For Austin nine-piece Grupo Fantasma, the road to get their newest studio album released has been a long one. Five years have passed since these masters of Latin-funk put out their acclaimed album El Existential, which won them a Grammy in 2011 under the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album category. In that time Grupo lost founding guitarist Adrian Quesada (now in Spanish Gold among other projects) and saw their members find success in side projects like Brownout – a heavier funk act that garnered attention with their take on Black Sabbath (Brown Sabbath) – and the live cumbia of Money Chicha, among other projects.
But a band that has made fans out of and even played behind legendary artists like Prince and GZA clearly needs to be making music together. Lucky for us, Grupo Fantasma are finally dropping their new album Problemas on October 30th via the Blue Corn Music label. The album was produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos and finds Grupo in prime musical shape, fusing a mélange of worldly sounds together once again to create their signature brand of Latin-funk. Even with a title that may allude to the challenges in getting the album made, Problemas is lively and danceable. A handful of the songs have been in their live repertoire for years, and the band succeeds in harnessing their live energy on the studio versions. They plan to tour behind the release, so expect to see Grupo on the road in the next few months. Today we’re excited to premiere one of the album’s tunes, “Mulato”, right here on Glide Magazine. To give us an inside look at the new album and all things Grupo Fantasma, bassist Greg Gonzalez took the time to chat.
It’s been five years since releasing an album. Was there a reason for waiting so long?
After we released El Existential we toured behind the album heavily for about a year. Once the album won a Grammy the touring picked up even more and we were out for another 12-18 months. When that started to slow down we finally had a chance to get back in the studio.
We spent 4-5 months working on it, on and off between tours. Many of the band members also spent time recording, releasing and touring in support of a Brownout album called Oozy, which we released in 2012.
When we finished the album it was early 2013 and we went to our then label NatGeo. Up until that point NatGeo had told us they would put out the album and recoup the recording expenses etc. The whole label over there was enthusiastic to work with us, they released Brownout’s Oozy album and we were the only band on their roster that had garnered a Grammy. Unfortunately, when we came to them with the finished product we were told that NatGeo music had been deactivated as a label and was no longer going to be putting out music. We were shocked, and they were also surprised.
All the label people were very apologetic. It seems the corporate entity that is NatGeo saw that music wasn’t a very profitable business and that streaming and downloading were making their marginal profits shrink drastically, so I guess they decided to cut their losses and get out of the music business. As a result we were left holding the baby, so to speak, and saddled with all the recording costs etc.
We had to deal with some really unpleasant personnel issues around this time and additionally we decided to change management and booking agents in order to shuffle the deck and do a full restructuring combined with a lot of soul-searching. Adrian Quesada, our long-time guitar player and a founding member, informed us that he was going to stop playing with the band so he could focus more time on his studio and production company. The cumulative effect was that the album had to be shelved until we could get our business straightened out.
During this period many of the band members went back to work as Brownout and released Brown Sabbath and spent most of 2014 touring in support of that album. We released the Problemas album in Japan in the meanwhile and it wasn’t until this year that we were finally able to get back around to shopping it domestically.
Fortunately, we were approached by Blue Corn Music out of Houston. We saw that they had a lot of great Texas bands on their roster and seemed highly motivated and enthusiastic to be involved with the project. We talked about it and decided that we had finally found a reliable partner to put out the record.
We could’ve released it earlier but we didn’t want to short-change the album. We all feel that we made an exceptional piece of art and the last thing we wanted to do was follow up the success of El Existential with another awesome album that would end up coming out under the radar. After all the time and money we spent and all the heart, soul, sweat and sacrifice we poured into the album, we were determined to see it through properly.
How did it change the band’s dynamic working with a producer, especially someone like Steve Berlin?
Steve Berlin was great to work with. He really admired the work we had done previously and was very willing to let us be hands-on in the process. In the past we had all worked together to create the albums, with songwriters often producing, recording and engineering their own material. We had a system where everybody contributed as much to the process as they could and everybody had a say in the mixing process with Adrian usually acting as the tiebreaker with the final say when there were differing opinions. This time the procedure was very different; it was an even more egalitarian process. Since none of us knew Steve very well at the time we all had to defer to his opinions and trust his judgment.
