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Quesada, Sera

Is there life after Grupo Fantasma? The former leader of Texas’s best-known ten-piece Latin music orchestra is about to find out.

By December 2013Comments

Annie Ray

After Grupo Fantasma played a giant free concert at Austin’s Bullock Texas State History Museum in July, the band’s founder, Adrian Quesada, kept hearing from fans congratulating him on the gig. “A guy at a party the next night told me how amazing we were. And I said, ‘Were you there? Because I wasn’t. And you didn’t notice?’ ” 

As it happens, two months before the gig Quesada had quit the Grammy-winning ten-piece Latin music collective that he co-founded thirteen years earlier. The Bullock event was the band’s first big hometown show without him. But Quesada wasn’t actually peeved by his confused fans’ mistake. “I get it,” Quesada says. “There are so many dudes onstage, people really don’t know who’s who. I’m completely comfortable in the shadows.”

Still, better perhaps to stand in the shadow of two other dudes than nine other dudes. Quesada’s latest project is Spanish Gold, a collaboration with guitarist Dante Schwebel, formerly of the San Antonio garage-rock band Hacienda, and Patrick Hallahan, drummer for the Kentucky arena-rock band My Morning Jacket. The band’s debut album, due early next year, is groovy and muscular—like a cross between the Black Keys and the Black Angels—with an undercurrent of sixties soul and early hip-hop. Spanish Gold is Quesada’s first rock band since he was a teenager banging out Nirvana covers at house parties in Laredo, and it’s the most radio-friendly group he’s ever been involved with. 

Spanish Gold began as Schwebel’s project; at first, Quesada and Hallahan thought they were working on their pal’s solo album. But when the group played an October gig at Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, in Austin—its third show ever—it was easy to see how this side project had turned into a full-fledged band. Quesada’s subtlety and texture as a guitarist give Spanish Gold its slinkiness and its swagger. “That one cool rhythm part that wasn’t there?” says the 36-year-old Quesada. “That’s what I’m good at coming up with.”

Yet as self-effacing as Quesada is, this seems like the moment for his star turn. Or make that turns—despite quitting his day job, Quesada is staying very, very busy. In addition to Spanish Gold, he’s still recording and playing with his cumbia group Money Chicha, the funky Grupo Fantasma offshoot Brownout, a transatlantic collaboration dubbed the Electric Peanut Butter Company, the psychedelic-leaning Echocentrics (featuring Argentinean singer Natalia Clavier, the voice of popular world-music outfit Thievery Corporation), and Ocote Soul Sounds, his down-tempo partnership with Martín Perna, of New York’s trailblazing Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas. And then there’s his work behind the board at his Level One Studios, where he recently produced albums for Clavier, Austin singer-songwriter David Garza, and the outsider musician Daniel Johnston; mixed the comeback record from Dallas soul legend Bobby Patterson; and recorded the Grupo Fantasma horn section for a new album by the popular indie-rock band Deer Tick.

His prolific output and obsessive, almost nerdy attention to detail make him second-wave Latin music’s answer to the Roots’ Questlove, who, in addition to his nightly bandleading duties on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, has in recent years produced albums by Al Green and Elvis Costello. Both Quesada and Questlove meld traditional music with modern aesthetics, and both seem driven more by the chance to collaborate than by the opportunity to take credit for the results. “Whether he’s producing, playing guitar, or putting people together into a new group, it’s never about him,” Garza says of Quesada. “It’s about lifting up the guys he’s working with.” 

For Spanish Gold, the personal and musical bond between Quesada and Schwebel emerged quickly and effortlessly out of shared geography and similar childhoods: although they didn’t know each other until Hacienda and Grupo Fantasma were in full bloom, they were both raised in Laredo. Because the town’s club scene wasn’t friendly to underage patrons and both men grew up in the pre-Internet era, much of the music they heard was the traditional Mexican music that was popular across the border. (As a child, Quesada visited his grandmother in Nuevo Laredo as often as four times a week.) But when the adolescent Quesada picked up a guitar, it wasn’t to play norteño; he wanted to make the kind of music he saw on MTV. By high school, a series of cover bands had given way to a group focused on what Quesada calls “instrumental guitar freak-outs” (they couldn’t find a singer). 

