Concealed Weapons

Despite some misfires, The Pistoleros keep looking for a break and say that rumors of their demise are greatly exaggerated

Only Seidenberg knows that the attempt will be in vain; soon after the songs are cut the label will drop The Pistoleros. But today, a gray day in October, the band is juiced to be in the studio laying down tracks.

In the control room, the feeling is electric. Outside, in a hallway, it's another story.

Thinking they are alone, Lawrence and Mark Zubia are caught in a firm embrace, Lawrence holding his brother's head tight as Mark buries his face in his shoulder. After more than a minute, they release each other, and Mark wipes away tears.

Later, asked about the moment, Lawrence says that his brother is still recovering from splitting with a woman he had cared for deeply.

The brothers are preternaturally close, having played music together since they were children in their father's mariachi band. When the Zubia family talks about Lawrence's plunge into ignominy and dissipation, they can't help talking about both brothers enduring it, as if they were talking about two sides of the same person: Lawrence, the destructive side; Mark, three years younger, the half that absorbed the suffering and kept them both focused on music.

The division of labor extends to their appearances as well. Lawrence, the frontman with classic Mexican good looks, sports a rocker's teased hair, ever-present sunglasses and slender legs squeezed into tight black jeans. Mark's face is softer and more Asiatic. With his tendriled hair and sad eyes, he resembles a Hawaiian Ray Liotta. The brothers form a natural songwriting pair, Mark coaxing music from his guitar and Lawrence putting words to it.

Onstage, Lawrence is the focus. "I understand the dynamics of the band," says Mark, who judges himself a competent rhythm guitarist. "You have to know, in the kind of band we're playing in, that the lead singer and the lead guitarist are going to get the attention. I really like my position, hanging back and maybe stepping up occasionally. I don't view myself as a great guitarist, but I aspire more to write a good song."

If Mark downplays his stage presence, Lawrence's qualities as a performer are undeniable. Smith had plenty of opportunities to play drums with other local bands when the Zubias asked him to join them in 1992.

"I had to go with the quality vocalist," he says. "You don't get a lot of chances to be with a real pop singer."

As songwriters, the Zubias combine elements from their mariachi past as well as their love for the Rolling Stones and blues and country artists. Nearly every song seems to draw on the darkness of their pasts and the uncertainty of their presents, and many of them make sublime use of Lawrence's throaty voice.

But the Zubias want salability as well as self-expression, and they've turned to their A&R man Seidenberg, who recently helped an Austin group named Fastball metamorphose from a garage band to a multi-platinum success.

For three days, Seidenberg has meticulously gone through every bar of the three songs The Pistoleros have come to record, suggesting chord and rhythm changes to make them catchier and more radio-friendly.

It's been a struggle the musicians have not entirely enjoyed. Several times Mark Zubia and Thomas Laufenberg in particular have appeared frustrated as Seidenberg makes changes that seem to them too close to pop-music schmaltz.

But for the most part, Seidenberg's changes stay, mainly with the blessing of Lawrence, who is hungry for commercial success. The result is three songs that are slower, more complex and more evocative than The Pistoleros music recorded on their 1997 Hollywood album Hang On to Nothing. The album enjoyed modest success despite the almost complete lack of promotion by Hollywood, which was in the midst of management changes during the album's release. One of the album's songs, "My Guardian Angel," managed to get enough local airplay that its mariachi trumpet flourishes and Spanish chorus seemed almost ubiquitous, at least for a short time.

With their radio presence rapidly fading, The Pistoleros returned home after their sessions at Ocean Way and rushed the new three-song demo to several stations, which began playing the best of the songs, "Love Street."

A few weeks later, however, Seidenberg called with the news he admits to them he knew when the demo was cut: After the management shuffle, Hollywood Records has no intention of producing further Pistoleros albums. Seidenberg had proceeded with the recording sessions because he believed The Pistoleros deserved them, that the demo would help them get a break elsewhere.

That night, the Zubia brothers say the news really didn't come as a surprise. The label had done nothing for them for more than a year other than pay for the Ocean Way demo. Now, at least, they were free to look for someone who would actually back them.

In the meantime, the Zubias have a gig to play, and they take the stage at the Arizona Roadhouse for their weekly two-man acoustic show. They sing some sad songs, but say nothing to the crowd about losing their contract.

Lawrence Zubia says he learned about stamina with his Uncle Kiko, drinking bowls of black beer and eating ceviche, playing a $13 guitar for a 17-year-old beauty on a Halloween Tijuana night, enjoying the fruits of his labor, having smuggled guns to bus repairmen earlier in the day.

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