Greg Gonzalez of Grupo Fantasma: Something Else! Interview

Preston Frazier is joined by Greg Gonzalez, one of the original founding members of Grupo Fantasma. Over the years, Gonzalez has worked in a variety capacities with the band, including songwriter, producer, mixer and engineer, while also working with Brownout, Money Chicha and others. He joins us for a Something Else! Sitdown to discuss Grupo Fantasma’s new album Problemas, the band’s origins and his own beginnings of such a multi-faceted talent …

PRESTON FRAZIER: Problemas, your new album, was released in the U.S. five years after its predecessor, El Existential. Why the long span between albums?
GREG GONZALEZ: We finished the album in January 2013 and were ready to release it when we were informed that the record label which had agreed to finance and put it out [Nat Geo Music] had been shut down by decree from the corporate overlords over there. We were stuck with an album that we loved, but without any avenue to release it. We shopped it around, but were late in the release schedule and all the offers we got were shitty. We had worked very hard on it, and were all adamant that we wouldn’t release the album until we found a worthy partner who was serious about putting it out. In the meanwhile, many of the band’s members released another album with our band Brownout called Brownout Presents: Brown Sabbath. It got picked up by Ubiquity and we toured heavily in support of that project for a year and a half. When that cycle had finished, we circled back to the Grupo album. We had an offer to release the album in Japan so we took it, hoping that it would generate enough buzz to get us over there. That didn’t pan out but shortly thereafter we received word that a label in Houston called Blue Corn Music was interested in the album. They made us a great offer and seemed highly motivated to promote the record so finally we felt like we had an interested and motivated partner to work with.

PRESTON FRAZIER: For Problemas, Grupo Fantasma bought in producer and Los Lobos sax player Steve Berlin to produce. What did Steve bring to the project?

GREG GONZALEZ: We didn’t want to simply try and replicate the sound and approach we took on El Existentialand we felt that, having won a Grammy, we were ready to work with an outside producer. Up to that point, all of our efforts had been self produced. We looked around for a good producer whose work we all admired and respected, and we got the interest of Steve Berlin. We were honored when he told us he was a fan of our music, as many of us had grown up emulating his band’s approach and success. Steve did a great job of managing all of the input and opinions and talents of the band, as well as helping to push us out of our comfort zones to be creative.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Was there a theme or concept the band was after for the new project?
GREG GONZALEZ: We just wanted to create a great album which was immediate and compelling. The goal was to strip away anything too extraneous and to let the uniqueness and essence of the songs and songwriting shine. In the past we had been guilty of over doing it, layering horns and percussion and guitars and keyboards etc., to the point that the original emotional thrust of the music was blunted. This time the goal was to let the rawness and urgency of the music speak.

