From its humble start eight years ago as a group of friends in two Austin, Texas, bands that jammed together after gigs, to jamming with and opening for Prince, the one thing that’s remained constant is the energy the 10-piece Grupo Fantasma brings to the stage.
“Our forte is the live show,” guitarist Adrian Quesada told Pollstar. “Generally the vibe at our shows is similar to the early house parties we used to play when we first started the band. Everybody’s dancing, everybody’s having a good time. There’s no inhibitions as to how you’re supposed to dance.”
Quesada explained that the two bands – the Blimp and the Blue Noise Band – regularly played shows together and “combined the two bands to make sort of a mock big band, sort of a funk project we would do at parties.”
“The repertoire was mainly funk music and a little bit of Latin music,” Quesada said. “After about a year of doing that for fun we just decided to give it a name and it became Grupo Fantasma. We decided to take it a little bit more seriously. We booked a gig under that name and we decided to focus on that and all of a sudden it just took off from there.”
The members of Grupo Fantasma initially handled everything from tour management to booking gigs to accounting. When some of them got burnt out, the band hired a manager who lasted two years, and eventually turned to Diaspora Music Group’s David Lobel. Lobel was formerly a saxophone player in Grupo who started up his own management company using the experience he gained while in the band.
“It was a good step both for my career and the band to bring it back to the family and that internal trust that we all have,” Lobel told Pollstar.
“He’s always been somebody who’s really been on top of business matters and very organized,” Quesada said. “It was really important to have somebody who understood everything that we were about. And he was there from day one, so he was just a natural choice.”
In addition to management, Lobel also books all Texas dates for the band while Mondo Mundo Agency’s Phil Ballman handles the rest of North America.
When it comes to gigs, Quesada said the band never really had an issue with being pigeonholed because Grupo was enthusiastically accepted in Austin by all kinds of crowds as it played everywhere from Latin music clubs to venues like Emo’s.
“It wasn’t a problem early on for audiences to embrace the music. We broke down the language barrier and the rhythmic barrier – we’ve had a lot of success with that,” Quesada said.
“One of the first things I tell buyers is not to make the mistake and think that they’re just kind of a salsa band,” Ballman told Pollstar. “The quick pitch I give people is that it’s kind of Latin, funk, psychedelia, big band … [there are] different kind of things they do, like mixing in cumbia.
“It’s just a thrilling experience. They’re powerful enough to be on the mainstage of a festival and if it’s a club setting, even people who haven’t heard of them go home just completely blown away.”
In 2006, Prince heard the band and became one of those people.
He then invited the band to play at his 3121 club in Las Vegas.
In 2007, the band played as his opening act, as well as backing the Purple One for a select number of shows.
“Opening for Prince was amazing,” Quesada said. “He doesn’t have a lot of opening acts so it was a bit intimidating. The other day someone asked me in an interview if we could pick one person to open for, who would it be, and I said, ‘Basically, we already did it.’
“It’s a huge honor. He’s even had our horns play with him, had us sit in with him and he’s sat in with us. It’s amazing,” Quesada said.
“It gave that big stamp of approval to the members of the band that what they were doing was on the right path,” Lobel said. “To have someone of that stature come in and say, ‘This is hip, this is cool, keep doing this, I like this,’ – I think that was really the most important thing; more than even some of the benefits or the notoriety or exposure.
“Prince has a huge fan network, so if we made a few more fans, then great. I think it was that internal gratification that was the biggest boost for the guys to continue doing what they’re doing and keep playing and getting their music out there,” Lobel said.
When Pollstar spoke with Quesada, the band was on the road promoting its fourth studio album, Sonidos Gold.
After wrapping up a summer tour throughout North America and Europe, the band has more Texas and U.S. dates on the books for September and October.
Ballman anticipates the band will be busy well into next year.
“We think this tour and this CD is going to go a long way to really build them up in the major markets,” Ballman said. “Ultimately, they’re going to be known as one of the really great live bands. I actually think right now they’re just in the beginning stages of their real success. … In the next few years, the sky’s the limit for these guys.”