Japan. Ah, the sweet taste of success. It’s, as succulent as a Texas barbecue. Following are excerpts from the interview I did with the singer and songwriter on April 25th, 2014. Maybe after reading this you’ll find yourself like I did, cruising the Internet and filling out your music collection with dozens of cleverly crafted and highly contagious compositions courtesy of the creative mind of Miles Zuniga Singer/songwriter, guitarist, pianist/keyboardist and vocalist of the two-time Grammy nominated band Fastball.
Kjelden: Thank you for taking time today to speak with me.
Miles: No worries.
Kjelden: I have a couple of factoids. I’m going to use you as the compass to verify if these are accurate or if they are Internet falsehoods.
Kjelden: Prior to settling on the name “Fastball” for your band, they list one prior name that was considered for the band as “Ed Clark’s Business Bible”. True or false?
Miles: (laughing) No, that’s not true. I don’t know who came up with that.
Kjelden: It’s on Wikipedia.
Miles: Well, that’s just somebody having fun. (laughing) “Ed Clark’s Business Bible?” Who is Ed Clark, that’s what I want to know? (still laughing)
Kjelden: That was my follow-up question. (laughing) That just totally killed it. I guess we put that myth to rest.
Miles: We’ve debunked that one.
Kjelden: The band hails from Austin, Texas? True or false.
Kjelden: Are you from Austin originally yourself?
Miles: No. I’m from Laredo, Texas.
Kjelden: Austin, Texas is arguably one of the nicest cities in the United States. True or false?
Miles: It used to be.
Kjelden: It’s changing?
Miles: Everyone figured that out and now it’s not. It’s too crowded. It wasn’t built for all these people and we’re starting to experience a lot of the problems many other big cities have. There’s a lot of traffic. People aren’t as nice as they used to be and everyone’s a little more stressed. As a long-time resident, it’s a drag.
Kjelden: You were probably used to the quaintness and had your favorite spots right?
Miles: It (Austin) was funky and laid back. It’s no longer funky and laid back. There used to be what was called “the Austin groove”. There are still pockets of “the Austin groove”, but overall it has been paved over quite literally.
Kjelden: Fastball is a three piece band, which means the entire band is equal to the size of Molly Hatchet’s guitar section. True or false?
Miles: Right, that is true, but when we play live there is an extra guy so I guess that’s no longer true.
Kjelden: (sarcastically) Well actually when Molly Hatchet played live I think there were four guitars.
Miles: That other thing you talked about, Austin being one of the most beautiful cities. I mean it was important in the sense that Austin was a very livable place. It was cheap to live. It was easy to make the rent. When I first moved here my rent was $150 a month and that meant you could actually be a musician. At $150 a month that was three gigs. You could cobble it together. You didn’t have to go off and work some job. I had some part-time job, but I think I worked maybe twenty hours a week. I had all this free time to work on the music. That’s really important. An artist needs that. If a city gets expensive and stuff, it becomes hard for the artist if not impossible for the artist to solely focus on their craft and then they might just give it up. I think that’s a key ingredient in any good music scene is the livability.
Kjelden: The city at that time, Austin, had a reputation for bringing smaller bands along. Is that true?
Miles: Back then there were a lot of clubs to play so you go down there and they give you a Tuesday night and you see if you can make it to Friday. You see if you can get enough of a buzz going to where you’re drawing enough people so they put you on Friday instead of Tuesday. Then your goal is to play there twice a month instead of once a month. Then your goal is to play Houston and then your goal is to play Dallas. There were plenty of clubs. It was easy to live and those things are important when you’re starting a band.
Kjelden: It’s been 20 years almost since your first album. When you originally formed the band, did you foresee that we’ve got something special here and this could go somewhere? Did you have those big dreams?
Miles: Totally! I always had big dreams. Luckily I was naïve enough to believe those dreams would come true you know. If I was realistic about what I was doing I probably wouldn’t have been able to go through everything we had to go through. There’s a lot of uncertainty. I was naïve. I wasn’t looking at it from a statistical point of view or a sober point of view. I was looking at it from, "I want to be a rock and roll star and I’m gonna be". (laughing heartily)
Kjelden: I like that. That attitude goes with the creative mind.
