By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — One of the leading lights of the fertile Austin, Texas music scene, Grupo Fantasma has been crafting it’s eclectic mix of Latin music styles since the turn of the millennium. The band first came together in 1999 when two established acts — The Blimp and The Blue Noise Band — merged and established themselves as a fiery cumbia band in the basement of Austin restaurant the Empanada Parlour.
By 2002, Grupo Fantasma was well on its way to building a reputation as a powerhouse live act that deftly combined traditional Latin forms with blazing guitar rock and the horn-fueled funk sound of Earth Wind & Fire and Tower of Power. A string of independently produced albums further spread the word of the outfit’s prowess. Later in the decade, funk legend Prince would enlist the band as his backing group for residencies in Las Vegas and London as well as several high-profile live appearances including parties for the Golden Globes and the Super Bowl in 2007 and his headlining appearance at Coachella in 2008.
The group became a regular featured act at such diverse music festivals as their hometown’s Austin City Limits Festival as well as the Montreal Jazz Festival, Bonnaroo and Wakarusa, while their 2008 album Sonidos Gold garnered the band a Grammy nomination. Two year’s later, their follow-up effort El Existential would win the Grammy for Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album.
The band had gone on something of a hiatus in 2013, with members focusing on their other projects such as the like-minded Latin funk/rock group Brownout and that band’s popular cover project, Brown Sabbath.CBS SF recently caught up with Grupo Fantasma and Brownout/Brown Sabbath guitarist Beto Martinez to talk about Grupo’s latest effort Problemas and plans for his other groups ahead of Grupo Fantasma’s show in Santa Cruz at Moe’s Alley Saturday night.
CBS SF: Groupo Fantasma put out an album every couple of years steadily through the 2000s, but there was a six-year break between your last record and Problemas. Was that just a function of members being busy working on other projects?
Beto Martinez: Yeah, it was a bunch of things coming together that set up that delay. We actually finished that record in 2013. The last Fantasma release had been in 2010, so we were sort of set to release Problemas in somewhat the same timeline that we had been up to that point. What happened was when we finished the record in January and we approached our record label — who had been super supportive and as far as we knew was going to put this out, this was Nat Geo — they told us out of the blue, “Oh. We’re shutting down.”
So we were kind of left holding the ball. We had invested a considerable sum, especially for these days, into that record. We’d kind of gone all out. Our last two records had been Grammy nominated; we’d won a Grammy for our last one, Existential. So we really wanted to present our best material. We got Steve Berlin from Los Lobos to produce it. He was our first outside producer. We went to a nice studio and took our time. But anyway, the label goes under and we’re left with that record and a considerable amount of debt.
So at that point we started looking around for partners. We were looking for a summer 2013 release but nobody was really ready to put anything out on that timeline. We didn’t want to rush it because we felt it was a great record and we wanted to give the record the best opportunity to do well, so we sort of decided to hold onto it.
About six months later, there was a kind of a shakeup in the whole construction of the group. That’s when Adrian Quesada, the guitar player and one of the producers of the band and family member, decided to leave. And at the same time, we parted ways with our management. So there was kind of a big upheaval in the Fantasma world right around that time.
And then, in September 2013, was when we did the residency with Brownout that birthed Brown Sabbath. We did that as a fluke, just as one show. It was a theme of one of the nights of the residency and it did really well. We were almost immediately contacted by a record label who wanted to put an album out. We found ourselves for pretty much the whole next year — 2014 — touring that record. So Fantasma kind of went to the back burner.
Really, it was the first time that had happened in 12 or 13 years, so we weren’t completely freaked out about it. We just said, “OK, maybe we just give it a bit of time and find a partner for the record.” We had the Brown Sabbath thing going, so we were still working. Then it just sort of rolled like that until early or mid 2015, when we finally found a partner in Blue Corn Records to actually put out the Fantasma record.
CBS SF: I didn’t realize it was such a long struggle to get Problemas out…
Beto Martinez: Yeah, it was a first for us, to be in that position. We had been on a roll and had been super busy, so it was the first speed bump that we hit as a band.
CBS SF: There was something about the new album that reminded me of more recent Los Lobos records beyond the stylistic similarities. It kind of had their sonic stamp, so I wasn’t too surprised to learn the band’s saxophonist/keyboard player Steve Berlin had produced. What was your experience working with him and how much input did he have?
