A couple of years ago I got an email from Brendan, Grupo Fantasma's tour manager, noting that their self-recorded album, El Existential, had won the 2011 Grammy for Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album. After I heard the CD I wanted to know how it all went down, so I tracked him and Adrian down in their hometown of Austin and learned the story of a rented house and trying but fun recording sessions. I was also lucky to catch live sets by Grupo and Brownout, a related band of Adrian's, where both groups delivered the goods to excited audiences. Grupo Fantasma has done several records with Stuart Sullivan, also in this issue, and they have a new album coming out in 2013, produced by Steve Berlin [Tape Op #55] of Los Lobos.
Were there any problems recording El Existential in a house with neighbors around?
A: Some neighbors were real close by, and we were going to be there late hours. There's no way to completely isolate. But the funny thing was we had this neighbor who I met on the first day. I was in the backyard loading stuff in and I saw him back there and he was at least in his late 70s. I waved at him and he waved at me, I went over, and I said, "Hi. I want to introduce myself." He said, "Huh?" and I looked and the dude had hearing aids. I was like, "Hey, we're going to be making music for a little while."
He probably didn't hear a thing.
A: It was on a corner, which was awesome, and all we had was him as a neighbor, but we were two blocks from the interstate. When cutting vocals on the [Neumann] U 87 you can hear stuff.
B: As soon as there's any silence in the track, you can hear it.
A: Yeah even from two blocks away. But we went, "Oh fuck it. Leave it in there."
What kind of stuff did you do for soundproofing?
B: There were so many windows and they kind of shook in their frames. The main priority was to have at least one room that's isolated, so we picked one to be the drum room. I went to Home Depot and bought 1/2" plywood and 5/8" commercial grade soundboard. So we put down some caulking along the trim of the window and I thought, "I hope we can fix this later," because they had freshly painted it.
A: Our landlord was cool. She was this Austin hippie chick. She came in before you did those windows, and I was walking around the house with her inspecting it, and she said, "As long as y'all don't put nails in these walls." The day you started hanging that shit she was knocking at the door, she walked in, and closed the door...
B: There was no way to hide it; I had tools and a saw out. She just walked by and didn't say anything.
Did you guys have to patch and paint?
A: I told everyone I'll take care of the house and I did. I repainted. I had to pull paint chips, go to Home Depot and have it matched.
What's The Echocentrics project?
A: That's all stuff I've done here at home. I was trying to find a singer for the songs. I can't sing, and I had a friend that said he knew this Brazilian singer, Tita Lima, so we traded some emails. She recorded some demos in Brazil and sent them back and then she came to SXSW two or three years ago and we met up. We actually recorded a session here. I was doing the switch from computer to hard drive and I lost that session. The one day we meet in person and I delete that session! I was supposed to produce this other female artist [Argentinean singer Natalia Clavier] last year. We started working on it and the budget never came from the label, so I had that stuff laying around. I emailed Andrew at Ubiquity Records. I sent to a few labels but he just jumped on it and he was being really cool. So that was all tracked here. Some of the vocals we did over email. I just did it out of the comfort of my studio.
Your studio is like an old garage or something? Can you make a little bit of noise when the kids are sleeping?
A: Yeah. Actually I'm lucky that one neighbor is a musician. He's a piano player and string arranger, and he's always having rehearsals. The other two houses near are brothers, and they have a band. This whole cul-de-sac is all musicians. I wanted to build something back here in my yard just to have more room, but we're wrestling with the resale value of the house. What if we move in five years? I have a friend that has a really badass two story studio in his back yard, but he's trying to sell his house and the studio is worth so much money that the market of people who are going to buy it is really small. He's having a hard time selling the house. So, we don't want to run into that.