Fortunately, we all admired his taste, and his career is so full of great work that it was easy to trust in his experience and ear. As a horn player, the horn section was excited to work with him and as a member of Los Lobos, a band whose music we all admire and whose longevity we all aspire to emulate, we had a lot of faith in his talents.
What is the downside, if any, of being pigeonholed as “world” or “Latin” music?
The downside has to do with the fact that many people will dismiss a band with those labels without even giving it a chance. Oftentimes there are a series of assumptions that override people’s willingness to listen to music on its own merits. The fact that the lyrics might not be in English might keep some folks from enjoying a song even if the beat, the songwriting, and the performance are top notch.
It’s really unfortunate and it seems to be a bigger issue in the States than it is in Canada and/or Europe where people are more comfortable with the idea that they can appreciate music without necessarily understanding the language or the context from which it comes. Beyond that, there’s a series of expectations that some people automatically attach to “Latin” and “World” styles and if a band doesn’t match those expectations they aren’t even given a chance to demonstrate their value. All of this equates to a subtle pressure for these bands to conform to the normal expectations and to limit their creative impulses to music that fits within those expectations.
You said that after the last two albums you wanted to go in “new directions”. Can you elaborate on that?
The last two albums prior to Problemas were both great successes, garnering successive Grammy nominations and one award. While it would’ve been easy to stick with the formula that proved so successful on those albums, we’ve always felt that it was more important to push ourselves. We’ve always emulated bands with longevity and those groups have constantly been able to reinvent themselves. Bands that fail to grow inevitably break up or become irrelevant as their music becomes dated. In order to create truly compelling music, it’s important that the artist always pushes the envelope and strays from their comfort zone. It’s in this unfamiliar territory that really interesting music is created.
Has the band ever felt pressured to sing in English (at least for this album) considering you seem to play for a lot of English speaking audiences?
The band has recorded and sung in English before and we will probably continue to do some English songs in the future but we’ve never felt the need to force a song to be in English. We’ve always felt that, with very few exceptions, Latin or Latin influenced music generally doesn’t sound right in English.
Given that you won a Grammy for your last release, does that add any kind of weight to this recording?
I’d like to think so. Hopefully that will make people feel more compelled to pay closer attention to this album.
With such a big band, can you give some insight on how the writing process works and how the band builds songs?
There are several songwriters in this band and each one has their own process for writing. Some people create demos where they record all the instruments or sequence everything using software like Logic, Reason or ProTools. Other people will get together with an arranger to write out all the parts for each player. Yet other songs start as ideas formulated in rehearsal or in the studio then contributed to, reworked and reassembled by the whole group. Jose [Galeano] and Kino [Esparza], our singers, generally write all the lyrics for the songs and our trombone player, Mark Gonzales, does the final arrangements; either taking someone else’s arrangement and adjusting it to fit our horn section or creating his own parts from scratch. Everyone has some freedom to interpret the songs in their own way and we often end up changing forms, keys, structures and rhythms until a song feels complete.
For a band celebrating 15 years, it seems odd to call your album Problemas. Can you talk about the meaning behind this name?
Originally the album was going to be called either Otoño or Nada y Mas based upon titles of songs on the album. Once we started to encounter all the issues we did in getting the album out and dealing with all the other situations that delayed its release etc., we decided that another song title on the album, “Problemas”, seemed more appropriate.
How much do social issues play a role in the message of the songs, and is there a feeling as artists that today’s issue (race, immigration, Trump, etc.) should be brought into music or kept out?
The album has a mix of themes. There are songs about heartbreak and there are more playful songs as well as political songs. Our music has always been a mix like that. Just like life, it’s not all fun, or serious or politics. We don’t feel like any topics are forbidden but we also don’t actively try to push any agenda. More so we try and express the full range of the human experiences that we encounter.
The band has backed major acts like Prince and GZA among others. Is there an act (dead or alive) that Grupo would make the perfect backing band for?
This band is so diverse and the players so talented that we could honestly back up anybody. I, personally, would love if we could collaborate with Willie Nelson, seeing as we’re from Austin and he’s the soul of the city’s musical essence.