BISS List Interview with Brownout’s Beto Martinez (06.08.14)

By Biss List contributing editor, Josh Danson
I recently spoke with Beto Martinez, guitar player and founding member of Brownout - an 8-piece Tejano Funk outfit formed ten years ago by members of the Grammy Award-winning Latin collective, Grupo Fantasma. In the decade since its founding as a Grupo Fantasma side project, Brownout has refined its sound and established its own unique musical personality. Often likened to classic funk, Latin soul and rare groove artists like Santana, War, Earth Wind & Fire and Cymande, Brownout is not afraid to take musical risks while laying down some of the tightest, funkiest grooves around. They’ve performed at high-profile events and festivals including Bonnaroo, High Sierra Music Festival, Bear Creek Music Festival and Pachanga Fest, and recently started touring in support of a soon-to-be-released album of Black Sabbath covers, Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath (available 6/24 on Ubiquity Records).

I spoke to Beto on the phone between tour stops in the Midwest and asked him about the group’s origins and influences, the Brown Sabbath project, the Austin music scene and Grupo Fantasma’s association with Prince.
Brownout will be performing in San Francisco at The Independent on Sunday June 15th. 

Biss List: Thanks for taking some time to speak with me today. You guys are just about to come out this way on a West Coast swing.
Your first full-fledged West Coast tour, if I’m not mistaken.

Beto Martinez: Yeah, to support Brown Sabbath, yes. But we’ve been out before with Brownout. We’ve actually had some really good shows in San Francisco. Mainly at the Elbo Room with Brownout, we’ve been there two times.

BL: So you have been out here before. How have I missed you guys?? Shame on me. So, in that case I guess you’re not too worried that you’ll like the Bay Area too much and end up staying, like Janis and Doug Sahm?

BM: Yeah, not that we wouldn’t want to. We really love it out there. It’s beautiful, the weather’s great, the people are nice, we always have a great time… But unfortunately we are going to have to continue on our way after the show.

BL: Well, we’ll try our hardest to convince you otherwise, but I know you have some pretty deep roots in Texas.

BM: Yeah, we do. Most of us are from the area. There’s a few guys who are from elsewhere, but most of us are from Texas and we’ve all been in Austin at least 20 years. So yeah, we’ve got some deep roots. 

BL: Cool. Well maybe you can clarify for me a bit. Are you still playing with Grupo Fantasma, or is Brownout a full-time commitment? How many guys in the current band came from Grupo Fantasma and how many did you recruit strictly for this outfit?

BM: Yeah, OK. So, there’s eight guys in Brownout and seven of those are still playing with Grupo. For Brown Sabbath specifically, we have our vocalist, Alex Marrero, who doesn’t play with Brownout or Fantasma. He jumped on board just for this project. He’s a really old friend of ours and a mainstay of the Austin music scene. He’s actually been working as a drummer for a while and just jumped at the opportunity to sing on these tracks, and he’s done a great job. So we’ve got him and then Adrian Quesada, who’s the other guitar player besides me. He used to play with Fantasma but he recently left.
He still plays with Brownout but he’s actually on the road right now with his other band called Spanish Gold [featuring MMJ’s Patrick Hallahan and Hacienda’s Dante Schwebel].  

BL: So you guys have performed the Brown Sabbath material at a few festivals recently and you’ve got a full Brown Sabbath album coming out. How many shows, or for how long have you been doing the Brown Sabbath thing?

BM: Well it actually started in September when we did our first show at a place called Frank in Austin. It was part of a residency we were doing where we were playing every Thursday night in the month of September and we were doing a different sort of “theme” as part of the show every night. We did a tribute to James Brown called “Brown Caesar”. We did a night of Hip Hop, a night of B-Boy tunes, and then the last one was this Brown Sabbath thing, which we initially just threw the name out there in a kind of joking way, but then quickly realized that it would actually be really freaking cool if we did that. So we put it together for that show and we got such a huge response out of that. So we decided to do it again, and then we decided to do this record. Since then, we’ve been out to Brooklyn and played the Brooklyn Bowl, and then we went out to Colorado and did a few shows out there, and then we did Psych Fest just a few weeks back in Austin. 

BL: Excellent. So, with Grupo, you guys are known for taking familiar Latin musical styles like Salsa, Cumbia, etc. and funking them up a bit and putting your own stamp on them. Whereas with Brownout you’ve been taking more of deep dive into the funk and rare groove and psych kind of stuff, but with some of the rhythmic elements and instrumentation from Latin jazz. So you’re clearly comfortable moving between worlds and blending different sounds, different styles from different cultures. I wouldn’t be the first to point out that coming from the Texas borderlands you guys are uniquely qualified to combine sounds from North and South, but it’s really a pretty apt description of what you guys do so well.
Tell me a little bit about your earliest days as working musicians when you were playing and attending gigs on both sides of the fence. Tell me a little about that and what the scene was like.

