March 28, 2019 – By Stacey Lovett
Austin-based Grammy award winning band Grupo Fantasma is releasing their seventh full-length album on Blue Corn Music entitled American Music Vol. VII and bassist Greg Gonzalez spoke with Front Row Ctr on their latest work.
Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk a little about your upcoming album American Music Vol. VII,
It’s been 5 years since your last studio album, Problemas, and obviously the world climate has changed quite a bit to reflect much of the that which plays a part in this album. What all have you all been up to in this time as far as side projects, life events, travel, etc. that has lent to the growth of this creation both separate and alongside our socio-political climate?
Well it’s been a pretty eventful 5 years to be honest as you may be aware most of the members of the band work together in other aspects as well with our affiliated acts Brownout/Brown Sabbath, Money Chicha, as well as our own projects and other things. Our horn section is very much in demand as a recording entity doing studio sessions for all kinds of people, likewise, our drummer plays for other bands. I also teach music and Beto has a studio, well we both have studios, I have one here in Austin – it’s been very prolific in releasing a lot of albums recently for Austin bands such as Superfónicos, Frederico7 and member of other groups around town so we’ve all been super busy with side projects and other things. Our band Money Chicha released an album in 2016 as well as a number of 45s. Our band Brownout has released two albums in that in between period – actually 3 – there was a Brown Sabbath album, a Public Enemy cover album called Fear of a Brown Planet and an EP of original material. Jose started his own band called Galeano which is a side project for him and an outlet for more pop-y stuff so we’ve all been super busy doing other things musically in addition to touring and whatnot in that period since that album came out. We did a couple tours, festivals -nothing super heavy – but we did one fairly extensive tour of Europe as well as one tour of Pakistan – a state department sponsored tour that took us there as well as Qatar. So all of these different things, all of these experiences really informed this newest album, so there’s elements of those experiences that each one of us had as individual musicians or side projects also just through our travels that have come forth on this album, whether it was working with Colombian musicians or doing our psychedelic Money Chicha side project or Brownout projects or all of these individual things we all recharged and developed new inspiration that we all came together and brought all of these different elements and worked collaboratively to create the music that would become American Music Vol. VII.
Grupo Fantasma has had almost 2 decades together and as a collective you have maintained the foundation of what you were built on, continuing to build and evolve this beautiful eclecticism into your own architecture of sound. What all do you draw from and what is your process in bringing it all together so seemingly effortlessly?
Well in the past it was less of a collaborative effort if that makes sense in that individual writers would create the songs and then we would collaborate with the lyricist and our trombone player Mark (“Speedy”) would do the arrangements essentially. So if I wrote a song I’d collaborate with Jose or Kino (either one of the vocalists) so they would be the lyricists and Mark would write horn parts for it or take whatever pitches and ideas we’d put down and would write down and spruce them up to sound more professional and polished. But on this album we did a somewhat different approach than we have in the past it was pretty refreshing to be honest and a little bit different after 20 years to try a different way to come about things. For this one we intentionally decided to bring stuff that was unfinished – ideas and concepts that work a little more collectively – then flesh them out which while everyone has their own process, at the end of the day because we all worked together it created a more organic flow and the songs don’t have distinctive character – in my opinion I can recognize a song that Beto wrote or a song that I wrote or Jose wrote or Kino wrote by itself but because we collaborated we each brought a little bit of our own flavor to it whether it was one of my ideas, Beto’s ideas, Speedy’s ideas it was just kind of the nucleus as well as the rhythm section so we did a long period of writing where we brought in ideas and we’d go rehearse on them and flesh them out a little bit and then we brought in the producer, Carlos “Loco” Bedoya and he’s a very accomplished musician and song writer as well as music engineer producer from Colombia – he lives in Miami currently and has worked with all kinds of famous artists Juanes and Mick Jagger to Missy Elliot and Beyoncé and Weezer – so he had a very expansive knowledge on how things work and it was also super refreshing because he’s Colombian so he has a full grasp of the Spanish language and the beat so he had a lot of good miracle ideas. He had a great harmonic grasp of the piano player so he could help us freshen up any kind of harmonic ideas like that and he also understood the musical traditions of Columbia and Latin America really well so he could really help us out in the process of figuring out what kind of rhythms and forms and sounds we could use in order to create this kind of an