"This freight train of a Latin band could easily hold its own in a sweaty bandbox in the Bronx... they'll knock you down with the grooves." - The Village Voice
A few of the Latin music names that have been a big part of the Austin, Texas music scene are: Beto y los Fairlanes, Alejandro Escovedo, Davíd Garza, Ruben Ramos, Little Joe y la Familia, Willie Santiago, Leyendas, Alfonso Ramos, Neto Perez & the Originals, the Nash Hernandez Orchestra, Flaco and Santiago Jimenez, Sun Vocina, La Tribu, Manuel Donley y los Estrellas, Los Jazz Vatos, Conjunto Aztlan, Son y No Son, Centzontle, Correo Aereo, Los Lonely Boys, and many others.
There are currently eight Spanish radio stations in town, not including KOOP or KLRU, which offer Latin-themed programming. Last year, the Austin Latino Music Association (ALMA) established the noon-concert series entitled "Sabor Latino" (Latin Flavor) in collaboration with the City of Austin for the purpose of creating another vehicle to promote local Latino artists at a new downtown venue, the outdoor plaza at the City Hall.
As Luis Zapata, an Austin music commissioner and executive producer for the Latino Rock Alliance, said, in the Austin Chronicle, "It all comes down to one thing, the DNA in America is changing and the strongest chromosome is Latino."
A big part of this music scene are Latin rockers Grupo Fantasma, having been named the "Austin Music Awards Best Latin Contemporary Band" for five years, adding "Best Horns" in 2005 and 2006. Representing a hybrid of Latin dance music from old school to new school, they transform traditional Latin styles of music with their songwriting, arrangements and high-energy live shows fusing Afro-Latin funk, cumbia, salsa, meringue and more into a dance sound of their own.
A large ensemble of eleven members that tours heavily, they have packed venues in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, large and small, on word of mouth alone. They have shared stages with acts as diverse as Los Lobos, Patti Smith, Ozomatli, Jackson Browne, Flaco Jimenez and KRS-One. They have headlined 4 consecutive SXSW (South By Southwest) musical showcases as well as countless other festivals throughout the country. Their first album released in 2001 earned them spots on internationally distributed compilations, an NPR special, and the soundtrack to director John Sayles film, Casa de los Babys.
In 2004, Grupo Fantasma produced a second studio release, "Movimiento Popular," which received raves from the Austin media, as well as publications in Atlanta, Memphis, Philadelphia and New York's Village Voice. "Movimiento Popular," featured special guest artists Ragah El, who introduced the band in classic dancehall style, Tejano music legend Ruben Ramos (Los Super Seven) and DMC champion DJ Baby G.
The band's third record, "Grupo Fantasma Comes Alive" was recorded in March of this year at the legendary Antone's nightclub in Austin, TX (R.I.P. Clifford Antone). It is available at shows on their 2006 North American Tour and was released on August 29th.
'LA'Ritmo.com interviewed Grupo Fantasma's guitar player, Adrian Quesada, aka Q, to get an inside scoop on this central Texas band. Quesada also plays with the Latin funk band, Brownout, and spends time collaborating with the Dallas Hydroponic Sound System and Martin Perna, of Antibalas. He and Perna are currently recording an upcoming release with ESL Music, the first single is called "Tamarndio," and is available with a remix by Thievery Corporation on the A-Side on ITunes.
[Phil Reser] What does the name Grupo Fantasma mean, and what inspired the band to take that name?
[Adrian Quesada] The name literally translates to "band of ghosts" or "ghost group" but we just thought it had a good ring to it. There's no specific meaning behind it.
[Phil Reser] How did the band get started?
[Adrian Quesada] We were originally two bands, a funk band called The Blimp and the other a punk rock jazz kind of thing called Blue Noise Band. The two bands were friends and some members go back over 15 years, we used to do shows together all the time. We got the idea to form a larger band from the two and play Latin funk and cumbia for a friend's house party. We did that a few more times and loved the reaction we were getting, people were just freaking out, dancing all night long and from there we decided to focus more on this "super group" and gave it a name and booked some shows at a club. Our first show as "grupo fantasma" was in 2000.
[Phil Reser] What would you consider are the band's musical roots and do you think it's important to have that relationship?
[Adrian Quesada] The band's musical roots are pretty diverse; anything from traditional Latin music to heavy metal to punk rock to hip hop to funk. Our personal roots go back over 15 years, almost half the band is from Laredo, Texas and were playing in high school bands back there. The deep roots have helped hold it all together.
[Phil Reser] What's the biggest motivator for the band?
[Adrian Quesada] Most days it's seeing crowds bug out to our music, some days it's other life experiences and sometimes it's just surviving and paying our bills, feeding our families.
[Phil Reser] Who are your most important musical influences?
