At Work: Black Pumas

Ryan Reed on March 23, 2020
At Work: Black Pumas

I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for,” admits Adrian Quesada. “But I knew that when I heard it, I would know.” The versatile guitarist-producer was sitting on a stash of cinematic grooves that bridged vintage soul, funk and psychedelia with ‘90s West Coast hip-hop. But he couldn’t find the right voice to weave those elements together. Enter: Eric Burton, a journeyman street performer who wound up busking in Austin, Texas—not far from Quesada’s home studio. After being introduced by a mutual friend, they set up an impromptu phone audition, and Black Pumas was, more or less, instantly born. The guitarist had found his elusive frontman.

“It all happened organically,” Quesada says of the resulting album, Black Pumas—and the run of concerts that propelled them to national hype throughout 2018 and 2019. “[Early on], we didn’t know what we were doing it for,” he says. “A couple studio sessions in, Eric started playing me his songs. I’d seen some videos of him, and I liked that he was playing guitar and singing. I thought, ‘It’s not like your typical soul or funk frontman.’ He had a vibe of someone like Neil Young. When we got about eight or nine songs into it, we were like, ‘OK, this is cohesive. Maybe we should make this an official thing.’”

The duo bonded over their rich tapestry of influences, which emerged from an epiphany that Quesada had after listening to rapper Ghostface Killah during a morning run. “I like the challenge of making drums sound like something that would be sampled in a hip-hop song,” he says. “A friend of mine put it to me like this: ‘You can’t pretend that hip-hop didn’t happen and cut off the inspiration in 1971.’”

Though the first wave of material originated from Quesada’s backlog of instrumentals, Burton’s smoky croon pulls equal weight throughout the group’s 2019 self-titled debut—from the glockenspiel-tinged quiet-storm atmospherics of “Know You Better” (influenced equally by classic gospel jams and Snoop Dogg) to the back-porch fingerpicked folk dreaminess of “Sweet Conversations.” “Honestly, if I hadn’t had met him, I don’t know what would have happened with those songs,” Quesada says of Burton. “I don’t know if I would have pursued it. He was the spark that made it all come together.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.