Fastball is Joey Shuffield, Tony Scalzo, and Miles ZunigaPhoto by Sandra DahDah/Courtesy of Conqueroo
There’s a song on the Austin-based Fastball’s seventh studio album, The Help Machine (33 1/3 Records) called “The Girl You Pretended To Be.” Written by singer/bassist/keyboardist Tony Scalzo, it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of someone in a new relationship who wants their partner to see them in a certain—perhaps not-so-accurate—light:
“Down to the detail you had her spot on/You thought you knew how the game could be won/I thought I heard a variation in tone/You said the wrong thing and your cover was blown.”
“You know, everybody is on the hard sell when they first start a relationship, and as things get more solidified, they reveal their true selves,” Scalzo says from a car somewhere in Austin. “But it’s not autobiographical!”
The band – which also includes singer/guitarist Miles Zuniga and drummer Joey Shuffield, have been an intact lineup since their 1996 debut Make Your Mama Proud. Their biggest commercial hit came two years later with All the Pain that Money Can Buy. Recently reissued in a deluxe edition, it included their best known song, the Scalzo written/sung “The Way,” and lesser hits “Fire Escape” and “Out of My Head.”
Both Scalzo and Zuniga write, with each singing lead on their material. On The Help Machine, though, the scales are a bit more tipped than usual. “This record is pretty heavily Miles as far as songs go – there’s seven of his and four of mine. But it’s still a Fastball record. And I still have relevance!” he says.
“What you’re getting are songs that were culled by [producer and member of Los Lobos] Steve Berlin after we sent him tons of material and he narrowed them down. The tunes Miles and I collaborated more on didn’t make the record. But Steve was fun to work with and none of it was boring. I hope we work with him again.” Scalzo and Zuniga recently promoted the record with an interview and performance on the SiriusXM morning music talk show "Feedback" with Nik Carter and Lori Majewski.
The subjects of songs on The Help Machine (out on October 18) run the gamut from white collar criminals, picking out friends vs. foes, religious zealots who want to covert everybody, inner demons, what happens when you stop paying the bills (hint: bye bye cable TV), and feeling...small. The narrator of title track – a lolling, synth-driven plea – is literally looking to a machine for help in their wayward life’s direction. But he ain’t calling Alexa or Siri.
“It’s a little bit less of an alternative rock album. There’s a lot of keyboard parts and I would say it’s orchestrated in a more sophisticated fashion,” Scalzo says. Its 11 tunes come in at a tight 36 minutes, which is what he prefers to more bloated efforts that he feels many bands put out to fill a CD’s storage space or give more “value” to the consumer. Which lead him to go off on something of a tangent.
“I listen to a lot of albums again so I can listen to them all the way through [in one-sitting]. Like a Doors record. But they’re not a great album-making band! Like Morrison Hotel, I was noting that some of the songs aren’t even…they don’t sound like they’re even finished! Even the Beatles had some B-grade songs they would throw on there!” he offers. “How many albums can you name that are good from start to finish? I can only think of Odessey and Oracle by the Zombies and Layla by Derek and the Dominos – and that one’s a double album!”
Of course, if the average listener knows one Fastball song, it’s “The Way” A #5 Billboard Top 40 hit that went even higher on other charts, it was inspired by a newspaper story Scalzo read about a missing elderly couple, who took off in a car to go to a music festival and later ended up dead, hundreds of miles from their destination. How or why they got there was (and is) a mystery.
Zuniga spoke about the song and its legacy in interview last year with the Houston Press. In a bizarre twist, Scalzo actually met the children of the couple – senior citizens themselves – after another young relative alerted them about the song’s inspiration. The songwriter has very mixed emotions about it, though.
“It was…uncomfortable. It wasn’t just a social meeting. There was an ulterior motive from the guy who brought us together who was trying to produce a documentary. It got kind of weird,” he says. “They were uncomfortable because of the cameras and I was uncomfortable because they were uncomfortable. They were very nice, but typical Central Texans. They were simple folks and preferred to be left alone. I’ll never talk to them or see them again and that’s fine for them and fine for me, but I won’t forget the experience.”
Finally, Scalzo has somewhat of a two-sided feeling about Houston. He says that he gets to the city often, and counts local (or formerly local) musicians like Allen Hill, Pete Gordon, and David Beebe a friends. “It’s a great city with a killer musical history. We hardly recognize the space between Houston and Austin,” Scalzo sums up.
“And we’re trying to negotiate a show in Houston but it’s hard as hell. We can’t get enough money to come out there, and we can’t get enough people to come see us. If I had my way, I’d love to just play a Wednesday night at Under the Volcano. I’m sorry, as much as I love Houston, it’s not reciprocal.”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.