album. We did a bunch of pre-production essentially both on our own and with him and then the rhythm section Speedy (Mark) our horn arranger and our vocalists went out to Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas located about 30 minutes outside of El Paso in a tiny little town with huge sprawling pecan orchards that straddle the border – the Rio Grande– that’s where the studio is located so kind of the idea was to be locked in this building for a week and take these ideas and concepts and flesh them out in the studio to write stuff to where it would let it take its form but being out there we wouldn’t be distracted. At this point in our lives everyone has families and responsibilities and things like that so it was really helpful to be able to just sequester ourselves out there in this really nice environment away from any distractions and be focused on the music. And of course the facility is super great out there and has all of the toys you’d ever want all the nice recording equipment and all that kind of stuff and having Loco around is tremendous because not only do you have the producer around but he can also be the engineer of the sessions as he’s a super capable engineer so he had a knowledge of what kind of mics and pre amps and all kind of things the kind of technical aspects. So being out there we were able to develop songs a lot more , create really good beds of rhythm and keys and guitar and bass and kind of freshen up some of the vocal ideas then we came back to Austin about a month or two later and flew Loco back in and then we did all of the horns and the overdubs and the vocals here at Beto’s studio for the most part. Although Loco also did do some tracking of our guest artists in Miami or LA or various other parts because he does remain a highly in demand engineer, songwriter, and mixer so when he wasn’t working with us he was in Miami or LA or New York or Columbia wherever he was jet setting around doing his thing.
So this album was definitely “American made” in the sense that it’s elements were created all over the country.
Absolutely. Part of the thing is that as the album was coming together the country was changing, it came to our attention that Tornillo where the studio is while we were recording you could go down walk a mile down the road and see the wall you know so it was always in the backs of our minds here we are. The original members, myself and Beto, are from the border and our trumpet player Gilbert who’s been in the band almost as long as we have he’s from San Antonio where he grew up; our singer Jose is from Nicaragua and our singer Kino is from Eagle Pass which is also a border town so the whole concept of being on the border that we’re in America but we’re growing up in a place that’s full of culture that is accepting of the Latin identity of Hispanic culture, Mexican culture. And Jose’s experience of being an immigrant from another country and coming here to escape civil war when he was young all of these kinds of experiences came together and formed our identity and what it is to be American. We’ve lived here our whole lives – 30-40 years – and we all consider ourselves American, and yet there’s this external push to define Americanism as something that doesn’t include diversity. That doesn’t include other cultures and ways of expressing yourself or identifying yourself so it was kind of this mish mash of emotions and feelings while we were there experiencing this magical recording session on the border but also being next to a wall then later finding out that his huge detention facility where they keep a lot of the separated children from their families all of those sort of things are really are not just upsetting but it brought in to a release that these are situations we couldn’t be quiet about that we had to talk about and we had to acknowledge one way or another. This band has been around for over 20 years and we’ve never been overtly political because we never felt we needed to we felt like regardless of whether the political landscape was republican or democrat that there was this foundation of acceptance of diversity on some level. We felt like people tried to embrace the idea of America as a melting pot, embrace race as common and experience freedom and liberty for all and more recently we felt like more of that concept is being challenged and so we felt the need to push back. Obviously we’re musicians and were not out there running for office but we felt like this is how we express ourselves we felt it was important to do so to encourage other people to express themselves to be outspoken to not feel pressure by a few rogue elements that have suddenly come into light out of the shadows I should say. So this brought us to call the album American Music because to us we are American. We play music in Spanish sometimes, we play music that embraces different types of cultures – Africa or Latin America – but we don’t ever feel like we’re a Latin band, we’re an American band that embraces a global identity. And by calling it American music its us saying that you can’t define us. And to a sense we also find it offensive that people lump Latin music into one huge catch all category that includes everything from Mexican mariachi to Caribbean to reggaeton to sambas from Brazil – these are all different genres of music. Its like if you were to combine jazz and bluegrass and soul and rock and roll, hip hop and heavy metal and say this is American music – they each have their own distinct category.
