Nominated for a Grammy, Grupo Fantasma’s latest release, El Existential, is a recording that stands easily next to the great recordings of the Fania record label. Born on the border of Texas and Mexico, Grupo Fantasma has taken the influences of that melting-pot culture to seamlessly weave late night cumbia and Mexican ballads with rock and roll power riffs and Chicago-style horn arrangements. It’s a mature recording with contributions from each of the ten members of the band and deserves this Grammy nomination, the second for Grupo, which received a nomination for their previous album, Sonidos Gold.
Adrian Quesada, one of the four founding members of Grupo, recently spoke with me about the nomination and what it’s like to be a member of a modern working band. Here’s what he had to say:
“The nomination really hasn’t set in. That night we got word we were playing a Brownout gig and we got a text that night right before we played, and that was a great feeling to be around all the guys and everything. We definitely weren’t expecting this one. The first one we kind of had an idea, we knew there was momentum, and the record was doing good and it felt like it was coming. We just pretty much gave up on this one. The record didn’t do as good and they combined the categories, two of the Latin categories together, so it kinda cuts your chances in half. They combined it with the urban contemporary stuff like Reggaeton, Tejano, and Hip-Hop. I’m not trying to be blasé about it, but its kinda… we haven’t really had time to think about it. As usual, we’re trying to coordinate how we’re gonna get up there to make the gig.
“I remember sitting at the Grammys for the first one. The minute leading up to the announcement of the award was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been. I remember at the time what I was most scared of was giving the speech. That was my big worry. I remember when we didn’t get the award I was like ‘whew’ big load off my chest. Ha-ha.
“You know, things like this remind me, you know, talking to you about it reminds me, it is pretty crazy. We’re just always working, you know, we don’t just pause, we’re working. We probably would if we could, you know, stay a month and then go hang out a month or two months, and do something spiritual, you know? At this point we celebrate things like one night, get drunk, and then we just pick up and the next day get going again.
“When we started the band 10 years ago, we didn’t have detailed expectations, but we knew what was good. We knew what was cool, you know. We knew this was special. But we were also, you know, 21 or 22. We didn’t have our lives planned out. We didn’t know what we were going to do in the next month. If you had told me back then that we would have two Grammy nominations, I probably would have laughed.
“Yeah, the 10-year reunion, that was fun. Nice to have all the old school guys come out. We’re on good terms with all the guys that used to play in the band. We were kind of apprehensive about how to do that. We were like, what if these guys aren’t even into it. But they were totally cool, and it was a fun vibe backstage.
“Kino’s the youngest member of the band, and probably one of the most talented. I mean, he’s a monster singer. As far as displaying his range, his talent, you’re just starting to see what he can bring. I think Kino’s vocals and the horn on this album are probably stronger than any of the other sounds and they really came out nicely. I think this is more Kino-centric. He’s stepping up and being more involved and you can definitely see that.
“My dad started as a truck driver for his older brother. You know, typical, those days, not having a father and having to work. So he started driving trucks and working with my uncle. And I don’t know, when he was about 20, about a year before he had me, he met a guy and bought two trucks, well him and two other guys. They drove and my father ran the business.
“My dad was hardcore. Because his brother was hardcore on him and he didn’t really have a dad. He didn’t really even get to finish college. He started classes, but he had to work. Nothing but work for most of his life. He’s been talking about retiring for like 10 years, but I have a feeling he’s not going to. You know, he just started traveling. He had never really been anywhere, so yeah, that was a hardcore thing that he instilled in me, and that’s something I think he loves about the band. We might not be in the everyday workplace, but as far as doing what we love to do, there’s not a lot of bands that work harder.
“I worked with him my entire life. Every summer I’d learn a different aspect of it. I learned how to drive an 18-wheeler when I was 16, well, on the border, because obviously you can’t drive in the U.S. You can get a CDL in Laredo if you wanna pay a couple hundred bucks. Then one summer I’d do mechanic job training. One summer I’d work in the office. It was hard for them to accept that I wanted to play guitar.
