For nearly twenty years, the founding members of Grupo Fantasma have set themselves apart with the quality and inventiveness of their work. It’s a rare enough feat to successfully run a big group (the current Fantasma lineup is nine musicians deep), but on top of that they’ve also branched out to create additional bands Brownout and Money Chicha. Each of these projects is as interesting as the one preceding it. Members have cycled through Grupo Fantasma over the years, but Beto Martinez and Greg Gonzalez have been mainstays. In March, the band released its first record in five years, American Music: Vol. VII, on Blue Corn Music. We spoke to Martinez and Gonzalez about their process, their influences, their collaborators, and the intention behind this release.
TM: Musically, how different are you from where you were five years ago with your last album, Problemas? And do you two direct the band and say, “These are the sounds that we want for this band this time,” or is it more collaborative than that?
Beto: It’s pretty collaborative. We were actually going into the studio with the intention of collaborating when we did Problemas. And we did that by bringing songs that weren’t completely finished and allowing other people to come in and work on their specific parts and add things to it. We’ve been using that method for a while. Previous to that, most people would write their own songs and then get somebody to arrange certain parts of it, but they’d bring in a complete song—just bring it to the band, and we’d play it. But, like I said, with Problemas we set out to specifically try to encourage more collaboration. And that was mostly to try to diversify the sound and try to find some new inspiration.
One of the biggest things that happened since we finished recording Problemas—which was actually finished in January 2013 but didn’t come out until October of 2015—was that we did this project with Brownout called Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath, where we took the music of Black Sabbath and did it in our format with horns and percussion and all this. And I think that experience, spending three or four years touring playing Black Sabbath stuff, partially informed a lot of what we’re doing now.
TM: Going back to your roots? You started out playing heavy metal.
Beto: Exactly. And then also Money Chicha, which is a smaller band with no horns. It’s keyboard- and guitar-driven cumbia. It’s really psychedelic, and we don’t necessarily write with the intention of making a big dance party. It does usually turn into that, but we write music with the idea of challenging ourselves with the melodies or with the rhythms and then also just making it super psychedelic. So I think both of those things have informed what we’re doing now with Grupo Fantasma.
And we didn’t set out to write to specific styles—at least for this record. We didn’t say, like, “We have to do cumbias” or “We have to do salsas” or anything. We just wrote. And there are cumbias, and there is some salsa stuff on there, but I think it’s a lot more mixed up in terms of the styles, and that has a lot to do with the collaborations that we did amongst ourselves and with other people.
TM: I would think with all the different projects you’re doing, just getting all the Grupo members in one room would be tricky.
Greg: I don’t think that’s ever actually been done, everyone in the same room recording.
Beto: Well, that was one of the major challenges and why we went to Sonic Ranch to begin with, because there was a long period of time from the beginning of Grupo Fantasma until just a few years ago that it was a singular focus for us: This was our big band, and this is what we did. And we toured year-round, and everybody was focused on it. That changed in the last few years, and we have all these other bands now.
TM: What caused the change? Was it just lifestyle?
Beto: Well, partially.
Greg: Maturity, for the most part. Families.
Beto: Yeah, people had kids and also wanted to branch out musically. And I think when we finished Problemas in January 2013, our label partner at that time shut down. So that’s another reason it took so long to get that record out. The album was kind of in limbo there, and Grupo Fantasma was a little bit in limbo for the first time in thirteen years because we didn’t have anyone to help us put this record out. And it was right in that time period that we did the Brown Sabbath project, and that picked up a lot of steam, and for the first time Brownout eclipsed Fantasma with the amount of work we were doing.
TM: Did that feel weird?
Beto: Yeah, it felt a little strange.
Greg: Mainly because it was Brown Sabbath, not Brownout. Because it’s essentially the same characters with two or three different faces. But the fact that when we were doing our versions of covers—and we love Black Sabbath, don’t get me wrong—it was just strange that somehow we became a tribute band briefly. And that became a struggle for a minute too—just people were like, “Play Brown Sabbath!” and we were like, “That was a phase, man.”
