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He characterizes the Pistoleros' current situation as one with "no vibe at all. We're just playing our gigs, we talk about nothing serious. We just go and do our thing. We're fuckin' old, dude. Scary times.
"It so different now. If we did get this Elektra deal, I'm really only looking at [contractual] things that I wasn't looking at before. Like an option on my contract, like a buyout or a pickup of the second album. If someone just whispered that in my ear the first time when Hollywood called and said 'You're dropped,' I would have been looking at $30,000, and said, 'Okay, fuck you.'
"It's funny, you're sitting there with Hollywood Records, this multimillion-dollar company, and you're watching them fly by the seats of their pants with your career. Ten people sitting around trying to pick the single or something. You're just sitting, going, 'Hold on, you fuckin' guys don't know what you're doing. You don't know any more than I do."
Financed mostly from gig earnings and a helping hand from Zia Records, the band's new self-titled release took nine months of stops and starts at Mayberry studios in Tempe to complete.
At once sparse and multilayered, The Pistoleros' sound is anchored by humble, seductive guitar lines and bolstered by well-placed ornamentation: horns, ambling harmonica, smooth strains of slide guitar and soaring female backup vocals.
Collectively, the band summons an aesthetic that embraces the spectrum of traditional rock 'n' roll.
The record offers tales of quixotic romance ("Love Street"), boyish affirmation ("Superman") and displacement ("1000 Miles") without the faithlessness of something like the Wallflowers. "Shooting Star" documents bluntly the toils associated with vainly chasing pop stardom. Lawrence sings lines like "Now I know where you are/Waiting on your shooting star" with all the wisdom of someone who has done just that. His voice rises out of the mix, sometimes smooth and drowsy, sometimes distorted and depleted, often promising things in a reedy drone. He's one part poppy whorehouse pastor, one part cockeyed optimist.
The duo of Gary Smith and Scott Andrews attests to the group's perseverance. A band couldn't purchase a better rhythm section.
All 10 songs on The Pistoleros were penned solely by the Zubia brothers, with the exception of "Love Street," which is credited to the band; "Everybody, Sometimes," co-authored with Aerosmith collaborator Marty Fredrickson; and "Walking Through Fire," which lists ex-Gin Blossom Jesse Valenzuela as a co-writer.
The Pistoleros shows a substantial songwriting leap from 1997's Hang on to Nothing. Its sounds are deceptively simple and effortless, the result of a band that has mastered its craft after years of shared experience.
"This record feels like an accomplishment," Mark Zubia says as he sips coffee at Long Wong's on Mill Avenue, just before his regular Monday night acoustic set. "We got to approach things like we wanted to approach them. The band is more cohesive this time, even as fragmented emotionally as it was."
Mark gets between $30 and $50 for his solo sets at Wong's. Living cheaply, gigging with his side band Los Guys, doing acoustic gigs and stretching out final nickels from his share of the band's EMI publishing deal is how he's kept himself afloat since Hollywood Records dropped the Pistoleros two years ago.
"This past year has been one of total realization for me," he says. "I thought there was nothing else I could do but be a musician and try and get a record deal and be a songwriter and all that."
Mark's realization includes a plan to enroll at ASU's College of Fine Arts in January. The long-term goal is to study guitar and voice, and ultimately teach.
"It's not like it was three years ago. To invest emotionally again, getting a record company, for me it's not about time. It's about emotion. No matter what you invest, you've invested something. I think emotionally, everybody was fucked up after getting dropped. We spent all of '99 trying to demo for EMI. We were emotionally beat up. Still are, ya know?
"You ask yourself, 'What if we really can't write? What if we're no good? If you start feeling like Fountains of Wayne can kick your ass at songwriting, then that's what you are dealing with."
On a Saturday at the Acme Roadhouse, the band finishes the night with an inspired rendition of "Stand by Me." A smattering of claps quickly fades into a Go-Go's chestnut that suddenly blurts out of the house PA. Lawrence splits to catch the last minutes of a Dead Hot Workshop reunion show at a nearby club. The rest of the band is packed up and gone before the club closes. Mark Zubia sits stone-faced on a bar stool.
"I don't know how to put it so it doesn't sound negative," he says before downing a shot of something clear. "Sometimes it feels like, 'Who are we really continuing for, and who really cares?' And that's so cliché to say. You know, that I play with four other guys that I like and that we all get along. It's cliché, but it's true."
Chances are, anyone who has ever set foot in a Tempe rock club in the past half-decade has felt some tingle created by the Pistoleros. It's easy to see why any major label would want the band now. On one hand, they bear all the hallmarks of a band that learned its Stones lessons well, yet at the same time manages to be polite enough for Midwestern record buyers into Dave Matthews.