Photo courtesy of Conqueroo

Fastball’s “The Girl You Pretended to Be” Is Pop Perfection (premiere + interview)

The latest track from the upcoming The Help Machine stands as a testament to Fastball's enduring powers and the lure of the almighty hook.

Fastball release their latest album, The Help Machine, 18 October 2019. True to form, the LP, produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, is a succinct collection of pop songs heavy on infectious choruses and memorable turns of phrase.

Writers Tony Scalzo and Miles Zuniga turn in a typically ace collection of songs and Scalzo’s “The Girl You Pretended to Be” is remarkable for its Lennon-McCartney cynic/optimist juxtaposition as well for the way it moves effortlessly from verse to chorus with uncommon ease and even blurs the lines between those worlds. Featuring guitar work from actor/musician Charlie Sexton, the tune walks the fine line between Americana and pop with grace.

Scalzo says, “It’s something I wrote a couple of years ago and was performing in the band, Wrenfro. It spent about a year as a pop-rock tune with a kind of surf beat. Once we showed it to Steve, he encouraged us to change the beat to more of a country shuffle. It immediately felt smoother and easier to play. After we got basic tracks down, we invited Charlie to come by and record some honky-tonk-style Telecaster over it, and the track really came to life. We can’t bring Charlie on the road, but his guitar playing on the song has inspired us to enjoy playing it live.'”

Other guests on the album include Bruce Hughes of Cracker, Wye Oak’s Andy Stack, and two members of Austin’s Band of Heathens.

Scalzo recently spoke with PopMatters about The Help Machine’s origins and Berlin’s particular contributions to the affair.

I think this is a wonderful Fastball album. When you went in to make it, did you have a sense of, “Yeah, this is us really firing on all cylinders”?

I sort of had a feeling like that. Not only were we working with each other and other people we were familiar with and at a studio where we had recorded at before, but we were also working, for the first time, with Steve Berlin.

How did you go about selecting Steve as producer?

I don’t remember. I know that once his name popped up, I was immediately for it. I’d been a fan for years, going back to the early 1980s in Los Angeles. I was a teenager and was driving up to LA from Orange County to see a lot of bands. I’d see Los Lobos, X, the Knitters, and the Blasters. But I didn’t realize that he’d been producing bands for as long as he has been. Over the years I’d seen him and hung out a couple of times. At some point me, he and Miles got on the phone, and it’s worked out really well. The main thing behind the excellence that you have before you now is the Berlin quotient.

What did he do as a producer that made you go, “Wow, this makes sense, and he really gets us”?

I didn’t want anyone to get us. How do you get anywhere with people going, “I get you! Keep doing exactly what you’ve been doing your whole career!”? What he brought was an intense focus to the songs. He had his own ideas that he was working with, and he added parts that we would never have added, things we would never have gotten if we were left to our own devices.

“Holding the Devil’s Hand” starts with a rhythmic, tribal beat. Some of that is Steve’s hands on his lap with a mic on him. He’s slapping his lap. He threw in a lot of great atmospheric stuff. He’s an expert percussionist. But that’s not about technique. It’s about what he thinks to throw in: The parts he imagines. Everything.

He had me playing keyboards like I never had before. He was able to take my performance and refine it on a note-by-note basis. In the past, it’s been: add, add, add. We did some of that this time but a lot of it was about taking away, sharpening the edges.

This is such a relaxed-sounding record. I think sometimes you can tell when bands are trying too hard.

We were having fun. We were relaxed. There’s not a ton of struggle there. It’s also not stuff that required us to be virtuosos. I think that your basic musician could play most of the stuff on the album. It’s not Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Fastball is a band with two songwriters. You and Miles balance each other out nicely, but there is a sense of uniformity. Your styles aren’t so drastically different that it sounds like two bands. Do you have conversations about what you’re working on? He says, “I’m going to write about this.” You say, “Let me try to answer that”? Or is it because you guys know each other so well that it just fits?

Both those things apply. We’ve done a few of those things you mentioned where we’d say, “I’m writing about this” and then add to each other’s ideas. I wouldn’t say it’s worked out very well. Maybe we haven’t done it enough. The other thing is that we’ve spent so much time together and kind of grew up with similar experiences, so our lyrics can blend and sound like maybe they were written by the same person quite a bit. We match up in terms of what we’re going to write about and what we’re thinking. That’s luck, but that’s also us having been together for so long.

This album also says a lot in a very short amount of time.

Steve put all the songs in one basket. I played him tons of things. Miles played him tons of things. What he picked is what you hear. Perhaps he was feeling out what was concise and what the commonalities of the songs were. I can only speculate on that, though. He’s not here. I’ve got his number. But I’m not going to give it to you! [Laughs.]