Sometimes, a mystical, life-changing connection can be closer than you think.
In 2017, Grammy Award-winning guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada had recorded some instrumentals in his Austin studio, and he started looking around for a vocalist -- he knew a lot of singers, but he wanted something different. He reached out to friends in Los Angeles, in London, but nothing seemed right.
Meantime, Eric Burton had recently made his way to Texas. Born in the San Fernando Valley, he grew up in church and then got heavily involved in musical theater. He started busking at the Santa Monica pier, where he brought in a few hundred dollars a day and developed his performance skills. Burton traveled through the Western states before deciding to settle down in Austin -- setting up his busking spot on a downtown street corner, at 6th Street and Congress, for maximum exposure.
A mutual friend mentioned Burton to Quesada, saying that he was the best singer he had ever heard. The two musicians connected, but Burton took a while to respond (“My friends were like ‘Dude, you’re a mad man, you need to hit that guy back!’“) Finally, he called Quesada, and started singing to one of the tracks over the phone. “I loved his energy, his vibe, and I knew it would be incredible on record,” he says. “From the moment I heard him on the phone, I was all about it.”
The results of that inauspicious beginning can now be heard on the self-titled debut album from Black Pumas, the group that Quesada and Burton assembled, which has become one of the year’s most anticipated projects. Described as “Wu-Tang Clan meets James Brown” by KCRW, Black Pumas were the winner of Best New Band at the 2019 Austin Music Awards.
Quesada has a storied reputation from playing in bands like Grupo Fantasma and Brownout, accompanying artists from Prince to Daniel Johnston, and producing such acclaimed projects as 2018’s Look at My Soul: The Latin Shade Of Texas Soul. For the tracks that kicked off this project, though, he had a different direction in mind. “I was looking for somebody with their own identity,” says Quesada, “who liked Neil Young as much as Sam Cooke.”
Burton’s taste, range, and experience proved to be exactly what Quesada was seeking. “We just take to the same kind of music,” he says. “I listen to East Coast hip-hop, old soul music, folk music. When Adrian sent me the songs, it was like I had already heard them before. We were on the same wavelength from the get-go.”
The first day they got together in the studio, they recorded the dusty funk that would become the Black Pumas’ first two singles, “Black Moon Rising” and “Fire.” Quesada had written the music for “Black Moon Rising” on the day of the 2017 solar eclipse, and Burton took that concept and ran with it. “Right away, the hair stood up on the back of my neck,” says Quesada. “I knew, ‘This is it -- this is the guy.’”
Burton sensed the potential, as well. “When I saw that Adrian played with Prince and had a Grammy,” he says, “that he was a serious, respected artist, I knew that I would do my best not to squander that. If you can do it on the street, for a long time, without making yourself crazy, you can do it with a guy who’s won a Grammy.”
The duo also knew that they didn’t want their sound to be too retro or imitative. “We didn’t want to just do throwback soul and pretend that hip-hop never happened,” says Quesada, noting that it was listening to Ghostface Killah that initially triggered him to start writing this material. “It had to feel sincere coming from us. I have a certain aesthetic in the studio, Eric has a voice that evokes a certain era, but I don’t think we reference that too directly.”
“Adrian has had the time and the interest to really dive into a specific sound, to recreate something he heard on a Motown record,” adds Burton. “And because of that specific knowledge, he provides an interesting sandbox for me, whose background is in theater, to do something super-unorthodox -- to be an art student and play with all the colors I have, but to put it on something that’s more familiar to listeners’ ears.”
With Black Pumas having evolved from an idea to a session to an album, they decided to put a band together and see how this music sounded live. They booked a residency at C Boys (a sister venue to Austin’s famed Continental Club), initially playing every Thursday for a month. “We only rehearsed twice, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” says Quesada. “But with the first show, we knew it was unique, special -- the chemistry and fire were there immediately. And what Eric could do as a frontman was like nothing I’d ever seen.”
As word got out, the C Boys shows turned into a local phenomenon (“the hottest party in town,” according to the Austin American-Statesman), with lines around the block despite the fact that the band had only released one song. The reaction to the group’s recent South by Southwest appearance helps explain the mania -- the Chicago Tribune called Burton’s performance “a whirlwind of movement and gesture,” while Rolling Stone, in naming Black Pumas “One Of The 30 Best Bands We Saw In Austin,” wrote that “the hometown six-piece’s grooves were funky in a thick, viscous way, oozing out in ambitious jams that wandered into heady territory without meandering” and praising Burton’s “tireless, charismatic energy.”
The other, unexpected result of the C Boys residency was that Burton presented more of his own songs to help fill out the set, which led Black Pumas into new territory. “Eric had all these other songs based on other styles, going back into what he was doing when he was busking,” says Quesada. “It was a real spark that we could huddle around him and his songs, too, and get a real sense of what our sound was.”
In fact, the final song recorded for Black Pumas was “October 33,” a tense, pleading ballad by Burton. “I didn’t feel like we had the right last song,” says Quesada, “we needed something with more of Eric on guitar. I said ‘I want to put down one more, do you have anything?’ and he texted me back exactly what I was imagining -- it was almost unspoken.”
Quesada and Burton both return, over and over, to this almost mystical connection they felt from the beginning. It’s this sense of common purpose, of shared vision, that gives Black Pumas its focus and power -- and that points to great things ahead.
“It’s so seamless, it’s like we’re musical brothers to some degree,” says Burton. “It feels so easy to meld together that what’s most important for us now is to continue to look for new sounds -- to make sure we’re feeding ourselves the knowledge to continue to evolve. Every time we get together, it’s better than the last time.”
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