I feel art is a more powerful platform that doesn’t have boundaries so it unites people in feeling. I feel this album brings the necessary feeling to the voice of this issue – that sense of coming together and creating a conversation and a feeling about it which should be embraced by humanity – the collaborative side of this album and American voice spanning the coasts is powerful – that really lent to the flavor of the album.
Absolutely. I don’t know how much of it was intentional or not, as the band has developed over the years we’ve refined our fusions so they’re not so obvious– at one point we were still figuring out what we were doing I guess (laughs), at this point now we understand a lot of different styles of music and our capabilities so we can continue to push the envelope and blend things more seriously. The idea is to create music that is Grupo Fantasma music, that’s not a salsa tune or a cumbia tune or Latin tune or rock tune or boogaloo or whatever they want to call it – its our music, our sound. It was really awesome to be able to collaborate with so many different people over the years this band has had the opportunity in various formats to showcase our ability to back up different people and be a variety of what we’re capable of, performing styles of music convincingly, whether its backing up Prince or some funk band or r&b band or backing up GZA from Wu-Tang Clan as a hip hop act or Daniel Johnston or the guys from Ween as a rock band we’ve done all these different things amongst many others and I feel we can do them all convincingly so the other part of the picture is being able to get other people involved with our sound to show that its our sound and not giving it to one generic catch all Latin thing – we can get an English singer on this or we can play some Indian Turkish funk inspired stuff or some Brazilian inspired stuff or some hip hop inspired stuff and still make it sound like our own. The idea is that it shouldn’t be contrived but rather just play what we feel and let it go where it goes and still be convincing and feel like an authentic expression.
Your single “The Wall” is a powerful piece. It is undoubtedly a necessary conversation the world should be having – and feeling – and you bring both. I feel there is something to be said about the awareness of importance of the social process evolving to mirror the creative process – how many people total were involved in this song between all of the members of Grupo plus the members of Ozomatli and Locos Por Juana who lent their voices – lyrically & instrumentally – to the song?
That song was very involved with a lot of good people and like I said it was very much one of those collaborative songs. I wrote the bass line and the form of the song and kind of the main groove on piano and translated it to bass and some keys parts and then in the studio we played it along with the drums and percussion and our guitar player Beto did a great solo which contributed on that and Speedy did some keyboard parts which he then later created the horn parts out of. From there Loco started collaborating with Locos por Juana and we got Itagui Correa from them to sing the first verse, we got the guys from Ozomalti to play some bass and some guitar on kind of the funky section of the song and then the percussionist Justin Porée played the percussion and did the rap for the second verse then all the choruses and the hooks were created by Jose, Kino, and Loco collaboratively, he had an idea to do some sort of Bee Gees style thing and then Jose came up with most of those lyrics, that hook about “no one is illegal on stolen land” which is a powerful response and Jose being an immigrant I think he felt very strongly about that. He could resonate with the desires and hopes and dreams of people who try to come to this country not as villains or criminals or try to take advantage but because they’re desperate and trying to find an opportunity and what they bring to the mix is so much more than they pull. Immigrants aren’t the way that they’re portrayed by some – as invaders – rather they are people that come and are thankful for the opportunities they can achieve here that they aren’t able to achieve elsewhere and as a result they invest their time, their work, their passion, their vision and their hope into this country and make the country better because of that. It’s an infusion of energy of positivity of work ethic and the people who come here don’t take for granted this opportunity – they’re not here to take advantage of it or feel like they’re privileged or expecting to get something there for nothing, they’re here for opportunity and every intention of working hard.
