By Monica Alonzo
By Ray Stern
By New Times Staff
By Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Robrt L. Pela
When The Pistoleros singer Lawrence Zubia decided to kill himself after years of depression and drug abuse, for some reason the familiar buttes of Monument Valley came to him in a cocaine-addled haze. Zubia had no gun. And he'd already ingested enough drugs to kill a normal person. Instead, he thought of the desert's monoliths as a way to do himself in.
"I was thinking of driving my car off something appropriately large," he says.
But before he could drive himself to oblivion, he'd first need to get out of his house, which was encircled by Tempe police.
His then-future wife, Janna, had called the cops, figuring it was the only way to prevent Zubia from offing himself. Officers assured Janna that they had Zubia cornered.
But Zubia managed to slip out, and for an hour the cops guarded the house while Zubia's roommate, bassist Scott Andrews, slept soundly inside with a pair of earplugs.
"They had me surrounded," Andrews says laconically today.
Zubia ran to a friend's house, where he called a sister and then hid in some bushes.
He'd put off death yet again, something that Lawrence Zubia and his Pistoleros bandmates have nearly made into a career.
Twice recently, The Pistoleros have been cited by Valley music writers as examples that the celebrated Tempe music scene is dead.
When Disney-owned record label Hollywood Records dropped them last fall, the roots-rock fivesome seemed proof positive that the music industry's fascination with the Gin Blossoms and its numerous Tempe spin-offs had ended for good.
The Pistoleros themselves say it was hard enough dealing with losing a record contract. With only a tenuous connection to the Blossoms and little musical semblance to the jangle-pop that has characterized the Tempe sound, they didn't need to be poster boys for the town's musical obituary.
Besides, they point out, reports of the death of the band have been greatly exaggerated.
Just as they and their music scene were being eulogized, Mark and Lawrence Zubia and their bandmates were doing studio work, had inked a publishing deal with London-based industry giant EMI and were writing new songs with established recording veterans.
Meanwhile, Tempe hasn't been the only musical source to see record contracts dry up. Chaos in the music business brought on by megamergers and mass firings have meant the end of contracts for solid musicians across the country. And even for others who've managed to avoid the ax, such as Gin Blossoms spin-offs Pharoahs 2000, the chaos has put them in a state of limbo as albums are held up from release.
If The Pistoleros have been emblematic of anything, it has less to do with the ebb and flow of the Tempe scene than the rough seas of the music business itself. Their story is less about their connection to the Gin Blossoms than it is about a tight group of five talented musicians fronted by perhaps the best vocalist in the Valley. It's also the story of the perseverance of men in their 30s who might have given up playing in bars for low pay a long time ago. But mostly, the story of The Pistoleros is about two Mexican-American brothers growing up playing mariachi music in white Scottsdale who barely survived their own self-destructive natures to emerge with a greater appreciation of their ethnicity, their talent, and, mostly, their resilience.
"Let's grease one," says Rob Seidenberg, a bespectacled A&R man sitting at a control board at storied Ocean Way Recording Studios in Los Angeles. Seidenberg's paid by Hollywood Records to scout for and develop bands for his label. In the studio before him, Pistoleros drummer Gary Smith wears headphones and prepares for tape to roll and record his take on "Love Street," a new Pistoleros song written by Lawrence and Mark Zubia. It's taken two hours, but Smith and Seidenberg have finally found a snare drum with just the right greasy sound they want for the song, and now it's time to lay down a track. Smith, 34, waits for his cue, his eyes frozen in a manic glare. His bandmates jokingly refer to him as "Chip Manson," saying that with his eery gaze and long hair, Smith could pass for Charlie Manson's long-lost love child.
Meanwhile, bassist Scott Andrews and lead guitarist Thomas Laufenberg sit behind Seidenberg, waiting their own turns, picking at their instruments in preparation. Tall and solidly built, Andrews has a shaved head and looks like he could play in the NFL. The 36-year-old father of three is the group's oldest member. Laufenberg, at 31, is the youngest and the newest addition to the band. With his blue eyes, narrow face and Jesuslike chin hair, he seems almost fragile--until he rips into a guitar riff.
The Pistoleros have come to Los Angeles to record three songs in the hope that it will save their career with Hollywood Records. For a week, they've been staying in the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, rehearsing in a practice studio also being used by Marilyn Manson's band in preparation for a tour, and now are laying down tracks in a studio Frank Sinatra used for his Reprise releases in the '60s.
