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'The sky's the limit'

Deborah Sengupta Stith
When Black Pumas play live, lead singer Eric Burton says he feels "like we're imploring people to give us their attention." He describes the band's shows as "almost like a fellowship." The band tried to capture that dynamic live energy on their new album, which comes out June 21 on ATO Records. [BRONTE WITTPENN/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Black Pumas, the rock ‘n’ soul project created by producer/guitarist Adrian Quesada and singer/guitarist Eric Burton, burst from the ether in early 2018 as a fully formed rhythm and groove revival, aiming to shake your body and take your spirit higher. With just one single, “Black Moon Rising,” a dark love song shrouded in celestial mystery, and an electrifying live show, they instantly became the essential new act every music connoisseur in Texas was talking about.

A little over a year later, the band has skyrocketed. Their self-titled debut album, a potent collection of modern soul classics with a cinematic production sensibility that owes as much to the golden era of hip-hop as it does to Motown or Stax, is set to drop June 21 on ATO Records. A triumphant showing at South by Southwest 2019 earned them numerous shoutouts from national press, with Rolling Stone pegging them as one of the best acts at the fest. They just wrapped up their second European jaunt to ecstatic reviews, and their extensive summer tour schedule includes stops at Summerfest in Milwaukee, Festival d'été de Québec, and the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival in Columbia, Missouri.

The speed of their rise has been dizzying. The word “surreal” crops up frequently when we catch up with Quesada and Burton at Radio Coffee and Beer in South Austin on an unseasonably tolerable afternoon in early June.

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“We were pinching ourselves in Europe, like, ‘What is going on?’” Burton says.

“Last SXSW we went to Cosmic Coffee and sat down, and I remember asking him, ‘How are you feeling about everything? Because this could happen really fast,’” Quesada says.

An industry veteran, Quesada toured the world and won a Grammy as a guitarist for Grupo Fantasma. He inadvertently created a cult smash when his Latin funk outfit Brownout took on a metal alter ego, Brown Sabbath. He could feel the project’s momentum building.

“After this SXSW, things could come really quick, and before you know we might be living together on tour. How are you feeling?” he asked the 27-year-old singer with the uncanny ability to inhabit a song with such existential fervor it cleanses a listener’s soul. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m down if you’re down,’” Quesada says.

The Pumas announced their record deal right before SXSW 2019, but the scramble to sign the band started roughly a month after “Black Moon Rising” surfaced in 2018.

“A major label had reached out just completely out of nowhere, interested,” Quesada says. In his decades working in music, none of his projects had been offered such a fast track to success, but he knew better than to jump at the first bite. Instead, the band brought on manager Ryan Matteson, who was able to get their music “in the ears of people in the industry,” Quesada says. The band met with several labels, and ATO Records was the best fit.

Quesada and Burton share an easy warmth and a natural chemistry on stage and off. Each man is quick to credit the other for the group’s broad appeal.

“He’s able to kind of create these vast soundscapes for me to kind of do whatever I can imagine,” Burton says of Quesada’s production. Quesada believes Burton’s voice and lyrics seal the deal.

Though audiences first experienced Black Pumas in 2018, the two men had been writing songs together for a year before they debuted the project. Burton completed a collection of unfinished instrumental jams Quesada had been quietly carrying, and Quesada fleshed out a selection of Burton’s acoustic tracks with full-band arrangements. When they signed, they already had over an album’s worth of stage-tested rock ‘n’ soul stunners.

But as he was assembling the tracks, Quesada felt something was missing. The arc of the work felt incomplete. The album needed “that last song of just, like, riding off into the sunset,” he says.

He texted Burton to see if he had “something kind of mellow” to wrap up the record. Burton replied with a phone demo of “October 33,” a gut-wrenching slow burner that Burton describes as “a love letter written as a reminder to be present with the shadows and traumas of our individual pasts.”

“I heard like 20 seconds and was like, ‘Say no more, fam, I’m scheduling the session,’” Quesada says.

In the studio, Burton sang the track live, accompanying himself on guitar with the band huddled around him. “I remember telling him, ‘We’ll go back and redo the vocals, this will be a guide,’” Quesada says, but Burton’s original vocals were so powerful, he ended up keeping them.

