Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Grupo Fantasma turned to a house in North Austin to record fourth album 'El Existential'

Patrick Caldwell
Grupo Fantasma will play some local dates in support of 'El Existential,' the new release they recorded inside this house near the Hyde Park neighborhood.

When Dillon Roberts went hunting for a cheap rent near Hyde Park, he found a small stone two-bedroom on 52nd Street with an expansive backyard, ample old Austin charm and a stoop suited for late afternoon beer-drinking.

He also found, landlord Stephanie Bradley told him, the house that had just hosted the recording of "El Existential," the fourth studio album from Grupo Fantasma, Austin's omnipresent dons of the Latin funk mafia that also spans Brownout and Ocote Soul Sounds. Between November 2009 and last February, Grupo's 10 members commandeered the residence and turned it into their personal studio, ultimately producing the vivacious, animated record that they released Tuesday and will play behind when they perform at the Pachanga Latino Music Festival on Saturday.

Roberts was nonplussed.

"That was, I guess, one of her selling points for the house since I played music and was into music," says Roberts. "But I had only heard them a couple of times. So I was like, 'Oh, that's cool.' I think I seemed very unimpressed. The landlord pretty quickly moved on to 'Did I mention the yard?' "

You could argue he had reason to be unimpressed. The racks of the local music section at End of an Ear are rife with albums recorded chiefly in the living rooms of musicians — though, to be fair, generally their own living rooms, rather than a house rented specifically for the occasion. Still: residential recording is nothing new to cash-starved dreamers.

But it is the kind of move you might not expect from a dynamic ensemble whose last album — 2008's "Sonidos Gold" — raked in accolades, not least among them a Grammy nomination for best Latin rock or alternative album. Or a group of festival warriors who've taken the stage at Coachella and Bonnaroo, among others. Or a 10-piece so locally beloved that they've been plastered on the sides of buses, surely the ultimate benchmark for Austin ubiquity.

Or from a band whose guitarist and producer, Adrian Quesada, can casually drop lines like "We had just met Maceo Parker through Prince" into his conversations.

So, in other words: Why did a bona fide, Grammy-nominated sensation that's gigged with the artist-once-again-known-as-Prince track drums in a rented bedroom?

"To be totally honest, part of it was financial," says Quesada, a statement backed up by manager and former saxophone player David Lobel, who estimates the band produced "El Existential" for about half what it would have cost to make in a traditional studio. "But another part of the goal was to actually write songs in the studio. We've never had that luxury. Studio time is expensive and we play a lot. So typically any record we make has had songs we've been playing live in some form or another almost a year."

The archetypal Grupo Fantasma record — take "Sonidos Gold," for example — was written and rehearsed to a T before the band ever set foot in the studio. That didn't leave much freedom for experimentation. "We'd know the whole song and not waste any time putting it down," Quesada says.

At the house, though, adjustments were made on the fly. Day and night, vocal tracks, guitar lines and horn sections could be tinkered with. The process, band members say, freed them up to explore as never before and brought the band closer together.

"We had time to experiment and mess around with things we didn't have time to mess around with before," says bassist Greg Gonzales. "We could try stuff. We spent the time to entertain a lot of different ideas, methods or techniques. That, and we had peyote. Ah, I'm just kidding — it was mescaline. I'm kidding!"

"El Existential" finds the band more collaborative and trailblazing than ever before — a spirit that extends to guests Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, who brings a blistering psychedelic guitar to "Telerana," and salsa pioneer Larry Harlow, who will join the band at Pachanga, on the hard-boiled revenge fantasy "Juan Tenorio."

The going wasn't always easy. It took the band a month to configure the house as they needed it, to dial in all their equipment, and to overcome the myriad technical problems, from tangled cords to sound bleed, that came with recording in an old house. Windows were boarded up and mattresses stacked to separate rooms with no doors.

"You know how when you were a kid you built a fort with cushions and blankets?" Gonzales. asks "That's what every room kind of looked like."

For a while, Quesada wasn't convinced their ad-hoc approach was going to work.

"The first three weeks, everything we tried, something would go wrong. It was getting real stressful there. I didn't think we were going to come out with a record at first," Quesada. says "I was definitely losing some sleep."

But finish it they did, and they wound up with music that's a little more forward and assertive than anything Grupo's yet done.

"The guy who mastered it, (Cacophony Recorders') Erik Wofford, said that it sounded a lot more immediate and aggressive," Quesada says. "Compared to 'Sonidos Gold,' there's just an immediacy to it. It has a raw sound."

That, and a unique sound.

"No other record in the world will sound like this unless they rent this house. We were placing mikes in the bathroom to get this natural reverb," Quesada says. "That's completely unique to our record and you will never have another record sound like that no matter how hard you try."

Grupo's affection for the house is palpable. Returning to its humble stoop months after recording, surveyed by Roberts and new tenant Johnny Andrews as they sip on Modelos, smiles are broad and memories of video games in the living room and a disturbingly unclean bathroom flow freely.

"It was cool to have a spot to hang out and be with your fellas," says conga player Matthew "Sweet Lou" Holmes. "It definitely has a nostalgic feeling cause you're like 'Man, that was our clubhouse.' "

Roberts, for his part, is a little more impressed by Grupo Fantasma these days. And Andrews has his own reason to admire the band's tenure in his residence:

"I'm just impressed they could all fit in there."

Grupo Fantasma

New record ‘El Existential' is available at Waterloo Records and at www.grupo fantasma.com. The band plays noon Friday, May 21, at Austin City Hall and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 22, during Pachanga Latino Music Festival at Fiesta Gardens (pachanga fest.com).