That you all came together to put forth thought, time and effort into not only your voice on this issue but use your talent and medium to bring the feeling to the masses – the ominous front meeting positive advance felt in it. That’s a pretty powerful statement in itself.
I also feel where music is created geographically lends so much to its depth as well. How do you feel this soul and energy of where you recorded- the events in Tornillo – have reflected in the album and will continue to reflect into the world on this matter?
The whole thing about the wall, the detention and all that, that all came more into focus after we had left. While we were there we were really isolated we weren’t on our phones, we were really focused on the musical creation there was definitely a familiarity and an energy to the border to that place that we were familiar with, with most of us being from the border growing up on the border whether it was the environment, the foliage and scenery or the culture when you were eating huevos rancheros for breakfast every day or going to the mercado to get Topo Chico and stuff like that there was a lot of that kind of vibe to it that definitely inspired what was going on just that feeling of being in a border zone which is a very vibrant place but is also a very transitional place. Ports of entry are traditionally where there is a lot of creativity that’s where new styles of music come about- places like New Orleans or Houston or New York or San Francisco – that’s where a lot of different cultures meet and they blend and in our case the music of the United States, hip hop and rock and funk and r&b was combined with the regional music of northern Mexico – mariachi, ranchero, cumbia, music tropical, Tejano it all blended together in our ears and it formed the kind of music that we make and that we’re into. And that’s how it felt to be there it was reminiscent of that kind of experience and that history. Then later when we had left and we were back in “society” and out of that sequestered mentality we saw things going on in the country and unfortunately the soap opera that continues to unfold in our government it cast everything in a new light, what has the border become to us now and that’s one of the things we were fighting to define, not letting somebody else scapegoat or create this conception of the border like it’s a dangerous place overrun by drug cartel and immigrants are coming to take your jobs – no we grew up there and it didn’t feel that way. I grew up in Laredo Texas and we didn’t have a wall – I interacted with people from Mexico every single day I listened to their music in every establishment I went into Spanish was everywhere around me as was English as an American culture.
In titling the album American Music, your aim was to reflect the unity of identity both in the band and as a nation. Labeling your music as ‘Latin music’ doesn’t aptly describe the band’s collective identity. I do feel there is a beauty in celebrating what our individuality brings to the mix – we all add our own flavor to the creation which becomes the whole, but also there is an element of sharing and drawing from others, complementing each other’s essence, and this is seen throughout the album as well as you all experimented with elements ranging from 70’s Turkish psychedelia to Indian dhol drumming to the use of Columbian instruments. What evoked the desire to practice this level of diversity and was there any kind of learning curve that came with it?
