'90s Survivors The Pistoleros Still Shoot Straight
He's being awful polite about it, but Lawrence Zubia has places to go.
It's Halloween evening, and he's sitting at a table at Casey Moore's in Tempe. He looks every inch the rock star. He's sporting a black vest and drain-pipe black Levis, a red bandanna around his neck, and hair slicked back stylishly. It's just about sundown, and he's wearing shades.
Lawrence and his brother, guitarist Mark Zubia, are entrenched in Tempe rock 'n' roll lore. In the late '80s, their band Live Nudes gigged around town, and in the early '90s, they teamed with guitarist Doug Hopkins, who'd just been booted from the Gin Blossoms during the recording of that band's breakthrough record, New Miserable Experience. Hopkins and the Zubias started kicking around tunes at the "Live Nudes house" after shows and on lazy afternoons, and before long they had a new band, The Chimeras, which embraced both the bluesy style of the Zubias and Hopkins' chiming power-pop style.
Hopkins didn't last long with the group, but the Zubias pushed forward with guitarist Thomas Laufenberg, bassist Scott Andrews, and drummer Gary Smith, recording their debut, Mistaken for Granted, in 1995. The record caught the notice of Hollywood Records, and the group was signed and rechristened The Pistoleros for trademark reasons. They released Hang On to Nothing in 1997, and despite great write-ups in No Depression and other critical outlets, the album failed to make a commercial impact and the band was dropped from the label.
It was a long time ago, and things are different for Lawrence Zubia. He's a family man now, with three kids at home and trick-or-treating on his mind. But he's content for the moment to talk about the Pistoleros' legacy and content to revisit the band a couple of times a year, as he will on Wednesday, November 21, at Crescent Ballroom, where he'll be joined by other members of bands from the fabled '90s Arizona scene — Dead Hot Workshop, The Sand Rubies, Truckers on Speed, and the Jesse Valenzuela Trio.
"We were one of the last bands to get that kind of record deal, where a guy from Hollywood comes into one of your shows and says, 'Hey, call me on Monday. Here's my card; I'm the vice president of A&R at a record label,'" Zubia laughs. "I'm like, Yeah, right, whatever. I've heard this a million times."
It wasn't a joke. The band was signed to a production deal by Hollywood Records and got to work recording in A&M Studios, co-writing songs with Radney Foster, Gary Louris of The Jayhawks, Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens. Zubia laughs discussing the checks the band received: all stamped with the Mickey Mouse logo of Hollywood's parent company, Disney.
"As far as all the rock bullet points go: getting picked up at the airport in a limo, hearing our song on the radio for the first time in some distant city — Miami, it happened to be — all of those bullet points happened," Zubia says. "People recognizing us on the street, playing big shows, playing to nobody. All the bullet points of a rock 'n' roll career."
There's no bitterness in Zubia's voice when he talks about "the old days," and none in the voice of his brother, Mark, either. Walking his dogs in the Broadmor neighborhood, Mark says he wouldn't change a thing.
"It was all worth it," he says of the band's time on Hollywood Records and the end of that relationship. "Of course, it would have been nice to sell more records, make more records with Hollywood Records. But, no, I wouldn't change a thing. I wouldn't take back a day. I had a great time. We may not have been as big as others, or done as much as others, but we've done more than most bands. It was great — and frustrating — but looking back on it, we were younger and more naive as to how that business works. So things we thought would happen didn't, but now I just realize that's the music business."
"The whole thing was part of the journey," Lawrence says. "We're better for having experienced that. Not a lot of people get to — my brother and I have obviously been together our whole lives — sit in El Dorado Park with a 12-pack of beer and an acoustic guitar, writing songs and getting to get a major-label deal [with their] original music. It was a very positive experience. I don't look back on it like, I wish I was still there, boo-hoo. I look back on it like, That was awesome, but nothing lasts forever in this business. I have friends that have platinum records on their wall that are delivering pizzas, dude. Literally."
Both brothers are still involved in music: Lawrence fronts The Persuaders and Mark leads Los Guys. Both bands share qualities with the rootsy, alt-country stylings of The Pistoleros. But the temptation to get The Pistoleros back together every now and then is just too great to pass up.
The upcoming show gives the band a chance to do something it's been meaning to do forever: make copies of The Chimeras' Mistaken for Granted, available for the first time in nearly two decades. The new copies bear The Pistoleros' name, but now fans will be able to enjoy the album's muscular, dust-caked power-pop without having to listen on YouTube or track down a zip file online.
"We've been talking about doing a run of them for forever," Mark says. "We only did the initial 1,000, and once those were gone, we just moved on to the next record and the next record and the next record. We're not the best businessmen. With a little more business acumen, it probably wouldn't have taken 15 years to get another run made. So with it being the 20th anniversary [of the band] and having never done it, we decided it felt like the right time."
Lawrence says there's more Pistoleros material in the can, too, leftover work from the sessions that resulted in Hang On to Nothing, and he hopes to release those tracks in the future. Mark acknowledges the prospect of new Pistoleros material, but he isn't sure when, or if, the band will commit anything to tape. The live sets, for now, are enough.
"Some songs feel like we're covering ourselves," Lawrence says, discussing reaching back to material that was written during a time when the band was exploring the hard living associated with a rock 'n' roll lifestyle. But being clean has offered new perspective as well. "Some songs have a new, fresh approach, given that everyone has improved. As a matter of fact, for this show we're picking songs we don't always do. There's standards, but we're going to try and pick some other songs. Stuff we can edge a little more."
For the Zubias, it's as much about reflection as it is nostalgia.
"I look at a band like Andrew Jackson Jihad," Lawrence says. "They seem to be doing it right. I just hope they are out there having fun, because that's what you take away from it, those memories. And for everyone else, it's about the songs. I know that some day, my grandkids are going to pull out some music and say, 'I guess my grandpa was some kind of rock 'n' roller.'"
"If I can say so myself, they're damn good songs," Mark says. "They should be played. It's nice to see the guys, and then, of course, all the memories come flooding back, and that's nice, too."
"We're still here 20 years later," Lawrence laughs. "Divorces, suicides, drugs, alcoholism, all those 'isms' that go along with it. We're still doing it."
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