BM: Yeah, growing up in Laredo it’s an interesting place and all of us were exposed to mainly Tejano music and Mexican music, but at the same time when we started playing in high school we were all into everything from metal to funk. But it was very easy for us as, like, 16 year-olds to go across the border and we’d go and drink and see these really cool cumbia bands over there playing these little dive bars. And it really stuck with us. We really love that music. So after moving to Austin for college and when we kind of coalesced as Grupo Fantasma none of us had really been playing Latin music professionally at that point. We’d all been playing rock and funk, but we wanted to do something where we could kind of emulate the music that we heard down there and really just play this other style of music that we loved and that we thought we could pull off. And that’s essentially how Grupo Fantasma came about, wanting to do a nod to that music, and it’s just evolved -- 15 years later, writing our own songs, six albums in and all that stuff. And at the same time that was happening, after having done Fantasma for a little bit we kind of decided to get back into the funk because we’d been concentrating on Latin music for so long, and that’s where Brownout was born.
And then to be playing this Brown Sabbath stuff is kind of going even further back to our early years when most of us came up listening to metal and stuff, like definitely listening to Sabbath. So we’re really drawing on stuff that goes back to our earliest musical experiences and bringing it all together.

BL: Did you come from a musical family and if so, was that music mostly Tejano, Flaco Jimenez type-stuff, or was it American pop and rock? Or more or a total mix?

BM: Yeah, it was a total mix. My mom loves to dance. I don’t have any musicians in my family, but my mom loves to dance, so we were always listening to music and she likes funky stuff. So I was exposed to that there. And the Mexican music was just ubiquitous. Down there at the border that’s just all over the radio. And then really early on I was also drawn to rock and metal, so it was quite a mix.  

BL: So now you’re touring in support of the Brown Sabbath project? For this tour are you guys playing the entire album as a standalone show? Or are you playing the Brown Sabbath stuff in one set and also playing a set of originals, or is it just the Sabbath treatment this time around?

BM: We’ll be starting off the shows with a Brownout set and then that will be followed by the whole Brown Sabbath set, and we’re actually doing more tunes than we have on the album. We have a whole bunch of tunes spanning a few years of the Sabbath catalog. But we definitely want to drive home that we’re not just like a cover band. It’s Brownout, after all, taking on this form and playing this music that we love and trying to make it our own, but we want to leave people with the idea that that was Brownout. So that’s where we’re coming from for these performances, it’s not just a standalone Brown Sabbath thing that you’re going to see around forever, it’s just a project that we’re doing. So we want people to check out Brownout ultimately. 

BL: Good call. So, Alex Marrero adds the vocals on the Brown Sabbath album that I really enjoyed having a sneak preview of, and he really nails it, especially on something like “The Wizard”. You guys are friends from the Austin scene?

BM: Yeah yeah, we met him in Austin, initially as a percussionist and he actually played early on in Grupo Fantasma -- back around 2000, he did some shows with us. And then he actually had his own band for several years where he was the singer and front man. But for the last probably five or six years he’s become a really badass drummer and he’s been performing with different bands as a drummer. And so a lot of people who haven’t known him as long as we have were totally blown away when he jumped on stage and just channeled Ozzy. Singing these songs and totally killing it, they were like, “I thought this dude played drums!” But yeah, he has the same passion for that music that we do and he came up listening to Sabbath and he’s a huge fan, so he was super excited to do it and he fit right into the role.

BL: You also have Alex Maas from the Black Angels [Austin-based psych-rockers] on this album, correct? What’s the story with that?

BM: Yeah, Alex Maas is a friend of a few of us from the band and we thought that it was a great project for him and that he would fit right in, you know with the whole psychedelia of the thing. So we approached him about singing on a track and we all settled on “Hand of Doom,” and he totally nailed it. In fact, he did something that’s pretty difficult to do, which was he kind of reinvented that song, laying some of his own melodies over it. And when you take something as classic as Sabbath a lot of people want to hear it exactly how it is, but to able to kind of change it up… we really liked what he did on that track.

BL: Tell me a little about the Austin scene. I’ve been going to New Orleans to see music for years and I’ve heard great things about Austin but I haven’t made it down there yet.

BM: Austin has been changing recently but it still has a lot of music and a lot of musicians. For a long time it was actually a really easy place to settle as a musician, you know. There was cheap housing, it was easy to get around, and there were just so many people to interact with and form bands with and jam with and do all that stuff. And venues, just lots and lots of venues. So it was really just an easy place to operate as a musician.

BL: Like an incubator.

