As Ocote Soul Sounds, Adrian Quesada and Martin Perna, respective bandleaders of famed ensembles Grupo Fantasma and Antibalas create desert- and sun-soaked psychedelic funk that entwines the grit and funk of the gridlocked NYC streets, with the voices and rhythms of the dusty streets of Latin America.
On “Coconut Rock” their third album, the slipped effortlessly into their trademark psychedelic afro-latin funk groove. From the Latin breakbeat rhythms of album lead-off ‘The Revolt of the Cockroach People’ to the cumbia bounce of ‘Tu Fin, Mi Comienzo’ to the easy guitar soundscapes of ‘Vendendo Saude e Fe’ featuring Brazilian songstress Tita Lima, ‘Coconut Rock’ is the third chapter in Ocote Soul Sounds’ unparalleled journey through sonic realms beyond.
The duo of Perna and Quesada developed their musical paths in eerily similar parallel universes. Though Quesada grew up in the Texas border-town of Laredo, and Perna came up in Philadelphia (later New York), both musicians straddled borders literally and artistically. Growing up on hip hop and the jazz and funk it was built on; both taught themselves to play multiple instruments; both had founded game-changing, booty-shaking big bands; and both were deeply moved by a powerful spirit of social and political activism, the spirit that was to become Ocote.
A chance biodiesel breakdown, which left Martin stranded in Austin, led to the two playing around with some song ideas together, hitting the studio and ultimately resulted in their 2005 debut ‘El Nino Y El Sol’. Four years and three albums down the line, they have evolved into a seven-piece live outfit.
In anticipation of their next full-length album (“Taurus), Mundovibe Editor John C. Tripp caught up with Adrian Quesada for a chat on the group’s roots and methods.
Mundovibe: I got turned on to you guys a few years back when you’re first album came out, which I believe you released independently. El Nino y El Sol.
Adrian Quesada: The first 1,000 copies we released ourselves and then ESL picked it up and released it.
MV: When you put that out was it just kind of like ‘hey, we’re messing around, this is pretty interesting’ but did you anticipate it going beyond that?
AQ: Not really, to tell you the truth because at that time, Martin, my partner in the project was really busy with Antibalas and they were touring a lot. And I was touring a lot too, but he got stranded down in Austin for a while. And he had already had four or five songs recorded and I had a hand full and we just started recording for fun. Then we just threw it all together and just traded ideas back and forth. And that first one was put together kind of loosely but it turned out to be kind of magical the way it all kind of came together. But we didn’t really have any grand plans or scheme for the first Ocote.
Ocote Soul Sounds was the name he used to record his own solo stuff and that’s why it’s called Ocote Soul Sounds and Adrian Quesada, we just tagged my name on it. We pressed up 1,000 copies, sold it at Antibalas shows, maybe that’s where you go it.
MV: I think I got it through Dusty Groove or Groovedis, one of those Chicago distributors.
AQ: Yeah, we pressed up 1,000 and he sold them on tour and so did I. And then I was at the Austin City Limits music festival in 2003 and I was backstage and ran into the guys from Thievery Corporation. I sat down and looked to my right and there was Eric Hilton from Thievery Corporation and I happened to have some Ocote records with me. I just handed him one and that was Friday afternoon. By Monday morning I had an e-mail that said they wanted to release it, give it a proper release.
MV: That’s fantastic then. I have been very interested in what you’re doing with your music and I guess “El Nino y El Sol” was somewhat of a blueprint for what was to come. But, what theme would you say have gone through all three of your releases?
AQ: The first one, the whole idea of “El Nino y El Sol” and I think some of the stories in the CD itself was this real cinematic quality to it and the whole thing played out, or at least played out to me in my head and Martin’s head like a little movie and we just imagined it like that. That was part of the idea, I think with both of the bands we come from the music just hits you over the head. Antibalas has this method of just jumping out at you and Grupo Fantasma has the same kind of thing, not so much social commentary as Antibalas but the music just hits your over the head. There’s something about the Ocote stuff that has this kind of hazy cinematic quality to it, we wanted to keep that hazy, ambiguousness where it leaves a lot up to the listeners instead of just force feeding you the message. And that’s what the charm of that first record was. We came up with that title with kind of a story of a boy that’s heading south to try to reach the sun and that was about the extent of it. We thought the listeners can fill in the blanks and use their imagination. So, that was the theme of the first one. The second one, we started working on it with no theme but as it started coming together Martin had the idea of the alchemist’s manifesto. And part of it was really making something from nothing, the idea of the alchemist: turning something into gold. That was the concept we ran with and I think in many ways it reflected the music, it reflected our ideas about life and sustainability in general, day to days things. That was the loose theme that we based the second record on, and as it started coming together it all started making sense on many levels: the idea of the alchemist. And the third record, “Coconut Rock” just had this really kind of kind of sunny funk vibe to it and “Coconut Rock” was something Martin came up with. We didn’t really give much thought to that, it just seemed to kind of sum up the record. And right now we are working on our fourth record, it’s almost done and should be out in January 2011. I think the idea on that is that the title’s going to be “Taurus” and both of us are Taurus so we going to explore the zodiac elements of the music.
MV: Considering that the large body of your work is instrumental I guess the titles have quite an influence in how they’re interpreted. So, there’s definitely a great significance to your choice of titles. For example the song “Revolt of the Cockroach People” which is a great book on progressive Mexican politics.
