Working on a Love Song: An Interview with Fastball's Miles Zuniga
After having worked years in the music industry, Fastball's Miles Zuniga finally gets around to recording a solo album, and reflects on himself, the way the business is changing, and much more in this revealing interview ...
Perhaps the last time you saw Miles Zuniga, he was flanked by retro backup dancers, popping off a fiery flamenco guitar solo and then jumping off a building in the video for Fastball's smash hit "The Way". In the 13 years since that song debuted, Miles has kept his guitar plugged in, continuing to write and record with Fastball while sharing time in the Resentments and taking on projects like The Small Stars, a misfit cabaret Zuniga credits with destroying his marriage. If it hadn't, we might not have heard his new album, These Ghosts Have Bones, which he says was galvanized by the split.
On his first solo release, Zuniga evokes the ghosts of Beatles-esque pop with captivating melodies spread over a deep mix of strings and keys. It's eminently crafted in a way that displays both this natural talents as a songwriter and the technical experience he's collected in his time. Ghosts is solid from end to end and rich with love songs that are pained, but not heartbroken (see "You Can't Break My Heart".) In fact, beyond the mildly depressing themes, the songs give me the impression that Zuniga has accepted that world is full of shit and he's on board anyway. So, like the hired band that played the Titanic into the cold sea, Miles will continue to perform, not as a sacrifice, but because it's purposeful.
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The album's title comes from the closing lines of the track "Marfa Moonlight". What does These Ghosts Have Bones mean?
I have a son who just turned six. We were playing Pac Man one day and the ghosts changed and started flashing. He looked at me and said, "Daddy, these ghosts have bones." That line... it means stuff doesn't just go away, there is stuff that stays. Ghosts are these wispy things, but These Ghosts Have Bones. This is a little more permanent -- they're harder to get rid of.
Do you believe in ghosts?
No, but I believe in spirits. I haven't seen any ghosts yet and I hope I don't -- I would be freaked out if stuff started flying across the room, but I believe in vibes. You can walk in a room and it has a certain feel. Some rooms feel good, some feel bad, some you just don't want to be in and your not sure why.
What motivated you to make a solo record?
It was time. I was always hidden. Bands are safe. When you're on stage and people yell, "You suck," you say, "Well they don't mean me specifically." It's a really personal record and I didn't want to have to negotiate with anyone. Most bands you have to negotiate. Someone might not want to do this part or that part or not like the song. This time its all me and if people hate it, fine, I don't mind. I'm 45 I've been playing music since I was 19 years old and I've never made a solo record -- it's ridiculous. It's time to go out and see what happens. I've been waiting to take this ride.
What were you listening to at the time you were recording this album?
Music that I didn't think was sad, I found unbelievably sad -- head-in-the-oven sad. Like Bread -- have you ever listened to Bread? There should be a warning label on that stuff: "If you're going through a hard time, stay away from David Gates." It's nuts. The Carpenters are the same way, it's got this candy coating on it that seems sweet and soft, but it's wrist-slitting material.
Don't you think people may get that same impression of this album?
Yeah, it's pretty dark. But certain songs would come on and it would hit me like a ton of bricks and make me want to burst into tears. I never felt that way before. I never felt so emotionally raw. I didn't know if I'd make it though the day or if I might just start sobbing. I'll say this, the human heart, at least mine, is a resilient instrument. You can get over stuff.
How would you describe the album?
"It's a sad and beautiful world," as Roberto Benigni said. That's the record to me ... a sad and beautiful world.
These Ghosts Have Bones has a lot of songs about love, but not all are happy. What is "Junkie Hands" about?
I was in a songwriting game with Bob Schneider. He's a very creative, hardworking guy and he has a songwriting game where he'd spit out a title like, "Circus and Family Don't Mix", and then everyone in the game would have to write a song. You had two days to do it and then you had to email in yours and you could listen to everybody's version of the same title. So had that going which was nice because in the midst of all this craziness in my personal life, I had something I had to do. I had to finish that song, so whatever state I was in I still wanted to do the work and it really helped. I wrote a lot of songs off the record using that game -- then I'd change the title or mess with the words, but once there was "gymnast," there was "hands," there was "junkie," there was something else. I gravitated towards "junkie." "Junkie Gymnast?" That wouldn't work. So I thought "Junkie Hands" was the best one. There's a line from a documentary I saw, where he says, "it used to be so nice when I started, now she just makes me ache," I started thinking about that as a relationship. In my case, that was the way it was, it was so great and then dealing with the aftermath just makes me ache, I just wished I could be free from this.
How long have these songs been in the works?
The oldest one is a song I finished years before. Fastball tried to record it but I didn't like the recording very much. ("Working on a Love Song") is the oldest song. It's ironic. In the last lines a guy's writing a love song about his girl and he can't get her on the phone -- he's in Italy. She won't pick up and then when he gets home she's gone. That's why she's not answering the phone! He finished the love song and he's gonna play it for her, but she's gone.
It's a sad and beautiful world.
That's one of the older ones. "You Can't Break My Heart" I had for a while, but I couldn't finish it. Then all of a sudden I knew what exactly I wanted to write about and it became easy to finish the song. Authenticity is important. You don't want to write something and be faking it. At the moment you're creating it, you want it to have some emotional truth to it. People can tell.
Does songwriting come easy? Do you channel them or sweat over a notebook trying to get it perfect?
You just have to begin. Sometimes musicians can get precious about it. "Wait for the muse, you know?" Well sure, that's great, but if you wait for the muse, your output will be less. It's true, when the muse is there your going to do better work, but if you want the muse to come, it's nice to court the muse and that means sitting quietly in a room where the muse will show up. If your busy all the time or hanging out and drinking beer or playing games on your phone, chances are a lot less than the muse will show.