BM: Yes, exactly. We’ve been able to pursue so many different projects there, and there’s so much support from the town itself. From the fans of course, but now there’s actually a lot of infrastructure too. Like there’s an Austin Music Office and a musicians health care system that they have going on there now. So it’s really just a hospitable place to make music.

BL: That’s great. You guys have a big sound and a lot of moving parts, with the horn section and being an eight-piece, and yet you’re still incredibly tight. You remind me a little of Trombone Shorty’s band in that regard. And there’s definitely some New Orleans influences in your sound. Very clearly with a song like “Meter Beater” off of your last album Oozy [2012, Net Geo Music], you’re tipping your cap to the kings of New Orleans funk. Is there kind of a friendly rivalry, or mutual admiration, between New Orleans and Austin-based musicians?

BM: Definitely a mutual admiration. We grew up going there and there are a lot of people from New Orleans who come to Austin. And of course after Katrina there were a lot of people who relocated to Austin for a while, or even stayed. So that’s definitely there. I do see and I have heard a thing where people are like, “How can Austin be the live music capitol of the world when you have New Orleans?” and New Orleans is truly 24 hours, like 24X7 music, as opposed to Austin which pretty much shuts down after 2 AM. But they’re both great musical towns and they both have a lot of stuff to appreciate. There’s so many festivals in Austin at this point, there’s so much stuff going on. It just doesn’t really have the 24 hour music scene like New Orleans has. And the history as well, like New Orleans goes way further back than Austin as far as being a music city, but there is definitely a mutual admiration I think.

BL: Yeah, and it might be a better for those of us who are starting to get on in years a bit to have a little more sanity than the 24X7 thing. It’s a great place to visit, but I don’t think I could live there.

BM: Yeah, it’s a rough lifestyle. [Laughs]

BL: You have a big following with both the Latin music community and now with the mainstream rock or “jamband” scene. Do you see yourselves as cross-over artists and are there major differences in the two audiences and how you would play in front of one or the other, say at Pachanga [Pachanga Latino Music Festival in Austin] vs Bonnaroo?

BM: I don’t think there’s a huge difference in how… as far as when you go to a festival, like the type of festival doesn’t really change the way we’re going to present ourselves very much. And there’s definitely a cross-over, like there’s just a huge “festival culture,” if you will, at this point. I mean, if it’s a Latin music festival we get invited to, we might showcase a little more of that side but there’s definitely a lot of crossover and we don’t really differentiate, like, “Oh, we’re doing a jam thing this time.” Or, “We’re doing a Latin thing this time.” We just go out and play.

BL: Right, probably as it should be. So do you guys play any songs from your Grupo Fantasma repertoire in Brownout shows, or is there a very clear line of demarcation between the two units? Obviously the two band’s styles and sounds are pretty distinct and different, but I imagine you could re-work some of your Grupo Fantasma stuff to pretty good effect with this lineup. The Ray Barretto cover “Cocinando,”off of the GF’s live album, Comes Alive, for instance? That could be pretty cool if given the Brownout treatment.

BM: Yeah, yeah. We have done it in the past and actually there was a song called “Gimme Some,” that we recorded ultimately with Fantasma, but that started out as a Brownout tune. It was an instrumental and we needed another track when we were recording Sonidos Goldfor Fantasma, so we decided to bring that one in. And there has been some more cross-over like that. Not so much recently though. Brownout’s kind of ventured off in kind of a more freaky direction, I think, so that we haven’t really brought a lot of Fantasma into it in a while. I think that maybe it could go the other way more-so, like some of the Brownout tunes into Fantasma, but… you never know.

BL: You guys have been compared to groups like War and Cymande and you can definitely hear those influences on songs like, “Barretta,” and “They Don’t Know” from your 2008 album Homenage, among others. How did you encounter groups like that growing up in Laredo in the 80’s? Or did that come later in life? You said your mom listened to some funky stuff?

BM: You know, both really. Some of that stuff was… I met our bass player, Greg Gonzales, when I was in eighth grade. We met at first being totally into metal and that’s what we started out trying to play. But he had an older brother who was into a lot of really cool music so we listened to a lot of stuff that he as listening to -- from Zeppelin and stuff like that, to Jazz and more psychedelic stuff. So we kind of branched out initially there and then just our own musical explorations in high school, which was when we really started to listen to all kinds of stuff and trying to play all kinds of stuff. And that’s where we discovered, ultimately, a lot of the sixties bands and seventies bands that you were talking about, like War and Cymande. And then going to college a couple years later just opened it up even more. Getting to Austin and seeing that there were already all these bands out there doing all this really cool stuff, and meeting people and listening to records at their place, and it just kind of expanded from there. But early on I think we really made a point of seeking out different music, and through exposure from older brothers.

BL: Thank goodness for older brothers, right? So do you and Adrian share or tradeoff on lead and rhythm duties in the band? Or is it more of a fixed arrangement? Who gets to play the Tony Iommi leads?