The Turkish sound of that particular song kind of came from the short lived experiment that myself and Beto and our drummer John Speice, we got into Turkish music especially Turkish psychedelic rock and funk of the 70s and 60s and we tried to start a band here that played that because no one was playing it and we thought the music was super cool and it would be a great experience for us to learn that style and get inspired by it so we had a band and played 3 or 4 gigs but didn’t really take off and we didn’t have time to nurture it like we wanted but it definitely inspired us afterwards to incorporate those kinds of sounds. Likewise the Columbian songs, Beto worked with and recorded with several Columbian artists here in town we have this band Money Chicha which plays Peruvian psychedelic music and additionally there this influx of Columbian artists who have started to appear in Austin lately and they seem to be bringing a lot of fresh energy to the Latin music scene so we wanted to incorporate some of that. Additionally our producer Loco is from Bogota so he understood a lot of those kinds of styles he was able to provide some of that thing as well so its kind of an attempt to dig a little deeper into cumbia. One of the cornerstones of this band has been cumbia music I would say others (cornerstones) would be funk, cumbia, salsa, maybe rock so cumbia was a huge cornerstone and was the initial impulse that made it a group that would decide to play music like this and as we’ve been learning and continuing to play this style of music we got deeper and deeper into different parts of it. Growing up on the border you hear it all over the place but it’s a specific style of it that’s regional – northern Mexican – the Monterrey sound of cumbia. There wasn’t until later that we even realized that cumbia was a style of music that comes from Colombia originally and that it had long traditions going back to the interaction of the native peoples of the Amazon and the Andes with African slaves who were brought there to do agricultural work by the Spanish as well as the Spanish interaction. And its very unique because it has some of that indigenous sound of beats and melody that are very specific and also has a lot of African sound to the drums and the rhythms and the closer we got into the Colombian sound we started to discover a little bit more of those kind of influences. I can’t pretend to know a lot about it having just gone to Columbia it was really humbling to realize just how deep some of these traditions and styles are and how some of them haven’t really been incorporated into popular music they’re very specific to one little town or one little area or one group and how completely different it can even sound from what we consider cumbia music yet you could hear that influence so it was really awesome to try and touch some of those roots. You talk about a melting pot that’s a melting pot right there that kind of represents all of American and all of our music in a sense is like that indigenous or native kind of experience the African experience as well as the European and Spanish experience all those things blend together to make cumbia just like the African experience and European experience blended together to make jazz and the Latin American African experience became salsa how all these different kinds of experiences blended together to create these different identities.
Is that what spurred the trip to Colombia? To delve into that deeper?
Yeah, its been a long time dream of ours to go– some of us are really into the style of music and we try and study and learn from people here in town but recently I got into trying to write some grants to explore and understand more of this kind of stuff and I was really fortunate to have a friend that I came across who was writing grants for awhile and he helped me out and Kiko Villiamzar who is a Columbian American artist here in town we both got these two grants separately and we both found out about it in such a time frame it was just perfectly aligned with Carnival de Barranquilla -it’s the fourth largest town in Columbia on the Caribbean coast, a briny industrial town about and hour and a half from Cartagena which is much more famous but Barranquilla holds the annual carnival festival which is recognized as one of the treasures of the human experience by UNESCO and is also the second largest carnival outside the one in Rio de Janiero in the world and thing about it for me is that is showcases a lot of the styles of music of Columbia particularly what they call the Costeños from the coast there which is where cumbia came from, so because of the time and having the financing we brought along Beto who also is in Grupo Fantasma and Money Chicha and Brownout with me the three of us went down there for 10 days to get more in touch with the roots to learn things. Kiko obviously as a Columbian artist he’s much more in touch with all that and he knew a lot of these artists – he organizes a Columbian festival here in town called Wepa so he had all the connections to a lot of these artists so we were able to meet them directly and talk to them and pick their brains as well as play with them on a couple occasions and see them perform and we just got back – he stayed there for another week and is going to get a little more deep into it – we had to come back for SXSW.
I feel the collaborative process not only with other artists but amongst yourselves mirrors your music and is just that fun, feel good connection of humankind. Obviously crafting something so big and intricate is a lot of work but do you all have fun in the process? Is the writing and recording a big party mirroring that vibe of your music as well as the passion you hold for it?
