It Up with Adrian Quesada
The world is full of musical
multitaskers, but by most any standards Adrian Quesada is an unusually busy and
productive guy. I’m aware of four ongoing acts that he splits his time between:
his main band Grupo Fantasma, who won a Grammy Award in 2011 for their record El
Existential; the Latin funk combo Brownout, who share numerous members with
Grupo Fantasma; Ocote Soul Sounds, who he co-leads with Martin Perna from
Antibalas; and his own project The Echocentrics, who recently released their second
album, the digital-only Echoland, a tribute to the hip hop producer
Timbaland. Just hot off the presses is a brand new CD by Brownout, Oozy.
And it hardly stops there: Adrian also runs Level One Studios is Austin, Texas,
where he and Grupo Fantasma call home. Recent projects there includes work on a
new EP by Daniel Johnston; remixes of two tracks by ‘70s hit-makers Chicago,
one of which (“Saturday in the Park”) has been licensed for the hit TV series Breaking Bad; and an upcoming record by
cinematic soul guy Adrian Younge. He has done remixes for fellow Austin
multitasker Graham Reynolds of Golden Arm Trio/Golden Hornet project fame, and
mixed the CD Pussyfooting by Foot Patrol, a nasty slice of retro ‘80s
synth funk dedicated to foot fetishists. He’s done soundtrack/score work for
the documentary films Inside The Circle and The Least of These. His music has
been featured on HBO, Showtime and MTV.
Oh, and Grupo Fantasma were
tapped by Prince to back him up for a series high profile shows. I could write
all day about the incredibly groovy stuff that Grupo Fantasma has done (backing
up everyone from Larry Harlow from the Fania All-Stars to Maceo Parker, TV
work, etc.), but what I’m really concerned with here is the big picture on
All of Quesada’s acts reflect
different parts of his wide, inclusive musical vision, but they are also all
stamped with his innate attention to musical detail, bracingly high production
quality and seemingly incredible ease with which he blends, mixes and matches
various styles and genres. Although all unique, with Quesada as producer (or
co-producer) each of the projects share variations on a certain clean, rich and
sexy sound boasting pristine-but-ballsy grooves and fabulous separation in the
Grupo Fantasma’s mix of
modern Latin funk, cumbia, spaghetti Western jams, rock/pop and whatever else
they choose is some of the most delightfully accessible music (as in
commercially viable) produced in the last decade. Brownout opt for a more overtly funky sound, but one infused
with numerous Latin influences, from mariachi to cumbia to rock and soul. Ocote
Soul Sounds blend Martin Perna’s Afrobeat tendencies with Quesada’s pan-Latin
wide net into a fully intoxicating melange that moves from ambient sounds to
orchestral synth music to full fledged AfroLatin funk; on their last album,
2011’s Taurus, Eric Hilton from Thievery Corporation (the group records
for Thievery Corp’s label, the progressive leaning ESL Music) was added in as
one of three producers along with Perna and Quesada, lending his gift for rich
downtempo grooves to the proceedings. Echocentrics mixes Latin pop,
experimental tangents and hip hop technology into unpredictable and surprising
Over five CDs by Grupo
Fantasma and Ocote Soul Sounds, three by Brownout (+ a limited edition remix
CD) and two by Echocentrics (including the new, digital only EP), Adrian
Quesada has created a body of work that stands with anyone’s from the last ten
He recently answered some
questions for BLURT and Sonic Reducer.
BLURT: We’re you raised in a musical environment? Were
there music and/or musicians around your house growing up?
listened to some music, but I wouldn’t say it was a particularly musical
environment. There were NO musicians around my house, no instruments, singing
or dancing. There seems to be more music around my dad’s house nowadays, with
singing and festivities, but as a child not really.
How and where did you learn your way around a studio,
record production, mixing and re-mixing, etc.?
My interest in
recording began as it does with most studiophiles, with a 4 track cassette
recorder in high school. I was obsessed with it when I first got it, and to go
back even further I remember being in 7th or 8th grade and getting a little
Casio where you could record little snippets and play drum patterns and trying
to recreate NWA beats.
From the 4 track (which continued into
my college years) I moved into production and beat programming on an MPC 2000
and worked my way up to a Roland Hard Disk recorder and eventually into GarageBand
on a Mac, which naturally led to Logic. Fast forward to now and I’ve been
working in studios for fifteen years, the first few mainly as an observer as my
bands were recording, but a few years into it I really got immersed and fell in
love with working in studios and the art of making a record. And the most
important thing for me has really been trial and error. There is no right/wrong
in recording, mess around, study the past and find out what works for you and
All of your records always have an incredibly high
production quality. Do you have any particular philosophy and approach that you
apply to all of your productions, mixes, etc.?