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.
Zubia was only 17 himself, and for several years, his favorite times had been his escapes with his felonious uncle, a Robert Blake look-alike who hustled drugs and guns and let his young nephew drink beer and smoke Salems. To the nephew, who hated school but loved to read, Kiko Maldonado was a Mexican Jack Kerouac who would pluck Zubia out of his Scottsdale neighborhood for trips to Nogales, Tijuana and San Diego. The highway was the thing, Zubia says, and Kiko always treated him like a king, spending his ever-present wad of bills so the kid had his own hotel room. Sometimes a trip had no purpose other than to visit a friend in Blythe and let Zubia help pull a tranny.
"That was living," Zubia says.
After Kiko's death of a heart attack at the age of 53, Zubia would embark on his own reckless binge, which included severe substance abuse and alcoholism, depression and brushes with suicide. But looking back, Lawrence and the rest of the Zubia family consider the hustler-uncle who let him smoke and drink and break laws a good influence on him.
"Kiko was a role model for Larry in the tender, hurting part of a man," says Zubia's mother--and Kiko's sister--Amalia. "He [Kiko] had a terrible life, and he was a hurting person. But he was a survivor. So was Larry. Larry grew to be who he is today because he learned from Kiko's misfortune."
That may be easier for her to say now that 34-year-old Lawrence has cleaned himself up and become a responsible husband and father. By contrast, six years ago Lawrence was so addicted to drugs and alcohol and out of his mind most of the time that she and her husband Raul banished him from their home.
Then, in February 1995, after Lawrence had slipped the police dragnet, his family convinced him to turn himself in. He spent a night in jail, entered a detox clinic, and four weeks later walked out a sober man. He's kept sober ever since, to the great relief of his bandmates and kin.
But Amalia admits that there's another, darker reason why in hindsight she considers her brother Kiko to be such a good influence on her son. And that's because Kiko turned out to be so much better for him than the other uncle to whom Lawrence grew attached as a child.
Unlike Kiko the convicted drug smuggler, Lawrence's uncle Laurence Florez was a Catholic priest, which to Mexican-Americans is like having a U.S. senator in the family. At about the same time his trips with Kiko began, Lawrence was also spending a lot of time with his priest-uncle.
Years later, in 1993, a Phoenix man, Ramon Gomez, claimed that as a boy he had been molested by Florez, who by then had retired. The Zubias were stunned when Lawrence came forward to claim that he, too, had been victimized as an 11-year-old by his uncle, and joined Gomez in a lawsuit against the church.
Amalia says the irony isn't lost on them that the uncle who victimized her son was the priest, and not the felon.
It's tempting to conclude that Lawrence's trajectory was a result of his victimization, that it caused him to choose the world of his nomadic, alcoholic uncle over a narrower path encouraged by an authoritarian church. But Zubia refuses to blame his bad behavior on Florez. In fact, he refuses to talk about Florez at all, citing a confidentiality agreement he signed when the lawsuit was settled out of court. He says only that he regrets ever suing the church, if only because journalists always bring it up.
If Lawrence Zubia learned stamina from his uncle Kiko, he and his brother Mark learned music from their father, Raul.
Raul says that in his 20s he was a plumber who often went to Mexican movies and noticed that in the films, the men who played music were always the ones who took home the pretty women.
"That was what I wanted to do," he says.
"That's why he can't blame us for what we're doing," Mark Zubia, currently unattached, cracks in response.
Raul and his wife, Amalia, sit in the living room of the south Scottsdale home where they've lived for 32 years. They are surrounded by three of their children and five of their grandchildren. They remember how Raul put together a group to play Mexican music at fiestas and weddings, and how at only 12, Lawrence learned enough guitar to become a regular member. Mark, meanwhile, was playing in the band by the time he was 10.
It was simple music, and Mark, hearing a typical ranchera song on the radio, points out the repetitive guitar line that northern Mexican music inherited when German immigrants brought their polka with them. But simple or not, Raul says it was the soul in Mexican music, its inherent sadness, that made both of his sons sensitive musicians and prolific songwriters.
