The funk came first: Brownout returns to pre-Sabbath roots


Brownout’s new EP has stronger lyrical focus than previous work, including some political commentary.

Brown Sabbath was supposed to be a one-off project that became two albums and three years of touring.

Three years after their “Brown Sabbath” albums made them the most popular Latin Sabbath band in the world, the artists behind local funk squad Brownout are redefining their collective voice.

“(We’re) trying to figure out where that left us off and how any of that influence has seeped into the music if it has,” guitarist Adrian Quesada said when several members of the band met for breakfast in East Austin in May, a week before the release party for their new EP “Over the Covers.”

The influence is not overt, but you can feel it in “the energy of the music,” said vocalist Alex Marrero, who joined the band to play Ozzy on the Sabbath tours, and is now a full-time member on vocals and percussion. “(We’re) taking chances, doing different things.”

Brownout has been one of the fiercest instrumental attack squads in Austin for over a decade and when they hit the stage at Antone’s for the release party, the nine-piece border funk ensemble unleashed an arsenal of menacing guitar licks, insistent horn stabs and tightly marked rhythmic hits. They destroyed a hometown crowd with a rock-solid set of original works that leaned heavily on mean-spirited grooves seeped with grimy psychedelia.

There were throwback moments, reminders of their history as Blue Note-influenced breakbeat specialists who played at b-boy competitions and late-night house parties. The old tunes were paired with onstage reminiscences about the simpler political days of their musical youth — when George W. Bush was president. But on the new material, written in the current era of “bad hombres” and border walls, there was a brooding intensity underlined by Marrero’s lyrical clarity. It added an edginess, a sense of danger that blurs the line between booty-moving groove and unholy possession.

“This EP is the first time we have somebody who is working with a dedicated concept and a dedicated outlook and writing lyrics that should make a song,” guitarist Beto Martinez said. In the past, when the band used vocals, it was mostly was Martinez calls “bro-cals” — chanted choruses or catchy hooks.

The new songs have a strong ‘70s vibe, and as the band was writing Marrero steeped himself in the social outcries of old school soul. “Considering the times we live in, I was kind of listening to (and) just taking notes from the greats from that era that weren’t afraid of getting political or social,” he said.

“Feels like we’re coming down/with a new disease/see it going around/it’s just the same old thing,” Marrero sings on the EP’s lead track “Evolver.”

“The world has evolved, (but) there’s still this holding on to things that don’t make sense any more and it’s unfortunate,” he said about the lyrics.

Marrero is a Mexico City native who moved to Austin in 1994, and three of Brownout’s principals — Quesada, Martinez and bassist Greg Gonzalez — grew up in Laredo, so the inflammatory rhetoric around the border hits close to home.

“I think everyone recognizes that the wall is just a big dumb symbol,” Gonzalez said. “(It’s) super ineffective … you don’t need (to climb) a wall. You can walk across the bridge and just stay.”

“Not to mention historically it’s a terrible symbol,” Martinez added.

“The saddest thing that most people who haven’t really spent time on the border don’t realize is that it’s this unique culture that you don’t get anywhere else,” Quesada said.

“Growing up on the border, the U.S. side and the Mexican side, it feels like one city,” he said. “It really feels like you’re driving, like if I’m going to Round Rock or going to Buda. … Crossing the border was not a big deal. It wasn’t like this huge checkpoint. You just kind of pay your toll and go through.”

In Austin music lore, Brownout long existed as a scrappy side project of Grupo Fantasma — a hard-driving, instrumental groove squad that shared the big sister cumbia band’s affinity for Latin horns and percussion. But in the shared origin story of two of Austin’s great big bands, the funk came first.

During their high school years, Gonzalez and Martinez had a group called the Blimp, which Quesada regarded as “the best band in Laredo.” In the late ‘90s they all migrated to Austin to attend the University of Texas.

“We moved here as the Blimp and got our first gig at Double Dave’s pizza because our drummer worked there,” Martinez said.

At the campus-area pizza parlor, they met the bassist for Quesada’s experimental jazz band Blue Noise Project, and hooked up Quesada’s group with their first show, serenading UT’s student crowd.

