Quesada, half of Black Pumas, produced the album during the pandemic by collaborating remotely with other musicians. Its roots trace back to a song he heard on the radio decades ago. He told the Texas Standard that he hasn’t gotten it out of his head since – and the result is a new record of both original tracks and reimagined tunes from another era.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: I understand based on what Rolling Stone was reporting, you were sort of driving around Austin or nearby or something one day and you heard something about 20 years ago and it just really stuck in your head. What was it?
Adrian Quesada: That’s correct. I was driving and I remember exactly where I was. I was in Hyde Park – I had an apartment in Hyde Park – I was driving on 45th Street, because I remember where I pulled over, and they were playing this song by a Peruvian group called Los Pasteles Verdes, and the song was called “Esclavo Y Amo.” And I just had never heard anything like it in my life.
I remember pulling over and thinking like, it sounds like Ghostface Killah is about to start rapping at any minute. You know, it was like it really just sounded like it could have been a Wu-Tang Clan song. And it was the most eerie, beautiful, sad, amazing thing I had ever heard. And it just led me down this rabbit hole.
I know that the temptation would be to try to do a cover version of a lot of those songs. But you decided you would sort of dip into this – did you want to modernize it, or did you want to pay homage to it, or what exactly?
I think it ended up being more of a tribute. I was originally going to start by doing covers, and honestly, my attention span was just not there to really like make a cover album. It’s just a lot funner to, you know, have the inspiration there, stop it and then run off with it. But we recorded “Esclavo Y Amo” again for this album because, you know, because I got so obsessed with that song. I found like five or six versions of it, like Los Pasteles Verdes recorded that song over and over for like 20 years. So we did it again for this album.
Tell us about some of the other songs on this album.
There’s a few covers that were kind of a launching points for the album that I had to do. One of them was actually this song by La Lupe called “Puedes Decir De Mí.” La Lupe was a singer from Cuba who sang boleros, and then that was featuring Gaby Moreno. That was one of the first ones.
I mean, it even has a couple of instrumentals on there, but an instrumental called “Hielo Seco,” which has Money Mark, who famously played on a lot of Beastie Boys classic stuff, and also Marc Ribot. I think I wanted to have a few instrumentals on there, but have people that have dabbled in that; Marc Ribot had done an album called Cubanos Postizos, which means the Prosthetic Cubans, which was super influential on me when I was getting into kind of rediscovering Latin music and his approach to it. So I thought I’d pay kind of homage to both of them as instrumentalists and their influence that they’ve had on me.
Can we talk about the opening cut, “Mentiras Con Cariño”? You really scored quite a collaboration here.
Yeah, iLe is a singer from Puerto Rico. She’s absolutely an incredible artist, writer, collaborator – just luckily she agreed to be on it. That was probably, if not the last song, maybe one of the last songs we did.
At some point with these kinds of projects, it’s like you have to stop because every time you talk to somebody, that opens a new door. I sent her my inspiration playlist. She was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s all cool, but have you ever heard this?’ And all of a sudden I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ So then that led me down another rabbit hole. But she was incredible. Obviously, it ended up being the first song on the album and first single and just honored that she was willing to do it.
I think a lot of people are going to discover this album in part because of your association with Black Pumas, which has been such a tremendous success. How would you compare making this album with, say, writing songs for for the Pumas?
You know, the Pumas is very much a collaboration between myself and Eric [Burton], as you know, me more on the producer side, Eric more on the songwriter side. And when Eric and I started the Pumas album, I had some instrumentals, and then I would give it to him and he would write something on top of that.
I was talking to Eric about this album just recently, and like this boleros album is kind of like this sort of exploration of my roots and also how I can push it forward. And like this moment in time, they’re almost like a documentary or something, you know? Whereas making Pumas albums are like making a Star Wars movie, you know what I mean? These are like very specific themes that I’m running with. Whereas with Pumas, the theme is just, you know, life and how we’re affected by it.
All these songs – what would you say just, sonically, sort of distinguishes them? They are intricate, most certainly; they’re lush, too. How else would you describe it? I don’t think that there’s a particularly retro sound to it, do you?
You know, I’ve lost perspective on what’s retro and what’s not. Sometimes I do things that I don’t think are retro and people are like, ‘oh, that’s your, like, retro thing.’ I’m like, I thought it sounded modern, but, you know, what do I know? I think that one adjective I can think of is there’s a lot of drama to the music. You know, there was people kind of doing it all over Latin America, but, you know, there were bands like Pasteles Verdes and Ángeles Azules, which were really exploring the like psychedelic sound of it, like the heavy reverb and the echoes and the electric guitar or a combo organs.
And this was a very much a pandemic record. I’d say 95% of this album was done remotely because of the pandemic. I never had any of the vocalists in the room. Everything was emailed to me, which on one hand makes it a little bit more efficient, but on the other hand it’s like, technically creates a huge headache for trying to make it sound cohesive and, you know, like a finished piece of music because not everybody has access to the same quality equipment and microphones and whatnot. But got it done, got it to the finish line. And towards the very, very end, I think there were a couple of musicians that came in and played some stuff in person.
I will say that it was a conscious effort to just call ‘Boleros Psicodélicos,’ to just package it nice and neat for people so that they know what it is, you know? And I’m pretty eager to talk about the influences and whatnot. And hopefully people do go back and discover some of the artists that inspired this.