When local power-pop band Fastball plays their 1998 hit song "Out of My Head" onstage Friday night at 3Ten, it'll mark the third straight month that the song's instantly memorable melody has rung out from an Austin stage. Here's the detail that counts: The other two were the Erwin Center and the Austin City Limits Music Fest's main stage, via two artists whose recent collaboration based on Fastball's song spawned a video that has 246 million views on YouTube.
"Bad Things," released in 2016 by pop singer Camila Cabello and rapper Machine Gun Kelly, features mostly different lyrics but repeats the same chorus melody that Fastball's Tony Scalzo wrote two decades ago. "Out of My Head" became a top-20 single from the band's 1998 breakthrough album, "All the Pain Money Can Buy," and this week Omnivore Recordings releases a 20th-anniversary reissue of the record.
"All the Pain Money Can Buy" is that rarest of rarities in the history of Austin music: a platinum record. For all the city's contributions to American music and its vaunted reputation as the Live Music Capital, very few albums by local acts have reached million-seller status. Two huge hits propelled the record: "Out of My Head" followed up lead single "The Way," which changed the band's lives when it took off at rock radio in early 1998.
Guitarist Miles Zuniga remembers the time clearly. "Christmas was coming, and I was feeling pretty down. I had moved to L.A. and I was like, what am I going to do? I was 30 years old, I had $500 in my bank account, and I was living in the basement of a friend’s house. I just remember feeling really lost. And then like a month or two later, we were on every radio station in the country. It was amazing.”
"The Way" wasn't an obvious song to become a radio sensation. Set to a Latin-tinged beat with a quirky keyboard loop at its core, its lyrics retold a mysterious story Scalzo had read in the American-Statesman about an elderly couple from Salado who disappeared in June 1997.
Much of the backstory to the band's recording of the song at A&M Studios in Los Angeles involves a cassette demo Scalzo had made before the sessions. Zuniga and drummer Joey Shuffield loved the unusual sound and feel that Scalzo had captured on the demo.
"He played me the song on acoustic guitar and I didn’t think anything of it," Zuniga says. "And then I heard the little demo and I was like, whoa! It sounded like Beck or something. It was super minimalist and super cool, kind of retro and futuristic at the same time. I was like, 'Let’s just put THAT out.' That’s how excited about the demo I was.”
Twenty years later, that vision is realized: The cassette demo of "The Way" is one of nine bonus tracks included on the Omnivore reissue, along with demos of other songs from the album and a handful of outtakes and covers. There's also an acoustic version of the song at the end of the disc.
Scalzo and Zuniga butted heads at first over what to do with the demo, which Scalzo hadn't intended as a vision for how the song would sound in the studio.
“I would say that I was a little bit more closed-minded," Scalzo says. "I just wasn't thinking out of the box. I was like, 'How are we going to do that?' I didn't see that we'd be able to accurately produce a quality record that had those same elements in it. But we managed to do it with that song.”
Part of why it worked was that the band felt free to pursue its artistic visions, for an unusual reason. Hollywood Records, which had released the band's 1996 debut "Make Your Mama Proud" to little fanfare, was in disarray between leadership regimes at the time. That was both good and bad.
The down side was that the band almost expected that their days at Hollywood were numbered. Rob Seidenberg, a Los Angeles record executive who'd signed the band to the label and now lives in Austin, recalls that “at least every couple of days, there would be a discussion of, 'Who knows what's going to happen?' Maybe the record gets finished and never sees the light of day. Or the band is dropped, or maybe I’m fired from the label when the new president comes in and there would be nobody there to fight for the band.”
The upside, Scalzo notes, was that “we didn't really care about how it would be accepted and perceived by the public. Because, frankly we didn't think that the public was ever going to hear it, other than a few hundred people.”
Fate smiled on them when Richard Leher, interim head of the label, green-lighted a decent recording budget. Then radio promotions staffer John Fagot took up the band's cause, traveling to radio stations across the country and convincing them to play "The Way."