We didn’t know it was going to be so successful; it was supposed to be like a special one-time thing, but it was so successful that a record label, Ubiquity, was like, “We want to put that out.” We put it out, and then we got booked on Bonnaroo and Jam Cruise and all these other big festivals and stuff. So it went on longer than we’d originally intended. It was great because through that process we discovered Alex Marrero, who’s now the singer for Brownout. He’s an old friend of ours, but he had kind of fallen off our radar … It wasn’t a terrible slog or like pulling teeth or anything, it was just surreal. We were wondering: How did we go from playing with Prince and rocking festivals all over the world and Austin City Limits and, you know, making albums with Fantasma, and then all of a sudden we’re doing Black Sabbath covers?
TM: It felt too gimmicky?
Greg: Yeah, I mean it definitely pushed on that. You know, one of the things we never wanted to do was to be a cover band. We’ve always written and played original music, and our goal was always to get back to Fantasma and original Brownout music and original Money Chicha, original everything we do.
Beto: And we’ve pushed the creative approach as much as we could for the Brown Sabbath thing, not just like covering exactly. But it did shift the focus for a few years. And then Money Chicha released an album right in there too, in 2015 or 2016. So Money Chicha started touring, too. Everything that we were used to changed.
All the while, Fantasma was on a back burner a little bit. We were still playing, but not as much. Jose Galiano and Kino Esparza, the two singers from Fantasma—the only guys that don’t play Brownout or Money Chicha—pursued some other things, to deal with their time. Jose was teaching. Kino does mariachi and also works at a school.
So getting back to the point about why we did Sonic Ranch: Trying to get everybody together to focus on one project again became really difficult and the scheduling was impossible. Sonic Ranch sounded like this beautiful, mythical place, and we always wanted an excuse to go there. So when we started talking about doing this record, we started looking at studios. We had talked to Loco and even considered maybe recording in Colombia, where he knows some people, but then we thought about Sonic Ranch: It’s out in West Texas, in the middle of nowhere. We can get everybody out there, and then they can’t leave.
TM: They’re isolated.
Beto: Yeah, we’re stuck there. But it’s also a place that’s all-inclusive. You stay there. You actually sleep there. They have a kitchen. These women—they cook this amazingly good Mexican food, like, throughout the day. There’s an espresso machine that’s just going 24 hours and then the studio is 24 hours basically, so you’re just fully immersed. There are no distractions. If you’re hungry, you just walk a few feet and go eat and get some more coffee and keep working. So it allowed focus and complete immersion. And it did turn out to actually be this mythical, magical place that was super creative for us and super accommodating, and we really enjoyed it. And we walked out of there with thirteen songs in five days.
TM: You’ve been holding this band together for nineteen years; what advice do you have for bands that are just starting out? What does it take to make it over the long haul?
Beto: I laugh, because the first thing I think is: Don’t make a band with more than four or five people. Right? Obviously, we’re a big band, and that presents challenges when you tour, as far as expenses and stuff, and when we started playing, we were in our early twenties, and we were not very discerning or discretionary with sleeping arrangements. We’d all jump in a van, and it was a lot of fun. As you get older, you’re like, “I need a bed to sleep in every night.” So those things change.
TM: Well, and you want to get paid, too. I would imagine dividing money by that many people is tricky.
Beto: Yeah, exactly. There are a lot of expenses with a big band. I would say consider that if you’re a young band starting up.
What can I say to somebody who’s coming out now? It’s so different. My initial inclinations would be: First of all, make sure that your music is good and that you’re playing the best you can. Although I think even that is a little different nowadays, because there are people successful in music right now who have benefited from concentrating on building their social media presence more than their actual music. That’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality of some of the situation.
