Ernest Hemingway’s quip about bankruptcy happening in two ways, gradually then suddenly, applies to Black Pumas too. But in the case of the Austin, Texas duo, it refers to success, not failure. Since starting in 2017, singer-guitarist Eric Burton and guitarist-producer Adrian Quesada have seen their band get bigger and bigger. Initially the growth was gradual, fuelled by slow-burning hit “Colors”. Now, the foot is on the accelerator.
In March, they are up for three Grammy awards, including album of the year for their self-titled debut and record of the year for “Colors”. This month, they appeared with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Katy Perry in Celebrating America, the televised concert marking Joe Biden’s accession as US president. It was viewed by almost 11m people on network television, with millions more watching on cable stations and online.
I speak to them via Zoom the morning after the inauguration show. It was broadcast live, but Black Pumas had taped their segment a few days previously. They played “Colors” with their backing band in an Austin venue. Quesada watched it at home with his wife. A bottle of champagne was opened, while his phone buzzed and vibrated like a swarm of wasps.
“Our manager said, ‘You’re trending on Twitter.’ I got on it just to look and was reading comments,” he says, sitting in his recording studio surrounded by guitars and consoles. Meanwhile, Burton speaks from his rented apartment. The former busker has just bought his first house, which he will soon be moving into. Unlike Quesada, he did not watch Celebrating America. Instead he spent the evening going over a recent photoshoot.
“I almost feel bad that I didn’t watch it,” he says. As with Quesada, his phone was taken over by messages from friends and family. “It feels very overwhelming. There is so much happening now that I don’t think it will 100 per cent clear to us until it’s all said and done.”
They formed without a grand plan. “Let’s play music together until it’s not fun anymore,” Quesada told Burton when they began working together. Their music is easy paced and unforced. The style is psychedelic rock-and-soul. Songs radiate an analogue glow of electric guitar, organ and brass, with subtle flares of intensity. The drumming has the organic sound of handclaps. Burton’s vocals recall canonical names from the past such as Marvin Gaye and Bobby Womack. The message is one of living in the moment, set to a timeless groove.
Both band members have been around the block as musicians. Quesada, 43, is a veteran of Austin’s well-established independent music scene, having worked as a mixer and engineer for other acts as well as playing in bands. Previous projects had a very different sound from Black Pumas — including an early outing in an abrasively experimental outfit called Blue Noise Band.
“Oh wow! That was when I was in college, man,” he says when reminded of this venture from the 2000s. “I met some roommates that were really into jazz. We became kind of like what some of our friends would call poor man’s punk-jazz. I had no idea how to play jazz, but they were very well schooled in it. I got really into it and would hang out with these guys that were major jazz-heads. We would go to parties and hijack the stereo with jazz, which is not what most people at a party want to be listening to.”
His next band was a Latin funk ensemble called Grupo Fantasma, which toured with Prince and won a Grammy for best Latin rock in 2011. “I really learned how to play in a tasteful way,” Quesada says. “Because when there are 10 people playing, if you’re overplaying it sounds terrible. But if everybody’s playing in harmony, which happens a lot in Latin ensembles, everyone’s playing a part to serve the song. Those were my formative years of learning how to be in a band. Not only that but coexisting and travelling with 10 people on tour is quite a big education too,” he adds with a laugh.
Burton, 30, was introduced to Quesada by a mutual acquaintance. The singer had recently moved to Austin and was, as he puts it, “strapped for funds”. His formative musical experiences came from an inspirational uncle in New Mexico who “is sort of like a Christian artist”.
“He had crates and crates of tapes he would record of himself, just for fun, and I would rummage through them as a kid and listen to all of his songs. That’s how I learned to write music, from a place of sincerity, before I liked any specific artist out there,” Burton says. “Then I got into Otis Redding, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, as well as The Beatles, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.”
The sound of the past is inescapable on their debut album, Black Pumas, which came out last year. “Ain’t nothin’ new”, Burton sings on the first song. But he and Quesada do not sound second-hand. They inhabit their style with connoisseur-like care, but also naturalness. Wanting to be true to oneself is a recurrent theme of Burton’s lyrics.
“Colors” resembles a soulful civil rights anthem from 50 years ago. Created by a biracial duo — Burton is African-American, Quesada is Mexican-American — it has been welcomed as balm for a current age of racial strife. The pair have been on big-name US television shows playing it, including Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. But the song was not intended to be about race. Burton wrote it over 10 years ago in quite a different context.
“I was leading praise and worship at a Presbyterian church,” he explains, “and I was looking to learn how to play guitar while at the same time figure out a way to write somewhat of a hymn, from my voice, from my place of inner truth. And that’s what came of it. I didn’t know ‘Colors’ was going to do what it’s doing. I’m absolutely over the moon about it,” he says.
At the time, he was living in California, busking next the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica. It was not a staple in his busking repertoire. “If you want to make money as a busker, you’re probably not playing your own songs,” he says drily. Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” was a reliable standby, as was Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”. “Colors” turned a few heads, but no more.
“Other than getting some really good reviews on the Santa Monica pier, by way of passers-by, the song and myself were virtually unknown before the Pumas,” Burton says. “I was lucky to run into Adrian to bring it to life.”
He and Quesada were initially tentative about working together. “We both googled each other,” Quesada remembers. They found they had chemistry in the studio. “I was secretly already feeling really excited about it but just trying to be calm,” Quesada says. “I didn’t want to get too ahead of it.” Their band name came to him after a trip to Mexico where he became fascinated by jaguar iconography. “Black Pumas just sounded cool,” he says. “But part of the appeal for us was that the black puma doesn’t exist, it would just be a panther.”
They are currently knocking about ideas for the next album. “Colors” will set an imposing yardstick. Perhaps one day the hit that has propelled them to prominence will become a millstone: the number that fans bay for at gigs, the standard by which all their other recordings are judged. Do they fear becoming known as the “Colors” guys?
“That’s a great problem to have,” Quesada says, to laughter from his bandmate in the neighbouring Zoom window. “There’s something my wife says to me when I come home stressed out about something, she goes: ‘They’re happiness problems.’ We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
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