Getting to Austin on the Thursday of your first South by South West Festival is like parachuting into Disneyland in the middle of the Main Street Electrical Parade; you know you’ve arrived just in time for the best part, but how are you going to manage to appreciate Space Mountain, Dumbo and Kanye West before the park closes?Where to begin!? Who should I talk to first? Jiminy Cricket, where are you?
Luckily, I had Adrian Quesada, guitarist and founding member of Grupo Fantasma and mega James Brown fan to help provide me with some perspective and school me on the history of the Latin music scene that has been so essential in forming Austin’s reputation as a top-notch music city and will be a huge part of its Tommorrowland.
Grupo Fantasma is a perfect example of the kind of group that has made Austin famous. The 11-member mini orchestra, started out playing house parties about 10 years ago sold out their first ever show at Austin’s now defunct Empenada Parlour.They reached other-worldly status last year when Sir Raspberry Beret asked them to be his back-up band in Vegas . The biggest testament to their powerhouse status, however, is the fact that they’ve sold more than 200, 000 records independently – without major label backing.
Here’s their track, “El Sabio Soy Yo”
After chatting with Quesada, who recently formed a funky side project called Brownout! with several of his Grupo bandmates, and watching their set at Jovita’s, I felt ready to grab the festival by the Longhorns.
(interview and more music after the jump)
Listen to Brownout!’s “Homenaje” as you read the interview. It will be like you were right there in Texas drinking a Lone Star with us.
Chilangabacha: What’s your background?
Quesada: I was born in Laredo, Texas and grew up going back and forth across the border. My mom’s family was on the Mexican side and my dad’s family is on the U.S. side.
Chilangabacha: How much does the proximity of the border have to do with the whole local music mix in general?
Quesada: Oh, it’s huge.We were always into Cumbia, but in our formative years we were doing what most kids our age were doing which was playing in garage bands playing rock and punk and some of the guys were metal heads or hip hop heads.
As you get a little older and more mature, you start to kind of appreciate the music you grew up with. For me it was always something you heard all around you down at the border and it seemed like the music of my grandparents. It never seemed like something I’d be into until I started getting a little older and started realizing that there’s a reason that this stuff has been around for so long and it continues to be around despite trends that come and go. We just kinda thought it was our mission to really keep that alive and interpret the music in a way that was honest and natural to us.
Chilangabacha: Has there been a huge Latin influence in the music scene here in Austin for a while ?
Quesada:You know the I-35 here in Austin really kind of divides the communities. Most of the Hispanic Community is on the east side so a lot of the Tejano and that kind of stuff you’ll find on the east side and since I’ve been here I feel like I’ve seen more of it cross over to the west side and really kind of infiltrate alternative music, rock music, hip hop and stuff that I was more into. I do feel like in Austin, especially in the last 10 years I’ve seen a big rise in music with Mexican roots.
Chilangabacha: What do you think has been behind this change?
I remember early on when we started Grupo Fantasma, you know not to toot our own horn, but we were one of the first bands to take cumbia to rock clubs and punk clubs and different venues to where people were accustomed to hearing it. It wasn’t like there was anything wrong with any of the other venues, but to us it was something that kinda needed to be exposed to other people. The way we interpreted it was we came more from a rock background or punk a hip hop background so it was natural for us to take it to those kind of venues.
A little bit after we started doing that I started seeing more and more bands really kind of take that approach and really embrace that music. But then on top of that Austin is just growing as a city in the last ten years we’ve just seen an influx of people coming into town. Everybody kind of brings their own influences and especially Latinos from all over the place – especially in the U.S. – are seeing Austin as a viable place to come try out their ideas, their art and their music.
Chilangabacha: Who are your influences?
Quesada: My influences are everything from James Brown to Fania All Stars to old school hip hop to rock and roll; its all across the spectrum.
Chilangabacha: How has the Latin influenced seeped over into Austin’s main rock sound?
Quesada:In the 60s there was a big movement in San Antonio of this sort of Tex Mex rock with groups like Sir Douglas Quintet. A lot of those guys are still around. they kind of started that marriage with Tex Mex and 60’s rock. Then there are bands here that are following that kind of Latin Rock like Carlos Santana, bands like Vallejo and Del Castillo, bands like that are more like Latin influenced rock. What we’re doing is keeping that little mini orchestra sound alive like from an era when it was perfectly common to see James Brown and the Fania All Stars in one night.
Chilangabacha: So, why Brownout?
Quesada I just get a million different ideas per day and I think my brain just works like that. I was already recording my own stuff and what made it come together was the fact that we started touring so much with Grupo Fantasma and I got close to getting kind of burnt out to playing practically the same songs and the same music every night.
The only way to keep my interest in Grupo Fantasma was I actually had to start doing other shit. It’s nice because I can go back and forth between the two and it kind of keeps me interested in both.
Chilangabacha: How can you describe the sound of Brownout as compared to Grupo Fantasma?
Quesada: Basically Brownout is instrumental with no vocals. When Grupo Fantasma came out we were doing things more along the lines of what Brownout does in that we tried to make instrumental music as interesting as possible without vocals. [Back then] we really concentrated on trying to play cumbia and salsa well and not going on stage like jokers. So now, Brownout’s a nice release cause it’s a little more open.
Who have you been checking out SXSW
I went to see Hacienda, a group from San Antonio four Mexican kids from San Antonio who are really into the Beatles and the Beach Boys. We’re playing every night, so I don’t really have a chance to check out a lot of other bands. (Quesada also hipped me to the DF rock group Los Fancy Free. I’ll be posting about them later.)
Chilangabacha:What do you see as the future for Latin rock?
Quesada: Its really up to the individual. I’d hate to say that there’s a path that anyone should follow cause there’s certain things that I think people do that I think keep it stale and there are certain things that people do that I think are pushing it in a new direction . I hear Latin-influenced rock that’s corny as hell, but I also hear stuff that’s really good.
Chilangabacha:How do you keepfrom getting stale?
Quesada: By playing in three different bands and trying everything until something works.