From rocking lo-fi cumbia in an Empanada Parlour at the millennium to snagging a Grammy for 2011’s El Existential, the 15-year run of Grupo Fantasma triumphs. Their blaze of salsa, merengue, funk, rock, and pop has matured into vital U.S. Latinate. Friday at Mohawk, Grupo’s quinceañera also christens new LP Problemas, produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin.
Austin Chronicle: You mentioned that the title of the new album – your fifth studio disc and sixth overall – stems from the trials and tribulations the band has been through over the past few years. What sort of issues are we talking about?
Beto Martinez [guitarist]: We actually finished this record in January 2013. It was supposed to come out that year, but our record label ended up going under and we got stuck trying to find someone to put it out. We wanted to do it justice because we got Steve Berlin on it and we thought it was one of our best best efforts. We didn’t want to do a half-ass release. We really felt we were at this great place: post-Grammy win, second nomination, and we’d already done the Prince thing. We really felt like all we had to do was maintain – make this record and rock it out.
Then things started to go a little bit wrong. Shit started happening. Some of it blindsided us, some of it didn’t.
Right when we won the Grammy, which should’ve been the highlight of our careers, we had to part ways with our longtime drummer, which was not a pleasant situation. We had tours lined up and we found ourselves in this crazy spot like, “Holy shit, what do we do now?” We actually did a couple of shows in the immediate aftermath without a drummer. Luckily we have timbales, we have congas. We were able to get by, but it wasn’t the same.
We had John Spiece waiting in the wings, who at the time was playing percussion with [Grupo offshoot] Brownout. We had to do a lot of convincing with John. He jumped into the Brownout chair right away, which was awesome. Then we were like, “Dude, come along with Fantasma.” It took a minute, but he finally agreed to do it.
We did heavy touring in 2012. We were in Europe six weeks. When we got back, we said it’s time to do this record. So we went into the studio and searched for producers. We talked to a bunch of people. We talked to Ry Cooder at one point, but Steve really fit into the whole thing. Not only was he aware of the band, but he really respected what we did, had some good ideas, and was excited to work with us.
So we were super excited for this to come out in 2013. It was gonna be our next big year. Come to find out in January as everything is getting wrapped up and we were getting ready to turn the album in, the label [Nat Geo] was like, “We’re shutting down.” It really blindsided us. We wanted to have it out that summer, so we were scrambling.
We hit a bunch of labels up. I hope this doesn’t come off as pretentious, but we hit a bunch of walls and we weren’t really used to that. Up until then, things had moved forward for us and all of a sudden we were getting a bunch of no’s.
Everyone relied on this to make a living. This is what we did 100 percent of the time. We were touring at that point 150 days a year. Without a record, we were three years out from the last one, kind of in limbo. That translated to booking and things starting to slow down because we didn’t have anything new. We were touring so hard that we’d hit every festival and venue that you could. Coming back around, people asked if we had something new and we didn’t.
At the same time, Adrian [Quesada, guitarist] decided he was going to leave the band. It wasn’t a total shock. As you know, he does a lot of producing and that’s where his heart was at. He wanted to work in the studio more.
For the first time ever in the 14-year history of the band, we had like seven gigs that year. People started questioning what we were doing. “What should we do with this record? Should we give it away?” What really saved us was at the end of 2013 we did that Brown Sabbath show and that turned into a blessing for us. It introduced us to our new management, it got us a record label, and got us working for all of 2014 until we were able to regroup with Fantasma. Luckily we found a partner this year to put the record out. It was a huge wake-up for us.
The album wasn’t going to be called Problemas. Originally, it had a different name. When we finally got around to this after those couple of years of being lost in the desert we said, “What are we gonna call this thing? You know, let’s call it Problemas.” We’ve gotten over all these damn problemas. We’re finally getting this out and feel like we can move forward.
AC: A couple of the Grupo guys – Kino [Rodriguez] and Jose [Galeano] – aren’t in Brownout. Were they in a bind when Brown Sabbath took off more than expected?
BM: Definitely. Jose went back to teaching and taking other gigs. Kino recently started working for a school up in Round Rock. Yeah, it was hard on those two guys especially. They were waiting to see what was going to happen. Greg [Gonzalez, bassist] and I found ourselves having to keep the morale up and convince people that it’s not over. We’ve put in this much work, just give it a bit more time. When we finally got new management and booking, we started to see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, but at that point we had had almost two years of reduced gigging and going on five years without a new record.
It was really hard to get things moving again. It wasn’t until this year that we got approached by Blue Corn and got a partner for the record. We’re still getting the wheels rolling, but, yeah, those guys didn’t have Brown Sabbath, so they had to find different avenues. After 10 years of doing this one thing it gets a little difficult to work your way back into these things.
AC: So the band had a lot of momentum in 2011, especially with the Grammy win for El Existential. Did you feel pressure following that up?
BM: There was definitely pressure. We felt we had to make a great record. We went for the outside producer thing. For the previous record, El Existential, we had rented a house and we built a studio ourselves. Adrian produced it, and we all worked on it. It was an awesome experience. We thought about doing the same thing, but decided to change it up.
