By W.C. Moriarity

Short excerpt taken from ChinMusic! #5

The Oakland A's currently have one of the youngest rosters in all of baseball, with a starting rotation that averages a mere 26 years of age. The team's also got as much of the rock and roll spirit as anyone in the league. Even their general manager, Billy Beane, is a Ramones fan. And since the defection of tattooed slugger Jason Giambi to the dreaded Yankees, 23-year-old left-hander Barry Zito has become the team's latest cover-boy. In addition to being one of the best young pitchers in the game, he's also a real music lover who likes to spend most of his down-time working on his guitar skills. And with the $18 million contract he's recently signed, he ought to be able to start his own record label before long. From the A's spring training camp in Phoenix, Zito talked with ChinMusic! about hanging out with Ben Folds and Jack McDowell, growing up on Led Zeppelin, and what Peter Gammons puts on when he's ready to rock.

CM: So lets' go back to the beginning…tell me a little bit about your family's involvement with the music business and how that affected you growing up.

BZ: Well I think when I was in the womb, I heard lots of music. And my whole life, growing up, I heard lots of music. Even though I'm more conscious of it now, when I was just a few years old, I was constantly hearing good music, not like some of the crap that's out today, stuff that was a little more musical. I've always had a good ear, because I was growing up around music. I've always been able to hear harmonies and hear melodies. Now I can hear a song on the radio and just basically learn how to play it on the guitar just from hearing it.

CM: So you're pretty much just playing by ear now. You're just hearing things and figuring it out yourself.

BZ: Yeah, and I just take that for granted. Some people hear a note and can't sing the same note. And to me it seems impossible to not be able to do that. Obviously, it's a skill and it's something that I inherited. And it's just something that a lot of people have to work on.

CM: What exactly did your Dad do in the music business?

BZ: He started out composing and arranging. He was writing a lot of stuff, but he was a conductor, and he composed and arranged for Nat King Cole. And then he did a lot of arrangements for the Buffalo Symphony, which is one of the best symphonies in the country. I think they were a 104-piece symphony, which is about as big as it gets. And he worked with a lot of people. I don't know how much work he did with guys like Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington, but I know that they were all friends and he knew all the greats and hung out with all those people.

CM: So growing up, you had quality music around you from as far back as you can remember.

BZ: Yeah, I mean I was a little too young to know a lot of those people he hung out with because I came along in '78. And that was a little beyond when he was doing all that big stuff with those people. But I grew up in Vegas until I was 7, and that's a huge music town, as far as show tunes and lounge acts and all that stuff.

CM: I guess we're lucky you're not doing a lounge act today.

BZ: Yeah, exactly!

CM: So growing up, what's the first band you remember really being into?

BZ: Well I was really into Led Zeppelin as a kid. But when I first started listening to music, I was really into hip-hop, rap, and all that stuff. Some of it's good, but some stuff is a little less than good.

CM: I imagine you've gotten away from that a little bit lately.

BZ: Yeah, I have. I mean, I'll listen to it now in a club to dance and stuff but I don't love it musically.

CM: Do you remember the first album or CD you ever bought?

BZ: It'd have to be Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin.

CM: I guess that's the first album teenagers have been buying for nearly 30 years now!

BZ: Yeah, I know. But it's such a great album. It's two CDs. "Ten Years Gone" was probably my favorite song. But once I came out of the rap thing, I really got into classic rock…Led Zeppelin, Boston, Starship, the Doobie Brothers

CM: Do you remember the first concert you ever went to?

BZ: Yeah, my sister Sally dragged me out to see Aerosmith when I was like 7 or 8. This was in the '80s, and she and her friend had their big teased hair and everything. I'm this little 8-year-old, and they dressed me up in slacks and a jacket. And they're all rockin' out…it was at the Sports Arena in San Diego, I remember that!

CM: So they were these big-haired southern California rock chicks…

BZ: Yeah, there was a big '80s thing workin' there…

CM: …and you were just an innocent little 8-year old along for the ride!

BZ: Yep!

CM: Obviously, somewhere along the line you decided that baseball was going to be your major focus even though everybody in your family had pretty much gone in a musical direction. When did you later decide that you really were interested in music too and wanted to get serious about getting into it?

BZ: Well, I played piano when I was young. When I was 12 years old, I picked up this Mozart piece and learned it from front to back just on a whim. I spent a week and learned it just because I wanted to. And I played it great! And after that, I always thought 'Okay, if I want to go that route, I can.' But I never touched the piano again. And then in 2000, during my first spring training here, I started playing guitar because I knew the road trips and all that stuff were going to get a little monotonous. So this is a nice break from all the pressure and strain of playing baseball in front of 50,000 people.

CM: And it gives you something constructive to do with all that free time.

BZ: Yeah, instead of just sitting around playing video games like a lot of people or…

CM: So have you been writing or playing live much lately?

BZ: No, I just played that one show you saw with my sister Sally back in L.A. I've really been working on technique. I'm not to the point now where I can do anything I want on the guitar. I'm getting there slowly. But where I was on guitar 5 months ago compared to where I am today, it seems like it’s been two years. I mean, I've just been putting in that much work. I'm trying to learn a lot of Dave Matthews' songs, not so I can play him at parties…

CM: You mean you don't want to start your own Dave Matthews cover band?