The band conjures magic through live performance, and “the idea of playing almost completely live within the confines of my studio was something that I thought was really important to showcase,” Quesada says. He says about 95 percent of “Colors,” the band’s most recent single and a pastoral meditation on nature that doubles as a stirring call for unity, was recorded live. The immediacy translates in the recording.

“Because ‘Colors’ is one of the catchier tunes and the more recognizable, kind of iconic ones that people ask about all the time, I felt kind of pressure to make that radio-friendly or something,” Quesada says. But he resisted the urge. “That just means kind of putting on shellac and stripping out some of the intimacy of the moment, of what it was like to be in the room, and I still like albums like that where it feels like you might have been in the room.“

Most of the record is imbued with the sweeping, vinyl-crackle production that is Quesada’s signature, but the album takes a quiet bow at the end with “Sweet Conversation.”

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“I still hear albums in two sides, even if it’s digital,” Quesada says. “Even if I’m listening on Spotify, which I do because it’s 2019, I still always think like, ‘Oh, that’s the end of side A.’ In my head, I just imagine a story. I always imagine side A winding down and side B winding down.”

He originally thought “October 33” was the album’s denouement, but everyone who heard the track insisted the song was far too moving to be buried at the end of the album. It was bumped up to the end of side A, midway through.

The final closer, “Sweet Conversation,” is an acoustic track recorded by Burton and his roommate Josh Blue, who plays drums for Night Glitter, in their home studio. Quesada re-recorded the song at his studio, but he felt his version lacked the intimacy of the original, which includes the quiet sound of birds chirping in the background, so he threw it out.

“I mixed it, made sure it sounded good, but didn’t play on it, didn’t record it, didn’t do anything. I’ve gotten to a point where my ego is comfortable enough to be like, I don’t need to do this one," he says. "I tried to beat it and I couldn’t.”

The new album deftly captures the exhilarating energy of Black Pumas live, but for the stage show that’s been thrilling audiences around the world, Burton pulls out all the stops. A former street musician who used to busk for a living, he works to create a real connection with fans.

“I feel like we’re imploring people to give us their attention,” Burton says. He wants the band’s shows to be a dynamic shared experience and not some sort of art exhibit where the band is remotely observed. “I think that it’s almost like a fellowship,” he says. Black Pumas' core mission is to spread love.

"We’re promoting consciousness, and I think out of being conscious of where you are in the moment, love is like just kind of an inevitable thing that follows, right? We all want and need that," Burton says.

During SXSW 2019, one of the band's many gigs was a high-dollar private event. Convinced they would be playing to a disinterested crowd of industry cynics who would likely ignore the band, Quesada encouraged Burton to think of the gig as a paid rehearsal. “Don’t take it personally,” he told the younger artist.

Burton didn’t listen.

“My man showed up like it was Madison Square Garden and went out there and he physically got off the stage at the Moody Theater and went table to table and made sure everybody was paying attention,” Quesada says with a laugh. With raw moxie and irresistible spirit, Burton insisted the people feel his vibe.

Burton says he feels like the band hit a milestone on their recent trip to Berlin. The live performance felt evolved, and the audience was very engaged. “They really, really connected to the music and to Texas, to Austin,” he says. “We’re a reflection of what’s going on in Austin, Texas, right now, and Europe reciprocated that they dig what Austin’s doing, and so we’re proud to kind of help to hold that flag up.”

They’ll fly the flag for Austin music across the country this summer and across the globe come fall. In between, they’ll work on new material. Quesada says they have five or six unreleased songs and another five or six completely new tracks.

“We’re still at a point where we both ultimately like recording songs so that we can listen to them,” he says. Though they’re just beginning the release cycle for the new album, they’ve been living with the songs for a few years. “Ultimately, we’re working on new music just so we have something to hear on headphones while we’re traveling,” he says.

“I feel like the sky’s the limit," Burton says. "I’m trying not to smile. I’m blushing purple right now.”

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Album release at Antone's

When: 7 p.m. June 21

Where: 305 E. Fifth St.

Information: To gain entry, visit Antone’s Record Shop, Big Henry’s Vinyl & Gifts, Breakaway Records, End of an Ear or Waterloo Records in person to preorder a copy of the album. Space is limited to the first 400 orders, and at press time only a few remained.

Tour homecoming at the Mohawk

When: 7 p.m. Aug. 23

Where: 912 Red River St.

Information: $25.