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Two Years After Hitting It Big, Fastball Loses Its Momentum

Pop Music * Singer-bassist Tony Scalzo remains upbeat despite the rock trio's flagging album sales.

April 02, 2001|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A funny thing happened on Fastball's way to conquering the pop music world: That world forgot it needed conquering.

Just two years ago, the Austin, Texas-based modern-rock trio was riding high on the success of its surprise hit single, "The Way," which pushed sales of its second album, "All the Pain Money Can Buy," over the 1-million mark.

A star was born.

Yet in the six months since Fastball's follow-up album, "The Harsh Light of Day," was released, it has sold only 76,000 copies, according to SoundScan. Compare that with the latest Dave Matthews Band album, which sold 1 million copies in just two weeks.

Radio pretty much ignored the first single from Fastball's new album, the rollicking "You're an Ocean," which features all-star keyboardist Billy Preston cutting loose with pumping, New Orleans-style piano licks.

Harsh light of day indeed.

As the band hits the road opening for Collective Soul and headlining a few dates--including the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Tuesday--singer-bassist-songwriter Tony Scalzo isn't entirely unfazed by disappointing sales, but he's remarkably at peace with the band's career path in general and "Harsh Light of Day" in particular.

"I think it's a good record," says Scalzo, who grew up in Orange County and played in various local bands for years before moving to Austin in 1993 and launching Fastball. "I don't know any reasons why it shouldn't be popular.

"We just may have made a few missteps on the promotional end. 'You're an Ocean' was probably not the perfect choice as the first single, but I wouldn't have let it go on the album if I wasn't behind all five of the songs I wrote."

"Harsh Light" is easily the most ambitious and sonically sophisticated of Fastball's three albums, featuring full orchestra on some tracks and even a mariachi group on one. That was part of the payoff from the success of "All the Pain Money Can Buy." The latest album also is rich with hook-filled, muscular pop-rock songs, all written by Scalzo or guitarist-singer Miles Zuniga. Drummer Joey Shuffield rounds out the lineup.

"My philosophy on the whole thing, in retrospect, is you don't get too many chances to throw in all that kind of stuff, so you might as well go nuts and indulge when you have the opportunity," Scalzo says. "Our records won't sound too much like that in the future, other than the songs being our songs, and that will not change too much."

So why didn't the band's relentlessly catchy music catch on once again?

"I think fans may be suspect of music that's accessible," Scalzo, 36, says. "They're conditioned to be suspicious. But the best policy for this band is to just continue to do what we've always done."

And that's exactly what Fastball is doing by working on songs for a fourth album slated for release later this year or early in 2002.

"My feeling is, don't try to [mess] with it just because the climate has changed," Scalzo says. "To try to jump on some train, that would be the worst thing we could do."

It almost sounds as if the band has started to address the idea of falling from public favor in "Goodbye," a Zuniga song from "Harsh Light" with the lyrics: "Millions of people loved what you did / But when it hit ya, you ran and hid / From the money and muscle / The rules of the game / They bought your face boy / They bought your name."

Any resemblance to Fastball's current situation is purely coincidental, notes Scalzo, because the song was recorded while the band was confident that its third album would cement its place among pop's commercial powerhouses.

"The Way," Scalzo says, "confused not only the people who bought it--and 1 million people bought it; that's a big chunk of people--but we got a little confused too. We thought we were the hit-makers of the decade, and you can't help thinking that when everybody around you is telling you that's what you are.

"We went in to make ["Harsh Light of Day"] very cocksure. We knew it was going to take off like gangbusters. When it didn't, it was like, 'What's happening? My career is falling apart.'

"Now that I can step back and really look at it," Scalzo says, "I realize we've got some fans who are very, very into us and they're not going away, and that is who we need to play to. Maybe that's just a couple of hundred people in each town, but that's enough to warrant us going out and playing for them."

* Fastball plays Tuesday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, 8 p.m. $16.50 to $18.50. (949) 496-8930.

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