Like most of us, I’ve had my fair share of cancelled plans the past few weeks, from dinner with friends to drinks with the Black Pumas. The breakout soul-rock duo, made up of Eric Burton and Adrian Quesada, was supposed to swing through Chicago back in February. A little thing called the Grammys, where they were nominated for Best New Artist, forced them to postpone the Chicago gig (and our interview) that time. Coronavirus delayed the concert a second time, but rather than wait until August, we opted to take our drinks on the internet.
From his studio in Austin, Texas, guitarist and producer Quesada joined me on Zoom for a round of beers. Although his career has spanned decades—including a Grammy win in 2011 for Best Latin Rock Album with Grupo Fantasma—this year has brought a lot of firsts, such as the first time a pandemic has brought the music industry to a screeching halt just as his band broke the top 20 on the Billboard charts (in addition to snagging the top spot on the Adult Alternative Songs Chart). Quesada is taking it in stride, stepping back to appreciate the Black Pumas’ rapid rise to fame and maybe learn some French.
What are you drinking today?
I am drinking a Thirsty Goat Amber Ale. It’s a local beer that they didn’t used to bottle. You could get it on draft for a long time—it was my favorite beer ever. They started bottling it.
Have you been drinking more or less since you’ve been quarantined, compared to when you are on tour?
It’s pretty comparable. We had just gotten back from tour two weeks before everything took a major left turn with all this. I was in Europe in February and that was when you started hearing about coronavirus, but got home and everything took a turn. But I think it's pretty comparable. I think I’m drinking more consistently now, but not as much. We have drinks every night, because there’s nothing else to do. We make dinner and try to make a cocktail and then have a bottle of wine, but not getting super drunk, because I'm home. Whereas on tour occasionally there's an adventure where you might drink more than you should.
What do you like to drink when you’re on tour?
We’re gotten lighter in our taste for beer. I can’t personally do heavy beers anymore before a show—I can do one or two, but it’s too much of a heavy feeling. Our beer has gone from half super light, like a lager or pilsner—the lightest thing they have—it’s basically water. And then we usually try to get a six- or 12-pack of a local beer. It’s a mix of that. As a band we’ve gotten away from heavy beers until we’re done with a show.
In a weird way, it made us stop and look around and appreciate everything that’s happening.”
Not that there is ever a good time for a pandemic, but you guys had just been nominated for a Grammy, were wrapping up your first major tour, and had all this momentum when the coronavirus happened. What’s it like as a new band to have to put the brakes on everything?
It was pretty bizarre. Obviously our experience is not that unique, the world is bizarre right now. But for us, every month the momentum was exponential and things were moving so quickly and I knew my schedule for the next year. Literally I could tell you where I was going to be November 18th of this year. To all of a sudden have the rug pulled out from beneath you was very surreal.
What are you doing to try to salvage any of that momentum?
When the tour dates started getting canceled, we thought, “Let’s just start an album. Let’s get holed up in my studio every single day and make a record.” And then early April—we knew it was coming—the mayor of Austin announced the distancing stuff, which started as “no more than 10 people in a room” to “no than two people in a room.” Then all of a sudden we couldn’t do that. We’ve been trying to stay in touch and write demos, so basically the minute it’s OK to get a bunch of people in a room we can make a record. That’s the best we can do.
In a weird way, it made us stop and look around and appreciate everything that’s happening. Everything was happening so fast, the last year has been kind of a blur for us—we’re home for four or five days and then back out. We never got to process any of it and look around and appreciate it. Not that we didn’t appreciate it, but it’s one of those things you take for granted when you’re in the middle of it. I’m a studio rat by nature, I like being home and in the studio, but now that I’m not seeing any shows anytime soon, I miss being on stage and being with the band.
You’ve had such a long career that has spanned all different types of genres, it must be surreal not only personally, but also to see the whole music industry have to shift like this.
The music industry is such a fragile industry as is that it’s kind of scary to think about. We’ll see what happens, but I think the one silver lining is that everybody I know is writing, processing, making an album, just creating. Hopefully not everybody puts out an album at the exact same time in October, but hopefully there’s going to be some good art that comes out of this.
How are you staying inspired while stuck inside and where are you finding inspiration within your own bubble?
Because I have a studio, I have a lot of different instruments around here. One thing for me is just jumping around. I’m not the greatest keyboard player, drummer, or anything like that, but just sitting down at a different instrument, the muscle memory makes you do something different. I’ve also been going on a lot of really long bike rides—just getting out of the house. In Austin the traffic is horrible. It’s a Texas town that wasn’t built to handle this many people, so it has LA-style traffic, but now there’s no one out on the street, so I’ve been going on intense, 20-mile bike rides.
Have you picked up any other quarantine hobbies?
Actually, I started officially taking drum lessons from our dummer. I have a drum kit and I’ve always played a little bit, but this is a good time to properly learn something. We’re trying to figure out if Zoom or Facetime is best, but we’re doing drum lessons. And I’m picking up French too. I’ve been doing 30 minutes of French every day.
On the Black Pumas’ Instagram page, you’ve been reposting videos of people playing the guitar parts of your songs. What’s it like to see people interact with your music in a different way than you’re used to?
I love it. I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve been in a bunch of bands and I’ve never seen people really latch on to wanting to learn songs. It’s wild. It’s really flattering and amazing. People are really latching onto performing “Colors,” which our singer Eric wrote. I think it just speaks, without being too cliché, to the universal language or power of music. I see people all over the world covering it. We definitely try to all, between the band, watch all of them. This one guy covered our song “October 33” and he did something really cool on the guitar that we picked up from him.
Speaking of “October 33,” since our website is called October and that’s one of my favorite songs on the album, what is the significance of the title of that song?
Funny enough, I just found Eric's lyrics, because I’ve had time to clean up my studio. I was cleaning up the other day, like I think everybody is doing at home, and I found the actual lyrics that he brought that morning. He would better explain that, but it’s basically October is his birthday. October 33 is clearly a fictional number that he made up. It’s a love letter to himself at a younger age, helping him cope with some trauma that I think was either going to come his way around then or did. It’s sort of him talking back to himself at a young age.
Coming from someone who knows very little about how the music industry works, was there a moment when you realized that you had something big? Or are you waiting until when a song breaks through on the radio? Did you have that moment of “eureka, we did it, we’ve got it, we’re going to blow up”?
Kind of, there was. Both of us were trying to play it cool and not get too excited. We didn’t want to get too excited and set us up for disappointment, but I kind of knew it right away and I’m pretty sure he did too. A couple moments I remember was our first show, walking off stage, and having this holy shit moment. We were just going to play for a month. We had never played the song live. We were like, “Let’s just play them live and invite our friends out.” We were playing this tiny bar. That turned into two or three months. And that turned into what we’re doing now, but I remember walking off stage after that first show and thinking, “OK, this is kind of scary good.” But at this point it’s surpassed both of our expectations. I didn’t think we would be nominated for Best New Artist. I was pretty confident this was good music, but we've passed the stratosphere of what we imagined.