The three still play together. When local street celebrity Elvis "The Cat" Del Monte died in October, the Zubias put together their old mariachi combo to play religious songs at Del Monte's funeral. Mark and Lawrence strummed guitars as their father sang the devotional lyrics from the Catholic mass.
Raul says he likes to believe the music has stayed with his sons. "I've always told them, put a Latin flavor in the music," Raul says.
But Lawrence and Mark, who speak little Spanish, admit that they inhabit a space where many Mexican-Americans find themselves, in neither an entirely white or Mexican world.
Lawrence works a day job installing home alarms, and he often finds himself on construction sites working amid Spanish-speaking recent immigrants.
"Even without opening my mouth, they seem to know that I don't speak Spanish. On a construction site, the Mexican workers avoid me. They don't seem to want to talk to me, but the white workers consider me Mexican. It's a bizarre situation," Lawrence says.
"We're second-generation Americans. We were taught the Mexican music by my parents. We grew up in a bilingual house. Mexican food was the staple. But we were encouraged to have a command of the English language and study in school like American kids. Spanish was just, 'Cierra la puerta,' 'Shut the door,' little things like that.
"The crazy thing is that on the weekends we were playing mariachi-style Mexican music; I sang songs like 'El Rey' and 'Volver, Volver,' a little kid singing in Spanish phonetically."
Today, they say they're influenced, as songwriters, by the Spanish-language home of their upbringing, but it's not something that compels them go after a reverse crossover appeal. "Generally no, we're not a band that tries to appeal to a Spanish-language audience," Lawrence says. "But we do embrace the sounds that we were immersed in playing norteno and mariachi music."
Attracted to rock and roll as they entered their teens, the brothers played less and less in their father's band. By the time they were in high school, the Zubias knew they would eventually play in a band of their own. And that's why Mark felt so betrayed when Lawrence abandoned him a few years later.
Lawrence had fallen in love with Patricia DiRoss, a classmate and model who asked him to leave Arizona with her two years after they graduated. He followed her to Dallas, where they married. Living mainly off of her ample income, Lawrence took menial jobs and worked on his music. He also began to drink heavily. Within a few months he was drinking a pint of whiskey and several beers each day. But he says he made a real effort to get his drinking under control when, nine months into their marriage, DiRoss took a new job in Osaka, Japan.
"I had no idea that the Japanese adored alcohol so much," he says. "Pat took off like a rocket in Japan. But I descended further into my alcoholism."
In a city with few foreigners, Lawrence says his days became a haze of alcohol abuse while DiRoss worked long, grueling hours. Still, Zubia tried to write music and even managed to make an appointment to play his music for Sony executives in Tokyo. On his way to the meeting, however, Zubia became disoriented and suffered a disabling breakdown. Similar episodes plagued him as DiRoss' modeling career flourished.
After a year in Japan, the two came home and Zubia recovered sufficiently that the couple decided to spend some of the Japan windfall on a five-week trip to Mexico and Guatemala. The trip sparked a new interest in Zubia to understand his Mexican heritage, but, he says, "my ability to resist any drugs or alcohol had by now ceased." At the end of the 1986 trip, DiRoss, today a KPHO-TV Channel 5 reporter, left him.
Back in the Valley, Lawrence and his brother Mark followed through on their plans and began a rock band they initially called The Shades and later changed to Live Nudes, a group that became a mainstay in the Tempe scene during its five-year lifespan.
Meanwhile, Lawrence's alcoholism reached an acute stage. His drinking had caused him to develop pancreatitis, a painful condition that would send him to the hospital after his binges. "I'd get sick. I'd spend 30 days in the hospital blasted on morphine, so blown out of my mind. Two days after they'd release me, I'd start drinking again." It was a cycle, coupled with depression, that he repeated again and again, yet still managed to make Live Nudes gigs while feeding his appetite for literature, developing an obsession for Rimbaud's poetry and the essays of Octavio Paz.
With his parents' urging, Lawrence turned to a psychiatrist for help. Today, the entire family views that as a big mistake. The therapist combined standard psychiatric practices with New Age and astrological ideas. "He was using hypnosis, astral projection, and he had me on a major drug cocktail. He was taking me on trips out in space, taking me through other dimensions," Zubia says.
High on a potent mix of Nardil, Klonopin, Inderal and Xanax, Lawrence says that, in the hands of the therapist, he simply became very weird. "I would know how many steps it was from here to the corner store. Obsessive, weird shit. Shit that he had encouraged in me to counter my depression."
