The Black Pumas on Busking and Returning to the Road
It's been a busy couple years for psych rock outfit the Black Pumas. After releasing their debut self-titled album in 2019, the band quickly rose to prominence: they snagged a 2020 Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, and three more nods the following year for a reissue of their debut album featuring the hit, "Colors."
Now, with pandemic restrictions easing up, the duo (comprised of singer/songwriter Eric Burton and guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada) are hitting the road for the first time since they've been in the spotlight. We chatted with Burton about his busking roots, musical influences, and thoughts on the Rose City.
(This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity)
PORTLAND MONTHLY: How are you feeling about going on tour after a year and a half of COVID?
ERIC BURTON: I'm excited, man, I'm excited. I'm very thankful that we can even say that we're going back to performing live, and it feels like there's a ray of sunshine for all of our careers right now that we get to be back.
How has your life as a musician changed during the pandemic?
There was just so much going on, you know: not as many shows, and performing in front of cameras with no people aside from the crew. It was good to kind of embrace the retrograde period that was the slowing down of the music industry. It made us go back to our roots when we were a studio project.
What does your creative process look like?
I think that when I'm writing, it's mostly to reflect on the time and space that I'm currently operating with. I didn't start playing music to be in front of multitudes of people and, you know, this, like Omega celebrity kind of character. I started writing to decode my feelings about how I'm living in that moment. So each song that I start begins as a kind of small screen. A snapshot of my current reality as I cohabitate with everyone else in the world. I'm driven by the personal and intimate relationships that I hold, so that tends to come out in the final product.
What are some of Black Pumas’ biggest influences?
My inspiration started earlier on, I had an acoustic guitar. So I would listen to great American songwriters who played acoustic guitar, guys like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I enjoyed the songwriting, and when I met Adrian, he implored me with his beautiful production to revisit and rediscover [other artists]—soul music going back to Otis Redding for the sake of making my voice fit within the canvas that is his music production. I had to go back and do some studying of voice. When I first started collaborating with Adrian, [my voice] was very soft, and I had a very neo-soul way of inflecting. I had a friend say, ‘Go back and listen to these guys because they got all these razor-sharp voices,’ and that fits very well with what Adrian was producing.
You started out busking on the Santa Monica Pier. How did you make your way to Austin, Texas [where the group is based]?
I met a couple of dudes on the Santa Monica pier and befriended them. I showed a song to one of them. He was like, ‘Hey man, I gotta introduce you to this guy,’ and we ended up in a small, almost Troubador-style busking and we thought, ‘Hey man, this is getting kind of easy.’ So we ended up taking a bus from Santa Monica up to Seattle hitting every major city and [living off] the generosity of the people.
We eventually made it to Austin, and after that, I decided to stay in Austin. Those guys went back to their jobs, and I was left to my own devices. Not knowing anyone, I'm sleeping on a friend of a friend's couch. I did that for about a month and one of my buddies came back. I was like, ‘Dude, I have to stay.’ So, I stayed a little longer on this friend's couch and I ended up befriending a lot of different young musicians and people here. I've been developing under the wing of the Austin music community ever since.
How did your experience busking affect the way you make music now?
Busking made me so humble, not that I wasn't very humble before. But it just humbles you, man, because it doesn't really matter how talented you are. When you're playing music on the street, no one is out there to see [you]. I learned very early on in my career that you have to earn the respect of the people as opposed to showing up at a fancy event with a built-in audience. [Busking] is amazing, but if you're not engaging on a level that demands the respect and attention of the audience member, then what is being given is for naught.
Last question: have you ever been to Portland?
Portland is off the chain dude, I immediately connected with Portland. I was like, ‘Dude, this city is awesome.’ It's wild, but you guys have some of the craziest nightlife going on. Cool clubs and a lot of artists and writers walking around and cohabitating. I think it was really nice to be in a place where I could feel that the city is filled with people from different walks of life. It was refreshing, even though I was busking on the streets. I've got friends in Seattle, and a lot of my people from New Mexico, where I attended college, live in the Pacific Northwest. We're just stoked to see you guys.
Black Pumas will perform in Portland August 19 and 20 at the Roseland. Purchase tickets on the venue's website.