BZ: No, it's more just to learn a lot of different skills…like playing a song in one time and singing in another, or playing something where I have to stretch six frets. I've written like 4 or 5 songs, but I haven't gotten completely involved in it because I couldn't do everything on the guitar that I'd need to do to make the most of the songs. But when I get to that point, then I'm going to get back to writing my own stuff.

CM: I guess it's like baseball. You've got to get the fundamentals down before things will work out right.

BZ: Exactly!

CM: How would you compare playing music to playing baseball?

BZ: First of all, they're both very creative in different ways. Baseball is creative, but it has a kind of structured creativity. You've got your fastball, your curveball and your changeup and that's what you work with.

CM: Your three big power chords.

BZ: Yeah, just three chords! You work on those and get those down and you're going to be good. But baseball also has another dimension to it in that I can practice and be as perfect as I can be, but I could throw a perfect pitch in a perfect spot, but if the hitter's looking for that pitch, he still might hit a home run. Whereas with music, you can practice and be 100% perfect and if you can just do that same thing out on stage, then you're going to be just fine.

CM: So I guess you've been spending a lot of time working on your guitar-playing this spring.

BZ: Yeah, I've had a Taylor, which is just the most amazing guitar ever. Taylors are actually local…they're from San Diego. But God, those are just unreal…I'm probably going to get a lot of those in my day!

CM: So if you end up signing a lucrative contract extension, what's the first thing you're going to go out and buy?

BZ: I'll probably go out and buy an effects pedal for an acoustic guitar. I didn't even know they had those until I heard Tim Reynolds. He's got a pedal and he's making so many different sounds with an acoustic, which I never knew was possible. And then maybe eventually I'll get an electric guitar too. I've never played one, because I just like how an acoustic sounds so much.

CM: Is that it? What about having the home studio in the basement or out back?

BZ: Oh, yeah. I just got a place in San Francisco…it's only about 1,200 square feet. But eventually, when I get a bigger house down the line, I definitely want to have a studio in there. My Dad right now has a set-up in the guest house. He sits in the middle and he's got two computer screens, two big hard drives for his music, he's got the huge mixing board, he's just surrounded by modules. In there, I can do just about anything I can imagine. I mean, he can make CD quality music right there.

CM: So on the rare chance that an eligible young lady might drop into this bachelor pad of yours in San Francisco, what kind of music are you going to put on to set the mood?

BZ: Well if there happens to be a female over there, it depends. I love John Coltrane and some of the more mellow sax stuff like Stan Getz. Sometimes I put on some Carlos Jobim, which is some really cool bossa nova from Brazil. And then there's another woman from Brazil whose father played with Carlos Jobim on a lot of stuff. That's really mellow. They sing in Portuguese and it's so beautiful.

CM: So do you get the chance to go to many live shows when you're out on the road?

 

BZ: Yeah, I started making a conscious effort last year to try to see as many live bands as I could, even if they weren't that great, just to go out and get into that whole vibe. Now I'm going to be living in San Francisco, so I'm going to have the Fillmore and the Warfield and all these great places. I can't wait. Last year, I saw Jewel, I saw The Roots, Pete Yorn, and so many other people around L.A. who were just amazing.

CM: Well you've gotten to be kind of famous now, you're somewhat recognizable. It must be kind of like being a rock star, going from city to city playing all these different venues. Do you find you've got fans or groupies waiting for you when you get there?

BZ: Yeah, but not like rock stars where girls are just throwing themselves at you. Girls still play hard to get even if they're into you!

CM: So your advice to girls out there is that they really shouldn't hesitate to be a little easier.

BZ: Oh yeah, I wouldn't mind that!

CM: So is there anything else you particularly enjoy or find unique about playing baseball in Oakland?

BZ: Oh, yeah. This clubhouse is so relaxed, guys yelling across getting on each other. Our general manager Billy Beane is working out in the weight room, and you can talk about anything in here. It's just a real unique sense of unity that we have in here, which I think is not really all that apparent on a lot of teams.

CM: It's the rock & roll clubhouse…it's like one big happy fraternity. Somehow, I just can't imagine Dan Duquette hanging around working out in the weight room in Boston.

BZ: Wouldn't happen!

CM: Well Billy Beane's a big music fan. Have you ever talked to him about music?

BZ: Yeah, he actually recommended the Strokes to me, and I got into them in the off-season. They're pretty sweet. I like them. I had tickets to go see them in San Diego, but I had to fly to Alabama at the last minute. But the girl I was dating at the time went to see them, and she said the band got so wasted the night before that after the third song, the guy couldn't even sing anymore!

CM: So have you been out to any music clubs here in Phoenix during spring training?

BZ: There's a band I saw down here a couple of years ago called Guster. They're really cool…they've got acoustic guitar and bongos instead of regular drums, which is a really cool mix.

CM: Wasn't Jack McDowell playing somewhere around here recently?

BZ: Yeah, I went and saw him and Stickfigure about three weeks ago. And Peter Gammons from ESPN was there.

CM: Was he rockin'?

BZ: It was so weird to see Peter Gammons in a bar. He shows up in a pink polo shirt and khakis…and this is like a fuckin' grunge bar! And Peter Gammons is going, 'Hey, this is pretty good!' And I'm like, 'Peter, what's up with the pink polo, bro? Come on, dude, don't you have a leather jacket or something?'

 

 



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