After escaping the influence of the psychiatrist, however, things just got stranger for Zubia. Sharing a house with his ex-wife's sister, Zubia worked days bussing tables at a French restaurant in Scottsdale. There, his boss, Alain, a Frenchman who had entered the U.S. through Montreal and who admired the Al Pacino character Tony Montana from the movie Scarface, hatched a get-rich plan with a restaurant patron named Leo. Leo was from the Ivory Coast, a French-speaking nation in West Africa, and he moved into Lawrence's room while a plot was formulated to smuggle diamonds into Africa without paying duty and then sell them at a huge profit.
Like Ishmael from Melville's Moby Dick, who shared his bed with the tattooed idolater Queequeg, Lawrence had to give up half of his bed to the odd Leo, who, like Queequeg, carried talismans. He insisted that Lawrence put some under his pillow for protection.
In February 1987, Alain and Leo launched their scheme, promising Zubia $2,000 to accompany Leo on a flight to Abidjan, the Ivory Coast's capital. But when they got there, Zubia, who had flown with only a carry-on bag, a one-way ticket and $50 dollars (most of which he had spent on cigarettes and vodka in a JFK duty-free shop), was detained by customs officials.
Leo disappeared into Abidjan with the diamonds while Zubia spent four days detained in the airport. He says he was only fed when other detainees felt sorry for him and shared their fish stew with him. Finally, after hearing nothing from the U.S. embassy, Zubia was escorted by armed guards to an Air Afrique plane that took him back to New York. Eventually, Alain paid to fly him home.
"I must have been completely out of my mind," Lawrence says today, recalling the episode. "I guess I had no regard for my well-being. It's the state of mind I was in at the time."
Zubia says that his former boss, Alain, meanwhile, followed through on his Tony Montana fantasies, and was ultimately deported after being busted for selling marijuana to Chandler undercover police.
Mark Zubia says his brother's excesses nearly decimated Live Nudes. Sometimes, when Lawrence was hooked to a morphine drip at the hospital, the band would have to go on without him. But for the most part, Lawrence managed to remain a steady performer. In 1990, the brothers moved in together, and their place, known as the "Live Nudes house" to musicians, became a kind of flophouse. Mark was doing what he could to keep Lawrence from completely self-destructing, but he admits that he was living wild, cocaine-fueled times as well.
One of the regular visitors to the Live Nudes house was Gin Blossoms guitarist Doug Hopkins, a gifted musician and songwriter who was plagued with his own problems of alcoholism and depression. After Hopkins was kicked out of the Blossoms during the 1992 recording session of their album, New Miserable Experience, Hopkins made a proposition to his new friends.
Hopkins asked Lawrence to ditch Live Nudes and start a new band with him. Lawrence agreed, and they decided to call the new venture The Chimeras. "Doug and Lawrence in a band together at that time in their lives was a volatile situation, to say the least," Lawrence says, speaking in the third person.
Mark was furious that his brother had left Live Nudes, but eventually, Lawrence says, Hopkins talked Mark into joining as well. The trio then stole the best rhythm section in town when they pulled bassist Scott Andrews and drummer Mark Riggs from Chuck Hall and the Brick Wall.
"In August 1992, we did our first gig at Edcel's Attic to a record crowd," Lawrence says. "In the next couple of months we gigged and gigged and gigged."
But Hopkins' depression only seemed to deepen. Just six months after he formed the band, Hopkins quit during a gig at Compton Terrace. Riggs quit not long thereafter.
The Zubias spent months auditioning new members, eventually adding Pete Milner and Gary Smith to The Chimeras.
Lawrence, meanwhile, remained good friends with Hopkins as the former Blossoms guitarist sank further and further into depression. In late 1993, Hopkins left his wallet, which contained a receipt for a .357 Magnum, in Mark's pickup truck. Lawrence confronted Hopkins, demanding that he turn the gun over. Surprised that the Zubias knew about the gun, Hopkins did give up the weapon to his girlfriend Sandra.
But several weeks later, Hopkins' closest friends knew that he was inconsolable. They demanded that he leave his front door unlocked so they could check on him, which they did frequently.
On December 5, 1993, Lawrence knew he could walk right in when he decided to check on his friend. He entered Hopkins' bedroom, which was empty, and then went to the other bedroom, which Hopkins used as a music room. Lawrence saw that Hopkins was lying on the bed.