The story of how this album was made is a testament to the usefulness of Kickstarter.com. Tell us how that played out.
It started from a friend of mine, Adam Levy. He wanted to do a solo record and he wanted to fund it so he goes "Can you make me a video for Kickstarter?" I started to poke around and saw he made 20 grand in a month. I was like "I need to do this." I just decided to try it. For people who don't know, it's this site that allows you to solicit and get your fans involved and you give them something in exchange. People who gave me $60 or more got all the demos for the album, as well as the record. I reached out to my fans and was amazed at how fast they responded. I launched it from the Houston airport. I was flying to play a show in Florida. It says they have to approve your project, so I thought I could launch it now and it would take them a couple days to approve it and I'd be home then. I pushed the button and it said, "Your project is live." So I did this email blast and when I got to Florida I had $500. I thought "Wow, if I could do $700 a day for 30 days I could hit my goal of $20,000." The thing is: if you don't hit your goal, you don't get any money. So I had $500 then I went to lunch and when I came back I had $3000. By the end of the day I had $8,000. I had breathing room now. The next day, another seven or eight thousand came, so I had $15,000 in two days. So then I just stopped worrying whether or not I was going to make the goal so I threw out a challenge: if we can raise the rest of the money by Friday, you know The Beatles song "Friday morning at 9 o'clock..." that's what I used as the line, I'll write a song and you can each choose one word. In two days I had $20,000. People stepped up and donated. I had my money, I wrote the song and it's on the Kickstarter page. I used all the words they gave me and constructed a song out of it.
Is it a good song.
It's an alright song.
On your blog, you said, "The record companies don't like to give money away like they used to." How much was Fastball's biggest recording budget?
Let's start at the beginning. I was in this band called Big Car. We got in a bidding war between MCA and Giant records. They signed us for a quarter of a million dollars. That was our budget. With Fastball, going forward four or five years, there was no bidding war. Hollywood records wanted us. They gave us $120,000 -- still a lot of money. Back then it was like getting a grant, like "We believe in you." You still had to pay it back, but the only way they could get their money back was if you sold records. It wasn't like a regular loan. If you go to the bank and get a loan and you can't pay it back, guess what? What do you got? We'll take your car. They're not gonna let you walk away. Record companies -- you can just walk away. The Giant thing didn't work out and we owed them a quarter million bucks and we had two records firm so they couldn't drop us. They had to pay us another $250,000 or pay us to go away. They gave us another $20,000 just to say, "Here, go away!" I couldn't believe it. This is the greatest thing I ever heard. I had no problem with the old record industry. I thought it was an amazing, beneficial thing. It gave me time to learn my craft. I didn't have to work at restaurant. Those days are gone because people don't buy albums anymore. They steal them or buy the MP3 and it's really hard to sell records so they don't have the budget. It's not that way anymore.
Do you a sense of independence with they way you're doing it now?
Yeah. The downside is there is no big budget. There is no start up money, but on the plus side, you are the captain of the ship. If a record didn't work out, they could sit on you for nine months or a year. You couldn't sign with anyone else and the record was dead. It was very depressing. You didn't know when it would come out, they'd always push it back. The big, huge Fastball record was done in the summer of 1997, mixed, mastered, everything, but it didn't come out until March 1998. In the meantime, we didn't have any money or know if the record would even come out. So not having that uncertainty is really nice. I know when my records coming out. I know I'm not gonna drop myself and I know I can allocate funds as I see fit.
What lesson have you taken away from being a platinum selling artist and being a part of the industry when it was still huge?
As George Harrison said, "All things must pass." Nothing stays the same, the only constant is change and where you get into trouble is when you get attached to the way things were. We're all gonna get older. I'll stop now thank you. I don't want to loose my loved ones, I don't want to see my mom or my sisters go. I don't want to see anyone die. I don't want anything to change. I don't want to watch the environment go to hell and it never rains again, but we're not in control. That's what you have to come to terms with. So that's what I learned from the music business. At the time I could never imagine it would become what it is now -- a shell of itself. It's relatively destroyed.
My favorite song on These Ghosts Have Bones is "The Weatherman." Its lyrics seem to be along the same lines as what you were just alluding to. What do you mean when you say that you can't trust the weatherman?
Oh, I'm talking about the weather, like we're having now. I'm sure the entire population of Texas wishes it would rain. If you were a political candidate and you could guarantee rain, you would get 100 percent of the vote. This is where it gets humbling. It might not rain. No one knows. You can't plan it. Yet everyone's existence is predicated on water. We need water. Stuff is getting apocalyptic. It's laughable that people think climate change is not real. Oh really? How bad does it have to get. Do you need to burst into flames personally to see climate change is real? It's real and it might be too late.
After the promotion and touring for this album, what are you going to focus your attention on?
I'm gonna keep promoting the record. It will be a steady thing. Also the Resentments just finished an album. I have three songs on it and that is an amazing band. My goal is to do two records a year and just build my little world. Fastball has a following so we do X amount of dates every year, but I've been doing that 17 years. To me I'm a lifer, I'm not waiting for one specific event. I was that way. That's the other thing I've realized about life. Beyond that we're not in control and you have be accepting of what comes down the pipe, it's that life should be lived with some tension in the line. Life shouldn't be easy -- it's a struggle. I liken it to exercise. It's a ritual to write. I never want to stop doing that, just like I never want to stop running or swimming or doing yoga or whatever. To me it's another thing you do that is completely beneficial. I love playing music and I'd be doing it whether I was making a living at it or not. I'm not really looking for one specific thing, I'll just keep doing what I do and there you have it.