BM: [Laughs] Well, we’ve always had pretty equal standing as far as guitar players. We’ve never really specifically demarcated as “lead” or “rhythm,” and a lot of what we do is like a real syncopated interaction of a double rhythm guitar, or it’s like rhythm mixed in with a rhythmic melody line that the other guitar player would be doing. It’s kind of standard funk stuff, and we like to think that we’re pretty good at interlocking like that. So we usually do that, but if there’s a guitar solo we usually just decide who’s going to take this solo here or that solo there. With the Sabbath stuff, Adrian takes a couple solos on the album and I take a couple solos. But it’s never been a, “You’re lead and I’m rhythm,” sort of thing.  
For this run though there’s actually just going to be one guitar, which is me, because Adrian’s got another obligation. And I’ve got a stereo guitar setup that I’m doing to try to cover some of the parts and try to keep that [two guitar sound] in. It’s not going to be anything that the audience is going to notice, but yeah, I’m going to be rocking the whole thing for this run.

BL: Nice. What kind of guitar do you play primarily?

BM: Well I’m bringing along an ES-333 that I have that I’ve had for years that’s kind of my “go-to” guitar. It was a gift from Gibson that I got a few years back. And then my Les Paul which I’m using for some tunes that are actually tuned down to C#, for the super heavy riffage. So I’ve got two axes on this run.

BL: Nice, you’re a Gibson man. I’ve got an SG myself.

BM: Oh cool man. Yeah, yeah, definitely… Gibson all the way.

BL: Speaking of guitars and guitar players. You guys [Grupo Fantasma] are pretty famously associated with Prince, not a bad patron to have on your side. How did that relationship come about and what does his support mean to you guys? Any fun Prince stories you’re at liberty to share?

BM: [Laughs] There’s a non-disclosure agreement you’d have to sign first. No, actually there was nothing that happened that would be off-limits to talk about. Yeah, that was back in 2006. The manager that we had at the time was good friend with someone that worked with Prince’s promoter, which was AEG at that time, and Prince had a club in Las Vegas called 3121, which was at The Rio. And on Thanksgiving 2006, they had a Latin band that played every Thursday night, but that Thanksgiving they cancelled. So we had an opportunity there, they came and said, “You guys want to send in a CD?” And they told us that Prince was going to personally approve it, that he’d listen. We kind of didn’t believe it and we all had Thanksgiving plans, but our manager was like, “I think you guys should really consider doing this. It could be a good opportunity.” So we sent the CD and got word back that he liked it -- we still didn’t really believe that he had actually approved it personally – but we flew out there and did the show and it was late at night and we actually saw him standing in the wings, just watching. So then we flew home and by the time we landed we got word that he loved it and he wanted us to be the new house band for Thursday nights. So we started flying out there every Thursday, which was a really cool adventure. And that eventually escalated into him sitting in one night, just out of nowhere.
His gear was always set up on stage and we had heard that he had sat in with the previous band, so we were playing and we were in the middle of a song and the guitar solo was coming up and it was supposed to be my guitar solo. And it just goes to show how much he was actually listening to what was going on, because right as I’m about to step up and hit my solo I just hear this crushing guitar just suddenly pop in and Prince steps out of the shadows with his guitar and just takes the solo.

BL: That is sick!
BM: [Laughs] Yeah, we were all just like, “What the hell?!” And he just rips the solo and then disappears. Like, as quickly as he came in he was gone. He didn’t even talk to us or anything.

BL: Hah! Just like a little purple flash.
BM: Yes, exactly. So that was pretty intense, but it started a pretty cool relationship where eventually we got invited – it was kind of our trial by fire – to a Golden Globes after-party that he was throwing at the Beverly Wilshire. It was kind of like a house party for every A-List actor you can think of, and we were the band and he sat in with us. And he put a bunch of trust in us to be able to do that and not freak out. Like the whole audience literally was just all these stars and him playing with us. And then from there we did a TV appearance with him and then we went to London when he did 21 night sin London we opened one of the shows at the O2 arena and then did the after-party with him. And that went on until 2009 when our horn players went out and did Coachella with him.

BL: That’s awesome. Nice guy to have in your corner.
BM: Yeah, definitely. It definitely brought us a lot of attention and we learned a lot -- about showmanship and being funky. Because who else would you want to learn to be funky from than Prince??

BL: Well I’ll let you go. Thanks so much for your time, it’s been great speaking with you. I’m really disappointed that I’m going to be out of town when you play the Independent, my favorite venue in San Francisco, but I hope you guys will come back around sometime soon.
BM: Oh, I’m sure we will.

Brownout is playing at The Independent at 628 Divisidero in San Francisco on Sunday June 15th. 
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