It’s hard to explain really it has a lot of lightening in a bottle type moments a lot of sitting around moments a lot of hanging out and comradery – one of the nice things about being out at Sonic Ranch and being so immersed in it without distraction it was almost like being on tour to a certain extent – we slept in the same places, we ate together, we really hung out and had a chance to catch a vibe which is a really beautiful thing because a lot of times these days everyone is so busy with families and whatnot that we only see each other in rehearsals and gigs and a lot of our communication is through texts and emails as much as we’d like to hang out more its really difficult to get this many people together unless they’re getting paid or playing a gig, so we’ve known each other for so long its like riding a bike to a certain extent hanging out, we don’t see each other and hang out and within 4-5 hours we’re back to joking around and having a good time so all of that was awesome. But then there’s also the tough part with things like creating this really futuristic music where you’ve got all kinds of different artists and musicians interacting not always together there’s a lot of times where you have a guy come and he’d record just percussion parts on one song he would take a whole day or just the horns would come in and have to painstakingly put together these arrangements that Mark created and some cases it was Loco on his own going to Miami or LA to work with different artists and record them so it was a really interesting effort that was focused and also fragmented because of how many people are involved. It’s a process unlike if your were a small band and you could be engaged in every single step of it at this point you have to put your faith in all of the participants that they’re going to do the best they can and that the producer is going to keep all the balls in the air that are being juggled. You know I play the bass and I help write the songs but I cant be there for all the horn parts and all the professional overdubs and all the flights to Miami and LA or the guitar solos or the mixing or whatever so there is a certain amount of faith you have to put in your team to make it work but that being said there’s a lot of fun times too where we did get to hang out together.
Not to downplay the amount of work that goes into it all but there is a big sense of community and celebration of that which comes across.
We’re a family at this point if you hang out with somebody for 20 years. You might have a brother or a cousin or a sister that you don’t talk to every day but when you see them they’re your brother they’ll have all those memories and you’re still connected and that’s kind of how it is with some of these guys in the band you become brothers on the road and you don’t see each other very much or you just pass by others in rehearsals but when you do hang out after a couple months its like you never stopped hanging out.
The Mohawk is the setting for the big album release show on March 29th and you all have a lot of special guests sharing the stage. What all is in store that night?
We’re planning to bring as many of the guests as we can from the album to perform with us on those songs so for sure Jaime Ospina from Superfónicos is playing with us on one song as well as percussion on a number of songs, Tomar Williams – Tomar and the FCs is opening the show for us – so Tomar will be singing that song with u,s our producer Loco also plays keyboards on a few of the songs so he’ll join us, additionally Josh Baca of Los Texmaniacs the tremendous accordion player Grammy winner and kind of heir to the lineage of guys like Flaco Jiménez he’s going to come out and join us for some songs as well so it should be a reunion.
This album is a very powerful journey not only for you guys but with the impact it will have in our society. What all is planned as far as sharing it with the world? Do you plan to tour extensively with it?
Well we’re putting together some shows and some tours right now one of the most difficult aspects of having a band this large is really touring because the expenses are outrageous. Having 10 people on the road with hotel rooms and traveling and everything else you have to maintain a certain level to make that happen. Additionally like I said there’s a lot of us and we’ve all got families and stuff so it’s a lot more difficult than when we were young and could just go on tour for 10 weeks so we’re being a little more strategic doing little runs over a weekend or a week at a time. We’ve got some shows coming up in April we’ll be playing in NY and Philly we’ve got some shows in may where we’ll be going to the southwest one in Phoenix and I believe Albuquerque and possibly El Paso and Lubbock and then in the summer we’re working on trying to finalize a plan to go do another state department sponsored trip like the one we did to Pakistan. This one would be to Russia and to Turkey to play and from there we would hit Europe to do shows – we’re still putting that together but right now we still have a few things in Germany and France and possibly the Netherlands as well. So that’s kind of what we’re looking at right now we’re going to continue to look at plugging dates wherever we can but like I said it’s just difficult because there’s so many people involved in the band with so many other things going on we can’t just hit the road for peanuts anymore. When we were young we’d go 10 people in one van and sleep on floors and play little rock & roll clubs and that’s kind of how we built our reputation and our sound but at this point we feel like we already know we can do that and we’ve got other obligations and priories now than getting out and seeing the world but we do intend to promote the album. And we’re working on releasing a video for “The Wall” later this month – we’re working on recording a couple live performance video as well so we’re going to keep trucking along and pushing out the stuff and hopefully other tour dates will keep coming in.