IN THE MUSICAL world of unlikely pairings, it doesn’t get stranger than Adrian Quesada and Eric Burton, otherwise known as the psychedelic-soul duo the Black Pumas. The collaboration came together at the urging of a mutual friend who told Quesada — a Grammy-winning, Austin-based guitarist and producer whose onetime band, Grupo Fantasma, toured with Prince — about Burton, a virtually unknown, self-described “acoustic busker” who was passing through town from his native Los Angeles.
“On paper, we’re not supposed to work,” Quesada says. “You’d look at our histories and go, ‘What do these guys have in common?’ But the minute I heard Eric sing and play, I knew he had something I could work with. He’s got incredible talent, but he’s also sincere. That’s what bonds us. Eric isn’t trying to mimic anybody, and I’m not either. We just want to be ourselves, and I think that’s why we sound a little different — and hopefully, authentic.”
Before he hooked up with Burton, Quesada, looking to fuse his interests in Afropop and world music with retro-funk and fuzz driven rock, had recorded almost an album’s worth of instrumental material in his Austin studio. Burton, 13 years Quesada’s junior, arrived with a background in gospel and theater, but he had virtually no experience when it came to recording. He did, however, come ready with an intriguing passel of gutsy, street-tested songs, so Quesada brought his new partner into the recording process slowly — over a year, in fact, during which time the two broke up studio time with a weekly residency at Austin’s C-Boy’s Heart & Soul bar.
“Doing the studio thing turned out to be fun and eye-opening,” Burton says. “Adrian and I didn’t always have to explain what each one was doing — it happened very naturally. But the studio is one thing and the stage is something else. You don’t always know what you’ve got until you play your music for people. It toughens you up, and that’s a good thing. Getting those battle scars forces you to get good really quickly.”
Quesada and Burton match their disparate talents seamlessly on their debut album, Black Pumas (ATO), full of gritty, fanciful and trippy singles such as “Colors” and “Black Moon Rising.” Released last year, the album earned them rapturous critical raves, plus a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Despite losing the golden phonograph to Billie Eilish, the Pumas maintain — true to showbiz tradition — that it was an honor to be noticed.
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