Later, at the University of Texas at Austin, Quesada joined an Afro-Caribbean music ensemble. That led him to the music of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti and to fifties and sixties Colombian music, which was a revelation for him. The Colombian music he heard had a stronger dose of the African diaspora than the music he was exposed to in Nuevo Laredo. “It had horns and a big-band sound,” says Quesada, who was soon laying the groundwork for Grupo Fantasma by combining players from a pair of noisy avant-garde groups, his own Blue Noise Band and the Blimp, a Laredo group that had recently moved to Austin. “It was music people danced to,” he says. “When we were in rock bands, people would just stand and stare at us.” 

Finding an audience in Austin for a Latin funk orchestra was easier than Quesada had imagined. But the band didn’t find that audience in the dance clubs and restaurants that were the usual venues for Latin music. Grupo Fantasma built its reputation primarily at punk clubs like Emo’s. 

“Because I grew up in two cultures, music and language barriers don’t exist for me,” Quesada says. “Early on, when people put Grupo in the Latin category, which it belonged in, it frustrated me—I thought we should be accessible anywhere to anyone. And at that point in Austin, to go see Latin stuff, you had to go to places where all the dudes wore tight black T-shirts and knew how to dance and all the women were hot. That wasn’t our scene. I thought, ‘Why can’t we play music in Spanish at Emo’s?’ And so we did.”

Almost by accident, Quesada says, Grupo Fantasma had tapped into Texas’s changing demographics: much of the band’s audience was, like the band itself, part of an emergent class of young Mexican Americans who valued tradition but also their independence from it. Where a band that focused on norteño or banda might appeal only to Mexican American audiences, Grupo’s fusion of cumbia, Afrobeat, salsa, and funk found an audience among Texans with South and Central American roots as well—not to mention plenty of white hipsters. 

By 2003 major record labels were sniffing around, each with an idea of how the band could be molded into something commercially viable. Quesada remembers most of their suitors recommending they add a DJ and a rapper. “Another one had a look for all of us: ‘One is the gangster guy, one the rap guy; you wear hats, and he wears the Tommy Bahama shirts.’ They wanted us to be the Latin Village People.” 

Saying no proved to be the right move. In 2008 the band’s fourth independently released record, Sonidos Gold, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album category. Two years later, the band’s next album, El Existential, won the award. One reason for their elevated national profile, of course, was their association with Prince. In 2006 a one-off performance at Prince’s Las Vegas club, 3121, led to a two-month-long Thursday night residency and a three-year on-and-off series of gigs backing the man himself, including at the 2007 CBS Super Bowl Bash, in Miami. “Prince gave us confidence,” says Quesada. “It was like, ‘We’re good, because Prince says so.’ It was boot camp, and you come out on the other end feeling like you can hang with anybody.”

When Quesada announced in May that he was amicably leaving Grupo Fantasma, everyone seemed surprised but the band itself. With a wife, two small children, and a waning interest in touring, Quesada estimates that over the past three years he’s missed 40 percent of Grupo’s gigs, including entire tours. “People ask, ‘How are they doing it without you?’ The truth is they’ve been doing it without me for years.” Grupo Fantasma will release a new record this spring produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin; Quesada, who recorded his parts before leaving the band, appears on every cut. 

Without Grupo’s touring schedule on his calendar, Quesada is now free to work as much as he wants on his other bands and on his production projects. A February release for Spanish Gold’s debut means they’ll be a ubiquitous presence at South by Southwest. Quesada says all three core members—for now there’s a rotating cast of bassists—see the group as a long-term effort, not a vanity side project, although with Hallahan’s commitment to My Morning Jacket, it’s unlikely there will be significant stretches of touring. That’s fine by Quesada, whose new motto is “Work smarter, not harder.” He won’t be working any less than he always has—he just can’t seem to help himself—but he’ll be picking his spots carefully.

“I don’t want to look like Keith Richards, go through eight marriages, or be in a van at fifty,” he says. “The fantasy in my twenties was touring. Now I want to take my kids to school in the morning.”

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