"Doug, it's Lawrence," he said.
"The second I looked and saw him, I knew something very bad had happened. I touched his knee, and that's when I realized he was dead. Then I ran from the room," Zubia says.
He had seen that Hopkins had suffered some sort of head wound, but in a confused state, Zubia ran to the living room and kitchen. He found a telephone and called 911. "The operator told me to make sure Doug wasn't breathing. That was the last thing I wanted to do."
Zubia went back into the room to confirm that Hopkins was indeed dead. But he says it wasn't until he was talking to police several minutes later that he fully realized that Hopkins had killed himself. Zubia hadn't seen the gun, which had fallen from Hopkins' hand. Zubia doesn't know where Hopkins obtained it.
"It's really a good thing that I didn't see the gun," he says. And when he's asked to explain why, Zubia says, "I don't know. I don't know how to explain it. It's just better that I didn't know it was there.
"I went to Mark's house and cried in his lap. Forever. Just forever. That was a bad thing for me to come upon. I was really fucked-up at that point," Zubia says.
Lawrence spun further out of control and deeper into depression, and frequently contemplated suicide. The Chimeras, meanwhile, had amassed a considerable local following, and in 1994 and early 1995 recorded several songs for a self-released album, Mistaken for Granted. Zubia says today he can't listen to the album, which sounds muddied, as if Zubia's voice is sinking under the other musicians.
"I was singing badly," Zubia says. "I was not at the top of my game, because I was really hitting the bottom with the drugs and the alcohol. I was struggling to do my parts. I think we buried my vocals on purpose on the mix because they were mediocre."
A month after the tracks were completed, he would barricade himself in his Tempe house, determined to end his life.
Lawrence Zubia checked himself into Maverick House in February 1995, and noticed that he was the only patient there voluntarily.
Ed Pinnow, the Glendale nonprofit's lead counselor, says that Maverick House has a reputation as a place of last resort, where the worst of the worst are sent for treatment of drug addiction after they've failed at other programs.
Still, Zubia stood out.
"He was in bad shape," Pinnow says. "He was closed off. He was paranoid. As a matter of fact, for the first week to 10 days, he wasn't willing to leave the facility with other patients to go for recreation. He chose instead to curl up on a chair in my office and watch me do paperwork."
One of the things that terrified Zubia, Pinnow says, was the prospect that his recovery from substance abuse might end his career, that he might never again be able to work in bars and nightclubs. But Lawrence rapidly improved, and Pinnow admires the singer for not forgetting how far he's come.
"Since his recovery, Lawrence comes back. He came back on an anniversary date recently, bringing cigarettes and cookies for people at Maverick House. He just wanted to give back to addicts still in treatment. That's one of the things that keeps him strong. And he keeps in mind how fast he could be back here if he didn't do what he needs to do."
Lawrence puts it another way: "I mean, one sip of alcohol, one little pill, and I'll be in some hotel with a titty dancer smoking crack for a month, man. I just have to keep a close watch on myself."
While Lawrence battled his addictions, Mark Zubia had his own worries: Would Lawrence's stay at Maverick House mean the end of the band? Like Lawrence, Mark wondered if his brother could ever stay sober in a job that would keep him around so much drinking. And he wondered if their bandmates would wait around to find out. Then he got a call from drummer Gary Smith. "Gary said, 'I guess we should get into the shed and do some rehearsing while Lawrence is gone.' That meant the world to me. Still does to this day," Mark says.
Two days after he left Maverick House, Lawrence got back onstage. He says singing in bars for tight fans hasn't been a difficult test. "If I've missed an experience with drugs or alcohol, it can't be that great. I just have no desire to drink. It wouldn't be festive, it would just be completely self-destructive," he says.
Besides, he points out, his new house, wife Janna, and one-year-old daughter Daniela are far more beguiling than any mind-altering substance. "You want to sober up a drug addict? Have a baby."
Several months after his stay at Maverick House, Lawrence Zubia was offered a chance to room with a friend. He took it despite the fact that the apartment was in the same complex where Hopkins had killed himself, and that from his bedroom window, Zubia could see Hopkins' front door.