Greg: Recently at our in-store at Waterloo Records, we ran into Ruben Blades, the great Panamanian salsa singer, pop star, movie star, actor, lawyer, activist. He’s a brilliant individual we’ve admired for years and years, since I was a kid seeing him in movies. And one of the things that was really striking about it is, even though he missed our show, he got there after we were done, and he just hung out and talked to us for like two hours. I mean, he’s an old-school guy. But you could tell right away that he’s one of those people who likes people. He likes talking, sharing stories, hearing about your experience. He wants to know things. He likes people, generally. And as we’re talking to him, I’m thinking, “This is why this guy is successful, and why he has such staying power and is able to translate his ability and personality to so many different genres and stuff: because he really likes people.” People want to be around him. People want to help him out. People want to hang out with him. He’s charismatic. I mean, he’s super talented and brilliant. Obviously, that helps. But nobody cares how talented you are if you’re a jerk. Nobody wants to help you out.
Too often, I see that with musicians who just think like, “Oh, I’m really good, I’ve practiced so hard, my music is amazing.” And nobody cares because this guy is a jerk who’s arrogant or standoffish, or maybe he’s shy and insecure and not even arrogant. But for whatever reason they push people away rather than expressing their humanity. Being able to listen, being able to make other people feel important—it all works together. So that would be my advice to young artists. Learn to love people; don’t just focus on your talent and developing your craft. Develop your social network and whatever, but really build social capital by being a good person that people like.
TM: I wanted to ask you about the title of the album, “American Music: Vol. VII.” Did that come from frustration of being put in a genre box?
Greg: Put in a cage. The title was informed by what’s going on around us and what was specifically going on when we recorded the record, which was that after we left Sonic Ranch—which is in Tornillo, Texas—there was a very large detention center for children that popped up there. And the juxtaposition of the experience that we’d had in Tornillo and all the memories we had of Sonic Ranch—to find out that this was going on there? It was really troubling, is a gentle way to put it.
Yeah, all of that informed the idea of the title. We’re making American music, regardless of what language we’re singing in. We’re from here as musicians, as people. We are from this country here, from the United States, and the term “American” for us would be referring to us being from this country, although obviously the term refers to two continents, North and South America. Our music does stylistically span both of those continents, but specifically what we’re talking about is that we’re from here and we’re not allowing someone else to define what American is either in music or as a person. So we are taking control of that part of that identity and making that definition for ourselves.
TM: Do you feel like any other genre gets boxed in as much as “Latin music”?
Greg: I mean, “World Music” is an even bigger slap in the face.
TM: Like, here are six genres, and then here’s everything else in the world.
Greg: Exactly. The alternate title of our album was “Made in the USA.” But yeah, here in the United States you have hip-hop, country, jazz, blues, Americana (whatever the hell that is), rock and roll, heavy metal, all these subgenres of music that all come from this country, for the most part. And then they just kind of push everything that’s not that into “World Music” or into “Latin Music.”
Latin music spans billions of people, from Portuguese speakers to English speakers to Spanish speakers. You know, it spans people from Spain to the Caribbean to South America, Central America, Mexico. Mariachi music and norteño music and banda music and reggaetón—you get the picture. So if you were to say “American music” and stuff bluegrass and hip-hop and heavy metal all into that same thing, people would be like, “What is this schizophrenic nonsense?”
It just makes no sense, and it makes it easier for people to just kind of dismiss it, or in our case to put it in this one little slot in your festival calendar. “Oh, this is the Latin stage.” It’s the medium-small stage. Why do we get that? We are all from the United States, with one exception: Jose, but he’s been here for over twenty years. He’s an American citizen at this point. And we speak English, and we play music that is in Spanish and English and it has rock elements and jazz elements and funk elements—probably more, in many cases, than it has traditional salsa or cumbia.
The sound is reflective of our American, United States experience. You know, we grew up on the border. We did not grow up in Mexico, but we grew up alongside people from Mexico. We were there every day visiting, collaborating, working together, communicating in English or Spanish. Hearing music from Mexico, music from the United States, all together. That was our experience, and that’s the sound that we’re trying to showcase. That’s a reflection of our time: hip-hop and rock and funk and norteño and cumbia and salsa and all that. To us, it’s just music. It’s all valuable and valid, and that lineage is all worth celebrating, and if they can collaborate and mix together, you know, all the more power to it.