'Brownout,' From Music Experiment To Fan Favorite

The Latin funk group began as a side band by some members of the Grammy-winning Latin ensemble Grupo Fantasma. They wanted to test new sounds but quickly learned they had something bigger to offer. Now, Brownout is getting lots of fans and glowing reviews. Their newest album is Oozy. Member Greg Gonzales talks with guest host Maria Hinojosa.

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MARIA HINOJOSA, HOST:

I'm Maria Hinojosa and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Eight years ago, a few members of the Grammy Award-winning Latin ensemble Grupo Fantasma began a side band called Brownout. At first, it was just a way for them to experiment with other types of sounds and styles, but soon they learned they had something special, a new twist on Latin funk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLAXIMOUS")

HINOJOSA: That was "Flaximous" from Brownout's latest album, "Oozy." Brownout is just like any normal group, except for one thing. The band very seldom, if ever, plays outside of the Southwestern United States. Now, they plan to change that and take the band on the road, where they hope to get a little bit more national exposure.

And joining me now is one of the founding members, Greg Gonzales, to tell us more about it. Thanks for speaking with us here on TELL ME MORE, Greg.

GREG GONZALEZ: Thanks for having me.

HINOJOSA: So let's take a listen to a little bit of the title cut and talk about it, Greg. Here's the title cut, "Oozy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OOZY")

HINOJOSA: So what's the meaning behind the title, Oozy?

GONZALEZ: The song was written before we attached the title to the album, but it just sounded good. You know, it sounds funky with a lot of sensual connotations. It suggests the heat and the melting, suggests kind of a sludgy, funky vibe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OOZY")

BROWNOUT: (Singing) (Unintelligible) no question that you're making me oozy, oozy, oozy. (Unintelligible) you're making me oozy, oozy, oozy.

HINOJOSA: So what inspired this song, "Oozy?"

GONZALEZ: The other guitar player, Beto Martinez, is the - I guess the other songwriter in the band besides myself and Adrian. Beto Martinez wrote that song and he told me that he got inspired to write that song when he was in the shower. Apparently, he gets inspired a lot in the shower. He has twin daughters, so I think that's his moment of solitude when he can think of songs, you know, as he's in the shower.

HINOJOSA: That's really funny. And you actually - you like to write when you're walking your dog. Am I right?

GONZALEZ: Yeah. That's my moment of solitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OOZY")

HINOJOSA: There's also something very much about being in Texas and on the border where a lot of you guys grew up. So talk about how that very particular border reality, at least when you were growing up when there was a lot more coming and going between the two countries, how did that influence - and how does that influence - the sound of Brownout?

GONZALEZ: When I met Beto Martinez, we were both in junior high, I guess, and we decided to form a band, so we were playing these clubs in the United States by the time we were in high school, playing all weekend long, just jamming and playing these funk and rock blues, you know, more traditional American kind of music.

But, at night, after the gig, we would go to Mexico and see the - they call the Columbiana bands, so in a sense, it was like the border separated us, but we could go back and forth easily and, since we were young, we couldn't go to the bar and see live music unless we were playing. Ironically, if we were playing, we could be in the club, but if we weren't playing, we couldn't be, so we'd go to Mexico where they didn't care and we could see music and...

HINOJOSA: Now, that sounds like the best of both worlds, like, you know, crossing back and forth. It sounds amazing.

GONZALEZ: It was a beautiful experience. You know, back then, the worst thing you had to worry about was maybe getting shook down by some police officer who just was looking for money from American kids over there, you know, partying or whatever.

HINOJOSA: Part of what we love about Brownout is that you guys have this real sense of humor and there's this song on your CD, "Meter Beater," and there's a really funny story behind this song. So what is it?

GONZALEZ: It's a little bit convoluted, the logic behind it. I was inspired by a song by The Meters.

HINOJOSA: Meters are based in New Orleans, right?

