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Fastbacks

The joy of pop

For 20 years, the members of the Seattle band the Fastbacks have labored in or near obscurity, releasing albums sporadically and touring through myriad small clubs. But despite a general lack of success with labels and the record-buying public as a whole, the group has soldiered on, continuing to put on some of the world's most unabashedly joyous live shows. After a commercially promising string of well-received CDs in the mid-'90s (most notably Zucker and New Mansions In Sound), the Fastbacks dipped below mainstream radar for a while, returning with The Day That Didn't Exist last month. The Onion recently spoke to songwriter and guitarist Kurt Bloch—also a well-liked Seattle producer and erstwhile member of Scott McCaughey's Young Fresh Fellows—about his band's many highs and lows.

The Onion: The band never seems to have gotten its due. Do you think that's ever going to change?

Kurt Bloch: I don't know. If we had a chip on our shoulders, something like that, we would have broken up a long time ago. At least for me, this is just something I have to do. In some ways, it would happen no matter what. It ties in with everything. It's for fun, but it's a little more than that, I think. Exactly what else is kind of hard for me to relate: It's more than just a hobby, yet it's certainly no one's prime source of income.

O: What do you guys do for a living?

KB: Kim [Warnick, bass/vocals] is a bartender. I tend to record records for other bands, and Mike [Musburger, Fastbacks' umpteenth drummer] plays in bands as much as he can, but he also does kind of anything. He's very good at organizing stuff, so he gets assistant sort of jobs and does some construction work. And Lulu [Gargiulu, guitar/vocals] is a camera assistant. She works on mostly commercials, not too much on feature films and stuff like that. She's a camera assistant or assistant director of photography, so she ends up working quite a bit.

O: Was there a point in 1993 or '94, when the Fastbacks were suddenly kind of a hyped thing, when you were able to focus on it full-time?

KB: Um, not really. We might have been able to, right around '94 to '96; those were probably our biggest years for touring. The Presidents Of The United States Of America and Pearl Jam asked us to go on tours with them. We did travel a fair amount back then, but I think when you put all your effort and energy into one thing, like most people in professional bands do, it's a self-supportive thing. But as soon as you say, "This is what I am, this is what I'm gonna do, this is it, this is the extent of me right now," it's going to fail sooner or later. When you identify that it hasn't gotten popular or hasn't been popular to your satisfaction, then not only is the band a failure, but you are a failure. Just look at so many people in bands who are like, "We're gonna make it, we're gonna do it," and then they slog through two-foot trenches of shit for two or three years. I guess most people's idea is if you're gonna work, you've got to work hard, and that means not turning down a show, not doing anything; you're working hard and putting all your effort into it. That's not to say that I don't personally put most of my effort into things related to this band, but just that incessant touring and playing for five people... I mean, it's good to get out there and play, even just for the sake of getting better. But that fear of failure has kind of kept us from trying to burn ourselves out. That doesn't mean we're not champing at the bit to get out there and tour and play more, because that's the pay-off of being in the band. It is a charge to play in front of people.

O: I went to South By Southwest [an annual music-industry convention] this past year: People weren't there to sign the Fastbacks, yet it was just a tremendously enjoyable show. That joy was so transcendent, it was really exciting.

KB: That makes me feel really good. One of the reasons we thought we should go to South By Southwest is we didn't have a record deal. [The band has since signed to spinART Records, home of Frank Black and others. —ed.] We thought, "Well, I'm not gonna fool myself to think that it's for the good of our band, because when you start putting that kind of pressure on something, it's bound to fail." In fact, we made probably no record-company contacts that night. A couple people said, "Oh, yeah, we should do something or other." But I certainly had a good time, and the show was great, and everyone was nice to us. It was really cool.

O: Is pop music fashionable?

KB: Oh, brother... [Laughs.] That's one of those funny questions, like, "What is fashionable?" I'm kind of removed from popular culture. Not by choice, because I like to know what is going on, but... I just don't hang out at high schools very often. [Laughs.] I don't really watch TV or listen to the radio that much.

O: It's odd: Pop music is considered this bubblegum medium, yet...

KB: ...the people clinging to it are 28 to 50. I don't know if that's what your point was, but the weirdest thing happened to us a while ago. We played a festival in Seattle called Bumbershoot that goes all weekend long; we had this show on the Friday of the weekend, which is usually the worst day, and we played at this place that was packed full of teenagers. There wasn't a band playing after us that everyone wanted to see. I thought, "You know, this makes me feel really good." We haven't put out a record for, what, three years? There were kids there, singing along with songs, wearing Ramones and AC/DC T-shirts. Twenty years ago, a guy wearing a Ramones shirt with a girl wearing an AC/DC shirt, someone would pick a fight with. They wouldn't be standing next to each other, you know? There's got to be some hope for music. I don't even care what kind it is. Obviously, pop music is such a broad umbrella; it encompasses so many things that could be good and so much stuff that's so terrible. But maybe there's hope. There could be good songs on the radio right now, and I don't really know.

O: There pretty much aren't.

KB: It doesn't seem like there are. Maybe the current lite-R&B sort of sound is the equivalent of The Eagles and stuff like that in the '70s. Has there even been a good angry rap kind of hit song recently? Even something that's truly angry in hard rock? I'm not talking about Creed and Korn and stuff, and it's easy to give those guys a bad time. They're probably just doing what they know. But something with some actual feeling in it? Something with some sort of beauty or hatred or something in it? Give me something. I'd rather see an average hardcore band than 19-year-old kids who randomly hate everything. Everything is just so watered down, because the record companies don't want to annoy people. I know that's like a big joke: "Oh, yeah, we're never gonna sell out. We're never gonna take the bad words out of our song." Yeah, right. Someone dangles a bunch of money in front of you, let's see. [Laughs.] And nobody's ever done that to us. I mean, not that we have too many bad words in the songs or anything like that, but nobody's ever come to us or tried to make any trade-offs with us. But it actually does happen that way: "You take these words out of the song and we'll be a lot happier. We'll work your record, and then we'll be able to get you more money."

O: "Once I'm really rich and powerful, I'll make whatever records I want. I'm taking these out as an investment."
KB: Yeah, but what they don't understand is that those first records are the ones that are going to set your tone for the rest of your life.

O: And by the time you make the records you care about, nobody cares anymore.

KB: Or you won't care anymore.

O: Life will be a little more comfortable for you, and you won't feel quite so much rage.

KB: Yeah. There's an interesting thought, too. If we had been world-famous in 1986, maybe we'd be making shitty records right now. I don't know. I was thinking about how some people will complain that they don't want to play their own songs, or they don't want to do this or they don't want to do that. But there are so many bands that don't have songs that anyone wants to hear again. If you have even one song that anyone wants to hear again, you're doing pretty good. If you have a record that people want to listen to over and over again, even if it was made 10 years ago, that is still important to people... I can see where it's not good to live your whole life around the fact that you wrote one good song, but still. If you're looking for an impetus after 20 years to get out there and rock and have a good time... If nobody ever told us that they liked our band, it might be kind of hard.

O: I like your band.

KB: [Laughs.] Thanks. The fact that we've not gotten our due is not the fault of the people who do like our band, and those are the people who usually talk to us.