The only thing we hadn’t done at that point was to have a total outside producer come in, not like a friend of ours. It worked really well and we felt like we got what we wanted out of the record. It took a lot to step back and trust Steve to do his thing, but ultimately the process worked out well and we felt like it’s a valid follow-up.
AC: How did working with Steve change the recording or creative process?
BM: Myself and a couple other guys had some demos that were nowhere near done that were just grooves and skeletons of songs that we handed over to Steve. We gave him a bunch of music – demos and live recordings – and he went through it and whittled down what he thought worked. Once he chose the songs, we worked on building them. There’s one song in particular called “Solo Un Sueño,” which is one of my tunes, where we spent an entire day working on that song. Steve came in and changed it all around.
I had to step back and trust him and say, “He’s got experience and this is why we hired him.” Ultimately it came together and he has a great ear for it, but it was very different than what we did in the past. Usually whoever wrote the song would give production ideas and Adrian would have a final say or serve as a tiebreaker.
AC: You mentioned Brown Sabbath and there are a few spots on Problemas where I can hear those heavy metal guitars – on “Esa Negra,” for example. And there are a couple of chicha tunes as well, so I note some Money Chicha in there as well. How much does one project bleed into the next?
BM: What separates Fantasma from the other two bands is having those vocals. It’s a different writing process. You’re writing with the idea that you’re going to have a singer on there. With Money Chicha, there are no vocals. With Brownout, there are minimal vocals, but they’re secondary to the groove. We come up with everything else first and then put vocals on top.
With Fantasma, it’s writing with the vocals in mind. As a guitar player, the Money Chicha stuff is a really distinct style and I end up concentrating on that and playing to that music. But it does ultimately work its way into the Fantasma material. It’s like a vocabulary and when I’m speaking that language and I’m playing with Fantasma, there’s no way that’s not going to jump into what we’re doing.
For example “Nada,” which is one of my tunes, was definitely written with a chicha thing in mind. It might be a little subtle on that one, because it has a huge horn arrangement. It’s more evident on “Otoño,” one of Greg’s tunes, which is totally a chicha-style thing. And the whole metal thing has always been there.
When I started playing guitar, I wanted to be in Metallica. That was my whole thing. From when we first started playing in his garage, metal has always been an underlying thing for both Greg and I. Then we discovered funk somewhere along the way.
AC: On the new disc, there’s cumbia. Y’all always played cumbia. And there’s descarga, plus some really funky boogaloo. Is there anything you feel is new territory that you haven’t done in the past?
BM: Yeah, definitely “Solo Un Sueño.” That was the goal of that song. Jose [Galeano] wrote the lyrics for that and the vocal melodies, and I wrote most of the music. Speedy [Gonzales], our trombone player, did the horn arrangements. I was listening to a bunch of Ethiopian stuff and Malian guitar. We built off of that and there are some Eastern motifs on it. Rhythmically, melodically, and thematically it’s one of the most different things that we’ve done.
AC: There’s a cover of the Beatles’ “Because” on the new album. It sounds very natural as a Spanish ballad with lots of layered vocals and harmonies. How did that song come about?
BM: Kino is the youngest member of the band. He’s five to 10 years younger than most guys in the band. We’ve always joked with him because he came up in a different generation of music. A lot of the classic rock, metal, and Seventies funk bands that we all know he has no clue about. He might be pissed that I said this, but he came up liking boy bands. He’s often clueless with a lot of the stuff we’re listening to, so we’re often turning him onto stuff for the first time. One of those things was the Beatles.
He was aware of the Beatles, but had never really delved into the catalog. We were listening to this just on a drive and he was super impressed by it. He’s a great singer and came up as a mariachi guy. He decided to demo the track just as an exercise to work on harmonies. He brought it to us when we were in the studio and it sounded great. We said, “Let’s do it.”
There are actually a bunch of Beatles covers done in Spanish, but mostly back in the Seventies and they’re pretty obscure. Nothing quite like what we did. That was totally Kino getting blown away by the Beatles and getting inspired.
AC: The press release for the album describes Grupo as having nine official members and many guests and unofficial members. You guys are like Wu-Tang!
BM: We’ve always felt – since we started backing up GZA – that we were like auxiliary Wu-Tang members. We bestowed that upon ourselves. But yeah, it’s a bunch of personalities, a bunch of characters. There are some core dudes and other people in the orbit. We haven’t all gone out and done our solo albums yet, but Wu-Tang has been an inspiration since the beginning of the band. Adrian and Greg came into the band as huge hip-hop heads, so it’s always been there.
AC: You mentioned backing GZA but nothing has been talked about more than your playing with Prince. For a while it seemed like that’s all anybody wrote about you guys. Did that ever get annoying?
BM: For sure. Some interviewers won’t bother to research anything and say, “Oh, you’re playing with Prince.” The last association was in 2009. It definitely elevated us not only in the press, but we made our best albums after that association. The Prince thing meant a lot to us. It taught us a lot about musicianship and showmanship and work ethic, and I think it’s not a coincidence that after our first interaction we made Soñidos Gold which, in my opinion, was the first record where we finally found our sound.
Before then, we were still figuring it out. The first record was super raw, the second record was trying to be sort of trendy, but it wasn’t until after playing with Prince that we made the record we really wanted to make and walked away saying, “This is it. This is what we wanted to sound like and put out there.”
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