“But I think after kind of a few years into Grupo they were like, ‘Wow you’re not playing around anymore.’ It took a few things to kind of validate it. One of the main things that validated it for most of my family was the Prince gig. They were still kind of harassing us, most of our parents were like, ‘Oh, yeah you guys are sounding great, but when are you going to get a job?’ And then we’re on the stage with Prince on TV, and it changed. It validated it for a lot of people. It changed to: ‘If this guy believes in you, then I’ll believe in you.’
“That was four or five years ago. Our old manager had a friend who worked with Prince in Vegas, and he’d heard that Prince had a Latin night every Thursday. Our old manager mentioned to his friend that he was working with us and asked if we could send a CD over and the guy said ‘sure.’ So we overnighted a CD and got a call the next day saying he wanted to book us. And then, the day before Thanksgiving, there was a cancellation with his house band and nobody wanted to play Thanksgiving, so we all packed up, went and played Thanksgiving, and then all of the sudden Prince fired that other band and we were the house band.
“Sometimes it’s being at the right time in the right place. I’d say work ethic is 75% of it, and 25% of it is being at the right time in the right place.
“I know I could not be happy if all I could do was Grupo. It’s just not enough of an outlet. I feel more comfortable in a studio than onstage. It’s my personality, and trying to keep myself satisfied. I’ve been trying to make music that I would listen to, you know. That’s how Ocote Soul Sounds started, me and Martín totally combined. It’s not like we set out to make this revolutionary project. When you’re kinda in your bubble like that, you know, without other influence or pressure or expectations, some of the best stuff comes out.
“And we just finished a new Ocote. We literally just picked up the master yesterday, and the artwork isn’t even started yet. We’ve been planning out the stuff with the label, it should be out in the summer. And this week we’re in the studio with Brownout. Yeah, we have about six or seven new Brownout songs. We should be wrapping up the new album probably within the next few months. It should come out in August or September.
“We play about 200 gigs a year including Brownout gigs and everything else. I prefer to be in the studio any day. I mean, I like being on the road, it’s fun with the guys, but I don’t wanna look like Keith Richards. And I don’t want to be married nine times.
“You know, everybody knows at this point how to push everybody’s buttons. We know by now how to get through the day. There are not a lot of careers where you not only work with your colleagues, but you travel in super close quarters with them, often room with them, wake up, party with them, wake up, and do it all over again. And through thick and thin, good days and bad days, through people having relationship problems, whatever else kind of problems happen day to day, fallouts happen. I’ve seen the best and worst of each guy, so you definitely know what to do, because at the end of the day, we’re all good friends, and we laugh a lot of stuff off, and we don’t really take each other too seriously. But yeah, we know what’s up when somebody’s not having a good day, just leave them alone. And if you’re not having a good day, you sequester yourself as much as you can in a band.
“And we’ve already found out which roommates are compatible, I mean we’re all compatible, as friends and musicians, but when you’re practically living with somebody, it’s like having a girlfriend then you go and move in together, that’s when you really find things out, and you’re like ‘Oh, man, is this going to work?’ People have different living habits.
“And every night on the road is Friday night. For the people who go out to see a show, it’s their chance to let loose, dance, have some drinks. There are times when the last thing I want to do is play, I just want to sit down and watch TV. That’s when beer is your friend.
“It comes down to having a supportive family. I mean, hats off to my wife for putting up with all of my traveling, I mean the traveling has slowed down, but it’s still hard for her.
“This one, El Existential, this was a completely homegrown effort. This one was from scratch. Forget about just writing the song and making the album, just recording the songs. With this one we’d run into obstacles, like we didn’t think of making the cables long enough to go to the other side of the house. ‘Home Depot run!’ We spent like a month just fixing it. We really got our hands dirty on this one, so it really feels like we earned it.
“My favorite stuff is when you see a band’s musical output, when you see peaks and valleys. I mean you look at the Beatles albums, and none of them sound the same, not that I’m trying to compare us to the Beatles, but you get what I’m saying. And whether it worked for them or not, it was always something different, they never got complacent. The thing that made me most happy about El Existential was that we just went for it and it has this totally new sound.”