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Independent’s Day

Record companies love telling talented young bands they can't make it on their own. Grupo Fantasma knows better.

By May 2003Comments

If it were easy as fishin’ you could be a musician. —Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “Takin’ Care of Business”

DIE-HARD ROCK AND ROLLERS SNICKER at this example of hallowed rock lyricism, yet—and this is a phrase I never thought I would use—BTO has a point. It’s not so easy when your job is playing music. It might seem so; you can quickly pick up the basics of an instrument. Memorize a few chords, recruit some friends, practice some changes, and you’ve got a band. Careers have been built on less. Ask BTO. Most groups, though, are not so lucky. It’s hard enough to find a unique musical voice, let alone make a living.

These days, bands trying to succeed basically come in two models, proactive and reactive. Reactive bands play a couple of gigs, then sit around and whine because Rolling Stone, Interscope Records, and the Robert Palmer video girls (I’m really dating myself here) aren’t showing up at the door. Proactive groups realize that no one is going to do anything for them, at least in the beginning, so they read, ask questions, and learn how to put together press kits, work the phones, make recordings, and persuade indifferent club owners to give them gigs. They may not have business-school aspirations, but they understand that they’re smack in the middle of a cutthroat business environment where only the wily survive.

So it’s exciting when you encounter an act like Austin’s Grupo Fantasma, a young, unsigned band with great music and a head for what to do with it. Musically, Grupo is nothing short of thrilling: lock-tight rhythms, punchy horns, dual guitars, and sizzling percussion backing a charismatic singer, all in a ten-piece, infectiously upbeat cross-cultural dance machine. Their funky and smart streetwise cumbias (slowed-down Latin grooves with an undeniable backbeat) are packing clubs with wildly diverse audiences. And though anyone in the industry would tell you that their do-it-yourself business model—supporting a large working band without the help of a manager, lawyer, booking agent, or label—is impossible, they seem to be bucking conventional wisdom.

How? They build their fan base by playing—a lot. Grupo just wrapped up their third national tour and in all have played upward of eighty gigs in the past year, including their second packed South by Southwest showcase. They’ve made, and sold, their own CD. They’ve turned up on a compilation record, Mexico: The Greatest Songs Ever, alongside such established California vatos as Los Lobos and Ozomatli. They have a song in the upcoming John Sayles film, Casa de los Babys. All this has attracted the attention of big record labels and at least one star producer, but the band is showing remarkable restraint.

“We’re not dumb about this kind of thing,” explains Adrian Quesada, one of the band’s guitarists and its de facto business manager. I’m sitting in a quiet Laredo hotel restaurant with five members of the group on a tranquil, hot Sunday afternoon in March. As drinks flow and our volume increases, the few tourists who straggle in shoot some furtive glances our way. Quesada is discussing label offers. “We’d rather not take a huge loan and have to pay it back. We don’t mind working hard, and we don’t need to be babied.”

Record companies try to entice groups with large cash advances, to cover studio costs, along with things like vans for touring (Grupo still rent theirs), expensive musical equipment, and of course, pocket money. The temptation often proves impossible for impoverished musicians to resist, and few acts really think it through. Virtually everything a label spends on a group is applied against its future earnings. Many bands launch their major-label debuts already hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Unless they get lucky enough to score a big hit, they’ll never see the end of the red ink, and before they know it, the record company has dropped them, and their reputation is poison.

Quesada is only 25, but he and the rest of the band, ranging from 23 to 38, understand this. They’ve all been at it awhile. By their early teens, bassist Greg Gonzalez, drummer Johnny Lopez, guitarist Beto Martinez, and vocalist Brian Ramos were playing in a Laredo band that came to be known as the Blimp, before moving to Austin in the mid-nineties. There they met Quesada, who is also from Laredo and who was in a squonky jazz-rock quartet, the Blue Noise Band, with a Long Island saxophonist named Dave Lobel and a percussionist from Iowa, Jeremy Bruch. The Blimp and the Blue Noise Band began playing regular gigs on different nights at Austin’s Manor Road Coffee House. Soon the bands were mixing it up, sitting in with each other and playing funk jams at campus parties.

Influences crept in. Lobel and Quesada had played fluid rhythms in Afro-beat and Caribbean ensembles. In the early nineties Gonzalez and Martinez had ventured past the tourist traps of Nuevo Laredo (now teaming with Spider-Man and SpongeBob piñatas) into the clubs to hear the imported driving beats of cumbia colombiana. “We didn’t take [the music] seriously until we started seeing those bands,” recalls Gonzalez.

