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Adrian Quesada pays psychedelic tribute to boleros in his new album

Adrian Quesada, photographed performing with Eric Burton as Black Pumas during the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards in LA on March 14, 2021.
Kevin Winter
Getty Images for The Recording A
Adrian Quesada, photographed performing with Eric Burton as Black Pumas during the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards in LA on March 14, 2021.

Adrian Quesada is musical royalty in Austin, Texas – a former leading member of the Grammy-winning Latin funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma, central wrangler of the Echocentrics and most recently as one-half of Black Pumas, with Eric Burton.

But the origin of Quesada's latest project, an album he's titled Boleros Psicodélicos, is to be found well before much of that – on a road in Austin, some 20 years ago.

To hear the broadcast version of this conversation, use the audio player at the top of this page.

A Martínez, Morning Edition: So Adrian, take us back to that moment when you first heard the music that inspired this new album – a couple of decades ago.

Adrian Quesada: I was driving and I was just kind of shuffling through radio stations. And I remember hearing Los Pasteles Verdes's "Esclavo Y Amo." I'd never heard anything like that. I'd never heard that band. Usually, when I would turn on those stations it was kind of more regional music. It was, like, cumbia and mariachi, Norteno, stuff like that. And I actually pulled over and had to call the station. I remember the next day I immediately went to look for that stuff, and I couldn't find it anywhere. I thought it would be, like, 'Oh, I could just buy the vinyl at Waterloo Records!' But I had to find a more mom-and-pop shop that sold regional Mexican music. I found it on CD – I found a greatest hits. And I would go back there every once in a while. You really had to go to [a] mom-and-pop type of store.

So this is, like, the turn of the century. You're in your early 20s. As you mentioned, you're driving around Austin, Texas. I mean, what made it a thunderstruck moment to you?

Well, I had a few moments, but I remember specifically as soon as it started, it sounded like a hip-hop beat. It sounded like a Wu-Tang Clan song. And then the singing was so dramatic and so passionate and just really psychedelic – it had, like, a slap-back delay and reverb, and it was just amazing. And that was it. You know, at that time I was even more of a psychedelic person than I am now, and it just completely blew my mind. This is the craziest thing I've ever heard. It was so wild.

My producer [Chad Campbell] and I were talking about Boleros Psicodélicos, and he said that if Quentin Tarantino had been born in Mexico, some of these songs would be on the soundtrack of his next movie. So break it down for us. First, what is a bolero? And then, what makes these songs 'psicodélicos?'

So a bolero, in essence, means a ballad ... I wouldn't personally be playing [them] on my Walkman or Discman or whatever, but I definitely grew up hearing a lot of it around me. It was a much more traditional music, that came from Cuba and had a heavy presence in Mexico. A lot of trios harmonizing vocals, and acoustic guitar or some light percussion. Absolutely gorgeous music. And I have a huge appreciation for it now that I didn't when I was young.

With Boleros Psicodélicos, it's a little bit of a loose term – people called it The Balada Movement. I just loved the term Boleros Psicodélicos because I read that one time and just kind of ran with it, because it was kind of a worldwide thing where all of a sudden this style of song was electrified. Then you had the influence of that psychedelic era, where people were playing these dreamy organs and guitars with tons of reverb that sounded like surf music. And then on top of that, I think the rhythm sections, the drums and the bass, were definitely influenced by American soul music. You could tell that the drums would have been easily equally as comfortable on an Al Green record or something like that. So you had this really cool melting pot of a moment that just completely blew my mind.

I'm sure with the success of Black Pumas you're pretty busy. What happened, where you felt that you could devote the time and the energy and the research to put this album together?

Well, the research has been happening for a long time, because I've just been slowly accumulating the music. But honestly the pandemic was, you know – I don't want to ever say that the pandemic was a blessing, but in terms of my time, all of a sudden my entire calendar year for 2020 went away ... And also, to be totally honest, it's kind of what was keeping me a little bit sane – from going into a big depression. It was an intense year in 2020. I remember feeling super inspired, cranking out all this music. And everybody was like, 'I got all this free time' and people were making bread and whatever.

Over those two decades, from that moment it struck you on the road in Austin until you had the time to devote to it, how much time would you say you've put into thinking about this project? Or at least, putting something together about this type of music?

I'd say in the last almost-10 years, I've started to kind of think about it. But I just get busy, you know. Touring takes it out of you. I try to explain that to people. If it looks like somebody is on tour and then you see that they're home for one or two months or whatever, it isn't quite how you imagine. It takes a lot to transition out of. And so I've been wanting to do it forever, but work and family life just always kept me from having the time. Like I said, this is the first year where my entire calendar cleared – and everybody else's.

With this style of music and the way you're doing it with this album, what would you say is the instrument that stands out the most? The one that we can really hear that almost has a starring turn?

I would probably say that it's the organ. You know, the organ sounds on these are so ominous, beautiful. That's probably the thing that distinguishes this.

I mentioned earlier how you were collaborating with so many different people, so many really great artists. And I know artists have very strong opinions about how they want things to turn out. So what can we hear in this album where maybe you were doing stuff that was new or unfamiliar to you? Or that was suggested by one of the artists and said, 'Hey, Adrian, let's try this.'

Oh yeah, "Mentiras Con Carino" by iLe. That was one of the last songs we did on the album. I had been showing everybody these playlists, and I remember her calling me back and saying, 'I love the playlist, but have you ever heard...?' And she dropped, like, another 10 songs on me that I had not heard. And she actually wanted to break away from the palette of some of the other songs, that organ and guitar. She was like, 'Sandro was an incredible artist who was recording at that same era and you can hear a little bit of this and that.'

I had some demos that I was going to send her, and after that I was like, 'Oh God, I got to go back to the drawing board and listen to the stuff!' I processed that for about a week or two and came back. I think it was the best thing that could have happened. I'm just still super thankful that she kind of shook me up a little bit. You don't want to get too complacent doing something like that.

So now that you finally were able to put this 20-year dream and made it a reality, what do you think might be easier the second time around? If there is a second time.

Oh God, to have people in the same room! You know, I grew up an only child, and so I'm totally comfortable working for days on end by myself. But I do think that at some point, music and art really benefit from having another set of eyes and ears on it. And so some of these collaborations I think would be really special if we could actually be in the room. And just from a technical standpoint, it was a little bit of a bear to wrestle at the end to bring it all home and make it sound cohesive. Because some people recorded in an apartment, some people recorded in a studio, some people recorded in a corner closet, and it was all over the place. So to have everybody in the room I think would be incredible because there's a certain magic that happens when you actually have people reacting in real time to each other.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Chad Campbell

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