There was instant chemistry and soon the two bands merged. Their first gig was a kegger at one of the campus-area co-ops. They learned a bunch of funk jams and played late into the night and the experience sold them on the magic of playing as a large ensemble. “The power of that whole band for the first time, having a horn section. I just remember having a huge smile and just thinking, like, ‘Wow, this is awesome,’” Martinez says.

As the group began to evolve, they hit a winning formula by recreating the seedy backroom cumbias they grew up hearing on elicit trips across the border. As crowds began to turn out for Grupo Fantasma, the sprawling funk jams fell into the background.

In the early days, Grupo Fantasma’s rotating cast of players included Marrero, who did a brief stint on percussion that he refers to it as his “10 minutes of Fantasma.” He even made the first album cover, right before master timbale player and current Grupo Fantasma vocalist Jose Galeano came into the picture, knocking the band’s professionalism into high gear. “So, he got that job,” Marrero said with a laugh.

One night in 2003, after several years hard touring as Grupo, Gonzalez and Quesada “put together a little mixtape of funk jams we liked and were just like, ‘Let’s get the funk band back together,’” Quesada says.

After years of studying, becoming experts, in the structure of Latin music forms, the return to funk was liberating. Ignoring the trends of the day — play straight funk covers or don matching suits and hire a singer — they mixed in Latin percussion, making Latin funk their signature sound.

But with Grupo going strong, Brownout remained on the backburner. “We really committed to getting that band out there and touring a lot. … So Brownout for a lot of years was the ‘when we had time’ band. When we were home. I don’t think we did our first tour til 2008 after the first record came out,” Martinez said.

“Those early recordings, we really pieced them together,” Quesada said. “Somebody would offer us two free days of studio time and we would record something and then a year later we’d do one day here.”

Then in 2014, the crew raged out of Fantasma’s shadow when “Brown Sabbath,” their collection of classic metal covers reimagined as Latin funk songs, unexpectedly became the sleeper hit of the summer. For the next three years, the band members lived out their high school, hard rock fantasies on a wild ride of an album release cycle that included extensive touring, lucrative festival gigs and a shout out from Ozzy Osbourne himself, who raved on satellite radio about “’some Mexican guy who sounds just like me.”

The project was a crazy idea that suddenly took on a life of its own. They put out a second collection of Sabbath covers in 2016.

“We were not expecting at all,” said Marrero. “It was fun … just being over the top, developing a stage show. And it just kind of hit a nerve. There’s something about the mix of the horns and the treatment of the music. It really resonated with people which was cool.”

“We were only going to do this one little promo tour and then (the label was) like, ‘We want to put out another album,’” said Gonzalez. “Then also we got Bonnaroo. We got Jam Cruise. Festival offers started coming in and it just kept going and going. It was like that relationship you can’t quit, ‘Oh, baby, I’m sorry, it’s not working out’ and then she’s like ‘Well, what about this?’ OK well, let’s go to the mall.”

In the aftermath, they’re ready to get back to business.

“What I would really like now is a more focused attempt at making a record,” said Quesada, who no longer plays with Grupo Fantasma. “We weren’t quite ready to make a full-length album right now but an EP was perfect, setting the reset button for us in Brownout. … Those early records, they were cool and charming and captured stuff, but they were never totally focused. It was like, ‘Oh, we have 10 songs now, let’s put it out.’”

They’ll sketch out that album later this month, when Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, who produced Grupo’s last record, comes to town to work with them. “We’re going to have him force us to work together on new music on the spot, everybody in the same room all the time,” Quesada said.

And though the new EP’s title is called “Over the Covers,” a tongue and cheek reminder to the audience to quit yelling out Black Sabbath song titles at their shows, the ensemble is not done adding their artistic vision to other people’s songs. They were approached by the hip-hop label Fat Beats to do a collection of Public Enemy instrumentals that should be out before the end of the year.

“We’ll be doing more covers this fall. We’ll be ‘Fear of a Brown Planet,’” Quesada said with a laugh.

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