At the turn of the 21st century, Sixth Street was still the beating heart for Austin’s live music scene, but you hardly ever heard a cumbia beat come through its club doors.
“When we moved here [from Laredo] everyone was like, ‘Oh, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Willie Nelson. You’ve got to sound like those two guys,’” says bassist and Grupo Fantasma founding member Greg González.
A group of young musicians envisioned something more. In a bold move, they promised the Empanada Parlour, a former Sixth Street venue, that their new band, Grupo Fantasma, could pack the place with 150 people on a Friday night playing Latin funk grooves.
“Back then, anybody who was anybody played [on Sixth Street], and it was hard to break into,” González says.
It was a gamble, to say the least. They had, after all, only thought of launching Grupo Fantasma — “fantasma” is the Spanish word for “ghost” — the day before, after a night of drinking and listening to their favorite cumbias.
To everyone’s surprise, more than 100 people did pack the venue. “We only had six songs,” says guitarist Beto Martínez, also a Grupo Fantasma founding member. “I think we played them all twice over two sets and hoped that no one would notice.”
The music spoke to many people who felt a connection to the contemporary twist Grupo Fantasma infused in its Latin music. “It was a dance party from the beginning,” Martínez says. “You didn’t have to dress up or know how to dance or do all these moves. You could just go and have a good time. It got sweaty, crowded, and word spread real quick.” When Grupo Fantasma performed on Sixth Street a month later, there was a line around the block.
It has been 15 years since that first Empanada Parlour show. Since then, the Latin funk kings have not only become a Grammy Award-winning band; they have helped put a spotlight on Austin’s Latin music scene. They made it clear that these were not your grandmother’s cumbias, and their unique sound paved the way for a new generation of Latin musicians in Austin.
The band’s new album, Problemas, is the first since El Existential, which earned it the Grammy, and repeatinig the same formula that brought the group so much success would have been easy, González says.
“But that’s not what got us there,” he says. “What got us there was always pushing ourselves to try and do something different … that’s really where the magic happens, when you are forced out of your comfort zone and forced to think a little bit differently.”
Instead of self-producing the album like they’d always done, they decided to put their faith in producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. Grupo Fantasma had opened for Los Lobos at Stubb’s back in 2002, and getting to work with Berlin, González says, felt like coming full circle.
Producing a nine-member band whose members all bring their own styles and diverse ideas into the mix can be challenging in the studio. “But with Steve we all know he’s super talented, and it was easier to step back and … let him take it and see what happened,” Martínez says.
Grupo Fantasma finished the album in January 2013 but then received the disturbing news that its record label, Nat Geo Music, had been dissolved into the company’s accounting division. With no home for the album, the setback led to a two-year holding pattern and a period of soul searching.
In the spring of 2013, guitarist and Grupo Fantasma founding member Adrian Quesada announced that he was leaving the band to pursue producing and other projects. The band also went through some restructuring and more hurdles to get the album out. “We honestly got to the point where we thought, ‘Well, maybe we’ve done it for long enough,’” Martínez says. “Maybe we just move on to something else.”
Some of the Grupo Fantasma members, who are also in the band Brownout, had in the meantime released the album Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath and toured in support of that record. Grupo Fantasma’s album did release in Japan but not at home.
Rescuing a record
After the Brown Sabbath tour, Grupo Fantasma turned its attention to the album again, which is finally releasing stateside on Blue Corn Music. “We put so much work into it, and we loved the album so much that we didn’t want to shortchange it and just throw it out there,” González says.
Grupo Fantasma originally had other album titles in mind but appropriately renamed it Problemas. “In retrospect, it’s actually a good title,” González says. “A lot of the song themes are about problems, growing up and stuff you have to deal with.”
It’s a shift, they admit, from earlier albums that focused mostly on dancing and cute girls. “It definitely feels like our quinceañera because we’re mature now,” González says with a laugh. “We’re finally coming of age.”
Over the years, Grupo Fantasma has seen the Austin Latin music scene grow and the overall music scene change. Surviving in the music business, members say, is harder nowadays, and they’re grateful for the career they’ve sustained so far.
“When you’re younger all you think about is playing,” Martínez says. “But then we came to realize that we’re actually small business owners.”
Today, Grupo Fantasma members enjoy advising and mentoring up-and-coming artists with all the hard-learned lessons they’ve accumulated throughout their careers.
“We’ve seen the Austin music scene change so much, and it’s been very good to us and helped us survive this long,” González says. “We don’t want that to fall apart. We don’t want this city to lose its soul, and whatever part of this story of Austin music that we play, we want to share that with other people and help keep it going.”