PRESTON FRAZIER: I discovered Grupo Fantasma when I saw you guys on an Austin-based TV show a few years ago. The band’s history goes back much further than that. Tell our readers how Grupo Fantasma was formed.
GREG GONZALEZ: Beto [Martinez] and I had a band in Laredo, along with the original drummer and singer for Grupo Fantasma, that was called the Blimp — or, at other times, the Blimp Trio. We played a blend of funk-rock-psychedelia and occasionally some cumbia songs. We all moved to Austin together to play music and, along the way, we met another Laredoan, Adrian Quesada, who was a guitar player in a band called the Blue Noise Band. The two bands started playing together as a college party band called the Young Silly Bitches, playing funk jams and classics — and we all really enjoyed the big sound we got when we joined forces doing a two guitar, two drumset and horns with bass sort of formation. One night, we stayed up late listening to a compilation of classic Colombian cumbias from Discos Fuentes called Cumbia Cumbia 2. We loved every song on the disc and daydreamed about booking a gig where we would play covers of all these songs with our expanded lineup. The next morning, Adrian called to tell us he had booked us a gig at a new club called the Empanada Parlor on a Friday night. We hadn’t even rehearsed once, and we had our first gig booked. Thus was born Grupo Fantasma.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Grupo Fantasma’s music seems to be a combination of a lot of Latin American styles, with a strong infusion of funk and rock. How has the band’s style changed since your self-titled debut?
GREG GONZALEZ: Our first album was a very spirited effort with a very minimal effort to capture the music we had been playing so successfully at our shows up to that point. We still didn’t know much about Latin music, aside from being huge cumbia fans with some experience playing rock and funk. We didn’t have the traditional instrumentation, nor did we fully understand the styles we were attempting to play. Over the years, we’ve learned and studied and had the privilege of working with real Latin musicians and musicians who were classically or university trained. As a result our repertoire has grown and we’ve come to embrace and understand a lot more of the styles and sounds which are part of Latin music: The different kinds of percussion, the various rhythms, and the song forms of many of the classics of the form. As a result, our fusions have become more authentic and effective over the years — and we’ve all improved as instrumentalists and songwriters.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Talk about the writing process for the band.
GREG GONZALEZ: The writing process varies. Generally, one of the band’s songwriters brings a song to the group, either as sheet music or as a demo created using music software and then the horns are arranged by an arranger — generally our trombonist Mark Gonzales, these days — and if the lyrics are written by one of our singers, we then practice the song and everybody contributes to tweaking their own parts. We adjust the form and tempo/style, until it sounds right. Sometimes, however, we write songs in the studio, taking a riff or melody or idea and then developing it as we go with each of the players who’s around contributing to the process.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Where were you born and raised? Were you parents musicians?
GREG GONZALEZ: I was born in Corpus Christi and raised all over the Mexico/Texas border in south Texas. Mostly in Laredo, Texas, but with some time spent living in Brownsville, McAllen, Los Fresnos, Olmito and Harlingen. Neither of my parents were musicians, although my father played trombone briefly in high school, and was a big fan of ’60s- and ’70s-era rock and roll. My mother was more a fan of Simon and Garfunkel and Jim Croce-style folk music.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell our readers about your musical upbringing? When did you start playing? What was your first instrument? Did you receive any formal lessons?
GREG GONZALEZ: I began playing bass when I was 13 years old. I had begged my parents for a drum set, but they weren’t gonna have it. When I moved back to Laredo, Texas, to stay in my 13th year, I met Beto Martinez. He wanted to start a band to play Metallica covers and was looking for someone to play bass. My brother had a bass which was being severely neglected: It was used for target practice. I took the poor two-stringed, bullet-riddled thing and started playing. My parents saw how committed I was to the sad bass and, after about six months, my father agreed to buy me my first bass and amp. Over the years, I studied theory and jazz band in high school, later taking some music/bass lessons at Austin Community College.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Today, what are your primary bass, amp and effects for touring and in the studio?
GREG GONZALEZ: My main touring bass is a Fender Jazz 5 string custom shop bass with alder body and maple neck and active electronics using flatwound strings. My main amp is a Markbass, the Lil’ Mark II, with Markbass 108 8×10 cabinet. In the studio, I also use a made-in-Mexico Fender bass VI reissue, a 1967 Ampeg Baby Bass electric upright, a 1976 Gibson Ripper bass and an Epiphone Jack Cassady bass with tapewound strings — in addition to any basses that might be lying around the studio. For effects, I use a variety of fuzz pedals including a DOD vintage fuzz, a fender Sublime pedal, MXR Graphic Fuzz and an electro Harmonix Big Muff, I also use a Boss OC-2 octave pedal, a Markbass synth bass pedal and a Behringer Synth bass pedal.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What’s next for Grupo Fantasma?
GREG GONZALEZ: We’re in the process of organizing tours to promote this album, club shows, festivals, etc. Right now, our focus is on this album and we haven’t started discussing our next project, although we have begun writing new music and incorporating it into our live shows.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Finally, my standard closing question … what are your top 5 albums?
GREG GONZALEZ: This is an impossible question but I’ll mention the five that come to mind first … Jimi Hendrix, Are You Experienced?; Various artists, Cumbia Cumbia 2; Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain; Beastie Boys,Check Your Head; and Mr. Bungle, California.