Zuniga was picking up side work as an extra on a TV show in Los Angeles when the song started to break. One day he had a chance to stay on the set late and make significant overtime money.
“Being totally broke, the responsible thing for me to do would’ve been to stay there," he says. "But they go, 'Does anybody want to leave?' And my hand shot up. And the whole way home, I beat myself up.
"But when I got home, there was a message on the machine from Rob saying, 'A station in St. Louis has been playing ‘The Way’ 50 times a week!' I just remember making myself a martini and going, 'I’m never going to have to work again.' And since then, I haven’t. Knock on wood.”
Playing music, of course, is its own hard work. When sales of "All the Pain Money Can Buy" took off, the band barely had time to sleep, between early morning radio-station appearances and late-night gigs at clubs and theaters. By the time they returned home in December to tape "Austin City Limits," the album had gone platinum. But exhaustion took its toll.
"It affected the band," Scalzo says. "We didn't have a chance to work anything out or discuss our direction." Another record with Hollywood, "The Harsh Light of Day," followed in 2000, and Seidenberg eventually brought the band to the Rykodisc label (where he'd gotten a new job) for 2004's "Keep Your Wig On." By then, the band was getting stronger musically. But the industry model that had made "All the Pain Money Can Buy" such a big seller was collapsing in the digital age.
After 2009's "Little White Lies," it was eight years before Fastball's next record appeared. But 2017's "Step Into Light" was a strong return to form, and they hope to follow it soon with a record produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos that they recently completed.
In the meantime, it's possible to catch Fastball's members playing around town on a regular basis. All three have weekly residencies: Scalzo with the broad-ranging roots outfit Texas Tycoons on Mondays at the White Horse, Shuffield with veteran rocker Jon Dee Graham on Wednesdays at the Continental Club, and Zuniga with the long-running Resentments acoustic collective on Sundays at the Saxon Pub.
"I love the weekly gig, because you get to make this thing that just gets better and better and better," Shuffield says. "You go to places that you never thought you could go before."
Zuniga cites another weekly gig as having played an important role in the band becoming more active in recent years. After a low point a few years ago when Shuffield says the band played just nine shows, Scalzo called his bandmates one night and asked if they could fill in for a night that usually featured Scalzo and Kevin McKinney's band Wrenfro. The group had a Wednesday residency at the now-shuttered South Austin venue Strange Brew.
“It was like day-of, or the day before," Zuniga recalled, "and we’re like, 'OK, let’s do it, no rehearsal.' We announced it on Facebook, and the place was full. We had the best show, and I just remember saying to Joey, ‘We really ought to try to do this more often.’ So that was kind of the turning point.”
Later in our conversation, he recalls an even more pivotal moment more than two decades ago. It was 1994, and he and Shuffield had just ended an ill-fated run with the group Big Car, which released one major-label album that didn't sell well. Back in Austin, Shuffield had started playing with Scalzo in Beaver Nelson's band; meanwhile, Zuniga was living in the Bay Area with his sister, not sure what to do next.
“I was coming home to Austin for Christmas, and Greg Allman was on the plane," he begins. We'll pick up the rest of the story exactly as Zuniga retold it in a Facebook post after Allman died in May 2017:
"He looked like a Blonde Viking. He was wearing aviator shades and lots of leather. He was hanging with his band in coach even though he probably had a seat in first class. At some point Gregg came down the aisle to use the bathroom. His shades had slid down a bit and our eyes met. I told him how much I loved his music and he said, 'Thank you brother.'
"The seat next to me was empty and he sat down for a minute to talk. We talked about Stevie Ray Vaughan and guitars. I told him that my band (Big Car) had been dropped by our label and I was working as a bus boy and didn't know what to do next. 'Start another band. What are you waiting for?' was his reply.
"He got up and left and I never saw him again, but to me that was some sort of Rock and Roll Divine Intervention. After that, I started Fastball."