Miles: Will it and make manifest. That doesn’t mean that I can want to be a millionaire or I can want to be a world class tennis player and it will happen. Or for me to say I want to play on a minor league team. None of those things could happen. You can sit and wish and will all you want, but I don’t have the aptitude (for those things). Music at that particular point and time was totally possible. At that time of my life I just had to make it more possible.
Kjelden: When you’re younger and you’re not tied down you can take some risks.
Miles: It’s essential that you take risks. And it’s essential that you cut off any (pauses); my parents used to always tell me you need something to fall back on. That’s like the worst advice, because if you have something to fall back on you might consider falling. If you know there is a net you might say, “you know this is too hard so I’m just gonna let myself go”. (laughs heartily) When you can’t do that, when there’s nothing and when your job resume looks like a blank sheet of paper (laughs again) aside from the one or two jobs you’ve been fired from. There’s nowhere to go. This better f…in work. (laughs) That’s really important. You need to have total commitment and total dedication to what you’re doing and eliminate any doubt. It’s as if you were in a shipwreck and the ship sank and you’re in a rowboat. You can’t start thinking about dying of dehydration or the boat sinking and getting eaten by sharks. You’ve gotta think about living. You’ve gotta think about making it back. It all goes together. It’s a mindset.
Kjelden: It’s survival mode.
Miles: It’s a commitment being a musician all the way around. Not just committed to the idea of being a musician. It’s a belief in what you’re playing and what you’re putting out and constantly improving what you’re playing and what you’re putting out. There’s nothing I hate more than seeing an entertainer who you know, they are not all that committed. They’re lackadaisical about it maybe because it’s just a hobby or something. That’s fine, but it bothers me as someone who drank the Kool-Aid and is fully invested in music. I think of music as a privilege and a vocation and a calling. I don’t like to see her disrespected. I like to see people playing at the edge of their ability. I like to see them fully invested in trying to make the songs sing and soar. When I see someone just kind of phoning it in or joking around or they didn’t rehearse and so they sound like shit but they don’t really care because, “a ha ha ha we’re just knocking around”. I’m like get off the f...ing stage and let someone else who really wants to be there, be there.
Kjelden: I remember saving up my money and waiting to see a band when I was sixteen and the lead singer stumbled onto the stage and belched into the microphone and it went downhill from there because he was so trashed. It was so disappointing.
Miles: Yeah, that’s weak. It can get tiring as an entertainer to have to do approximately the same thing night after night and travel. It’s not an easy life but the thing is, you signed up for this gig. No one put a gun to your head and said you had to do it. If you’re actually able to make a living at it you’re f..ing lucky and you should consider yourself lucky. Honor your gift and honor the fact that people like it enough so that you don’t have to do anything else. I don’t have time for people that aren’t going to give it their all every time they get on stage. It takes care of itself because there are too many other great entertainers. It’s very Darwinian. It isn’t like there are bad entertainers clogging up the stages.
Kjelden: I’m gonna step back in time. You guys released the first album and it had modest success.
Miles: (laughs) No, it had no success. I’m not sure you can use the word success with that first record in terms of sales.
Kjelden: But then the song “The Way” put you guys on the map in a big way with a million plus sales. So you go from being this guy that’s been busting his hump writing songs, practicing, finding gigs around Austin, to sitting in the green room at Leno or Conan. What is that like? Is it surreal?
Miles: It was like a dream come true, it really was. We went from zero to two thousand miles per hour. Every last bit of it was fantastic. It was a blur. Once it gets cranked up and going there is a machine pushing you. Your song is on the radio every hour or two hours in cities all over the country. You roll into a town and there’s your face on the cover of the weekly. It was great, but it’s hard. It’s a hard life because you’re working the whole time. You’re not just rolling up to the gig and walking on stage and then going to have some wine somewhere; that’s not what’s happening. You’re getting up at six in the morning and going to a radio station and then another radio station and then if they can, another radio station. Then you go to the record store and play the in-store and then you go to sound check and take pictures with the contest winners. Then you go to dinner with the label and the sales people and then you play the gig. After that you’re free to do whatever you want. At this point it’s eleven o’clock or midnight. You have to be up at six in the morning again but what are you going to do, go to bed? No, you’re not going to bed! You finally now have the chance to do whatever you want.
