As the side project of members of GRAMMY winning, Latin-funk band Grupo Fantasmo, Brownout bring a background steeped in a heavy dance music. Perhaps that it what makes them such a good fit to interpret the world’s first heavy band – the Godfathers of Heavy Metal Black Sabbath. Touring and recording in the last year as “Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath,” Brownout have won over crowds of metal heads, break beat fans, Latin music fans, and even Ozzy himself with their grooving, Latin treatment’s of Black Sabbath’s music. WGTB had the great fortune to interview one of Brownout’s two guitarists, Beto Martinez, in anticipation of their upcoming East Coast show. Mr. Martinez discussed the genesis of Brownout, the funkiness of Black Sabbath, and gives his best acronym for W-G-T-B.
Jackson Sinnenberg: For our listeners and readers who may not know you, how did Brownout start?
Beto Martinez: Brownout actually started as a kind of outlet to play some funk, from another band which is called Grupo Fantasma which is a Latin band that has been the main project of most of us in Brownout for almost 15 years now. After about three years, in 2003, of being immersed in that group a few of us, the other guitar player Adrian Quesada and myself and the bass player Greg Gonzales decided to start a project where we could play some of the funk and break-beat stuff that we used to play before we got heavily into Latin music. So that’s where Brownout started. And it really began with us playing a bunch of our favorite songs, just a bunch of old funk stuff, everything from Madville to the J.B.’s. So we started playing around town. And it started really as a side project like that: it took a few years before it came into its own.
JS: How did the idea come about to do this Black Sabbath tribute album and tour that you’re calling “Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath”?
BM: Yeah. So back in September of 2013 we took on a residency here in Austin at a place called “Frank,” and we wanted to make it something special, not just the band playing every night with the same material. So we decided to take on a theme for every show and really challenge ourselves to play some different music. So every night the first set would be Brownout original material, the second set would be an interpretation of a particular style that we chose to emulate. We did a night where we had some local MCs come in and do some hip-hop that was called “Fear of a Brown Planet.” We did a night of break-dancing classes that was called Brownout 2: Electric Boogaloo. The last one that we thought of and decided to do was Brown Sabbath. That was a named we had kind of thrown around because it sounds cool; just brainstorming different stuff someone said “Brown Sabbath” and it was like a natural, just because the name rang so well. So we decided to make that one the grand finale of the whole thing. And as soon as we announced it on Facebook, before we rehearsed anything—before we did anything—we just announced the names of the different nights and we got a huge response online and in the community. People just saying “Hey man, I can’t wait to see this, it’s gonna be awesome!” Once we started working on it, it was just a natural fit. Black Sabbath is kind of inherently funky and…I won’t say it was easy because we had to learn all the material then figure out how to interpret it in an interesting way and not just copy it. But it definitely works for what we did, it’s already funky to begin with.
JS: Is that why you chose to do Black Sabbath? Why, as a funk band, you decide to cover and interpret the music of, arguably, the first heavy metal band?
BM: Yeah, Definitely. And we’re huge fans of the music so it’s pretty natural.
JS: How did you pick the songs you wanted to do – why only very early Sabbath? Jazz influence means it swings more?
BM: That stuff lends itself a little more than the later stuff and, you know, is more of the “true, classic” material. I mean, their whole catalog is classic but that early stuff resonated with most of us. It’s the stuff we grew up listening to. As we started throwing out songs, just emailing back and forth saying “what songs do y’all wanna do?” it was mostly from that era that people were throwing stuff out. It was a natural gravitation towards that.
JS: Could you walk us through how Brownout went about coming up with the arrangements for the tracks? How did the band figure out what they would add or embellish to the original music?
BM: So the first song that we tackled was “The Wizard,” that was one on everybody’s list. I have a little studio here, in my place, and John Speice the drummer came over. Me and him sat in there and he had an idea for taking the drum beat and actually making it more to kind of a J.B.’s style beat. So we messed around with that, just me and him, guitar and drums, and recorded a demo with that beat and added stuff on the guitars. We then sent the demo over to our horn arranger, whose our trombone player Mark “Speedy” Gonzales, and he just took off with it. We’re all super proud and super impressed with what he was able to put together. These horn lines that, in our opinion, fit in there seamlessly: They don’t feel forced, they sound like they’ve always been there.
JS: And so it was a similar process for all the songs that you guys play and eventually recorded?
BM: Pretty much, there were some that were more involved than others, like “Into the Void.” That was one that I wanted to do from the very start. It’s a little bit later material but we just decided…we started doing that one and we decided to make it an instrumental; So we’d have the horns actually playing the vocal melodies. So it was a little bit of a different approach: It’s the song as you know it but we’ve got these horns standing in for the vocals.
JS: How did Brownout decide which songs to make instrumentals on the record and which ones would be kept with vocalists?
