By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — The psychedelic funk counterpart of celebrated Grammy Award winning Latin groove ensemble Groupo Fantasma, Austin, TX-based band Brownout has been cultivating a reputation for both fiery live performances and the gritty funk sounds heard on such releases as Homenaje and Aguilas and Cobras that mix heavily fuzzed-out guitars with percolating percussion and intricate horn work reminiscent of ’70s heroes like Mandrill and War.
During a residency at an Austin club, Brownout decided to dedicate certain nights to covering the material of specific artists including a rendition of James Brown’s classic blaxploitation soundtrack “Black Caesar” and an evening dedicated to the music of heavy metal godfathers Black Sabbath. The crowd response and the musicians’ enjoyment in recasting iconic riff-based songs like “Iron Man” and “The Wizard” with multiple percussionists and heavy horn arrangements (put together by trombone player Mark “Speedy” Gonzales) led to the recording of 2014’s surprise hit collection Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath.
Bringing on guest vocalist Alex Maas ( a member of Austin-based psych group the Black Angels) in addition to longtime Brownout percussionist Alex Marrero who sang a bulk of the tunes, the recording offered some of the most inventive versions of songs from the Black Sabbath cannon ever heard, with the dreamy psych tune “Planet Caravan” morphed into a smoldering Fela Kuti-styled Afrobeat jam and “Iron Man” transformed into swinging, horn-fueled instrumental track. The album still gave plenty of room for guitarists Beto Martinez and Adrian Quesada to show of their riffs and ended up on numerous “Best of” lists for 2014 as Brown Sabbath played to enthusiastic crowds across the country.
Brown Sabbath would go on hiatus for a time as Grupo Fantasma reconvened in 2016 to tour in support of that band’s celebrated release Problemas. But late last October the ensemble issued it’s highly anticipated sophomore collection of revamped metal classics, Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath, Vol. II on Ubiquity Records. The album includes dramatically reconfigured takes of such essential tracks as the Paranoid closer “Fairies Wear Boots” and Vol. 4 hits “Snowblind” and “Supernaut.”
While Brownout appeared to be ready to move on to releasing more original material last year with its Over the Covers EP, instead the band announced that it would be teaming up with noted hip-hop imprint Fat Beats to issue Fear of a Brown Planet, an instrumental tribute to the groundbreaking production of the Bomb Squad, the team that crafted the dense polyphonic beats behind Public Enemy’s classic golden era recordings from the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Offering up hard-grooving interpretations of indelible tracks like “Fight the Power,” “Welcome to the Terrordome” and “My Uzi Weighs a Ton,” the recently released collection demonstrates exactly how versatile of an ensemble Brownout has become with the deftly executed takes on some of the Bomb Squad’s most dense and complex beat creations.
CBS SF recently spoke to guitarist Beto Martinez about making Fear of a Brown Planet, Brownout’s plans to retire its popular Brown Sabbath guise and plans for new original material. The talk happened just ahead of a string of Bay Area concerts by the band that will showcase both the Public Enemy covers (in Santa Cruz and San Jose) and their funky, horn-powered versions of Black Sabbath’s bruising catalog (in San Francisco and Sacramento).
CBS SF: Your EP from last year Over the Covers suggested that the band would be taking a break from reinterpreting the music of other acts, but a year later you’ve got Fear of a Brown Planet. How did you end up doing this project?
Beto Martinez: We were actually approached by the record label Fat Beats at a Brown Sabbath show in LA last year in January of 2017. We were doing what was going to be our last Brown Sabbath tour and we were about to release our EP, Over the Covers. For all intents and purpose we were over playing the covers at that point [laughs].
And we got approached at that show by Joe of Fat Beats, and he was like, ‘Look, I’ve got this idea…” They had put out this record a few years back with El Michaels Affair where they covered Wu-Tang…
CBS SF: Yeah, I’ve got a 45 of a couple of those songs…
Beto Martinez: So we’ve always loved that stuff. So he said, “I want to do a similar project, but with Public Enemy. Are you guys interested?” And it was really just too good to pass up.We’re all huge fans and we thought it was a super cool idea.
But at the same time, we thought we were over the covers! So we thought about it for a minute, and we decided, “Nah, we gotta do this!” But since we recorded that [Fear of a Brown Planet album], we’ve been working on brand new material with Steve Berlin producing. So we’re in the process of mixing that now.
