Beloved Austin power pop trio whiffs their indie-rock competition with a new record, and our correspondent ventures into the bullpen to learn what went into it. Full access at their Facebook page, natch, and national tourdates will kick off in December.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been just two years since the Austin-based rockers Fastball last released an LP. Clearly, they still had plenty more to say.
The Help Machine, Fastball’s seventh studio album since starting in the mid-1990s, sounds just as powerful as their 1996 debut, brimming with addictive hooks, taut power chords and a steady rhythm section. The band even brought along Southern California legend Steve Berlin (sax player for Los Lobos and The Blasters) to produce the record.
Though he’s best known as bassist/vocalist for the band, Tony Scalzo actually switched to keyboards and guitar for this outing. Scalzo spoke with Blurt recently about that decision, working with Berlin, and the band’s newfound – and fruitful – burst of creativity.
BLURT: The Help Machine comes not that long after your last LP. Did you guys just go through a fairly prolific period or were many of these songs originally meant for the last album?
TONY SCALZO: As songwriters, both Miles and myself have been generally prolific throughout even the “dry” periods of Fastball’s existence. We both put out solo albums in between releases of Fastball albums. Plus, there were two releases by The Small Stars, an interesting band Miles fronted for a few years. Speaking for myself, I’m always writing and composing. I had a band for four years with my friend, Kevin McKinney called Wrenfro. We performed mostly original music every week for three years at a now defunct club in Austin called, Strange Brew. When we released Step Into Light in 2017, I stepped away from that to focus on Fastball full-time. None of these new songs were written for Step Into Light, though some were written away from Fastball. Two of mine, “Doesn’t It Make You Feel Small” and “Girl You Pretended To Be”, were written while I was doing the Wrenfro thing and were performed live with other people before Fastball heard them.
How did you connect with Steve Berlin for this one?
Our manager brought up his name to produced and we jumped on it. I’ve been a fan of his work for years. Used to see Steve perform with The Blasters in the early ‘80s. Saw him a bunch in Los Lobos and was well aware of his production skills. I loved working with him and was kind of in awe of his focus on the project and his musical imagination. He came up with many ideas for parts I don’t think we could’ve come up with on our own. To my initial disappointment, he never busted out the sax, but as the project started taking shape, I realized there was no place for it.
What was the reasoning behind your decision not to play bass on this one?
I didn’t play bass on the record because Bruce Hughes was available. He has more imagination and way better chops than I do. I don’t see myself as a bassist.
Can you talk a little bit about the title track?
Miles wrote “Help Machine” and, in my opinion, it’s the kind of title that can be interpreted loosely. Song starts with lyrics that evoke a telephone help line or a 12-step meeting. Loosely. It’s very dreamlike and I think the songs provides all the information necessary.
You opted to put this one out on your own label? Why go that route vs. using a traditional record label again?
Fastball has been virtually independent since we left Hollywood Records after Harsh Light Of Day in 2001. Even while signed to Ryko it felt like an indie label because our A&R rep was our friend, Rob Seidenberg, who originally signed us to Hollywood when he was there. I see absolutely no reason to be on a major label. Nobody tells us what to do and we owe no money. It’s all us. As far as getting our music noticed, I think we do pretty well. Energy keeps building at a nice, consistent pace and I see much improvement. We just needed a bit of time to adjust to the way the modern industry works.
The band has been around long enough to experience the music business at two different extremes – when they spent a lot of money signing bands and where they are at now. Do you think it’s easier or harder now for new bands to get noticed?
Quick success is hard to adjust to and we had difficulty realizing just who we were as a band after All The Pain in 1998. We were so busy touring we never worked on improving any aspect of our band/live show. But since we never got huge that seemed to put us in a place where we just kept going because it was the best vehicle for all three of us to get records made and go out and play. I think if we sold twice as many records as we did, we may have imploded. All the weird things that happen with fame…yada yada.
You’ve already announced some new dates – do you plan on adding more and touring for much of the next few months?
Yes, we have future dates into 2020, we will probably do something that resembles a proper tour in the new year.
What’s next for the band?
We will continue to make records and play live all over the world at our own pace.