Grupo Fantasma - Interview at Womad (27/7/12)

Tagged with: Grupo Fantasma Womad Interview Glyn Phillips Greg González World Music Cumbia Salsa Latin Funk Brownout Adrian Quesada Beto Martinez José Galeano Sweet Lou John Speice Josh Levy Gilbert Olorreaga Mark Speedy Gonzalez Ocote Soul Sounds

This is an abridged transcript of an interview conducted between Greg González (bassist with the Texan latin crossover band: Grupo Fantasma) and Glyn Phillips (Editor of at Womad 2012, Charlton Park, UK.

It was conducted within half an hour or so of their performance on Womad's Open Air Stage finishing at a little table just outside Grupo Fantasma's changing room tent in the Artists Enclosure on Fri 27th July 2012).  

[To read my review of their concert, click here: otherwise, for the interview, read on]

I only turned the recorder on after we'd already been talking for a few minutes.  Greg was telling me how they'd started the tour in the US in June and would be continuing to tour in France and then Germany throughout July and August before returning home.  

The beginning of the recording just goes straight into the middle of a sentence:

Greg: “…Europe and about 3 or 4 weeks in the States, and after we go back we’re gonna take a short break and then hit the road with our other band, Brownouts.

Glyn: You're in Brownout?!

Greg: Yeah, yeah

Glyn: Really?

Greg: Yeah, man!

Glyn: Well…

Greg: They’re mostly the same cats, honestly!

Glyn: Ok, now well that explains a lot, ok (Greg laughs), that explains a lot. So which ones of you are in Brownout then?

Greg: Everybody except the singers and then we have other special guests and other folk...

Glyn: So when you say the singers...

Greg: The two singers

Glyn: something like the timbalero...

Greg: The timbalero and the guy who played the guiro … and we all sing.

Glyn: So there’s two electric guitarists...

Greg: that’s our trademark sound, that’s… two guitars.

Glyn: I like the sound though, 'cause I mean like you’ve got the guy on stage right, he’s got that kind of surf sound, you know, cum Western and then yer man on the other side he’s got more of a rock sound, … I like the contrast between the two.

Greg: Yeah, they both have very specific sounds, they both have very distinct styles. And they complement each other really well, no doubt. I mean that’s part of the sound of the band that differentiates us from a lot of other latin groups, it almost sounds African in that sense, we’ll have two guitars instead of a piano or something like that you know. It also gives it more of a rock and funk kind of vibe, you know. You get that James Brown feel, he had two guitars, you know.

Glyn: Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re saying.  Yeah, I really enjoyed that bit. So are you the MD as well for the band?

Greg: Oh, no, no. We all contribute music to the band, we all contribute songs, you know, there’s maybe five or six songwriters in the group. So everybody’s allowed to contribute and then once the songs come to the band we all develop them, you know kind of in a group, yeah.

Glyn: You’re all from Austin, Texas, but in terms of, I dunno, what d’ya wanna call it, ethnicity within the band, I mean, what’s the make up?

Greg: Well it’s rather diverse, most everyone in the band is from Texas and there’s a lot of us with Mexican-American descent… the two guitar players are actually from the border, from a border town called Laredo in Texas. We’re the three original members and then our timbale player and our trumpet player have been around nearly since the beginning.

But yeah we grew up on the border, you know exposed to Mexican-American culture and then most of the other guys are from Texas, they’re familiar with that, but then there’s also just like a mixed bag at this point, you know, our timbale player’s from Nicaragua, so he’s got legitimate Central American credentials. Yeah, and then our conga player, he’s from Texas you know, our sax player he’s from Los Angeles, by way of Houston.

Glyn: The bari* guy? Man, I tell you, I love that sound! The bari, aw! When it kicks in, it’s brilliant.   [* baritone saxophone]

Greg: He’s a powerful player. That’s also an interesting part of the band as far as instrumentation, you know, the bari saxophone with the two brass instruments, it’s got very much the heartbeat kind of sound, you know not so much the modern jazzy kind of tone, it’s a little more gutbucket, you know.

Glyn: OK, I was going to ask you that, because in one bit, yer man, the timbalero [José Galeano] was saying about doing summat in a puerto rican style, when you did that bomba, so I just wondered whether any of you were, you know...

Greg: Well he’s familiar with other latin styles, his uncle was actually Chepito Areas, who played with the Santana band for many years, He played at Woodstock …

Glyn: You’re joking!

Greg: So that was like his idol growing up, that’s kind of the person he patterned his sound off of. I mean, we all, we all, you know, appreciate the latin tradition. We have, you know, we’re coming from different places. Some of the horn players are coming from the very academic side, they play more classical jazz and all that, you know, some of us like myself and the guitar players are more from a rock and funk background, you know.  

Our conga player went to school and he does like drum-lines and stuff, snare bands, marching bands and all that, you know, but he also studied under some really good teachers of Afro-cuban and latin music, you know.

Glyn: So, if you’re all in Brownout and you already work at quite a high level, so what was the inspiration to form Grupo Fantasma?

Greg: Well Grupo Fantasma predates Brownout in a sense, the two kind of developed along parallel trajectories. Grupo Fantasma just got a head start if you will. Originally we played in like college and like house-parties and you know co-op parties, after parties, backyards and all that sort of thing, playing funk and just kind of jamming and honing our chops playing like rock and jazz fusion kind of our own styles as well as the blues and all that.

But being from the border we were familiar with this latin music, mainly cumbia which is like huge in Mexico, you know. The Mexican culture’s adopted it as its own, if you will and it’s almost more popular there now than in Colombia.

