COVER STORY: Eric Burton of Black Pumas Interview

Black Pumas’ Eric Burton on Keeping it Simple and Being the Man of the People

In the middle of Black Pumas’ dynamite Austin City Limits performance from early last year, lead singer Eric Burton said, “This is very special for us. We’re a very new band.” While this statement is true – they only formed in 2017 after all – this ‘very new band’ has exploded since its inception. Anyone who watched that ACL show or has listened to any of their music can hear just how special they are.

In 2020 alone, their debut album nabbed multiple Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year. They performed at President Biden’s virtual inauguration event, as well as during the NFL Draft and on all the late-night shows, with their singles “Colors” and “Fire” gaining particular attention.

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The band’s meteoric rise can be attributed to many things – great songs; tight musicianship; meaningful lyrics; a killer live show – but mostly, it’s the chemistry between Eric Burton and guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada. The two hooked up in Austin, Texas, where Quesada was coming off a long stint in the celebrated Latin funk band Grupo Fantasma and Burton had moved after busking for years around Los Angeles.

Performer spoke with Eric Burton by phone in Austin, where Black Pumas had recently finished a five-night residency at Stubb’s and were preparing for an extensive tour – while also working on their highly anticipated second album.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]

Live music has been such a huge part of your life, from singing in the church choir early on, to busking in LA, and then to Black Pumas gigs. What’s it been like this past year, not having that as an outlet?

It was really heavy, and I think that it was so traumatizing for most that you almost forget about the luxury that is – and was – performing live and having that conversation with people in the same room.

You went from almost zero live performances in a year to a five-night run at Stubb’s in Austin. What went into that decision?

It’s the most shows that we’ve done consecutively so far, at one place, and we just felt like we owed it to our hometown – to our fans, to ourselves – to really exit this quarantine period with a bang.

What was that experience like?

Nothing short of enchanted. It was like watching a movie – I think it was so emotionally cathartic that you couldn’t help but be placed in the observer’s chair. You know, whether you were an audience member or you were on stage. And so it was just really amazing to watch this beautiful movie. It was crazy. I cried every night, if not onstage [then] in the green room. It was very cool.

In your Song Exploder episode for “Colors, you talk about how music is a spiritual experience for you, especially with your background singing in church. Did you feel a heightened sense of that during those Stubb’s shows?

Yeah – man, that’s a great question. It felt very spiritual, to the degree that we were just being honest. We had nowhere to go…People felt welcomed into a home, as opposed to a venue to be entertained. This felt like church. It felt like going out with your friends and or hanging out at your uncle’s barbecue, to hang out with family you haven’t seen in years. To that degree, it did feel spiritual.

During this past year,  have you picked up any new gear that helped you creatively? Or did you not feel creative during this time?

I feel like there was so much to kind of absorb and observe, and what was going on not knowing when or how we would be back performing and just even jamming with ourselves in the same room. It’s just like, no one really knew what was going to be. But in the interim, I did pick up a Roland JU-O6A Boutique [desktop synth] – I really love that. That little thing does so many cool things. I was gifted an OP-1 that I’m still figuring out. I got an MPC X. So yeah, I’ve got some toys to just keep the juices going and that I’ve used in quarantine to help the elevation of the second record.

I’m not sure if you’ve seen it, but there’s a Guitar Teacher REACTS YouTube video breaking down “Colors,” and he geeks out over the chord progression. Specifically, how your fourth chord is diminished, when most guitarists would probably have gone to a C minor. Is that something that you were conscious of when writing it, or are conscious of it on other songs?

Oh, yeah. Most definitely. Like I’m conscious of it and I’m not. [laughs] “Colors” was one of the first songs that I wrote, so I was just kind of learning how to play guitar. Going from note to note, chord to chord, to see what it sounded like to me. And, so, to that degree, I don’t know that I was really thinking about those choices from an academic perspective. I was just trying to like, play something that sounded good to me.

I really enjoyed your guitar tutorial for “Touch the Sky.” That opening riff is so unique and cool, and I don’t see a lot of bands that break down how to play their songs like that. How did it come about?

Yeah, I mean, I had never done that before. I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, people want to learn about what I’m doing.’ You know, just having people’s attention and the desire to want to play these songs. That’s like really new for me. That was really fun, and I was clearly having fun doing it.

But that lick from “Touch the Sky” came from when I was busking. I actually wrote that lick in an elevator of a subway in LA. I liked how the recording on my phone sounded in that confined space, and so I was just kind of like, going up and down the elevator like a mad person trying to figure out this riff and thankfully, it made the album.

Speaking of cool riffs, Adrian Quesada is obviously a monster on the guitar. He’s also super complimentary on your playing, especially your rhythm guitar work. How has being in a band with him impacted your own guitar playing?

How has playing with Adrian “Mr. Miyagi” Quesada affected my playing? [laughs] So when I started playing, the intention that I would go to when picking up the guitar every time was to be better than the last time I played. And so I would intentionally just try to do things that felt hard to do – you know, because it just kind of entertained me, and I like competing with myself in that way. What I’ve learned from Adrian is that sometimes, simplicity is the name of the game.

One of the newscasters from your recent CBS This Morning piece said something like, ‘you’re an overnight sensation, but it’s a long night.’ Do you have any words for musicians who are in that long night right now?

Most definitely, man. I mean, I believe that none of us really know what’s going to happen tomorrow or the next day. We formulate ideas and you know, to that degree formulate plans. But you just never know what’s going to happen or what’s going to fly, what’s going to succeed. So my advice to people who are in the same position that we were before our success is just do it because you love it.

Just follow love. Like get out of the way. You’re already a genius. Life in its most fundamental form is intellectual, and if we can find a way to get out of our own way, really, then you start to see really cool things happening. Just as you’re having fun, and as you’re in love with what you need to feel and hear in the music that you’re creating.

Going back to your live performances, has there been a song – either one of yours or a cover – that feels like it’s hitting differently in this post-quarantine world?

Two songs in particular really surprised me for how it hit the audience. [One] was “Oct 33,” for the fact that we kind of changed how we started that song, the dynamic of it. We allowed JaRon [Marshall], who plays keys, to start that song. And then we brought in the acoustic guitar with the vocals at the same time, during the first verse. And kind of finished it like how we usually do, and people were digging that song, and that was cool.

The other song is [Tracy Chapman’s] “Fast Car.” “Fast Car” was a cover that we did – it’s very reflective of my journey to getting here, and it’s just been a really nice way to relate to people on a personal level. I feel like people really could feel like I was telling the truth while I was singing those lyrics. So that served as a really cool thing because of how we went into it.

At the encore [at Stubb’s], I would race around the building – sometimes putting on a different outfit – then I’d perform that song on the VIP patio. We kind of moved people aside and set up a microphone, and I had an acoustic guitar [connected] wireless[ly] to sing that song in the very back of the venue. So anyone who was standing in the back got front row seats to our encore…and so they would sing with me at the top of their lungs, the chorus. And then once it was done, I raced around the building again for another song with the band and the closure of the performance.

I love that. Are you able to capture that vibe at some of the bigger venues you guys are playing?

I think so, man – like, we love doing that kind of thing. We’ve kind of done that before, where I race around the venue and ended up in the back singing a song, and it seems like people really enjoy that. I’ve been kind of coined ‘man of the people’ for the fact that I love jumping into the audience. I love connecting and shaking hands and taking pictures and getting hugs. So, we definitely will do that kind of thing as we continue for sure.

And now you can actually do it again!

Totally! Yeah, exactly. Like, I’m definitely doing it now that I have the chance.


**Photos by Jody Domingue

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