Albums rarely unfurl the way Black Pumas’ debut LP does. Opening track “Black Moon Rising” unlatches a time capsule. As the drumroll rises to the rich, velvety timbre of Eric Burton’s voice, you’re transported back to the sounds of early ’70s soul and a firm foundation of funk. Pumas guitarist and producer and guitarist Adrian Quesada also contributes significantly to the slow burn magic, his style pronouncing itself in every lick and groove.
Four Grammy nominations later, that 2019 self-titled debut shines as a work of modern art. The iconic Austin duo manages to appeal to the youth of today without ever diluting its gritty, Motown-era sound.
Everything happened pretty fast for you two. Did that rapid success come as a surprise? Burton: I think that we both had faith and a healthy level of confidence in ourselves individually and as a unit. With that said, I think every little thing that has happened chronologically has been a pleasant surprise for both of us. We probably make music in the same vein, that is, to entertain ourselves. So it is really interesting to create such music in our bedrooms, so to speak, and to then be met at the front door with the world and people who are interested in having some insight into our process.
This album already feels like an instant classic. Walk me through the key inspirations and influences as you were creating. Quesada: Eric comes from a background of being a songwriter, where he writes a song and then brings it to somebody. But it was a different process for Eric to jump on some instrumentals that were already worked on and to write a song based off of that production. So we both came at it from a different place.
Early on, one of my inspirations sonically, production-wise, was really soul music, rock ’n’ roll, a lot of different music but through the filter of what hip-hop producers would sample. I remember Eric telling me he was having to go back and re-study some of the great soul music, but honestly, at a certain point, we both turned off trying to find inspiration somewhere else and tried to find the inspiration within us rather than copy anybody else.
How do you get into the headspace to go searching for that inner inspiration? Burton: I actually was just having a conversation with a girlfriend of mine [about this] here, walking around. I live on the east side of Austin, where there’s really cool little alleys and nooks and crannies, to have some solitude. One of my favorite things to do is just throwing on headphones, listening to whatever music we’re working on or I’m working on individually, and just seeing a new world, seeing a reciprocation of what I’m feeling and experiencing—just being alive and present with where I’m at.
I really enjoy creating that way. I’ll sing really loud and explore my own limitations and just allow the music to tell me a story and take me on a journey while I’m physically being active on a walk or run. That’s how I create.
I just bought a Casio keyboard, and I just bought a new house and I came up with this short little snippet of a loop and was so inspired by the sound that I immediately called a session to the studio. Sometimes it just comes together. I did, like, one vocal take, and it’s pretty much a done song.
Each song has a different feel, but there seems to be an underlying essence to them all. Did you go into this album with any story or anchoring themes in mind? Quesada: The first day we did “Black Moon Rising” and “Fire,” I remember there was a certain mood out of it. They had a little bit of mystery to them. Even the most overt lyrics or song that is overtly expressing an emotion has a little bit of mystique to it. We’re letting the listener put on headphones and kind of go into their own world, whether it’s off of a lyric or a feeling or a keyboard track. That was one thing I noticed lyrically.
Burton: I do what I do, as we create, from a place of love. So for me, the writing is about discovering new ways of being in love with life and/or with a person, an opportunity or nature, and creating a world of love in all of that. It’s about creating something that you can’t quite see at face value without the poetry that is music and lyrics.
I think that certainly comes across in this record. Burton: It’s definitely vibey. We both appreciate making music for listeners to the degree that what we’re doing isn’t so predictable, and/or directly about something or a relationship or a person. We spend a lot of time exploring ideas and seeing how the colors, so to speak, mix and match with each other. It’s one of the most beautiful processes there is.
Eric, you busked and were into musical theater before joining Black Pumas. Do you feel like those skills translated into your stage presence today? Burton: Oh, yeah, it contributes quite a bit. At a young age, I learned how to develop characters and situations they’re in, and I think that it translates musically, especially in the live setting. You become something a little bit higher. To me it feels like connecting with my highest self, performing and being naked, so to speak. In a lot of ways, the theater definitely dictates how I create the music and how I move. I almost want to start wearing costumes, because it’s almost interpretive as opposed to this direct message, even physically.
Would you assign a character to different songs? Or is it more of whatever you’re feeling at the time? Burton: It’s whatever I’m feeling at the time. I always, in my songwriting, want to see more than what meets the eye. So I create characters and kind of interject my reality into the stories and the songwriting. Even the disposition which I take to inflecting, vocal-wise, and physically when I’m moving, I still allow the characters to move themselves.
It’s funny, I feel like I don’t do too much. I just allow the character to be. It’s about allowing what’s dope to be dope. Just allowing it because the love and the genius is there for anyone to grasp, as long as we know how to get out of the way. That’s been an interesting learning process.
You’ve been touring this album for a while now. Which songs have you noticed are resonating more live? Quesada: “Colors” and “Oct 33” really resonate with everybody, because those are songs that people have connected with from the beginning. But we tried, for a number of reasons, to switch things up every tour—move a couple of songs around, add a couple of new ones, try a cover—to keep ourselves on our toes. People are also reacting to songs that we wouldn’t expect.
We did a cover of Rodriguez’s “Sugarman” this year … and people have been reacting to that one all over the world. It’s kind of a testament to how big that song actually was. People react differently in different parts of the world, especially having a tour in the U.S. and then touring Europe, [where] you’re in a different country almost every other night. So we’ve got to be reading that and at the same time making sure we’re playing stuff that we’re feeling too. But most of the time, that lines up with what the crowd is feeling.
What have you found you enjoy playing most? Quesada: “Confines” is one that I always love playing. It’s kind of a sleeper on the album for us, but it just developed into this whole thing live. That one has this whole dramatic four-part play. It has so much range in what it does. It starts off with Eric on the guitar and then builds to something [else]. I’m talking about live, because on the album it’s a very different version, but it’s this whole piece of theater in itself.
What can we expect from your Vegas show? Burton: Excitement. An electric church. When I take to writing the music and performing it, it’s like a big prayer to me. The show feels like I’m praying. There’s a lot of honesty, mixed in with some rock ’n’ roll. [That’s] what it comes down to live with Black Pumas.
What’s next? Have you already started working on your sophomore album? Burton: We’ve been tasked to find interesting ways to create while we’re working. We’ve been so busy. We have probably 25 to 30 ideas, in various stages of completion. It’s really easy to write amazing things with Adrian, because he’s one of the best producers I know and that I’ve collaborated with, so I’m excited to see how people respond.
Adrian, would you like to add anything to that? Quesada: Yeah, I feel flattered. On this new batch of music, we have started a lot of songs, but our schedule hasn’t really let up too much. Four days off or five days off after a tour sounds like free time, but it really isn’t a lot of time. But we do have a lot of ideas. Eric had expressed interest in really contributing on the production end of this particular album, and he has actually brought a lot of ideas to the table. There’s been some where I come in and say, here’s my producer’s two cents on this one, but there’s some where I’ve literally just played guitar.
It’s different, and it’s also taking a little bit [of time] to really find the groove because of scheduling and because we’re trying new things. And I think that’s good for both of us and good for the music in general to just not be complacent. We could easily just redo what we did on the last album, but it’s good for us to challenge ourselves and come at it from different areas.
There’s times where I’d get out of the way, because Eric not only got the song but also a really cool production idea. And I’m just sometimes there as a set of ears. It’s gonna be a more unique experience, I think, than the first one.
Black Pumas With Aaron Frazer. December 18, 7 p.m., $50+, House of Blues, ticketmaster.com.
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