Kjelden: In terms of songwriting do you do most of it on the piano or the guitar?
Miles: Whatever I happen to be around when the idea starts to come.
Kjelden: Do you come up with the lyrics first or the melody line first?
Miles: Almost always the music.
Kjelden: On “You’re an Ocean” off the album, “The Harsh Light of Day”, Billy Preston (http://www.billypreston.net/) came in and played on the album. He’s such a music legend. How did that come about?
Miles: Julian just knew him and called him up and he came down for an hour and a half.
Kjelden: Were you in the studio when it was being done?
Miles: Oh yeah! I was definitely going to be in the studio. That’s a guy who played on “Get Back”. He was on “Don’t Let Me Down”. He’s all over that “Let it Be” record and he’s on some Rolling Stone stuff. I was definitely gonna be there.
Kjelden: Brian Setzer (http://www.briansetzer.com/) was on that album too. Was that through a musical connection?
Miles: I think I just ran into him at the House of Blues and I asked him if he would come and play on it and he said “yeah”. He (Setzer) was fantastic. He's a really cool dude. Billy Preston was a little standoffish. We didn’t hang out for hours. It was kind of like he came in and did his bit. Setzer was great. We were hanging out and he was really cool and I love that song “I Won’t Stand in Your Way” by the Stray Cats. I learned the guitar solo and I played it for him and he said, “I play it like this”. I was playing it all wrong. (laughs)
Kjelden: So if you have an upcoming solo project coming up you could call him up and say “Hey Brian”.
Miles: I probably could.
Kjelden: How often do you sit down to write music now?
Miles: I try to write one song a week.
Kjelden: When you sit down with the guitar or at the piano, and this could go for you or any other songwriter, you don’t know if the song you are going to write could be the next “Let it be” or “Stairway to Heaven”. You may have that next great song that is going to carry forward for the next fifty years inside you and it just hasn’t come out yet. Does that go through your mind?
Kjelden: Maybe I need to subliminally plant it in there.
Miles: Look, I’ve written a few that I think if the right person recorded them they could be a huge song and then I’d be famous for writing the song. I’ve already written some that I think are very good. I wrote a song “Hopelessly Blue” that Kat Edmonson put on an album and I thinks it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written. It’s the only time even with all of the Fastball success, it’s the only time that people have stopped me on the street and asked, “Did you write that song Hopelessly Blue” and they’re like, God that’s an amazing song. I never think about that when I’m writing it. After it’s written or whatever and you’re playing it you quickly find out how good they are or how bad they are. Sometimes you write a song and you think its okay and the people flip out so you don’t ever really know.
Kjelden: Any chance of coming to Florida?
Miles: I don't know. That just depends if something comes along. We're having kind of a quiet year this year.Last year we did a big ass tour. We're all working on other stuff pretty much
Kjelden: I may have to migrate over to Austin and battle my way through a million people to see you. I don't want to take any more of your time I know you have a gig tonight.
Miles: We're playing at The Strange Brew tonight in Austin.
Kjelden: Twenty years as a band or as a performer is admirable. So thank you for making the time for me.
Miles: Well thank you and good luck to you.
There’s another saying that goes something like this, “mind over matter”. Miles Zuniga was working the high-wire that straddled the precarious world of making a living as a working musician without a net. He could have had a “Plan B” but that would have meant that failure was an option, and for a songwriter working on guts, faith and raw talent there would be no need for an escape plan.
Miles is still on that tightrope, writing music and playing to audiences. He has survived twenty years in a business that swallows people’s hopes and dreams and regurgitates them as sour milk. Miles Zuniga has never looked back and he has never looked down. He keeps his focal point out in front of himself. He’s not afraid of failure and he’s not afraid of falling into shark infested waters. He had a dream to be a rock star and in the blink of an eye, he was one. I for one believe that his greatest song is still inside of him waiting to be born. There could have been a net strung beneath him just waiting for him to jump when the roadblocks to success kept persisting. Thankfully he stayed on that wire and looked to the future. As long as there are songwriter's there will be dreams, in Miles Zuniga's case it is a dream fulfilled.