Friday, December 6, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
Nothing transcends cultural and political division like music. Go see Loretta Lynn live and marvel at the conservative Christians and progressive lesbians getting ecstastic in the one and the same crowd.
To my mind, no current band so embodies this ability to fly over seeming contradictions and polarities like an Austin outfit that sews together half a century of rock, soul, funk and salsa. To see what I mean, you have to see the 10-man band known as Grupo Fantasma live. Once you’ve seen them live, You’ll understand.
Watching Grupo Fantasma take possession of every living soul in a room is a singular pleasure. Or maybe it’s the other way around. It’s the pleasure of watching every living soul in a room become posessed by the band’s sound. The only exorcism is dance.
As bass player Greg Gonzalez tells us in this interview, long years of experience have taught these musicians synchronicity, and in truth, in sound and in performance, Grupo Fantasma conjures up a sense elemental ease. They play like sun-warmed rain on an old street; the sound, formed communally in show after show, suggests half a dozen musical traditions and at least as many geographies, but the effect is never academic.
You barely have time to notice how well one tradition has been executed before another snakes out of the amp.
Nominated this year for a Grammy for its most recent record Sonidos Gold, the band has its roots in Austin, Texas, where it’s common to find fusions of blues, country, conjunto, jazz and rock. The members hold down day jobs, but manage to tour a lot of the year, while some members, like Gonzalez, are working on side projects like the harder-funking Brownout or the spacier Ocote Soul Sound.
Like I said, even by Austin standards, the band is eclectic. Nothing in the Latin music tradition feels out of place here, whether New York salsa, cumbia, merengue or cuban son, but the guitar riffs are equally suggestive of James Brown funk or Led Zep rock. If these guys come to your town, go see them.
In the meantime, meet bass player Greg Gonzalez, who started his career by playing Metallica covers when he moved to Laredo, Texas in the eighth grade and met fellow Fantasman Beto Martinez. Music is the main event here, but we couldn’t resist asking a question about the latest headlines from Washington.
Before we get to the music, I have to ask. We’re about to see the confirmation of the first Hispanic justice to the Supreme Court in Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Is that a big deal for you guys, or just more politics?
While were always happy to see Hispanics and Latinos achieve in this society, we are generally a non political entity. Ultimately her rulings are what she will hopefully be remembered by, not the color of her skin or the makeup of her past. it is refreshing, but the Supreme Court is still greatly lacking in diversity, especially of interests and opinions. Plus theres a huge amount of old judges who are unfamiliar with the nature of this increasingly changing society/technologies etc. I think justices should be held up for review every so often, the whole idea of lifetime appointments makes me uncomfortable. So basically, were stoked to have a fresh and different outlook on the court, but only time will tell how much of a difference she will be able to make, aside from the symbolic importance of her selection.
Tell us about how the band came together. Does it start with you and Beto playing Metallica covers together, basically? If so, how do you get from “Kill Em All” to Sonidos Gold?
Last year we had the oportunity to meet and watch the Austin band the Sword perform at Bonnaroo. Not only were they nice guys and an awesome band, but they were esentially living the dream we originally had when Beto and I talked about starting a Metallica cover band back in 1989. But that was really just the motivation to start, once we actually got immersed in the world of music, our horizons began to expand and we started writing songs. We’ve been writing songs ever since. as a result, we ended up not playing Metallica covers, and we barely played any covers at all, becoming instead songwriters and creators of our own vision. After moving to Austin (with our then band the Blimp which featured our longtime drummer Johnny Lopez and out original singer Brian Ramos) we came in contact with even more influences and inspiring music groups. We began to experiment in larger configurations with new found friends “the Blue Noise Band” which featured longtime member Adrian Quesada and our original timbalero Jeremy Bruch as well as our saxophonist now manager Dave Lobel. It just went from there, growing organically, changing, developing and aquiring new members and songwriters. To this day, I credit the originality and vibrancy of our sound with our early reluctance to learn cover songs, and our desire to creat our own original sound informed by the richness of musical influences through the years. To this day, we still listen to Metallica.