GONZALEZ: Yes. They're a legendary funk band that we hold in the highest esteem who've contributed so much to funk music as it is and, as far as the lyrics go, I got a parking ticket one day and I was like, I didn't beat the meter, if you will, but then I thought about an event that happened to me maybe 10, 15 years prior when I first got to Austin, Texas and I was, you know, maybe 18 or 19 years old and I got a parking ticket. I remember being really upset. I was broke, working at a donut shop, whatever, and I looked at the ticket and I was with a friend and I was like, oh, man, you know, meter people. How can they do this? Go around, what kind of job is that, ruining peoples days or whatever. And as I was saying that, but meter guy came around the corner and he had overheard me and he got in my face and he kind of wanted to fight or something and I was like, nah, I'm not going to fight you, man, whatever.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: But as I was looking at the, you know, fast forward to the more recent ticket that I got, I was looking at it remembering what happened and that became the inspiration for the lyrics, which are, you got to think before you act. Don't just react until you know the facts. You got to think before you speak. Don't just repeat what you hear in the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OOZY")

BROWNOUT: (Singing) Hey, you got to think before you act. Don't just react until you know the facts. Hey, you got to think before you speak. Don't just repeat what you hear in the streets.

HINOJOSA: In this song, actually everyone is singing the lyrics in unison...

GONZALEZ: Mm-hmm.

HINOJOSA: ...which you guys do a lot. So what you call it when you guys sing all in unison?

(LAUGHTER)

HINOJOSA: There's a name for it, right?

GONZALEZ: Yeah. The nickname we have for it is brocols.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: All the bros singing vocals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OOZY)

HINOJOSA: Well, so one of my favorite cuts on your CD is called "Stormy Weather."

GONZALEZ: Mm-hmm.

HINOJOSA: Let's take a listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STORMY WEATHER")

BROWNOUT: (Singing) Hey, what you got to say? Hey, what you got to say? It's stormy weather. You gotta keep it together. It's stormy weather. You gotta keep it together.

HINOJOSA: So it's got that to me, this kind of quintessential Tejano rock sound. You know, Tejano music, which is basically Tex-Mex music rooted in Texas. Very '60s, '70s, you know, a kind of, you know, Santana presence, very much a connection to soul.

GONZALEZ: Mm-hmm.

HINOJOSA: And to me it's like the quintessential sound that you guys are trying to achieve.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Well, to me it sounds a lot like War, the band from Oakland in the '70s that...

HINOJOSA: Oh, yeah. We love War.

GONZALEZ: ...that did "Low Rider," which is, of course, like...

HINOJOSA: We love War.

GONZALEZ: ...a Chicano anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STORMY WEATHER")

BROWNOUT: (Singing) Hey, what you got to say? Hey, what you got to say? It's stormy weather. You gotta keep it together.

HINOJOSA: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Greg Gonzalez, one of the founding members of the Latin funk band Brownout. Their new album is called "Oozy."

I also love the cut, "I Won't Lie." And to me it kind of starts out with this whole kind of Raza Cosmica vibe, and then you go into this crazy rhythm. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T LIE")

BROWNOUT: (Instrumental)

HINOJOSA: So tell me a little bit about that song, "I Won't Lie." It just works for me so much.

GONZALEZ: I believe the inspiration for it was the song "In the Rain," you know, I want to go outside in the rain. And it's got this guitar with a lot of echo sound. I think that was kind of the initial inspiration. But instead of the water being from the sky, it's tears in this case.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T LIE")

BROWNOUT: (Singing) Every time you caught my eye, I will tell you I won't lie. I suggest you go outside. You don't want to see me cry, see me cry. Every time you caught my eye, I will tell you I won't lie.

HINOJOSA: You know, there might be some people who don't understand this or don't know this term Raza Cosmica. It's kind of like a Chicano thing from the Southwest. I mean, do you guys identify at all with that kind of thinking as you're putting together the music of Brownout?

GONZALEZ: You know, when we write music it's just kind of inspired by the moment. You know, it might be a song you heard on the radio or it might be something in your past or a moment that you're having. I mean certainly, our backgrounds in our history are from South Texas and a border town, and that whole kind of heritage, that culture from our families and our friends growing up and that informs everything that we do musically and culturally in our lyrics and in our intentions. But it's not specific like, you know, you don't set out writing a song you're like ah, you know, I'm going to write a song for La Raza. You know, I don't know, we never necessarily think of it like that.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: But we always felt like it would appeal to those people because they see where we're coming from.

