One can question the validity of band anniversaries when the members of that group have spent most of that time apart. Like when Crosby, Stills, and Nash celebrated their 25th anniversary with a 1992 boxed set that contained mostly solo recordings.
People nearly got a 50th anniversary Kinks reunion that would have included 18 years where brothers Ray and Dave Davies refrained from sharing a stage or studio session. Fans of battling brother bands should also note that it’s now going on eight years since Noel and Liam Gallagher decided let’s do look back in anger. And it’s been four years since Black Crowes’ Chris and Rich Robinson have talked to angels but not each other.
Although Lawrence and Mark Zubia don’t ever seem to agree on numbers, or even how long their estrangement lasted, they do agree that it was necessary to separate so everything could fall in place for them now. The brothers’ band, The Pistoleros, signed to Fervor Records (a Phoenix label that specializes in placing by their artists’ catalog in TV shows and movies), recorded an album called Shine in 2015, and then re-upped and re-upped again with the label in time for a 25th anniversary album, Silver.
“This band has been through a lot of life,” Lawrence says. “Marriages, divorces, suicides, death, drug addiction — we’ve outlived so many things. Hell, we’ve outlived the record industry.”
That’s a key reason the band’s happy to have found a home at Fervor, an artist-supportive company that is 180 degrees from the suck-’em-up and spit-’em-out record industry the band aligned with in the early ’90s.
As The Pistoleros, they had a front-row seat to how major label machinations work. They signed with Hollywood Records, the Disney-based label who resurrected Queen’s fortunes and gave us Fastball.
But first, a little history.
In 1992, after Doug Hopkins was dismissed from The Gin Blossoms during sessions for New Miserable Experience, he began hanging around the Tempe compound where Mark and Lawrence’s then-band Live Nudes lived together like The Monkees for two years.
Lawrence recalls, “Doug invited us to form a band, which was The Chimeras; not long after that, our original drummer Mark Riggs and [bassist] Scotty Andrews, both of whom were recording an album with Chuck Hall at ZZ Top’s studio. They left Chuck Hall, somewhat acrimoniously … and we split up Live Nudes.”
Hopkins was with The Chimeras from April '92 to August '93. That following December, he committed suicide. Lawrence is quick to dispel the notion that it had anything to do with The Gin Blossoms. “Everyone got so opinionated about that. Doug was probably extremely bipolar. There was so much other stuff going on.”
The Chimeras remained together and had one of those fairy-tale scenarios where only the happy-ever-after can be disputed. The band was performing some strip mall gig and a guy from Hollywood Records handed them a business card. A month later, the head of the label flew out to see them play at Long Wong’s.
Lawrence recalls, “After the show, we met him at his hotel, and he asks us, ‘Why should we give you a million-dollar record deal?’ So we said, ‘Because we write great songs and we will make hits for you.’ He liked that answer, and we signed with Hollywood in 1997.”
The cool things that used to happen when you signed with a label happened — like having a budget that allowed for recording at A&M Studios and collaborating with other songwriters like Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens and Gary Louris and Mark Perlman of The Jayhawks.
The Chimeras became The Pistoleros. But the band was hobbled by a first single that had Spanish lyrics in it, which only got them airplay in the Hispanic market. Their champion at the label got shitcanned. There was corporate sniping.
“Certain personalities in the radio department didn’t like certain people in the marketing department, and the interoffice tiff was affecting the trajectory of our career!” Lawrence laughs with a pained expression. “It was odd to experience that, because I think Disney, who own 90 percent of the radio stations and movie theaters, could have broke The Pistoleros easily.”
The fallout from the Hollywood deal nearly broke the band for good. Although they continued to play and record together, Mark began to sense that his brother was on a suicide mission.
“It was a bad co-dependent enabling situation,” Mark says. “He was trying to kill himself with drugs. The hardest thing in my life I ever had to do was walk away from him. If his kids can’t help him realize he needs to change, I’m out of here.”
So acrimonious was the split that Mark served his brother the tough love via email.
“The Pistoleros never broke up, I just stopped booking them,” he says. “There was one gig in 2007 where my brother came at me and was probably going to beat the shit out of me, but he tripped or something and he couldn’t get to me. That was the thing that made me realize I was in danger emotionally and physically.”
Lawrence admits, “I got involved in a very destructive pattern in life for years. I just drifted. And for six years, my brother and I didn’t talk, interact, or play music.”
But Lawrence turned things around. “I focused on my kids,” he says. “After three years of sobriety, through the grapevine, my brother began hearing that I was back and I was no longer fucking around.”
Things slowly began to fall in place, and the Zubia brothers took a meeting with Fervor Records at the suggestion of Hans Olson.
“We were ideal for Fervor,” Lawrence says. “We had a back catalog, which we owned most of, and we were still an active band making records. They wanted to buy the first Chimeras album and sign us up to make new records.”
That included a follow-up to Shine, but the Zubia brothers weren’t sure what was going to happen or when.
“One morning, we just get an email saying, ‘Time to do another record,’ which was a nice email to wake to,” Mark says. “And the reason we’re doing Silver is that Fervor licensed enough music from the last release. A couple of TV shows, a bunch of sports shows, lots of baseball.”
With a mission to deliver a new album, they welcomed back The Chimeras’ original drummer, Mark Riggs.
“For the first time in about 15 years, the band is actually rehearsing, taking breaks, and hanging out,” Mark Zubia says. “It’s like having four-fifths of the original Chimeras back, and we have a renewed sense of purpose.”
All this would be self-congratulatory fanfare if the band turned in a by-the-numbers Pistoleros album filled with customary jangle. You’ll get that. But you’ll also get songs like “Did You Wake Up Alone” that push the envelope — and The Pistoleros — into darker, unexplored territory.
“That was an effort to push us out of our comfort zone,” says Lawrence, who wrote the song before Mark transposed it to another key and had him sing it an octave lower.
“I wanted to hear him sing in a register I’d never heard him sing it before. Like Iggy Pop or Leonard Cohen,” Mark says.
The folks at Fervor listened to 28 or 30 songs, depending on which Zubia you ask. They picked 12 and said, “They’re great, I love these, give us five more songs.”
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Lawrence bolts up off the couch. “I was like, ‘What the fuck!’ But then I got into it and said, let’s give them some really good shit.They didn’t give us directives like scenes or anything — “Maybe, just give us a song about home. Or rain.’”
Mark says, “They liked what we gave them but said, ‘There’s a lot of doom and gloom in here. Give us something happier.’ And out of the five songs, they selected two: ‘Always You and Me’ and ‘You Belong.’”
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Lawrence says. “But we’re writing great songs within very narrow margins. Like Springsteen. Or Petty. Or the Del Fuegos, a band of brothers that’s been around for 25 years that didn’t hit the rock ’n’ roll radio lottery but is still plowing through.”
The Pistoleros will perform at Zia Record Exchange, 3201 South Mill Avenue in Tempe, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, October 28. See details on Facebook.