Session BBS 8: Black Pumas w/ Los Coast<- Back
July 18, 2019
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.”
On their eagerly awaited debut album Samsara, the visionary Austin, TX combo Los Coast delivers a fresh blast of punchy psychedelic-pop-soul that effortlessly incorporates a wide range of genres. The band’s seamlessly soulful songcraft incorporates the band’s distinctive grooves along with the inventive compositions and commanding vocals of principal members Trey Privott (lead vocals, guitar) and John Courtney (guitar, keyboards, vocals).
Even before Samsara had been recorded, Los Coast had already earned a reputation as one of Austin’s most exciting and inventive young bands. With its lineup rounded out by Megan Hartman on bass, Damien Llanes on drums and Natalie Wright on keys, plus a varied assortment of guest players, Los Coast was already renowned for its rousing, expansive live sets.
That same mix of energy and expertise is reflected on Samsara, which features such memorable, no-nonsense tunes as “Simplify,” “Monsters,” “Graves” and the frantic, tongue-twisting “(Everything But) The Kitchen Sink.” The album delivers infectious hooks, ironic lyrical twists and explosive funk grooves in equal measure, providing an irresistible frame for Privott’s soulful vocals and the band’s explosive grooves.
“We love pop music, but we also love to experiment,” says Courtney. “We try to avoid letting the listener know what’s coming, and we like playing with people’s expectations and catching the listener off guard. It becomes stale if it’s too familiar, so we like to come up with music that’s familiar and surprising at the same time.”
“We’re lucky to be able to explore these different sounds and different attitudes, and do a little dabbling,” adds Privott. “We started with a blank canvas, and we built a diverse color palette around the album that we wanted to create. It felt like everything was fair game, from psychedelic funk to the blues to acoustic singer-songwriter pop.”
“I think this album captures a moment in time for the band, and a moment of time in Austin too, with certain things that were in the air at the time, and certain tides turning,” Courtney offers.
Georgia-born Privott’s first love was jazz -- thanks to the influence of his uncle, noted guitarist and former Late Night with David Letterman band member Hiram Bullock -- but his musical consciousness soon came to embrace gospel and soul, thanks to his family’s Southern Baptist faith, as well as punk rock, folk and hip-hop. He began picking up various instruments in his early teens and began experimenting with recording soon after. Although Texas native Courtney focuses on lead guitar with Los Coast, he’s a versatile multi-instrumentalist whose sensibility was influenced by his extensive studies at the prestigious Berkley College of Music.
“I see us as a rock and roll band with a lot of soul influences, like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding,” Privott states. “Otis was from Georgia, Little Richard, too, and that music is in my blood. What I think makes Los Coast stand out is that we’re psychedelic. As a guitar player, John Courtney is into guys like Jerry Garcia and he’s also jazz-trained. His playing defines the band just as much as my voice does.”
Trey and John hooked up in Austin in 2015, and quickly won an audience in their adopted hometown, thanks to a long-running weekly residency at the Austin club C-Boy’s. “We had wanted to use the residency as a chance to get comfortable onstage, and to really learn to play as a group,” Trey explains. “But more and more people started showing up, which we hadn’t expected at all.”
A high-profile gig at 2016’s Austin City Limits festival helped to spread the band’s reputation beyond its hometown, as did some out-of-town touring that helped to build demand for Los Coast’s long-simmering debut album, elevating the group to official buzz-band status. The band’s memorable first indie single, “Summer Samaritan,” gave way to the indelible gospel-funk of its follow-up “Simplify,” which now serves as a key track on Samsara.
“We reworked the album multiple times because we wanted to get it right,” Courtney admits. “We were being a little perfectionist, but we finally got to the point where we felt good about it. It was a long process, but it was time well spent.”
“We built the sessions from the ground up,” adds Privott. “It was kind of a non-traditional way to make an album, to work on it for so long. We went moment by moment, instrument by instrument, and we used everything we had to work with. That seemed to work for us. Now we’re looking forward to sharing it with the world.”