(LAUGHTER)

HINOJOSA: So when you talk about your heritage and your culture, what do you mean?

GONZALEZ: Well, myself, Adrian and Beto, being the principal songwriters, we're all from the same city of Laredo, Texas, which is a border town, predominately Mexican - Mexican-American and there's also a lot of cross-cultural interchanges going on, you know, whether it's people coming across to buy, shop, visit their families or people going to Mexico to do the same thing, you know, there's a very vibrant interchange that goes on every single day and the values are very similar.

HINOJOSA: There's another song that stood out. It's "JPT."

GONZALEZ: Mm-hmm.

HINOJOSA: And Greg, you wrote the song. And I heard that it was actually inspired by a Cuban musician, Juan Pablo Torres, therefore, JPT.

GONZALEZ: Mm-hmm.

HINOJOSA: He was a trombone player. But in this particular song, you're actually using this really weird sounding instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "JPT")

BROWNOUT: (Instrumental)

HINOJOSA: What is it?

GONZALEZ: It's a keyboard. It's a Yamaha CP-30 keyboard, which he used quite frequently on his recordings and had a very distinctive kind of analog-y sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "JPT")

BROWNOUT: (Instrumental)

GONZALEZ: I asked my friend Alex Chavez who is with the band Maneja Beto, I asked him to come sing some lyrics I wrote. And he showed up and he had some traditional Mexican Huasteco verses and he studies and teaches the music of Mexico, the traditional folkloric music that predates mariachi music, even, of the Huasteco style and the Son Jarocho style and these very traditional styles of music that were kind of folkloric. And he came, and as he was warming up he tried some of these different verses, and they have very particular falsetto singing style to them. And he sang this one verse about sailors on a ship who get stranded when the wind stops blowing, and they are just basically waiting for the wind to change so they can get back home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "JPT")

ALEX CHAVEZ AND BROWNOUT: (Sung in Spanish)

GONZALEZ: And as soon as he sang it, I was like, you know what? Forget the lyrics I wrote. That traditional verse you just put on there is amazing. So we stuck with it and it kind of tied everything together in the sense that I had, you know, these African rhythms and kind of an African vibe going on with the melodic content of the guitars and stuff, and then the sounds of Cuba and that inspiration from Juan Pablo Torres and then the traditional sounds of Mexico. It kind of became this pan-African/Latino soundscape.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "JPT")

BROWNOUT: (Playing)

HINOJOSA: Let's talk about another song, and I particularly love the name of this song. It's "Ando y Dando."

GONZALEZ: Mm-hmm.

HINOJOSA: What does "Ando y Dando" mean? And what was going on for you when you wrote it?

GONZALEZ: When this band first started out, most of our songs were covers and we tended to focus on classic, what they call break beat songs, which were beats that people would breakdance to. They were funk songs but they were the higher, faster tempo and a little more high energy, so you could do your spins and do all your rock in the way that you do when you're a breakdancer, or a b-boy, b-girl, as they say.

HINOJOSA: Let's take a listen to that cut.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANDO Y DANDO")

BROWNOUT: (Sung in foreign language)

HINOJOSA: You guys are now taking a very big step in your career because you've decided that you want to take Brownout on tour really to reach a broader audience because in the past Brownout has mostly stayed in the Southwest of the United States. So are you guys at all nervous about going on the road in a big way with Brownout?

GONZALEZ: Not at all. It's not a matter of fear of getting out there, fear of our performance. Just that for the longest time Brownout was just a kind of like a side project, just an outlet for us to experiment with funky forms and to show off our instrumental chops. But as time has gone on, it's kind of developed it's own personality and become it's own entity unto itself. At this point we feel like it's equally as valid musically speaking and we feel like it's important for us to get that out.

HINOJOSA: Well, good luck on tour. I hope it goes great.

GONZALEZ: Thanks.

HINOJOSA: Greg Gonzalez is one of the founding members of Brownout. The band's new album "Oozy" is available now. Greg joined us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Thanks again for speaking with us, Greg.

GONZALEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HINOJOSA: And that's our program for today. I'm Maria Hinojosa and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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