"Looking at that door, man. That's where I wrote songs from [The Pistoleros'] album like 'The Hardest Part'; 'Somehow, Someway'; 'Nothing Lasts Forever'; and 'Hang On to Nothing,'" he says.
In 1996 the group got a break when someone passed a Chimeras tape to Rob Seidenberg at Hollywood Records. Seidenberg flew out for a performance, and soon the band had a contract with the label. Before a record could be produced, however, the band had to change its name to avoid a copyright problem. Lawrence says that for a long time he'd had the name Pistoleros in mind.
Hollywood Records asked Smithereens frontman Pat Dinizio to collaborate with the Zubias on the album, and the result was co-writing credit on three songs.
"Lawrence is one of the best lyricists around," Dinizio says in a telephone interview, mentioning that he's been working on final mixes of a new Smithereens album and noticed a Pistoleros-like sound creeping into them. "Their style may have rubbed off on me.
"There are few people who I like, who I think are talented. But Lawrence has a real gift for lyrics and melody. They make the kind of records I like to buy," Dinizio says.
As for chaos in the music industry, he thinks The Pistoleros will find the backer they need. "If they can make it through this period and keep the band together, the work will prove itself."
Before Hang On to Nothing was released in 1997, guitarist Pete Milner left the band and was replaced by Laufenberg, who ditched a job offer with Ardent Studios in Memphis to join the Zubias.
The album, with songs Lawrence had written while overlooking the apartment where he had discovered Doug Hopkins' body, came out in late 1997.
It's February 16, and The Pistoleros are waiting their turn to play at L.A.'s Opium Den in front of recording industry types, and Mark Zubia is feeling tight.
His brother Lawrence jokes with the band's new industry backer, who is named, appropriately enough, Steve Backer. The diminutive EMI man has brought along Peter Stewart from the band Dog's Eye View with a notion that Stewart and other EMI artists will work with the Zubias on future songs. (In recent months, for example, the Zubias have crafted new songs with EMI writer Marty Frederickson, who co-wrote four songs on Aerosmith's Nine Lives album).
Tonight is The Pistoleros' chance to impress, and Lawrence, Andrews, Laufenberg and Smith seem loose. It's just Mark Zubia, for some reason, who's letting the pressure get to him.
Still, the set is hot, and the band really gets into "Wasting My Time," a song, one of very few, that particularly features the three non-Zubia members of the band. After the final chorus, Mark and Lawrence hang back as Andrews, Smith and Laufenberg unleash a meaty grind.
Offstage, Andrews laughs, saying that Mark had hurried them from one song to the next. "Just go, just go!" Andrews says Mark had yelled at them.
Rob Seidenberg, however, who is no longer The Pistoleros' A&R man but shows up anyway out of his esteem for the group, tells them that they'd pulled off a good set. Backer seems happy as well.
Mark Zubia cannot be consoled as he judges they only managed a 6 or 7 out of 10 in the performance. Lawrence is more pleased. He says the presence of industry types didn't rattle him. By now, he says, he's achieved a resolve he couldn't imagine just a few years ago. "Regardless of what happens with the record companies, we're in a good place. Because we're writing," he says.
He gets a handshake from bassist PC of the Tempe band Satellite, who has come on the trip to L.A. to lend moral support.
PC shakes his head at the idea that anyone would think The Pistoleros wouldn't survive losing their record contract last year.
"I think they're as strong as fucking ever," he says.
After the gig, the Zubias hear that Backer was impressed. But as the weeks pass by, they're less sure the EMI man will really get them anywhere. Soon they're placing more hope in a new lawyer, Alan Mintz, with impressive connections.
Over a recent dinner of mariscos, Mexican seafood, Mark and Lawrence talk about their prospects with their bandmates, and they perform a curious ritual. They gripe about the industry and seem to feed off of each others' assurances that they will persevere. One complains about the industry only for the other one to defend it. A moment later, they trade places and the other is griping.
"There's one thing that we do that's unspoken," says Mark. "If we get, say, a disappointing call from someone in the industry and one of us is taking it hard, the other one will almost always take it an opposite way. We switch that role back and forth without it being planned. I guess it's a brother kind of thing. It kind of just works out.
"We're like an old married couple. We've been through our bad shit already, and now everything's easy."
The Pistoleros are scheduled to perform on Thursday, April 8, at The Green Room in Tempe. Showtime is 11 p.m.
Contact Tony Ortega at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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