Beto Martinez: He didn’t explicitly write anything, but the working relationship was great. Like I said, it was a new experience for us. We had self-produced all of our records at that point. Adrian Quesada had taken the lead on the last two records and had been the producer on those with the band co-producing, but really it had been an in-house effort.
When we reached out to Steve, we wanted to do something different. We didn’t want to make the same record again. We wanted somebody to push us and kind of take us out of our comfort zone a bit. Once he decided that he wanted to do it — and he was really enthusiastic about it; he said he was a fan of the band, which we were happy to hear — the process essentially was we sent him a bunch of demos, like a huge list of songs. And he went through and chose the ones that he thought were best for the record, and we went into the studio with that batch.
There was one song in particular, “Solo un Sueño,” which is the biggest departure for us, stylistically. It’s difficult to put it into one genre. It’s got a lot of influences. That was one of my tunes. He actually played a big role in how that song turned out. We started playing it a certain way and he had some pretty bold suggestions on switching around sections that at first were kind of weird to us.
We weren’t sure whether we liked what was happening, but we had all gone into it with the idea that we were going to be open minded and allow somebody to actually tell us what to do in certain instances. That’s what we wanted out of him, so we took his suggestions and I think it came out pretty well. He sort of shaped that song.
He had a lot to do with the sound of the record as well. He definitely has great ears. He had a lot to do with the guitar tones and horn sounds and room sounds. I think he played keys on a couple of tunes as well, so he did add his flavor besides the production. But it was a great experience. We walked away from it happy. It was a privilege to have worked with him.
CBS SF: Was he someone who immediately came to mind as a possible outside producer, or did you have other candidates you were considering?
Beto Martinez: We had a pretty short list. I think probably the first person we reached out to — which sort of was a long shot — was Ry Cooder. There was some communication with him, but I think ultimately it was more of a financial thing. He was aware of the band, but not as aware as Steve.
So once we spoke with Steve and he was like, “Yes, I know you guys. I love your music. I’d love to work with you. I think you fill this very particular role in Latin music.” So he got it right away and we got that from him right away. Like, “Yes! This is the guy. He knows what we want to do and he’s got a vision for it and he knows the band.” So it was pretty quick from there.
CBS SF: How did you come up with the Spanish cover of “Because” by the Beatles?
Beto Martinez: That sort of came up further along in the process. Actually, our singer Kino Esparza came up with it. He’s a good deal younger than most of us and, surprisingly, he was not very familiar with the Beatles [laughs]. He was not familiar with this work that pretty much everyone else on Earth was familiar with. So we played him some stuff and he was super impressed by it.
He’s a mariachi singer by training. That’s his background. So when he heard it, he was super impressed and went home and demo’d it out with him singing all the voices and brought that in the next day. He showed it to Steve and to a couple of the guys and everybody was blown away. And Steve was like, “Let’s do this! Let’s put this down.”
So it just worked out. John [Speice], the drummer, had a really cool take on the percussion aspect and did this sort of psychedelic bolero thing. That and Kino’s mariachi approach to it brought it all together. We were all super excited about it.
CBS SF: When you’re coming up with material for an album, do you have an idea of which Latin forms you want to include beforehand, or does that just develop during the songwriting process?
Beto Martinez: Yeah, it’s more about getting the best material together. We tend to work a lot with cumbia. That’s the heart of the band and how the band started. We started as a cumbia band essentially and then branched out from there. A few members came in and we sort of started experimenting with other styles of Latin music.
But really I think this album is pretty diverse. We’ve talked about going back and doing a cumbia record, but for this one in particular it was just the songs that worked; the songs that felt most complete and the ones that impressed Steve I guess enough to want to put them in there. Because he kind of whittled down that list. He put that together.
CBS SF: If you don’t mind, I wanted to talk a little bit about Prince’s passing last April. I know Grupo had a pretty close association with him. How did you learn the news and are there any memories of your time working with him that stand out?
Beto Martinez: We were in Pakistan of all places. We had gone out there in April with Grupo Fantasma to do some shows that were affiliated with the State Department. There was a music festival in Islamabad. We were out there for two weeks. The jet lag is pretty intense — it’s an 11-hour time difference or something — and I was often up really late into the morning.