On the website, you all talk about the Fantasma Sound, and anyone who has heard that sound knows that it’s an amazing combination of instruments and players coming together in a very big way. How long did it take to get to the point where you really found your groove?
We’ve always had a groove. playing housepartys and co-op partys in austin really solidified our ability to lock in rhythmically and get people dancing, but it’s been a long growing process ever since. We’re still learning!
How about the live show? We’ve seen you twice now, and in both cases, the performances were unbelievably seamless, as if you were reading each other’s minds. Is it as easy as it looks?
When we went to Iraq, the colonel who met us and welcomed us to the base said “professionalism is the ability to make a difficult task appear easy” we play so much and tour so much and play together in multiple bands (Brownout, Ocote Soul Sounds, the Blimp, etc) for so many years that we’ve made it appear easy through practice. It took 10 or 15 years to make it look that effortless.
How about writing the songs for the records? Who does it? Is everyone involved, or do you take turns?
We take turns. some people write and others dont, but all of the songs are shaped and developed communally through live performance. Our show is the lab where we test what works and try to make our songs as effective as possible before we record them.
There is a lot of Latin musical tradition buried in the Fantasma sound, but it’s also got a real urban, funkified beat and here and there are hints of Led Zeppelin and Santana. Can you talk about the various musical rivers that flow into your music. Is it just me or do I hear a little conjunto in there, too, from time to time?
You do. You hear the whole spectrum of our influences in our sound from rock and jazz to latin and occasionally reggae funk or pop music.
Greg, your bass playing drives a lot of the deep sound of the band, but like most bass players, you’re not as conspicuous onstage as others. Do you feel like you’re secretly in control of things back in your corner?
I tend to think of my job as crucial and invisible. Christian Mcbride once said the bass player is like the offensive line in football. Nobody pays attention to the offensive line, but it forms the shape of the offense, protects the play makers and makes it possible for the offense to function. I might not make touchdowns very often, but I do set blocks so others can score.
I always felt that was a pretty apt metaphor. It’s pretty difficult to be conspicious in this band anyway, with so many talented musicians. We generally take turns with the spotlight, spreading solos out amongst one another and filling the roles we do best the rest of the time.
I think of you guys as a quintessential Texan band, in the sense that the best Texas music constantly crosses borders and is never afraid to mix the blues, country, rock, salsa, folk, you name it. Flaco Jimenez is a classic example of that. Do you see yourselves as a Texas band, and is there any particular Texas artist who has particularly influenced you?
We’re definitely a texas band. Our attitude and sense of humor, approach to life and other people, is essentially Texan. Besides, Austin is one of the few happening cities in this country where a ten piece band can afford to live decently (low taxes, reasonable rent, etc)
We write a lot about food on this website, and we know you guys get a Mexican feast whenever you come to Northampton. But you live in Austin, so what’s your favorite place to get a great meal in the barbecue and Tex-Mex capital of the United States?
I’m not actually a fan of TexMex myself. I’m from the border so I’m a big fan of MexMex. Theres a bunch of great taco trucks and chain restaurants that are cheap and delicious. Some hilights are Arandas, Pollo Regio, La Mexicana, La Playa, etc. as for barbeque, theres a huge variety and they all crush barbeque elsewhere. I have always attributed that to the delicious smoky flavor of mesquite wood. some good spots are Rubys, Willies, Sams, and the Salt Lick. Also, check out Lamberts for some great upscale barbeque and live music most nights.
A lot of you guys hold down day jobs to support your musical endeavors. How do you manage it? The sound is so intricate and powerful that it’s hard to believe you don’t work on it all day, every day. What kinds of day jobs do you do?
We all have different hustles that we do. Besides Grupo Fantasma we also have another band Brownout which plays latin funk and is poised to release our second album in September on Six Degrees Records. We’re all very excited about that. Besides that, there are cats in the band who teach music, give lessons, record jingles, do odd jobs, play with other random side bands. It’s hard to generalize and the situation is always changing. Basically, Austin Texas has been very fruitful for us, full of opportunity and reasonably priced to live in. But regardless, the hustle continues daily, and it is this which will ultimately keep us building and growing and becoming better as a band and as individuals.
