Much like their toughest competition Lizzo, the co-founders of Texas soul-rock band Black Pumas find the “new” part of their best new artist Grammy nomination to be a bit of a misnomer.
“Some of these songs date back 10 years, and I’ve been a working musician going on 20,” mused guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada. “So it definitely doesn’t feel like an overnight success thing to us.”
Still, it’s only been two years since Quesada — an ex-member of the Prince-endorsed Latin funk-rock unit Grupo Fantasma — plucked his bandmate Eric Burton off his favorite street-busking corner (6th Street and Congress Avenue) in Austin, Texas, to start working on the songs that make up their eponymous debut album.
A fresh-sounding mashup of darkly tinted retro-soul and hazy psychedelic rock, the ambitious and lush record clearly didn’t come from a bunch of inexperienced newbies. It arrived in June with strong buzz off Austin’s South by Southwest festival before landing the Grammy nom on its way to many critics’ 2019 year-end lists.
Black Pumas are starting off 2020 strong, too. Their Raconteurs-accompanied “Austin City Limits” episode hit PBS stations this week ahead of a “Tonight Show” appearance Tuesday.
Talking by phone Monday, just hours before heading to New York, Quesada sounded equally pumped about ending the week in Minneapolis at First Avenue. He and Burton and their expanded seven-person Black Pumas lineup will headline 89.3 the Current’s birthday party Saturday, following up a sold-out 7th St. Entry gig in June.
“We all felt the history of the place just when we walked in there, me especially,” said Quesada, who has his own personal history with the club’s most famous star.
While still in Grupo Fantasma — a band he helped form after moving to Austin from the Texas border town of Laredo around the year 2000 — Quesada played a series of gigs as part of Prince’s “3121” Las Vegas residency in 2007. During that run, Prince invited the Fantasma crew to perform for his Golden Globes after-party in Los Angeles.
“We had half a day’s notice to get to L.A., and none of us really knew what to expect,” Quesada recalled.
“When we got there, we didn’t see Prince’s band anywhere in sight. And that’s when we learned: We were his band. We didn’t have any rehearsal or plan. It was so Prince. But it went great.”
On a personal level, he added, “we all got to know just how hysterical the man was. We joked around a lot in Grupo Fantasma, too, so I think he hit it off pretty well with us.”
Apparently there was a similar instant chemistry between Quesada, 43, and Burton, 30, when they first got together in 2017 as sort of a blind musical date arranged by mutual friends.
At the time, the guitarist was a few years removed from Fantasma and bouncing around between various projects. Those included his insanely fun tribute band Brown Sabbath (Latino-ized Black Sabbath tunes) and his short-lived indie-rock trio Spanish Gold with My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan.
Quesada had started demoing a series of psychedelic soul tunes and needed a capable singer to fit the mold.
“I already knew Eric was a great singer because I had looked up a couple of his songs on YouTube,” he recalled.
Once they started working together, though, he continued, “I really liked the way he played guitar. He has this very unique way of playing, and it really complemented the way he sang. As a guitar player myself, it just sort of put him over the top in my mind.”
Their album wound up being a mix of the tunes that Quesada was already working on, songs that Burton had in his back pocket and new collaborations.
The former included last year’s slowly stormy breakout single “Black Moon Rising,” which Quesada wrote the day of the solar eclipse in 2017. Burton’s contributions included the newest single “Colors,” a buoyant, Al Green-flavored soul workout with a hopeful, hippie-ish outlook.
“As soon as he played me that one, I said we had to do it,” said Quesada, who thinks Burton’s experience as a street busker — including several years in his native Santa Monica, Calif. — shows up now that he’s playing packed clubs.
“As a busker, you have to find a way to get people’s attention or you don’t get paid. He still does that. He goes from the first person to the last person in the room and engages them in one way or another. It’s kind of amazing, really.”
Just as Burton has come into his own as a frontman, Quesada said the expanded Black Pumas lineup now on tour has also grown exponentially in just a short time.
“There are a few songs we still intentionally play close to how they sound on record, but most of the arrangements now are very different,” he said. “We recorded the album before we ever played a show, so there was a lot of room to grow.”
Whether or not they win the Grammy on Jan. 26 — Quesada said he stopped making predictions the first time Grupo Fantasma lost at the Grammys (before eventually winning in 2011) — it sounds like Black Pumas still has a lot of “new” territory to explore.