Fuzzy, Psychedelic Retro-Soul

Last year’s Grammys saw ATO’s Black Pumas vault into the mainstream thanks to a huge Best New Artist nom. Could the band’s classic soul/rock vibe earn more love this year? We asked the Pumas’ Eric Burton and Adrian Quesada—who dropped a deluxe version of their debut set in July—to weigh in on the music and the process.

You guys were in a loaded category—Best New Artist—in the 2020 Grammys, that included force of nature Billie Eilish. If you get nominated again, the playing field will probably be closer to level. What’s your feeling about the prospect of another go-round?
The nomination was such a great validator for us. My family is from Los Angeles and has worked in the arts, so we respect the Recording Academy greatly; it made my family really proud when we were nominated last year. To be nominated again would be just as exciting and an incredible honor.

After you spent time building your fan base on the road, the world stopped in its tracks six months ago. What have you done to keep up your momentum without the most important component of your strategy?
We started this band as a studio project, and even back in 2017, it was half remote and half in-person. I think this time is putting us back in our element to start working toward a new record. When choosing what songs to include on our deluxe album, we also included the previously unreleased tracks “I’m Ready,” “Red Rover” and “Black Cat,” which have all become live staples of our shows.

What inspired you to cover Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” on the deluxe edition? Can we expect more cover songs from you down the line?
“Fast Car” really means a great deal to me. It’s a song of hope, of looking up to the sky and the universe and looking forward to better times. I used to play it when I busked along the Santa Monica Pier in California and then in Austin. It really became a fixture on our tours.

Adrian: I heard that version of “Eleanor Rigby” a long time ago by Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. I’ve always wanted to play it; I just never knew anybody who could sing it. Then, at one rehearsal, I realized, “Oh, Eric could actually sing that song.” It just fit the sound of our band: a little fuzzy, rock and psychedelic but still had soul to it.

You guys and Leon Bridges have been in the vanguard of the retro-soul renaissance. What is it about this genre that draws you to it? And why does it connect so powerfully with your fans?
I don’t think we ever discussed too much about a specific sound, but I guess we do both listen to older music more than newer music. I feel we’re a mixture of our own personalities, musical tastes and inspirations. Some are the same, and they overlap on those retro-soul influences that are often used to describe us, or “psychedelic soul,” but some are different, as we come from different backgrounds and places.