So it was 3 a.m. in the morning in Pakistan. I had decided to try and get some sleep and had my room all blacked out and my phone started dinging. I blew it off at first. I thought, “I’m going to get some sleep. I’m not even going to look at it.” But it just kept going and going.
And then I thought maybe something had happened back home; maybe it’s my wife or something. So I grabbed the phone and I see a bunch of text messages. Since it wasn’t 100 percent confirmed, most of them said they’re saying Prince died. So I called my wife and she said, “Yeah, there are all these reports that they found him at his house.”
Needless to say, I was shocked. And then especially once they started saying the reason for the cause of death, I was pretty shocked. All of us were. Working with Prince, drugs and alcohol weren’t part of the equation. We already knew — not just for him, but for the rest of the band and the people he associated with — it just wasn’t around. You weren’t allowed to drink alcohol backstage or anything like that.
So it just seemed super farfetched. But obviously the man had chronic pain and that played the biggest role in his unfortunate death. So we were shocked. We all woke up a few hours later to go do an interview on Pakistani television and everybody just filed down into the lobby and just looked at each other like, “Holy s–t!” Not really quite sure how to react.
Then all this media started hitting us up, from Austin especially. And Adrian, who had left the band in 2013, was here in Austin and since he was in the band during the Prince association, he got the brunt of that. The media was kind of insane. They were calling him all the time and trying to get quotes and they went to his daughter’s school. So that was kind of crazy.
I think we did make a statement. We really wanted it to focus on the musical collaboration. Because obviously when a celebrity like this dies, especially under these kinds of circumstances, people want to draw all sorts of conclusions. They want to concentrate on how he died, not really how he lived, so we wanted to put out there what our experience with him was.
And that was that he took us as a band — I’d like to think that we were a good band, but maybe not a great band at that point — and he gave us a huge opportunity and put a lot of faith into us to be able to perform and execute in these huge situations. Like at O2 Arena in London in front of 20,000 people or at a private party for every A-list celebrity that you can think of. And he gave us free reign. He had a lot of faith in us and that gave us tremendous validation as artists and musicians.
The rehearsal situations that we had with him were marathon, 8-to-10 hour, nonstop rehearsals. It was all about music and it was just great learning from the master; getting tips and learning about showmanship and professionalism and all about the funk. And we’ll always be grateful for that.
Really, I don’t know if there was any one particular moment that I remember. There were a couple of times when I had personal, one-on-one interactions with him. One of those happened in London after this amazing show we did with him. I spoke to him a little bit about recording music and basically he told me, “You guys need to record a hit.” And I said, “Well, you’re the man who knows how to make hits. What do we do?” And he said, “One hit is easy. You guys can make ten.”
And I’ll always remember that. He had that much faith in our music and obviously we respected everything he said. It was an amazing time and an amazing experience. I always had in the back of my head that it might happen again. He was the type of genius who would do something for a while and then move on. He was always growing and always changing.
So I realized when we stopped playing with him, “OK, he’s moved on to something else.” But I always had a hope that he would come back to us at some point he’d be like, “Grupo, you want to jam?” And unfortunately that can’t happen now. But we have those memories and obviously his musical legacy lives on.
CBS SF: I just recently got an email that had the link to the Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath Vol. II that comes out on Ubiquity Records next month and it sounds great! I’ve seen you guys a few times and you’re pretty much my favorite Sabbath cover band ever. I was wondering how you settled on the songs you did for the second collection?
Beto Martinez: For this album, part of it was sort of the rest of the live set. All of the songs that we picked were the Sabbath songs that we loved and always wanted to play. So probably half of the album was songs that we had already been playing live and the rest of it was songs we chose specifically for the record that were maybe a little more ambitious.
We started moving into some of the more epic songs from Masters of Reality and the mid-70s Sabbath albums. We just filled it out with those choices. We got a couple more guest singers on there. We got Aaron Behrens from Ghostland Observatory to do a couple of tunes. That’s going to be out in late October, so we’re definitely gearing up for that.
CBS SF: I really enjoyed seeing you live in the past. I’m figuring there will be some tour dates in the coming year to promote it?
Beto Martinez: Yeah, we were just discussing that to see what we could do immediately. We’re going to have a big release show here in Austin and we were talking about maybe doing something that may still come together. But it will more likely be January with a big tour in the spring.