So we were familiar with that and when we moved to the states we noticed that there weren’t really any bands doing it. You know there were crossover bands doing salsa, but there was no crossover cumbia, you know, like all the stuff was really corny to us, you know, it sounded like bad keyboards, or just like really obvious pop production, so we wanted to approach it from a different angle, we wanted to like take our rock and roll format with guitars and drums and this and take those melodies and those rhythms and try and explore it, and over time we, you know, José joined the band early on and he was quick to school us in some of those traditions, the lineage, and over time we’ve got to perform with idols and icons of the music and we’ve learned a lot, just watching and you know, . . .

Glyn: Like what kind of people?

Greg: Er, well we played with Larry Harlow a few times, and he recorded on a couple of our albums, we were very fortunate to do that, and on the other side we got to play with Prince, for a while, we backed him up a few times, and Sheila E and then more recently we played at Bonnaroo with the GZA of Wu-Tang Clan, so it’s a very diverse musical palette to choose from you know.

Glyn: Nah, it’s good man. I mean one thing that interests me is like listening to the cumbias that you do it’s very much Mexican cumbia, I mean, it reminded me of… well, its got that whole Selena vibe, you know that kind of chic-chicka-chick, the Mexican, Tex-Mexy vibe of it as opposed to the Colombian or even the Argentinian or Chilean cumbias.

Greg: Yeah, well I think a lot of that has to do with the instrumentation you know, the drumset, the guitars, but then we also incorporate a lot of that Colombian sound, but also, the form of cumbia that really inspired us was more of the older style: the Discos Fuentes, the 1960s, what they call the Golden Era, yeah, when they had big bands with horns…

Glyn: Yeah, like Lucho Bermudez and all these guys

Greg: Exactly. And what we grew up with was more like accordions and keyboards, you know, so we were familiar with the melodies and the rhythms and you know we drove across when we were teenagers you could get a drink in the states where we’d go over there and party and dance and whatever.   But then when we got turned onto that we were like 'Oh man, yeah, like it would be really cool to incorporate something like this with the horns, that more of jazzy kind of sound with the rock thing'.

You know, I mean it’s really a hodge-podge of all of our different inspirations, you know, James Brown and you know, Bob Marley, to you know, Aniceto Molina... They all kind of come together we give our best try to pay a homage to that you know,

Glyn: It’s great. I mean you went down well amongst a load of ‘stiff-neck Brits’ (both burst out laughing!), and you brought the sun with ya

Greg: Oh, no no! We’ve been doing it for a while now, the band’s been about 12 years together, so we’ve come a long way and the sound has changed, you know, it’s always growing and developing. There’s so many talented characters in the band I mean that’s why we have other projects like Brownout, you know, we have another band that plays chicha music, called Money Chicha.

And then our guitar player Adrian he has another couple of projects Ocote Soul Sounds, that’s one of them with some of the guys from Antibalas. And we play with those guys too, you know, I mean it’s a big melting pot of sounds and influences, you know, but again there’s so many talented individuals, because it’s like the 'All Stars team', everybody comes and brings their own material and what comes out of it is that sound you know,

Glyn: Where’s Grupo Fantasma in terms of going forwards? I mean, are you looking to go in a different direction or are you happy with what it is? Are you more of a recording band, festival band, what are you, how do you see it?

Greg: Er, it’s hard to say, yeah, I mean there’s so many people involved again that everybody has their own, their own directions and they kind of… everybody contributes so it’s hard to take control and be decisive and say ‘this is what’s going to happen’, it’s as much as a surprise to us as anyone else.

And then things come out of the blue that send us in other directions, like the GZA thing this summer, the Prince thing, obviously these are monumental collaborations and they change our sound and the way of our whole approach to music, so we may have thought we were going this way and after that we’re like ok, well now we’re going to try this you know.

But our next step.. we recorded a live album, in February, we filmed it in Austin so we’re going to try and release that at some point this year or early next year, like a live - if not DVD - internet kind of thing where you can see the band in performance and hear some songs. and then on top of that we’ve started recording and writing new songs. We’ve been talking to, you know, a few high-profile producers - I don’t want to drop any names necessarily because I’m not sure who we’ll be going with yet.

Up to this point we’ve always produced our own stuff. Our last album was produced by our guitar player Adrian Quesada and before that we did it collectively, we always, you know, had a big hand as far as writing songs, contributing ideas, it’s always been kind of an open, you know, discourse, as far as developing the sound, but I think looking to go forward we wanna try and work with some people outside of the amoeba (laughs), to see what they bring to us and see how they shape our sound and what kind of way they’ll, what kind of influence they’ll have on our songwriting and sound. You know? I mean ideally we wanted to constantly evolve and change and it’s best if we’re surprised you know, if you get comfortable then you lose the fire, you know?

Glyn: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know! I’m a musician myself so… I know the feeling.

Greg: Yeah, it’d definitely be a challenge, you know. There’s times when it’s like, it feels like old hat and there’s other times when you don’t know what’s gonna happen next. So you try and keep a little bit of that element of surprise in the show no matter what."

Glyn Phillips & Gregorio González

[The rest of the interview was only concerned with getting the names of all the musicians correct, swapping details and finding some CDs]

To read my review of Grupo Fantasma's Womad performance, click here:

The musicians in Grupo Fantasma are:

Jose Galeano - Singer, Timbales, Frontman

Kino Esparza - Singer, Hand Percussion

Gregorio González - Bass

Adrian Quesada - Electric Guitar

Beto Martinez - Electric Guitar

Matthew 'Sweet Lou" Holmes - Congas

John Speice IV - Drumkit

Josh Levy - Baritone Sax

Mark 'Speedy' Gonzalez - Trombone

Gilbert Olorreaga - Trumpet