BM: Brownout is primarily an instrumental band. Our first couple of albums were instrumental heavy. We’ve since started to expand into what we call “brocals,” kind of a group chorus because none of us are really great lead vocal singers. So when we started tackling this, the idea was we would get some guest vocalists to come in, some different people; And we had a couple different people in mind. As the date got closer to actually do this show, a lot of them fell through. But we had a friend of ours, named Alex Marrero, who is a local musician and multi-instrumentalist – he plays guitar, drums, keys, and sings. He used to have his own band where he was the vocalist but he’s more of a drummer now. Anyway, he actually approached us and said “Hey, let me sing one of these songs. I’d love to.” And at the time we had a whole bunch of people we thought we’re going to be involved but then they all dropped out. So then we ended up calling Alex back and asked “Dude, can you sing, like, four songs?” He was super excited to do it since he’s a huge Sabbath fan. And he came into rehearsal and blew us away; We had no idea that he was actually harboring this inner Ozzy. So he chose a few songs to sing that were natural for him and there were a couple that were either not in the range or he just wasn’t interested in singing – so we decided to make those instrumentals. There were some that were naturally instrumentals. As an example “Iron Man” was an arrangement done by our other guitar player Adrian Quesada and the demo he brought in as an instrumental just worked so we didn’t feel any need to throw anything else on top of it.
JS: Going back to the arrangements, there is just a wicked, menacing horn arrangement on the song “Black Sabbath.” Are lines like those just the product of the arranger, Speedy, sitting down with the songs for a while or something else?
BM: Yeah, mostly. You know, the song “Black Sabbath” was one that I tackled mostly myself and actually the natural thing for me were those breaks and the horns doubling that faster heavy line that happens after the intro part. But then Speedy came up with that whole other line himself and it just works. It’s a heavy line and it doesn’t sound cheesy. And it’s hard to do with horns, when you’re writing something rocking like that, because you can easily go in some other [cheesy] direction.
JS: Is it difficult to write horn lines that don’t sound cheesy but are expressive enough in your music and especially in these Sabbath interpretations?
BM: Yes, it can be. Speedy himself told me that he was struggling with that. But that’s just because he’s not naturally a metal guys. He’s a horn player; he’s a jazz guy, he’s a funk guy. So as he was approaching it, we spoke a couple times and he said “It’s pretty difficult. You don’t want it to sound cheesy.” So he went back and listened to a couple of other times he had heard a similar thing done. But like I said before, we’re all just really impressed that he was able to bring it together without it sounding cheesy. And, you know, with especially the rhythm players – especially the bass player, being metal guys – we were kind of a good filter there where we could say “this sounds cheesy” or “this works,” because we wanted to the material justice. We didn’t want to go at it in a ridiculous way or a mocking way or anything like that. We wanted it to have the spirit that it has originally—the heavy metal spirit—but then add out twist to it.
JS: Brownout only really began playing outside the SW US after your last album Oozy. How do you find the national reception now, especially on this Brown Sabbath tour, as opposed to two years ago?
BM: The reception definitely has grown. We started touring a few years back. We actually started touring around 2009 with our second album but they were limited runs out to the West Coast mainly. We’ve started touring more heavily behind this thing. But the reception has been great, and it’s an interesting mix of people that we get at this point. Brownout has fans out there, you know we have three albums out, we definitely feel our crowd; which is this Latin funk, break-beat sort of audience, people who are into that sort of stuff. But now we’re drawing this other cross-section of people who might have no idea who Brownout is but they see Sabbath and they’re curious. So we have these metal heads coming out [to the shows]; just curious people that might be fans of Sabbath who have no idea who we are. Luckily we’ve been winning them over. We got out there, and on the first West Coast run we did with for Brown Sabbath, we opened the show with an original Brownout set and played the Sabbath set afterwards. We just got a great reception. This last run we did, which took us from the West Coast into the Midwest, was just pure Brown Sabbath.
JS: When you’re touring now, do either Alex Marrero or Alex Maas tour with you?
BM: It will be “just” Brown Sabbath but we have Alex Marrero touring with us, so he’s handling all the vocals. Alex Maas, who recorded “Hand of Doom” with us as a friend of the band, can’t tour with us because he’s busy with his own band The Black Angels, which we love and are big fans of.
JS: Do you play any other Sabbath songs?
BM: There is a full set, a full 90 minute set that we do. So we are playing a handful of others. I don’t want to give them all away but there are some in there I can talk about. We’re doing “Electric Funereal,” we’re doing “Snowblind” and there are a couple surprises at the end: Huge songs that people know and love that really round out the set.
JS: Any plans to record or play similar tribute music from the other Frank shows?
BM: There are no plans right now to tour behind something like that or record anything like that. We’re currently working on the follow up to our last album and we’ve been recording for that some tracks of original material. There are some thoughts and some requests out there for this Brown Sabbath thing. We haven’t decided what we’re going to do about that, actually. We’re definitely working on original material though.
JS: What does Brownout hope audience members take away from your show?
BM: It’s an exciting band and, you know, we hope that they like the music. It’s definitely…it’s a big band. You know we got a three piece horn section, bombastic drums, two on guitars, bass…so we just hope that people like the music and where its coming from. We hope they like this music…that has its roots in older music, mainly kind of 60s and 70s older stuff. But we think it’s out own mix of Latin and funk and psychedelic music and psychedelic rock. So we’d like people to see that and acknowledge that. We don’t want to lose sight, while doing this project, that we’re just a tribute band. We just decided to interpret this music and it’s a whole lot of fun doing it. So we’re having a good time with it. We just hope people walk away realizing what we are and who we are, and that they enjoy the music.
JS: Can you give us your best acronym for WGTB?
BM: WGTB? Okay…laughs…the first that came to mind…laughs again…is…We Got This Booty!
For more on Brownout
For more on Grupo Fantasma
- Originally published on the Rotation, WGTB - Georgetown Radio's Music Blog, on 09/05/14