The Black Pumas have been one of my favorite groups for a couple years now. I have been visiting Austin pretty regularly for the last 10 years or so. There's a reason it holds the title as the country's best live music city (sorry Nashville). It's one of my favorite cities around (Chicago, Austin, Denver, San Diego) and I've made some great friends down there. One of whom put me onto this local group Black Pumas a few years ago. It was a different sound- were they neo-soul? Jazz? Rock? A little bit of everything actually.
Seeing their rise over the past two years has been awesome. They played at the Inauguration in January and fuckin crushed it, tonight they're nominated for record of the year and best American roots performance for their track "Colors." They are also up for the coveted album of the year award for their deluxe edition album AND they will be performing live tonight.
A huge night capping off a huge year for them.
A lot of people have heard of them and are fans, but there's still a lot of people out there that haven't. So consider this a little crash course on the guys from ATX.
Rolling Stone - Black Pumas’ journey to the Grammys began with a potentially awkward phone call. In late 2017, long-standing Austin-based guitarist and producer Adrian Quesada needed a singer for some new instrumentals he’d been recording. On the recommendation of a mutual friend, he left a message for a local talent, Eric Burton, who had virtually no track record in the business.
Burton hadn’t heard of Quesada, either, and he didn’t bother to call back — until some friends clued him in to Quesada’s high-end reputation. “They said, ‘Dude, hit that guy back up,’” recalls Burton. “They kind of scoffed at me for leaving him hanging for so long.” Finally, Burton dialed the number — “I felt, ‘Hey, this could be an opportunity to make some money’” — and Quesada, who was driving at the time, answered. “He sang over the phone, and I couldn’t hear him that well,” Quesada says. “But his passion and energy were so contagious.”
sidebar - I think this is my new favorite bang origin story. It used to be how the band "Postal Service" came to be-- they used the USPS to snail mail physical recordings from each member back and forth to each other cross country to put together their first songs. Having a guy audition over the phone is as desperate as it gets. Love Adrian Quesada rolling with the claim that Burton's "passion and energy were contagious" over the phone though.
This unlikely pairing of two men 13 years apart in age, and coming from very different musical backgrounds, paid off. Growing up in Laredo, Texas, Quesada ignored his parents’ music in favor of hip-hop and hair-metal. He moved to Austin to study art in college, playing guitar in a punk-jazz act, the Blue Noise Band, before circling back to Mexican dance music from the Fifties and Sixties. Eventually, he and his group joined forces with another, more funk-oriented local band, the Blimp, to form Grupo Fantasma.
If you think the name "Grupo Fantasma" sounds familiar for some reason it's because it does. They were actually noticed by Prince and picked up to open for him and play at his club Glam Slam. They also won a freaking Grammy for Best Latin Rock, Alternative or Urban Album for their 2010 album El Existential.
(This song fucks.)
Even when he was in the band, Quesada was restless; early on, he started a harder, more metallic side project, Brownout, which released a bunch of Black Sabbath covers under the name Brown Sabbath. In the years after Grupo Fantasma’s Grammy win, Quesada reached a point where he felt he had to leave his musical mothership for good, in part due to the group’s rigorous road work.
“I was starting to have a hard time committing to that schedule,” he says. “More than that, it was just a very specific palette. It was difficult [to leave], honestly, because it had turned into a family. But I never felt like the primary songwriter or anything, and if I was going to invest that much time in anything, I want to be more directly involved. It was time.”
For another side project, Quesada joined up with My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan in the one-off band Spanish Gold in 2014. But he remained in search of an indefinable sound to call his own, and had begun working on his own instrumentals with local musicians when Burton entered the picture.
Burton’s story had started across the country, in Los Angeles. Living in a religious household with his mother in the San Fernando Valley, he heard more gospel than pop music. “I grew up kind of sheltered through the church,” he says. “As far as secular music, I just heard what was on the radio while we were doing chores.” The rare non-gospel record he remembers from that time is Pras’ 1998 hit “Ghetto Supastar”; his first CD purchase was 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’.
As part of his high school’s theater-geek crowd, Burton envisioned himself an actor, and thanks to an industry connection, he landed a bit part in the music-themed Keira Knightley/Mark Ruffalo movie Begin Again in 2013. Through that, he met former New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander, who encouraged Burton’s music side.
Remember the New Radicals?
So this guy convinced Burton to pursue music. Wild.
After a brief trip to college in Arizona, Burton wound up back in L.A, selling T-shirts while busking on the Santa Monica Pier. He and two musician friends played up and down the West Coast before driving to Austin, where Burton decided to stay.
When he first heard Burton’s name suggested as a possible collaborator, Quesada was perplexed. “I looked him up, and the first thing I thought was, ‘How have I not heard of this guy?’” says Quesada, who watched YouTube videos of Burton singing in clubs. “I pride myself on knowing. But I thought it was awesome. I love that I had no preconceived notions of this guy.”
When the two finally met at Quesada’s Austin studio, it became immediately clear that they could complement each other. Burton’s smooth but gritty voice and original songs, like his rainbow-themed “Colors”, fit alongside the tracks Quesada had already cut, which were heavy on old-school electric pianos, live drums, and Quesada’s rumbly surf guitar. Quesada enhanced the classic-soul mood by introducing his younger collaborator to vintage R&B.
Soon enough, the duo had a name, Black Pumas, inspired by Quesada’s fascination with jaguars (his studio has a jaguar logo) and a play on the Black Panthers. The moment of creative truth came on stage, when they debuted their act at an Austin club.
“I remember telling my wife not to come — give us a few weeks, because it might suck the first couple of times,” Quesada recalls. Quesada assumed Burton would be seated with his guitar, but to his — and Burton’s — surprise, the singer opted to stand up and perform, drawing on his theatrical background. “When I got to put the guitar down, I found it was very freeing,” says Burton. “It elevated what we were doing.”
“Everything I had ever seen, Eric was playing troubadour, singer-songwriter style with a guitar,” says Quesada. “I didn’t even know that he had James Brown-level frontman chops. As soon as we stepped off the stage the first time, we pulled each other aside and said, ‘There’s a spark here.’”
From there things began to take off.
They released "Black Moon Rising" on Spotify and it blew up.
They scored a record deal with with ATO Records, the label founded by Dave Matthews.
Two years ago, they scored a Best New Band award at the Austin Music Awards and released their debut, Black Pumas, a few months later.
Burton's quoted as saying “My favorite thing about what we do is that we have successfully made something that feels very familiar yet relevant and new and fresh,” and I couldn't agree more. You listen to them and it sounds like something you've heard before yet manages to be totally unique at the same time. It's hard to describe but if you get it you get it.
I fucking love these guys and will be rooting for them tonight. Their future is very bright.