Adrian Quesada, with four eclectic bands, helps put Austin's Latin scene on the map
It was at an Arizona truck stop in February where most of Grupo Fantasma's members learned they won their first Grammy award. Austin's beloved Latin funk orchestra had been touring the Southwest and was heading home on a tour bus as viewers tuned into the music award ceremony.
The 10-piece band only received four tickets to the Grammys, so co-founder and guitarist Adrian Quesada opted to skip the ceremony.
"I figured I would just come home because to be totally honest, I didn't think we'd win," Quesada said.
But 10 years after the band's humble beginnings playing house parties, Grupo Fantasma won the Grammy for Best Latin Rock, Alternative or Urban Album for the band's fifth album, "El Existential." Quesada and his bandmates celebrated with cold beers at a gas station.
The Grammy was just a prelude to a busy 2011 for Quesada, who as a creative force behind four highly successful bands has become a central figure in putting Austin on the contemporary Latin music map.
By the end of this year alone, Quesada will have released three new albums with his various projects, including Ocote Soul Sounds' "Taurus," out this week .
"I don't really have the patience to wait two or three years to make an album," he said. "I have to always be working on stuff. And yeah, I have a million ideas in my head."
Playing everything from cumbias to funk, psychedelic and soul, the UT-educated musician has proven too prolific to be contained by a single outfit. He began with the local super group Grupo Fantasma before branching out to the funky Brownout, atmospheric Ocote Soul Sounds and psychedelic Echocentrics.
"Adrian is so integral to our whole music scene," said Rose Reyes, director of music marketing for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau who also served on a Live Music Task Force with Quesada. "What he's done outside of Austin has made people say, 'What's going on in Austin?'\u2009"
Quesada's prolific output comes from an insatiable musical curiosity.
"Part of (the reason I'm constantly working) is that I listen to so many kinds of music and I want to attempt it," Quesada said. "I get anxiety that the last thing I did sucks, so I'm like, 'Oh, man, I've got to top that.'\u2009"
Roots of musicianship
Many of his musical ideas were born on the border. Growing up in Laredo, he was exposed to the traditional border rhythms of South Texas, but hip-hop made the most impact on him as a kid.
Quesada's early obsession with hip-hop (he spent almost every day after school watching the music video program "Yo MTV Raps") led to another musical love often reflected in most of his recent music — funk. In high school, he grew interested in hip-hop samples and began searching for the original songs, which were mostly jazz or funk tunes.
"I realized that's one of the things that had been attracting me to hip-hop that whole time," Quesada said.
When he was growing up, the Quesada household was not particularly musical.
"We didn't have jam sessions at my house or anything like that," Quesada said. "I know people who have very musical families and ours definitely was not like that."
Instead, Quesada spent his youth working alongside his father at his trucking company, learning how to drive 18-wheeler trucks .
But music was his real passion. When Quesada was 11 or 12, his father suggested he take piano lessons.
"At that age, with all the peer pressure, it just didn't seem like the coolest thing in the world," he said. "Now I totally regret that." When he was about 13, Quesada and his father settled on guitar lessons. His uncle paid for the lessons, and a seed was planted.
"I realized pretty quickly in high school that it's a lot harder to make (a music career) a reality down in Laredo because there's not that many opportunities for musicians," Quesada said. "But I held onto that dream."
Quesada considered moving to other cities after high school, but was drawn to Austin after he visited as a teenager.
"It was such worlds apart from where I grew up," Quesada said. "Just walking into clubs — I had a fake ID, so I was able to get into a couple spots — seeing bands play. I don't even think they were good, but just the fact that there were a lot of bands playing, I was sold."
Quesada went to the University of Texas and pursued a degree in art, another lifelong passion — he grew up drawing and painting — and also got a minor in music history.
Transitioning from border life to Austin was perhaps more of a culture shock for some Austinites than Quesada.
"I remember people who thought I was from another country, and not even Mexico," Quesada said. "My accent was so thick, my border accent."
A few years into college, Quesada was already in bands, playing gigs. It became harder to stay motivated about school. But he finished his studies, mostly because of a strong sense of obligation to his parents who didn't have degrees.
His parents, though, weren't so sure about a music career.
"They thought it was a fad, something I was just doing for fun," Quesada said. "They were still steering me to try to do other stuff."
It would take his parents years before they realized their son was truly serious.
Grupo Fantasma formed in 2000 from two bands with Laredo ties and quickly turned heads in Austin by making traditional sounds like cumbia sound hip and new. In the process, Grupo Fantasma helped redefine Latin music for a new generation of listeners, and saw its music reach far beyond the traditional Latin music audience.
Grupo Fantasma's big break came when the band caught the attention of Prince. The legendary musician invited them to play regular shows at his Las Vegas club, as well as Super Bowl and Golden Globes parties.
It's been 10 years since Grupo Fantasma introduced Austin to a new kind of Latin sound. Their music is more introspective lately and more refined, perhaps because the group has matured, said Quesada, now a husband and father of two young daughters.
"Our first couple of albums, I just kind of went in there, plugged in and played my guitar," Quesada said. "I didn't really ask too many questions about what was happening."
Now more than ever, Quesada concentrates on details, especially in the studio. Over the years, he has focused on the art of recording, engineering and producing.
He's always on the hunt for different creative outlets, though not necessarily new bands.
"(Some of my projects) weren't started with the intention of being bands so much as studio albums," Quesada said. "Ocote Soul Sounds and the Echocentrics was stuff that when we recorded it, I didn't do it with the intention of playing it live. I didn't know how that was going to work out. I just knew I wanted to make that album."
In fact, he feels more at ease in the studio than on stage.
"I'm not the biggest, flashiest performer," Quesada said. "It's not my strong point. I love playing live and love traveling, but playing live is more of an instant gratification thing where you are put on the spot to perform right there."
Quesada prefers a more deliberate approach and has a laid-back leadership style for his various producing efforts.
"He's not in show business to have his name in lights," said Rose Reyes, who has known Quesada for about a decade. "In his case, (wanting to be in the music business) comes from a deeper, more thoughtful place. It's about the creative and collaborative process."
Michael Crockett, host of KUT's weekly "Horizontes" Latin music program, said he thinks Quesada is heading toward more acclaim. "With his latest project, the Echocentrics, featuring singers Tita Lima from Brazil and Natalia Clavier from Argentina, his reach will be international if it isn't already," Crockett said. "And based on what I'm hearing in his recent projects, I'm sure his music will be showing up in film soundtracks soon."
As Quesada continues to experiment musically, he's looking for different musical challenges, possibly a folk album. He does wonder, though, if a project like that will automatically be pegged as Latin folk.
"Race and culture is a funny thing," he said. "But I stopped worrying overtly about genres and titles for music years ago because you just can't fight that. I think it'll be forever associated as I came from Grupo Fantasma, which is a Latin project, and then you look at my last name and where I grew up. It is what it is."
Despite the labels, Quesada's musical impact in the Live Music Capital of the World has been deep.
"He plays a major role in influencing the music scene in Central Texas, and young artists are inspired by him," Reyes said. "The fact that he chooses Austin as his home is so important in telling the story of diverse musicians that call this home."