Hanging On to Something
The template quality of the Pistoleros' story thus far resembles the first half of nearly any episode of the increasingly irritating Behind the Music specials seen on VH1.
Band forms and pays dues playing myriad local gigs. A loyal following blossoms. A founding member quits and later commits suicide. Band self-releases full-length record. In the interim, band front man's long-festering drug problem now rivals any member of Aerosmith circa Night in the Ruts.
After enduring cop chases, rehab and near death, singer bounces back. Major Record Company signs band. Band disregards intuition and puts trust in tin-eared label folk. To ensure an album rife with "pop hits," in-house producer and outside songwriters are employed. The record, though good, falls short of capturing the soul of the band. Label folk pick the album's first single, a song whose chorus is in Spanish. Pop history has taught us that songs with non-English choruses are generally antithetic to U.S. pop-chart success. The album stiffs. Band tours briefly and plays to empty venues.
Band demos new songs with hopes of pleasing Major Record Company. Label folk listen to demos and dump band. On the advice of its publisher, band fires manager and lawyer.
Publisher stops returning calls from band. Band begins to doubt its songwriting ability. Personal discouragement and disappointment ensue . . .
A Behind the Music episode would shift gears here, of course, and we'd see the band rise from the depths, armed with newfound self-awareness, a cache of ever-important hit tunes and a far-fetched sense of reclamation.
This is the part of the story the Pistoleros have yet to write. Like any band just barely on the sunnier side of a somber spell, it's impossible to speculate if it'll even be completed. Yet there's every reason to expect that it could. Particularly when considering the strength of the band's new self-titled release, by far the band's best. And labels, namely Elektra Records, are calling again.
The tenacious five-piece that was conceived in 1991 by brothers Mark and Lawrence Zubia with ex-Gin Blossoms Doug Hopkins has been well-documented locally. In 2000, the Pistoleros -- bassist Scott Andrews, guitarist Thomas Laufenberg, drummer Gary Smith and the brothers Zubia -- are all in their 30s. They have all eased into lives that to some extent include commitments that outweigh the importance of the band. Some have children, others new careers. They're no longer defined by rock 'n' roll, but they're still committed to it.
Stepping into the central Phoenix home Lawrence Zubia shares with his wife Janna and two-year-old daughter Daniela, it's hard to imagine that not so long ago, this man had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. That after getting dropped from Hollywood Records two years ago, he had little more than a small chunk of cash left over from an EMI publishing advance.
The house is immaculate and tastefully decorated in breezy soft tones with white carpeting. There's a good-size yard. A garage/guest house out back serves as home to three speedy Chihuahuas that constantly yap and dart about. The house is comfortable. You half expect to see at least a platinum album or two hanging from one of the walls.
"The first thing I did after getting signed to Hollywood and coming back from L.A. was pick which fucking wall in my house the gold record was going to go on," laughs Lawrence Zubia, shaking his spiky-locked head at his own naiveté.
What makes Lawrence's current lifestyle all the more remarkable is that he's a man who got into rock 'n' roll believing that life held nothing else for him. It was a foregone conclusion that he was predestined to write songs and front a rock 'n' roll band until the day he died.
And if muted gossip were gospel, he would have landed in his grave five years ago.
"There are some symbolic things that have happened," he continues. "I bought a house, I had a baby. So to my brother [Pistolero guitarist Mark], that's, 'Whoa, dude, you really cashed in the whole thing.'
"In my opinion, I just made it convenient on myself. If I went to work at Motorola, then I'd have cashed it in. I customized this little job so I can stay in the rock 'n' roll game if I have to."
When the publishing money ran out, 36-year-old Lawrence started his own company installing sound systems and alarms in new homes. After a year and a half, the company's a success. He sounds grateful not to be at the mercy of the record biz.
"In reality, real pop music, even for the best of 'em, careers last three to five years. I mean, look at Fastball. Their new one on Hollywood is done. Let's go through the list: the Flys, Fountains of Wayne, and on and on. They're gone, dude.
"And the Gin Blossoms. [Singer] Robin [Wilson] bailed at a bad time -- the Universal takeover and everything," he says. "He bailed and thought he was gonna jump in the face of everybody and say, 'Fuck you, now I'm gonna get my respect.' Robin to me was a complete rock star. Really, times have changed. We walked by Long Wong's the other night, and he was playing acoustic to virtually nobody. It's not like it used to be. I thought all those guys were rock stars."
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.
Then there is the Zubia brothers' Mexican-American heritage, which, from the viewpoint of a record company, swings well with the country's current appetite for all things Latino.
As a songwriting duo, the Zubias have carved themselves a niche. Whether it will ever pay off is anyone's guess. "Niche just means that we won't be successful," laughs Mark.
"My brother and I are not pop songwriters in your normal sense of the word. I mean, we have pop leanings, but I don't think we are going to write you a song that has all these blatant pop hooks."
So the way he sees it, his confidence in rock 'n' roll as a career choice is infused with heavy doses of reality.
"I hope to just break even with this new record."
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