With nod to past, funk-soul duo Black Pumas pushes forward

Julia Oller

Before their first show, at the Austin, Texas, club C-Boys, Adrian Quesada and Eric Burton practiced only twice.

“I didn't even want my wife to come to the first gig,” Quesada said. “I thought we were going to suck. I told her, ‘Give me a few weeks to get better.’ ”

As soon as the set ended, he realized he could have extended an invitation.

“I got out of that first show and was like, ‘Oh, we’re actually pretty good,’” he said.

Together, Quesada and Burton form the smoldering funk-rock duo Black Pumas, performing at the Basement Friday, July 12.

Their sharp production (Quesada) and artful vocal styling (Burton) have generated the band an intrigued following of critics and fans who pick apart the band’s similarities to '70s singers such as Otis Redding and Al Green, alongside comparisons with Ghostface Killah, the ringleader of hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan.

Quesada and Burton allow the public to point out commonalities, but they don’t see themselves as giving in to nostalgia.

On the self-titled debut record, which came out on June 21, songs such as “Oct 33” feature short, sharp guitar parts akin to the horn blasts on old soul albums.

Others, such as final song “Sweet Conversations,” take a more current turn with the addition of distant drum hits that sound almost electronic.

Burton doesn’t see the band’s work as looking back, except for flashes of inspiration. He believes, in fact, that recreating the past is more difficult than writing something new.

“Honestly, it’s much easier to be individual as opposed to copying something else verbatim,” he said. “Like when you watch ‘American Idol,’ where people are doing the exact same thing you saw Alicia Keys do or Mariah Carey — those guys are outstanding, really.”

Burton would know.

He auditioned for the television show in 2012, making it to the Hollywood round before being cut. Afterward, he wandered the Southwest for several years, landing in Austin at the time Quesada (of bands such as Grupo Fantasma) was looking for a musical collaborator.

Friends had recommended several other vocalists, but something about Burton’s enthusiasm gripped him from the first song.

“He sang on the phone once and I couldn't even hear it, but I was like, ‘I love that energy,’” Quesada said.

Burton grew up traveling the country in choir groups — he wanted to play basketball, but his grandmother made him join choir — where he learned how to project enthusiasm even when he wasn’t feeling it internally.

The Black Pumas tour is his first time traveling with a band, but spending six months on the road doesn’t seem to be daunting.

“It feels like I don’t have to keep worrying about too much else besides keeping my creative juices flowing and living in that dream world we all wish we could live in 24/7,” he said.

While the music feels fresh to audiences, Black Pumas started recording nearly two years ago — giving the band a head start beyond what most groups receive.

Burton and Quesada are doing their best to bask in the new-release glow. Still, they can’t help but dream about what comes next.

Touring in Europe a few months ago, Burton leaned over to Quesada and told him they should write and record some new songs, just to have something to listen to.

“I have to sometimes remind myself, the first one came out a [few weeks] ago. We’re doing all right,” Quesada said.

Though Burton is the principal lyricist, Quesada comes through like a cinematographer, storyboarding the emotional intent behind songs and their sequencing.

Quesada knows most people listen on their phones, but can’t help but keep two-sided vinyl as his lighthouse. Like turning over the Beatles’ Abbey Road, he said he aimed for a blend of light and heavy in the narrative arc.

By the end, only Burton’s voice and an acoustic guitar are left.

“I imagine both sides of the record starting to wind down and leading you into [a] living room or campfire,” he said. “That’s what Eric’s done for a long time, too — show up with a guitar and own that audience. We have to find that balance between production and that intimacy.”

The Basement

8 p.m. Friday, July 12

391 Neil Ave., Arena District