CBS SF: From what I was reading about Fear of a Brown Planet, it was a collaborative effort with Fat Beats owner Joseph Abajian, Did he just have the initial idea? It sounds like he helped come up with the song selection as well…
Beto Martinez: Exactly. We definitely collaborated on the song selection. The record was actually produced by Adrian Quesada, one of our guitar players who is one of the founders of Brownout along with myself and our bass player Greg Gonzales. But Adrian is probably by far the most ultimate fan of Public Enemy among us.. So when the project came to use, he approached us about producing it, we were like, “Yeah, you probably have the most authority.”
So we handed it over to him for production. He recorded the bulk of it — all the rhythm section stuff — at his studio. Then we came over to my studio that we have over hear outside of Austin and tracked all the horns, and then Adrian mixed it and we sent it off. But the song list did come together through sort of a back and forth with the label.
CBS SF: Most of the album concentrates on classic songs from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. There are a few tunes from before and after those two albums, but how difficult was the process of narrowing down the selection of songs?
Beto Martinez: Yeah, it was a huge list to begin with. Everybody threw out their favorite tunes, of course. I think we narrowed it down to somewhere around 16 tunes. There are actually a few that didn’t make the cut onto the record in the end, but we are performing those songs live.
CBS SF: You did a couple of special vinyl releases with the Black Sabbath songs, so maybe those songs will end up on an additional vinyl release somewhere down the line?
Beto Martinez: Yeah, potentially. That’s what we’d like to do eventually. Maybe a couple of 45s or something.We haven’t really discussed it directly with Fat Beats, but that would be super cool. Because we were really happy with all of the songs. It’s a shame the couldn’t all be on the record. “She Watch Channel Zero?!” was one of the songs…
CBS SF: That is probably the most metal Public Enemy song with the Slayer sample from “Angel of Death,” I actually saw Primus cover that way back in the ’90s…
Beto Martinez: That didn’t make the record, but we are doing that one live. It’s super fun to play live…
CBS SF: Some of those songs from Fear of a Black Planet and Nation of Millions are the most dense and complex tunes that the Bomb Squad created. Was it hard to pare them down to the elements that the band could recreate?
Beto Martinez: Yeah, we had to make choices for sure because, as you said, the Bomb Squad production was super dense and there were all these samples layered on top of each other that aren’t necessarily related to each other as far as anything musically in terms of key or anything. There are samples that are just noise, but all of them put together in a Public Enemy tune, they just add to this cacophony that makes the song and it sounds awesome.
You can’t really do that with a band. So we definitely dug in and started listening and trying to pull apart the base samples, like the bed that they were built on. And ultimately, a lot of that stuff is music that inspired Brownout to begin which is the JBs, Kool and the Gang and Mandrill…
CBS SF: I was thinking that you key in on a couple of songs that sampled Mandrill pretty heavily, which kind of brings the Latin influence that band had on PE full circle…
Beto Martinez: Exactly. So we brought it down to those elements and built our grooves on that and added on top of those. And we had to take some liberties, because we’re doing an instrumental record. So when you take out the flow — when you take out Chuck D and Flava Flav — they’re super cool grooves, but we’re also thinking about playing these things live, so sometimes we added our own elements on top of that with horns or other melodic instruments in order to keep it interesting.
CBS SF: I think one of the most dramatic reinterpretations on the album is how you approached “Welcome to the Terrordome.” That is one of the most frenetic, intense songs Public Enemy ever made. You guys start it the same way, but then you take the song into this mellower, mysterioso deconstruction. How did you arrive at that interpretation?
Beto Martinez: That was one of the tracks where we had to choose what we were going to do. One of the base samples on that song is this weird droning element that we recreated. Our good friend Shawn Lee — who’s out in the UK, this great multi-instrumentalist and musician — he played that little melody on a zither. And it just turned into this droning mysterious thing with some sample elements coming in and out. Live, we’re using some samplers as well to kind of trigger some of those noises and kind of give it that live, more frenetic vibe. But ultimately, the studio version focused more on that drone.
CBS SF: That brings up something else I’ve been wondering. Given how much turntables and synthesizers were incorporated in the recording of Fear of a Brown Planet, are you going to be augmenting the usual instrumentation of the band so you can play those songs?