It all came to a head one night. “We were loaded, sitting around listening to cumbias,” Martinez recalls, “saying, ‘Man, we can play that.’ The next night Adrian called and said he booked a gig. We had, like, seven songs. We made it last two hours.” The first Grupo show, at Austin’s Empanada Parlour in November 2000, drew a hundred people. The second was a stone sellout.

Though the band’s lyrics are in Spanish, fans from all races and backgrounds have been coming ever since, which is good when you operate with Grupo’s kind of overhead. Transportation, housing, and meal costs add up quickly, so it takes a lot to make an out-of-town show profitable. They book their shows themselves, so there’s no agency fee, and on lower-paying gigs, they go for the promotional value, hawking their T-shirts and CDs. They released their eponymous debut CD in November 2002 and have sold nearly five thousand copies to date, almost exclusively from the stage. With no middleman or label taking a cut—the CD was recorded and designed by the band and financed by a friend, who was paid back in a few months’ time—they’re able to make a nice profit.

Grupo has grown in the short time since its inception, and not just in number. When they needed help with arrangements and composing, they pulled in University of North Texas-educated tenor saxophonist Joseph Serrato, who in turn brought along Nicaraguan percussionist Jose Galeano, a man the others call a “heavyweight.” (Galeano’s uncle, José Chepitó Areas, was the percussionist in the original Santana band). Last to join was the youngest, a 23-year-old screaming trumpet player named Gilbert Elorreaga.

The additional players have brought a sophistication to Grupo’s sound that has landed them on salsa bills and opened new doors. Initially they were shunned by the urban salsa bands, who looked upon cumbia as a poor rural cousin. Gonzalez describes how the salsa scene can be off-putting. “The guy wears the tight black shirt, the girls wear the skirt, and they know how to do all the moves. You go there and you don’t know how to dance, don’t speak Spanish, whatever. And we come out playing Latin music, bugging out.” The band, dressed casually in street clothes, doesn’t make a great first impression. Then they start to play. Grupo’s charm comes from the fact that they spring straight from the musical underground. They’re still likely to drop rock licks or a Ween song into their set.

The night before our conversation in Laredo, the members of Grupo Fantasma found themselves playing before a huge hometown crowd for the second consecutive weekend, this time at the twenty-fifth annual Jalapeño Festival, an event several of them had attended since they were kids. As we watched the jalapeño-eating contest, Quesada fondly recalled how the event used to have no time limit, and first prize was awarded to the last man standing. “It was ugly,” he said.

When Grupo took the stage, there were a couple thousand people down front, but a slick salsa group from Houston that had preceded them had more or less flopped, and many of the festival’s 12,000 attendees were still waiting hundreds of yards away to see what would happen. Spread out on a huge stage with a big-screen TV, the band members were disconnected from the audience and from each other. At first, it threw them. But they adapted, drawing inward to feed off each other’s energy and humor. They smiled, they played, and among parents, friends, and thousands of strangers, they grooved. So did the fast-growing audience. It was a remarkable thing to watch.

Quesada says the band is about halfway to where it needs to be to become self-sufficient (for the moment, all the members still have the odd day job) but that new opportunities are coming in almost weekly. Antonio “Toy” Hernández, the rock en español artist who produced the monster hit “Cumbia Sobre el Río” for popular Mexican singer Celso Piña, has had Grupo out to play in his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico (which seems to be the springboard for both rock en español and the modern cumbia colombiana movements), and hopes to produce some tracks for their next CD, which they’ve already begun recording. They’re shopping for a label this time out to reach the contacts they need to get their music (and themselves) around the world, crucial for a band with non-English lyrics to continue to cultivate their audience.

Even with all this going for them, the odds of success are long. It’s not easy keeping a group together. An old cliché compares being in a band to maintaining simultaneous intimate relationships, but it’s really closer to having multiple business partners. Just imagine maintaining nine. Familiarity helps. “We didn’t put an ad in the paper saying ‘ Latin musicians wanted,'” says Quesada. “We were already playing.” This is Grupo’s real advantage. A lot of bands are made up of strangers, created out of whole cloth. It takes time to develop a sound, to realize where everyone fits in. Grupo has been able to rely on years of trust, instinct, and friendship, and because of that, it has quickly grown into something special. Audiences have a great time at their gigs because when the band gets together to play, they have a blast. Business aside, is there any better reason to be a musician?

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