[Adrian Quesada] I'd say one of the biggest influences was the whole Fania movement of salsa/nuyorican music from New York City of the 60's and 70's. They kept Latin music alive and took it from the more "formal" ballrooms and made it music of the youth, creating their own record label and essentially creating their own movement and music. There were many artists on the Fania label, too many to list, among them Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto, Roberto Roena, etc., etc., etc. Most 70's afro/Latin big bands are big influences, everyone from Santana to War to Irakere to Earth, Wind and Fire. We love all kinds of music, though, and could give you a ridiculously long list!
[Phil Reser] How would you say the band has changed musically through the development of all three of your albums?
[Adrian Quesada] The first album was raw and we hadn't really developed a confident sound yet, we were kind of feeling around. The second album was extremely produced and the exact opposite of the first, it had a lot of ear candy. The third album is a live album, sort of a return to the raw sound of the first record but with a much more confident sound.
[Phil Reser] Would you comment on what the band likes the most about your production and material on the "Comes Alive" album?
[Adrian Quesada] It's essentially what you would hear at a live show, a raucous affair with blemishes and all. You just can't capture what happens live on a studio record so we wanted to do that on our third record as being a live band is what we do best. There wasn't much production involved other than picking out the tunes and mixing them. The material better represents what we are doing nowadays and what you are likely to hear at a show in the near future.
[Phil Reser] How does the band feel about some day signing with a major record label?
[Adrian Quesada] If the situation was right and we could preserve our integrity, all options are on the table. We want our music to be heard by as many people as possible, of course, and we just don't want anyone telling us what to do with our music. We come from the DIY school of thought and have been approached by labels in the past, but it just hasn't worked out so we continue on our own, the only way we know how.
[Phil Reser] With such a large number of musicians in the band, how do you manage to keep everyone on the same page?
[Adrian Quesada] There's a couple of "pages," as long as we are on those same couple of pages we're good. It's pretty hard to get everyone completely on the same page.
[Phil Reser] How does the band go about the task of songwriting from start to finish?
[Adrian Quesada] Someone will usually write almost the whole tune, get with an arranger, most recently being done by Leo Gauna (trombonist), then get with our lyricist, Jose Galeano and bring it as finished as possible to rehearsal. There we run through it and everyone will interpret it as they do and there we make any necessary adjustments.
[Phil Reser] I understand there was some special community folks that helped you record your live album, would you tell us about that?
[Adrian Quesada] Clifford Antone (RIP), owner of the legendary Antone's nightclub was there that night and was a big supporter.
[Phil Reser] Are there strong feelings with the band about artistic integrity?
[Adrian Quesada] There are extremely strong feelings about artistic integrity. We've been trucking along doing what we've been doing for the last 6 years despite people saying we needed to "update" our sound with a DJ or something like that, people saying it wasn't traditional enough, we've heard just about everything really but we do only what feels right to us.
[Phil Reser] Why does the band choose to do all of its songs in Spanish? Have you considered going more bilingual?
[Adrian Quesada] Were not opposed to doing bilingual music but there's a purity you get in Spanish that's hard to capture in English. We've just never had anything sound good in English, it has felt forced when we've tried it.
[Phil Reser] Do you have a favorite memory from the years since you've been with the band?
[Adrian Quesada] All 6 years have been a great memory!
[Phil Reser] What do you see in the future that the band would like to accomplish?
[Adrian Quesada] We would like to tour beyond the US and Canada and Mexico (the only three countries we've played) and be able to support our families and live semi-comfortably doing the music we love.
[Phil Reser] What about your next recording project, are you already working on it and what can we look forward to?
[Adrian Quesada] We just started tossing around ideas and are planning on going into the studio by the end of the year to record a handful of songs and finish up early next year. It's a little too early to tell what the outcome will be but it will definitely be different from the last 3 records.
[Phil Reser] Would you tell us a little about the Austin music scene and what it's been like as a Latino band growing up in that city?
[Adrian Quesada] The Austin music scene is great, as most people already know. There are a million bands and a lot of opportunities and support networks for musicians. It's a great, affordable town for us. As a Latino band coming up, we never really boxed ourselves into a category like that. We played to whoever wanted to listen, which I think is why we've been so successful around here. We've played the punk clubs, the salsa clubs, ALL the festivals and people know you don't have to speak Spanish or know how to dance salsa to come rock out at one of our shows. I feel like we've been able to help the Latino community by playing a ton of fundraisers, providing awareness for community issues and concerns and influencing newer Latino bands. At the end of the day we want to prove you can play Latin music with all Spanish lyrics and spread it out regardless of race or color.
[Phil Reser] And finally, how do you see Latin rhythm and rock having influenced American music?
[Adrian Quesada] I know there is definitely some specific examples of people performing so called "American" music influenced by Latin music like the Santana Band and many others; but really even what was originally called "salsa" was music created in America. Purists will argue it comes from the Cuban son and then you can take it back to Africa, but at some point what was created in America, specifically in New York City took an old idea and updated it to make sense to our times and culture. As far as mainstream American music, I rarely hear Latin influence, but every once in a while I'll catch something.