AQ: We try to stick to a theme. Yeah, that was a book I’ve read in college and Martin read it recently and that’s one of his titles. That’s Ocote more and more incorporating social and political commentary and at the same time we trying to keep it somewhat timeless where it’s not such a specific statement. You know “screw George Bush, etc.” kind of deal. We’re trying to stay on that progressive thinking but at the same time it’s something that could be timeless, it’s something that would apply to the late ‘60s-early ‘70s like “Revolt of the Cockroach People” to nowadays that would be just as relevant. And that’s part of the beauty of working with instrumental music sometimes with a lot of instrumental music the lyrics aren’t there to nail it down to anything.
MV: What instruments do you use and how do you collaborate?
AQ: I primarily play guitar, bass, keys and drums and he primarily plays wind instruments.
MV: You have them pretty clearly delineated then, this is your role in creating the music and Martin. How do you do it?
AQ: It varies from song to song, on a good majority of them I handle the guitar/bass stuff and handles most of the melodic stuff, from vocals to wind instruments and what not. At the same time there have been times when he’s laid down bass and guitar and I’ll come up with an idea. So, we complement each other nicely I think. There can be exceptions to the rule but generally he plays flute and sax, especially live.
MV: One of the artists I like a lot is Tita Lima, I noticed you’ve got a vocal track with her on it, that’s really really nice.
AQ: Yeah, thanks. She’s been a collaborator of mine for some time now and I’m always sending her stuff. A few of those were just things we were working on but it just seemed to fit the Ocote format and Martin just added some flutes and stuff to it and it worked out for the record.
MV: Has anyone ever brought up Carlos Casteneda with you guys? There’s that psychedelic and magical element to your music.
AQ: Yeah, definitely. Nobody’s ever brought it up but that’s definitely something that you can see, it’s a literary version of what we are doing.
MV: In terms of genre, you’re creating your own sound and style even though it pulls in things. I guess that happens more or less organically right?
AQ: Yeah, it’s not anything we ever discuss. The difference between the other projects I’m involved in and that this one is that those other bands set out with a very specific genre in mind. Antibalas was reviving afrobeat and afrofunk and Grupo Fantasma we were going to play latin music. There’s really no blueprint to what we are doing With us it’s hard to find anything that we represent so we just kind of do our own thing and it has its own unique sound. And we’re lucky that we don’t have a blueprint for it because it allows us a lot more creativity.
MV: Since you grew up in Texas, on the border you were in that zone of dual influence and dual culture.
AQ: For all of its flaws down on the border it’s definitely a very special place to grow up. It’s hard to really sit back and think of it like that until you leave. I almost spent in Austin, out of Laredo, I moved out of Laredo when I was 18 and I’ve now been in Austin for 15 years. It definitely took getting away from there to realize what a special place it is to grow up, you know? For better or worse, it’s a unique culture.
MV: And, you have in Austin in terms of the culture, it’s a melting pot of cultures.
AQ: It’s a great place that operates in its own state in a state. It’s definitely unique and very different than the rest of Texas for sure. It’s close enough to home, it’s only four hours away from Laredo, but at the same time it’s a place that really nurtures and has a lot of infrastructure for musicians. And the creative crafts really flourishes here, it’s definitely becoming a Southern California, people are moving in and high rises are being built but at the same time to community here is definitely one that supports musicians and artists and filmmakers and what not.
MV: I guess the last question would be in regards to how you balance things. You’ve got Grupo Fantasma and then you’ve got Ocote Soul Sounds. So, I guess Ocote is an alter ego for you?
AQ: Something like that, Grupo Fantasma is definitely a band, not so much my project or anything like that. I was one of the founding members and it’s a band. Ocote Soul Sounds is more of me and Martin’s baby, you know? Grupo Fantasma is very much a collective in the same way that Antibalas is. Martin founded Antibalas but at the same time it’s a collective effort, as is Grupo Fantasma. It’s definitely strength in numbers.
MV: You’re very much at home with ESL Records it seems they’ve really broadened their scope bringing in people like Nickodemus and you guys.
AQ: Yeah, they’ve been good, there’s a sense of loyalty and they definitely believe In us. There’s times that we’ve felt like the red-headed step child in the label roster but at the same time they’re incredibly supportive and really believe in what we’re doing and just seeing us out as a longterm thing.
MV: Yeah, because they’re classified as the “downtempo” and “lounge” thing but they’ve really opened up from there. Some people would like to classify Ocote Soul Sounds as that sound but you’re not really.
AQ: Yeah, we’re definitely a little more organic and I think part of just being on the label it gets lumped into being classified as that but I don’t think it was ever any big part of our musical influence or that the direction we were heading was downtempo or anything like that. But we both really respect the label and Thievery Corporation.Eric Hilton is actually producing this record that we’re completing right now. It’s nice to be on a label like that because on the one had we definitely stick out a little bit and on the other hand I think there’s a nice little community of artists and people that kind of evolve around that world that have been really good to know.
MV: Maybe people see Thievery Corporation and they see you guys and maybe they wouldn’t have listened to you or vice versa, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
So, you’re back to the studio now working on the new album?
AQ: Well, we’re actually pretty much done with it. We started working on it here in Austin and then we went up to Washington, D.C. for a week and flushed out most of the ideas there at the ESL studios and then came home and went back up about two months ago to do a mixing session and now they’re just putting finishing touches on it but for the most part it’s done.
MV: Well, definitely look forward to that.
SAMPLE TRACKS BY OCOTE SOUL SOUNDS