El Wizard Adrian Quesada's Multiplicity
Ex-Grupo Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada diversifies
Two albums dropping in a month's time while their respective bands tour simultaneously might knot up many a veteran musician, but a performer as naturally cooperative as Adrian Quesada doesn't turn away opportunity easily. That's how he found himself in this predicament – at the heart of a half-dozen groups.
"If I could make another five different records with people this year I would," he chuckles. "I like traveling, touring, and playing live, but my favorite thing in the world is to just make albums. I don't think that far ahead in terms of the touring aspect of it – probably to a fault."
When Quesada signed on with former Hacienda frontman Dante Schwebel to help demo songs, joining another band was the last thing on his planner. It only became clear when the pair teamed with My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan for a Nashville recording session. Additional studio time in Austin and Louisville yielded South of Nowhere, the debut album from Spanish Gold.
"[Initially, Schwebel] was vague with the details, but eventually said he wanted it to be more of a collaborative thing. We booked some studio time in Nashville, and we did half the record in three days. We just had a great chemistry and vibe. We joke that the rest of the record took eight months, but those first three days we were just on fire."
The soulful rock & roll venture has proved Quesada's highest-profile gig to date. The trio's gotten love from NPR to USA Today and scored a spot on The Late Show With David Letterman – a first for Quesada – where he snapped a selfie with another musical jack-of-all-trades, bandleader Paul Shaffer. The accolades are his due, but Quesada, a founding member of Austin's Latino big band Grupo Fantasma, chalks it up to genre bias.
"Playing rock & roll is a different playing field than everything I've done previously," he posits. "Look at Letterman. How many 10-piece Latin bands does he have per year and how many rock & roll bands does he have? It's an interesting study on how people react to different music. I've been in another world for the past 12 years."
South of Nowhere
South of Nowhere pivots on Quesada and Schwebel's shared hometown of Laredo. Tales of violence and running from la migra pepper the first half of the album. The title's telling.
"It's pretty easy to feel isolated down there and not connected to the rest of the world, especially in terms of music," says Quesada. "We were getting into as much music as we could, but a lot of it was just through MTV. My wife's from Austin and had been to seemingly every concert ever by the time she was in high school. The only concert we had in Laredo I can remember going to was Mellow Man Ace, who was the younger brother of one of the dudes from Cypress Hill."
Laredo sits closer to Monterrey, Mexico, than San Antonio by about 10 miles. It's a place where every border imaginable – national, cultural, verbal – is crossed almost without notice. The bridge spanning the Rio Grande serves as both conduit and metaphor.
"Boundaries didn't really exist, and the same thing happened with early Grupo Fantasma and Brownout. We didn't think it was weird to be singing in Spanish and talking in English."
Quesada's diverse musical palette owes much to his hometown realities, but like many art seekers from Laredo, he hightailed it to Austin ASAP. He walked at his high school graduation and landed in Cap City three days later.
In the Grammy-winning Latin ensemble Grupo Fantasma, Quesada spent more than a decade filling dance floors with a swirling mix of salsa and cumbia before leaving the band last year. He'd cut back on touring four years earlier thanks to his second daughter, at which point he built a studio at home and started producing more outside acts. The emergence of Spanish Gold didn't influence his decision to leave Grupo (see "Salsa, Cumbia, Merengue, Everything," June 13, 2008), but it's precisely the kind of project he can now dive into.
"We still have Brownout, so sometimes it doesn't feel like it was that big of a departure," acknowledges the guitarist, 37. "When I'm home, I still see those guys three or four days a week. It was a large part of my life. I met my wife at a Grupo show. It was special, but it was also time to move on."
One Friday night last month, Brownout celebrated the release of a new album with two sets at the Empire Control Room. After an hour of horn-fueled funk culled from three LPs, the eightpiece Grupo spin-off left the stage and 20 minutes later re-emerged dressed in black from head to toe. The next hour cascaded power chords and devil horns, aka Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath.
The release party was packed, an absolute sweatbox. Alex Marrero fronted the traditionally instrumental outfit as a compelling stand-in for Ozzy Osbourne. Missing among the 300 or so crammed inside Empire that night was Quesada, who was roughly 2,000 miles away on tour with Spanish Gold.
"It was a bummer not being there," he admits, "but the Spanish Gold tour had been under way for a while and the Brown Sabbath thing came together pretty quickly. I never want to get in the way of everybody else working. I like the idea that Brownout can be out there playing and don't have to wait for me."
South Texas grows metalheads like cactus, but Quesada isn't one of them. He crowns Beto Martinez, shredding alongside Quesada for 15 years, as the group's chief metallurgist. Bassist Greg Gonzalez and drummer John Speice IV vie for second. Quesada grew up immersed in hip-hop, so Brownout's frequent collaborations with Wu-Tang's GZA are closer to his core than the "Hand of Doom." Still, he argues that Sabbath and Santana aren't that far apart.
"We weren't sure it was going to work to take on Black Sabbath, but the minute we played 'The Wizard,' the very first song, we knew it was special. It just felt so natural. The energy reminded me of early Grupo Fantasma. That's the reaction we're getting.
"I think it would only work with Black Sabbath though, Brown Slayer wouldn't."
Quesada and his wife Celeste, an Austin maven in her own right, live in a colorful South Austin bungalow with their two daughters, three chickens, chihuahua, pair of parakeets, and recording studio.
"People associate me with doing studio work and when they show up they're like, 'Is this it?' Everyone imagines a much bigger place."
Soon it will be. Level One Studios continues its extreme makeover this summer. An exterior wall awaits demolition after which the space will double in size. At the behest of his spouse, the studio will have a separate entrance and full bathroom.
Quesada's reputation as a producer is beginning to rival his guitar work. The arid psychedelic soul of Sunshadows, the debut LP from Echocentrics and the closest endeavor Quesada has to a solo project, was cut here. Level One recently hosted producer Quantic, who'll appear on an upcoming project with Quesada's Ocote Soul Sounds, a musical partnership with Martín Perna of Antibalas.
Home's also where the guitarist crafted the instrumentals for Space Ducks, the brilliantly quirky 2012 accompaniment to Daniel Johnston's graphic novel, and co-produced the forthcoming debut from Golden Dawn Arkestra, a local Sun Ra-inspired space-jazz jamboree. Quesada played nearly every instrument on Lumen, a 2013 release by Thievery Corporation collaborator Natalia Clavier, and is currently working on her follow-up for Nacional Records.
"He has that rare gift of making everyone around him perform better," testifies Austin cottage industry David Garza, who tapped Quesada to produce his most recent album, Human Tattoo. "He's an instigator, but a gentle one. Like Duke Ellington, he has a knack for combining this element with that element or hitting the right groove. He's soul brother No. 1, and his music shows for it."
Quesada perks up at the possibility of scoring films, the next musical trick he'd like to tackle. With the Spanish Gold tour winding down and no Brownout dates on the horizon, he just might have time for it.
"Kind of freakish how the Brownout and Spanish Gold records came out within a few weeks of each other and they're both on tour," admits Quesada. "Hopefully that won't happen again, but other than being spread thin right now, I feel like I'm in a good place. I'm able to be a dad when I need to be a dad, a producer when I need to be a producer, and a husband when I need to be a husband."
One Man, Six Bands
Brownout Latin funk warriors
Spanish Gold Laredo rock & roll
Money Chicha Dirty cumbia, extra reverb
The Echocentrics Desert soul psychedelia
Ocote Soul Sounds Mystic Afro roots
Electric Peanut Butter Company Sticky trans-Atlantic grooves