Brownout gives Black Sabbath tunes a Latin-funk groove
Flouting convention comes as second nature for Brownout, a feverishly eclectic octet spun off from Grupo Fantasma, a storied Latin-funk collective based in Austin, Texas. Like Fantasma, a Grammy-winning outfit known for jamming with Prince, Brownout has earned a reputation for mixing funk, rock, cumbia, jazz, and other styles into an organic fusion with a psychedelic edge. The band’s latest album, a collection of Black Sabbath covers titled “Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath,” gives new meaning to the heavy-metal term “throwing horns,” splashing brassy flourishes over Sabbath’s mighty riffs.
Not that a few band members’ arms didn’t require gentle twisting. “We had to do a little convincing, for sure,” Brownout guitarist Adrian Quesada said in a recent telephone interview. “For example, our horn players weren’t super-well versed in Black Sabbath.” But having players who could approach iconic songs like “The Wizard,” “Iron Man,” and “Into the Void” with open ears and no preconceptions had made the results fresh, Quesada reckoned.
Turns out he’s not the only one who thought so. “I’ve been hearing about this band Brown Sabbath for a while now,” said Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne in an e-mail forwarded by a band publicist. “I was shown a video of them performing ‘The Wizard,’ and it was a lot of fun hearing it with a horn section. It was great!”
With Brownout headed to the Sinclair in Cambridge for a Brown Sabbath show on Thursday, Quesada talked about what made covering Sabbath a natural for a Latin-funk crew.
Q. The simplest question first: Why Black Sabbath?
A. Well, just to start off, we’re obviously huge fans of Black Sabbath. And Black Sabbath makes sense musically, but we didn’t find that out until we tried it. It really kind of came out of this residency that we did at a club last month. Just to do something different and try to challenge ourselves, musically we’d pick a different theme every week. And I think one of the things that kind of drew us to Black Sabbath — well, I mean, a lot of the guys had been listening to Black Sabbath since high school — but for us to be attracted to that music and to attempt to do our own version of it is that a lot of the music from that era, a lot of the music from the ’60s, still has this kind of soul and funk influence to it, that you hear kind of underneath. So I think that for them being obviously like the godfathers of metal, you still hear the common thread that you hear in Led Zeppelin and in Carlos Santana’s stuff. They were very influenced by jazz and funk and stuff like that, so it has that undercurrent to it even though it’s the prototype of heavy metal.
Q. Did one band member take charge of arrangements, or was it a collective effort?
A. We worked on them together at first, and then things just went in different directions. Some of them we tried to stay pretty faithful to the originals. Most of them, we tried to put some sort of spin on it. But there’s a few of them where the riffs and certain parts are so iconic that it was almost kind of blasphemous to change them.
Q. I read an interview with your bassist, Greg Gonzalez, who talked about how you and he and guitarist Beto Martinez grew up on the Texas border appreciating Mexican and Colombian music, but you’re not Mexican and Colombian — you were listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers and other popular American bands. How did your journey into Grupo Fantasma and Brownout start?
A. Me, Greg, and Beto are from Laredo. We grew up there, and obviously the music that’s part of the culture there is cumbia music, which we were doing in Grupo Fantasma, and Tejano music, which is . . . to simplify it, the rhythm sounds like a German polka with accordion and whatnot. But we grew up like every other teenage kid in America, in that it was the days when MTV played videos. That’s how we, in a small town so disconnected, discovered a lot of stuff. And it wasn’t until we all turned about 18 or something that we really started to turn around and appreciate this stuff that until then we’d write off as your parents’ music, or your grandparents’ music.
Q. The Latin-American community is passionate about heavy metal. What accounts for that?
A. It’s funny, my brother-in-law says that Mexicans are about the three M’s: metal, Morrissey, and mariachi — Morrissey was a big thing, too, for some reason. I agree with you, in Laredo metal was a big thing. I think that there’s a lot of struggle with certain communities and certain parts of the country; it’s a good escape for people to just let it all out through some heavy music. The Morrissey thing, I just never quite got it; I have a lot of respect for Morrissey and the Smiths, but I never connected with it. I think metal makes a little more sense.
Q. How has your hardcore following responded to “Brown Sabbath”?
A. They’ve dug it, as far as we can tell. The part that we were a little worried about at first was, now that we can spot people that are coming to our shows just to see us play Black Sabbath music — a lot of people with Black Sabbath T-shirts are showing up now, a ponytail and a Slayer T-shirt or whatever — those guys were not at our shows before. A lot of times we open the “Brown Sabbath” shows with some Brownout music, and that’s where we’re a little more worried, whether they’re going to start throwing [expletive] at us and just yell for Black Sabbath. But that’s actually gone over surprisingly well. The Brownout audience is pretty open to things like that.
Q. You’ve done some really high-profile things before: jamming with Prince, backing Wu-Tang rapper GZA, and so on. Are you surprised by how much attention “Brown Sabbath” has attracted?
A. A little bit of it has been, I think, the novelty of it for us. We never really hope to come off as tongue-in-cheek, so we take everything we do pretty seriously, whether it’s playing with Sheila E. and Prince or playing Black Sabbath music. We’ve never been the type to sit down and think super-big picture; usually we’re just kind of in the moment and we rehearse weekly, as much as we can. So it was a little bit surprising, for sure.