Trigger Happy

It's three in the afternoon, and Mark Zubia has a sore head.
The Pistoleros guitarist staggers into the band's roomy Tempe rehearsal room a few minutes late for an interview, flops down on a corner chair and swears off any questions for a while, explaining that he's been downing rum and Coke over at Long Wong's. "Oh, man, I'd swear I did cocaine or something," he mumbles. The rest of the band laughs.

The next several minutes deteriorate into a series of drinking references designed to make Zubia feel just a little queasier.

At the mention of a traditional nortena tune that the band covers, with Mark on lead vocals, bassist Scott Andrews says, "It's especially good after a couple of shots."

"I don't want to hear about it," Mark moans.
"It's the best damn drinking music there is," Andrews bellows.
"I don't want to hear about it," Mark moans again, with impeccable timing.

At this point, Mark's brother and Pistoleros lead singer Lawrence Zubia can't resist one final bit of cruel hospitality. Turning to his brother with a laugh, he informs him, "There's a beer in the fridge."

Welcome to the world of The Pistoleros on the eve of D-Day, or more precisely, CD-Day. Nine months after they put the finishing touches on their debut release for Hollywood Records, the album, Hang On to Nothing, is about to hit the stores. And if they throw a few friendly jabs at each other, it's all a part of The Pistoleros' method of keeping themselves sane while they wait for the big phone calls. Their album was originally scheduled for a July release, with a summer tour in the offing, but it was pushed back by the label. As frustrating as the delays have been, the band remains philosophical.

"It's a waiting game, it always is," Lawrence Zubia says. "It's waiting to get signed, then you get signed and your record's released. Waiting for the radio stations to pick it up. Waiting for it to start climbing the charts. I try my best not to let it affect me."

"It's like getting a new toy for Christmas and you can't play with it until New Year's," Andrews pipes in.

Maybe The Pistoleros handle adversity so well because they're on a first-name basis with it. They know they could've been just an Arizona rock footnote, remembered as the band Doug Hopkins played in between the time the Gin Blossoms kicked him out and his suicide.

The band, known until a year ago as the Chimeras, was formed in August of '92 by the Zubia brothers, with Hopkins on guitar, Andrews on bass and drummer Mark Riggs of Chuck Hall and the Brick Wall. Hopkins played with the band until April of '93, as his depression spiraled out of control. Nonetheless, he remained a friend of the band members, and encouraged them to continue playing tunes he had written with them, particularly "My Guardian Angel."

"My Guardian Angel" is rooted in a picture Hopkins bought at a swap meet. The picture showed two children crossing a bridge with a guardian angel looking over their shoulder. Hopkins developed the song with Mark on a camping trip they took together, and five years later, the song--complete with mariachi trumpet and a Spanish-language chorus--makes for an unlikely first single off The Pistoleros' CD. Though few ever confused Hopkins with an angel, his posthumous presence on the song definitely has him peeking over the band's shoulder.

"He was depressed, but when you saw him on the street, out, he had a good time," Lawrence recalls. "Doug could still always have a good time. But amongst his friends, and those close to him, we all knew that he was pretty depressed.

"I don't think anybody's ready for a suicide. It's always a surprise. It knocked the wind out of our sails pretty much, because it was sad that he took his life, instead of finding some other route."

If there's any band that The Pistoleros recall, it's the ill-fated but fondly remembered mid-'80s Austin quintet the True Believers. Like that band--which included Alejandro and Javier Escovedo--The Pistoleros are dominated by two close-but-argumentative Mexican-American brothers, supplemented by a hotshot guitarist (in this case, Thomas Laufenberg) and a crisp rhythm section (Andrews and drummer Gary Smith).

Like the True Believers, The Pistoleros play no-nonsense rock 'n' roll, with deft touches of country and folk, and subtle shades of classic soul. The Pistoleros' rootsy mix works best on songs like the twangy "Hang On to Nothing" and the dark "Nothing Lasts Forever," where they link the melodicism of the Jayhawks and the guitar crunch of vintage Let It Bleed-era Rolling Stones.

The Pistoleros share another trait with the True Believers. Like the True Believers' Escovedo brothers--whose niece is Sheila E. and whose brother Coke played with Santana--Lawrence and Mark Zubia come from a musical family.

"My dad and his brother Alex played in a mariachi group together," Lawrence says. "We grew up watching them play, going to their gigs. My dad taught me and my brother how to play guitar. My dad taught me first when I was 11 or 12.

"Mark started learning rock tunes, that was when he was in high school and I was about 18 or 19. We started getting real interested in trying to write our own songs."

Their first band, Shades, turned into Live Nudes, which played in Tempe in the mid-'80s. Two of the songs on Hang On to Nothing--"Funeral" and "Jackie"--date back to those days, and the baroque ballad "Wild Love Coast" is actually the first song the Zubia brothers wrote together, 15 years ago.

The inclusion of such time-worn material was encouraged by producer Julian Raymond, who sifted through a band demo with more than 40 songs and picked his favorites. He also encouraged the band members to use their preproduction time to share ideas with outside songwriters.

As a result, they ended up collaborating in their rehearsal room with veterans like Jayhawks Gary Louris and Marc Perlman, country tunesmith Radney Foster and Smithereens leader Pat DiNizio. The DiNizio connection is particularly interesting, because Lawrence's powerhouse vocals are often a dead ringer for DiNizio's. While they benefited from witnessing other people's writing techniques (DiNizio is a nonstop worker, while the Jayhawks are much more laid-back), the Zubia brothers haven't changed their belief that you shouldn't impose too much logic on a song during the creative process.

"We just try to grab the song when it's near us," Mark says. "You have a vibe and you follow it."

The Pistoleros are scheduled to play a CD-release show on Friday, October 10, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with the Low Watts. Showtime is 10 p.m.

Who's in town: Former American Music Club leader Mark Eitzel has been writing brilliantly bummed-out songs for years, but his recent collaboration with Peter Buck on the excellent West puts his darkly humorous word play into newly accessible focus. Eitzel will make his first solo appearance in the Valley on Wednesday, October 15, at Stinkweeds Record Exchange in Tempe at 10 p.m. It's a can't-miss chance to see one of America's finest songwriters in an intimate setting.

--Gilbert Garcia


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