I think my only
philosophy is to make a great ALBUM out of something. It seems with the
onslaught of digital information, our attention spans have gotten really short
and people listen to things on shuffle or listen to one song they downloaded or
DJs play short snippets of songs but I used to love to come home with an album
and make it an experience….every part of it was special to me – from opening
the packaging, starting at a cover, reading credits and sitting down and
listening to the WHOLE thing from start to finish. That’s really the most important
thing for me, as for production and mixes, obviously I lean towards the sounds
of the 60s/70s but everything is fair game really, whatever works for my ears.
Can you tell us a bit about the new Echocentrics release and how it came
Sat down one
day after a bit of writers block and thought I’d do a cover song as an
exercise….shuffled through a bunch of music and somehow figured Timbaland
would be the most challenging as it’s not as obvious as say George Harrison or
Morricone or something which lends itself to the instrumentation. One turned
into another and I thought that’d be a fun theme, Timbaland has always been one
of my favorite producers and because of his association with some pop I think
he gets overlooked in an artistic sense. To me he’s like a modern day Phil
Spector or Norman Whitfield, someone who makes pop (and some awesome hip hop)
super out there and interesting.
Grupo Fantasma won a Grammy Award in 2011 for ‘Best
Latin Rock Alternative or Urban Album.’ How has that changed things for the
band since then?
Not much if at
all, honestly. It’s just something they use to announce us now.
Ocote Soul Sounds releases stuff on Thievery
Corporation’s label, ESL. What sort of doors has that relationship opened up
for you? Do you have any more projects in the works with Thievery Corporation?
ESL have been super great and generous with us and very supportive from the
early days. We’ve toured with them and Eric Hilton helped us produce our last
Ocote Soul Sounds album. The whole DC crew is great.
I recently noticed that you were the producer on the
CD Pussyfooting by Foot Patrol, an album dedicated to foot
fetish funk. That’s an outrageously funky record, in a mid-80s sort of way.
What’s the story on that release?
I actually only
helped them mix the record, didn’t produce it. I’ve been friends with a few of
them for years and they asked me to mix the record a couple of years ago and
sent me a few songs which I loved. It was a challenge for me because of the 80s
production aesthetic which I enjoy listening to but don’t ever really attempt,
that made it a lot of fun as it took me out of my comfort zone. The record was
recorded in different studios over a long period of time and song to song often
differed on production aesthetic and that’s actually something I’ve been very
used to working with as several of my bands’ albums have been done like that
and you face the challenge of making the record cohesive.
How did you come to do remixes with Graham Reynolds
and Golden Arm Trio?
Graham’s an old
friend of mine from my first band in Austin, Blue Noise Band. We used to do
shows with him often even once did a legendary Golden Arm Trio vs. Blue Noise
Band show where we played their music and they played ours. He emailed me about
it out of the blue.
Can you talk a bit about the genesis and going-ons at
Level One Studios? What have you been working on there lately?
informal recording and production sessions out of my home studio for years,
decided to make it official, boutique yet also somewhat portable, basically LOS
is just the name for my productions, I move around to different studios in
Austin that I love quite a bit – Big Orange, Wire Recording, Public Hifi, EAR,
etc. etc. but generally always finish production at my home spot. Lately – just
finished an EP for Daniel Johnston, doing some stuff with David Garza,
Echocentrics vocalist Natalia Clavier’s solo album, Funk Ark’s record from DC
which I produced last year just came out, a collaboration with Adrian Younge
from LA, some friends called Baby Atlas, new Echocentrics material, etc. etc.
Some other cool stuff I’ll reveal later….May also be doing some stuff with
folks soon I hope!
How did Grupo Fantasma get to play with Prince?
Our old manager
knew someone who used to work with Prince and mentioned his club in Vegas at
the time, 3121. We sent a copy of our live album, next thing we know we’re
playing there on Thanksgiving, then the house band, so on and so forth.
There you have it. Adrian
Quesada, multitasking away on numerous parallel tracks, always with his eye and
ear on the good groove.
Carl Hanni is a music writer, music publicist, DJ, disc jockey,
book hound and vinyl archivist living in Tucson, AZ. He hosts “The
B-Side” program on KXCI (broadcast and streamed live on Tuesday nights 10-12 pm at
KXCI.org) and spins records around Southern Arizona on
a regular basis. He currently writes for Blurt and Tucson Weekly.
[Photo Credit: John Speice]