Here we go, and yet not quite. There once was a time when the unwarranted arrest of the nation’s leading African American scholar by a white cop in his own home would have been incendiary. It’s certainly a big deal, and it certainly means that we’re not done yet with race in this country, but when the country’s first African American president is asked in a White House press conference about what happened to his friend Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the president says the white cop behaved stupidly, it’s no longer really possible to believe that the game remains the same. Anyone who says it does is either kidding themselves or trying to kid the rest of us.
Talking about what happened, Gates’ friend Lawrence Bobo uttered one half of an unassailable truth. Bobo, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard, said: “Ain’t nothing post-racial about the United States of America.”
Who can doubt it? Just because we have our first black president doesn’t mean we’ve suddenly become color blind. And yet even as I acknowledged the ringing truth in Bobo’s sentiment, I wondered if the sentiment hid as much as it proclaimed.
We are not and never will be post-racial, not as long as there are people who suffer for their skin colors, not as long as there are people who remember suffering for the sake of skin color. Race comprises so much; history, memory and identity, those eternal combustibles of the human heart, and as long as the color of a person’s skin touches a chord in those places, we’ll feel the fire of it.
So true, so true, and yet is there a possibility that we are, in fact, done with what we traditionally call racism? That’s a provocative remark, but let me explain. I don’t mean that racism doesn’t exist in this country. What I mean is that the charge of racism has become as empty, helpless and pointless as the charge of sexism, not because racism is over, but because racism, like everything else in this world, changes over time. People who make a charge of racism now mean something different than people who made that charge thirty years ago, and those who practice racism do so in a different way than they once did.
The notion of racism has changed so dramatically in the last four decades, in fact, that we desperately need a new vocabulary to describe what is happening to us, one that makes room for the appropriate outrage but also takes into account the nuances and complications of our own era. I don’t propose to coin that word now, but I’m going to try to lay out my sense of what we’re seeing in the next few days.
In the meantime, the most brilliant dissection I’ve read of this whole case can be found at Cultwriter, where James Hynes takes his own near arrest for breaking into his own home, his experience with academics and his years in the trenches of ideology and produces a vivid analysis of what probably happened.
As Denise Richards might say, “It’s complicated.”
Here’s a quick taste of the Hynes post:
Years ago, when I was in my early 20s and working as a clerk at the original Borders Book Shop in Ann Arbor, I came home after work one hot summer evening with a bag full of groceries and discovered that the lock to my apartment was broken. I left the groceries (including some melting ice cream) outside my door and went door to door in my building, looking for a phone I could use (this was in the Jurassic Era, aka the 1970s, before cellphones) so I could call my landlord. I finally found a neighbor at home (it was a Sunday evening), called my landlord, and got his machine. Not knowing what else to do (like I say, my ice cream was melting), I borrowed a crowbar from my neighbor, went down to the front porch of the building, and broke in my own bedroom window. Then I crawled throughâ€”very carefullyâ€”opened my door, put my groceries away, and went back into the bedroom with the empty grocery bag to pick up the pieces of broken glass. As soon as I bent over, I saw an Ann Arbor cop on the lawn, just beyond the porch railing, leveling his pistol at me. “Come out of the house slowly,” he said, “with your hands in the air.”
For more, go to Cultwriter.
Filed under: Jeff Sharlet
Posted by: John
Yesterday, Becky Garrison posted a conversation with author and scholar Jeff Sharlet here. His well regarded book The Family, which I should have read but haven’t, came back into the news recently on the heels of the sex scandals involving South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and Nevada’s Sen. John Ensign, both Republicans, both vocal Christians.
As I understand it, Sharlet’s book opens a window into a hidden world, the place where conservative Christian beliefs and values intersect with the big money and vested interests of the conservative Christian political class in this country. I touched on a corner of that world in Reasons To Believe, particularly in my chapters on David Barton, but Sharlet appears to do some deep spelunking.
Enjoy the interview.
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