Beto Martinez: We’ve got our really good friend freak genius composer Peter Stopschinski, who is going to be playing synth and keyboards with us. So he’s not usually in the band, but we’re bringing him and he’s covering all the synth parts. And then both our drummer John Speice and our percussionist/vocalist Alex Marrero, who is the singer in Brown Sabbath, are going to have samplers. While we’re not basing anything completely around the sampler elements, we are throwing them in there as part of the live performance. We want to recreate as best we can that sort of cacophony that is part of these Public Enemy beats. So the band will be playing and we’re going to throw in those elements, you know what I mean?
CBS SF: There are a couple of projects that the Public Enemy tribute reminded me of in terms of live bands recreating sample-based or DJ music. One is this LA band led by Miles Tackett called the Breakestra that recreated classic hip-hop breaks megamix style live onstage. The other was a group that Kid Koala put together called the Slew. That one featured Kid Koala and Dynamite D mixing and scratching backed by the former rhythm section from Wolfmother. Kid Koala described the aim of his project to me as “What if the Bomb Squad produced a Black Sabbath album?” Which is funny considering the two covers projects Brownout has done. Were you familiar with either of those acts and did they have any influence on the making Fear of a Brown Planet?
Beto Martinez: We definitely were familiar with the Breakestra and have crossed paths with them back in the day when Brownout first started touring in LA. We didn’t necessarily draw from their interpretations, but I think in general, we were probably trying to do similar things in terms of trying to get a band to play hip hop. There are some great examples like these two that you mentioned as well as the whole project being pitched to us in light of the El Michaels Affair Wu-Tang album. We’d jammed that album for years. All that stuff I’m sure was there, whether directly or indirectly. Those are all great examples on how to do it and I’m sure we’ve drawn from them doing this.
CBS SF: These upcoming tour stops are being billed two different ways: as either Brown Sabbath shows or Fear of a Brown Planet shows. Does that mean that the Brown Sabbath shows probably won’t feature material from the new album? Because if that’s the case, I’m going to have to go all the way to San Jose or Santa Cruz to catch the Public Enemy songs too. Or will you be mixing it up with songs from both cover projects?
Beto Martinez: It’s a little bit of a hybrid tour in that sense. To be honest, it comes out to economics as to how those markets ended up being booked. San Francisco is in fact a Brown Sabbath show. We may throw in some of this stuff. We’ll see how it’s going. The San Jose show will be a Fear of a Brown Planet show.
We’ve been discussing how to do this exactly, but for those shows, we’re probably going to be coming out and doing some Brownout material and work our way up to the full set of Brown Planet. So that’s how those shows will probably be. The Brown Sabbath shows will be likely almost entirely Brown Sabbath.
CBS SF: Alright, well it looks like I’ll be heading to the South Bay then, because I need to see the Brown Planet songs. I imagine with another album of Brownout originals already essentially done, I might not get another chance. It also sounds like this might pretty much be the last chance people have to see Brown Sabbath…
Beto Martinez: It could very well be. We’re trying to sort of keep it aside as something we keep in our pocket to do every now and then. But we did tour Brown Sabbath for three years and put out two albums, so we’re kind of ready to move on from that project. Like I said, it’s just the way this tour came together when we started booking dates. The economics of touring with a giant band can be kind of difficult. So partially, getting Brownout back out on the road, because we’ve been touring as Brown Sabbath, it just turned out that a few markets like San Francisco and Seattle had a really big demand for the Brown Sabbath show, so that’s how they were booked.
CBS SF: So what’s the timetable for the next new Brownout album of your own songs?
Beto Martinez: So we’re mixing right now. As we speak, there are emails going back and forth [laughs]. So we recorded that starting in summer of last year and pretty much wrapped it up with some sessions during South By Southwest in March when Steve Berlin was down in Austin. So tracking is completely done and we’re just mixing. We’re hoping for a spring or summer release next year.
CBS SF: Do you imagine you’ll be mixing in some of the Fear of a Brown Planet songs or maybe even the odd Brown Sabbath song in future tours?
Yeah, definitely. I think it’s all going to become part of the repertoire. The Sabbath stuff became so engrossing and became such a show in itself that it’s like, we can still throw some of that in, but it became it’s own beast. The Public Enemy thing is way more in the vein of what Brownout is, so I think it will be much more easily mixed.
Brownout plays music from Fear of a Brown Planet on Wednesday, June 20, at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz and Thursday, June 21, at the Ritz in San Jose before performing two Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath shows Friday, June 22 at Slim’s in San Francisco and Saturday, June 23 at Holy Diver in Sacramento.