The Fastbacks may well be the last, best unsigned band in America. Nineteen years after its formation, the Seattle-based quartet that no less a sage than Greil Marcus has called “the best punk rock band in America” is again shopping for a deal.
So much for the idea that punk rock is sweeping America: The Fastbacks’ dismal career history would seem to prove otherwise. Last year, the band voluntarily severed its connection with Sub Pop Records, and though this month it is releasing an EP on PopLlama, this is a vanity project, paid for by songwriter Kurt Bloch’s longtime association with PopLlama’s Egg Studios. It consists of four new songs and a bunch of live tracks, and its title, Win, Lose or Both, pretty much sums up the Fastbacks’ legend to date.
The Fastbacks got together in 1979, when Bloch, who was already in a band called the Cheaters, hired his high school friends Kim Warnick and Lulu Gargiulo as bassist and guitarist for a side project he was planning. At first, Bloch wrote the songs and played drums himself, but he switched to guitar and made a 15-year-old neighbor boy play drums. The neighbor, Duff McKagan, eventually moved to L.A. and joined a band called Guns N’ Roses; since then, the Fastbacks have, like Spinal Tap, been through about 15 drummers. (Happily, their current one, Mike Musburger, has been with them since 1992.)
Musically speaking, the Fastbacks have been remarkably consistent over the years. The band’s first EP, 1982’s The Fastbacks Play Five of Their Favorites, included the spectacularly sweet, shoulda-been-a-hit single “In America,” but the timing wasn’t right — that Thompson Twins–riddled era wasn’t ready for an unpretentious, punky band with two girls and two guys. And though they’re a decidedly lo-fi outfit with a penchant for MC5 covers and drunkenness onstage, their own songs have a raucous pop innocence that has little in common with the grunge or punk sensibility.
Instead, songs like “Gone to the Moon” from Zücker, “In the Observatory” from Answer the Phone, Dummy and “Just Say” from New Mansions in Sound are like the Ramones meet the Shirelles, with a touch of the Left Banke thrown in for good measure. Bloch is an extraordinarily musical songwriter whose work combines utter simplicity of thought with complex tunes. In fact, his songs often have so many chord changes that he’s been accused of putting the girls’ fingers on their strings for them — an allegation the girls themselves don’t mind. “I’m so glad he writes hard songs,” says Lulu. “They take forever to learn — but we’ve got forever to learn them.”
Despite the band’s lack of mainstream success, the ’80s passed fairly painlessly for the Fastbacks. In those days, the Seattle punk scene was so small that hometown triumphs — opening for the Ramones, putting out singles with cool picture sleeves — provided them with plenty of excitement. And in 1988, at just the point in their history when another band might have called it quits, Sub Pop started up and Seattle became a focal point for rock-interested youth. By 1992, clubs and patrons in Seattle had quintupled, and the Fastbacks, by then considered elder statesmen of the scene, were revered by some very powerful people.
Thus, when they were touring Europe with Pearl Jam in ’96, their instruments were borne over the Alps in Anvil cases stamped “Guns N’ Roses,” courtesy of McKagan, who still hangs out with his old band buddies. When they play in New York — once a decade — they stay at Yoko Ono’s flat, thanks to a fan named Sean Lennon. And one even bigger fan, Eddie Vedder, has put his money where his mouth is. Besides singing their praises, letting them play on his radio show and lending vocals to their last album, in 1996 Vedder brought them on a worldwide tour with Pearl Jam, where they enjoyed stops in cities such as Warsaw, Paris, Rome and Istanbul.
Unfortunately, Vedder’s championship of the Fastbacks has not brought them the same level of attention that Kurt Cobain snagged for his friends Shonen Knife, the Melvins and the Raincoats. Rather, the band has eked out six records on various independent labels, played a lot of gigs up and down the West Coast, and, most important, got on with their own lives.
That doesn’t mean the Fastbacks don’t have hopes of succeeding commercially. “I think,” says Lulu, “some things skip generations. You know — taste in furniture, baldness. People in their 20s aren’t into the Fastbacks, but people from age 10 to 20 are. And then, of course, there’s the people our age . . .”
Unfortunately for the interests of social science, however, when asked how on earth they accomplished their longevity, the Fastbacks draw a collective blank. “I don’t know,” Kim yawns. “It’s like Kurt says — you can’t really quit this band. It’s fun to put out records and play sometimes. That’s it — it’s still fun.”
The Fastbacks appear at the El Rey Theater on February 2 as part of the Poptopia Festival.