For Adrian Quesada, co-founder of the psychedelic soul duo Black Pumas, all it took was the stillness of the pandemic to finally create the project that had existed only in his head for the last 10-plus years — his latest release, “Boleros Psicodélicos.”
The 12-track album, out today via ATO Records, is infused with the multi-instrumentalist’s admiration for the golden era of romantic bolero music that continues to transcend cultural borders today. Bolero ballads first manifested throughout Latin America in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with elements of instrumental experimentation that would go on to influence future generations like electric guitars with an influx of added reverb, the electric organ, harpsichord strings and the mellotron.
In “Boleros Psicodélicos,” Quesada references not just his own familial roots but also emphasizes those of his featured artists — sometimes taking them out of their comfort zone and vice versa. From the elegant vocals of former Calle 13 member iLe on “Mentiras Con Cariño,” to the re-imagined climactic cover of Jeanette’s 1981 cult classic “El Muchacho De Los Ojos Tristes,” the album pays homage to tradition while also refashioning it with a psychedelic twist.
Quesada “wasn’t sure people were going to like” his idea to create an original tribute album because he “had shown people in the past and they had written it off as too melodramatic.” But that never stopped the prolific musician in his quest to modernize the genre himself. “I would go to the Ma and Pa Mexican stores and buy CDs and some of them were terrible,” Quesada says. “But, I would find one or two songs I enjoyed and over time, I had collected enough for a pretty unique playlist.”
The “collection” process was sped up after the proliferation of streaming, and oddly enough, the success of the “Narcos” series. “I would [look up] these songs off the show, realizing I’m not the only person who’s into this – that made it easier to find these songs,” he says. “Whoever did the music supervision [Liza Richardson] killed it and made it so my collection on Spotify kept growing.”
Pulling influences from unlikely places, Quesada’s pool of references continues to grow as he hopes to prolong his collaborative journey for a second volume, “hopefully with one more try, I can get Mon Laferte to come on… or Kali Uchis.”
To mark the release of “Boleros Psicodélicos,” Quesada goes track-by-track with Variety to expand on the album’s influences, features, its unique production and the deep cuts archived throughout the inspiration process.
“Mentiras Con Cariño” feat. iLe
This was either the last or the second to last song that we did on the album, and I had this inspiration playlist of songs on Spotify that I would listen to a lot. In my head, I was already imagining exactly what it would sound like and so I sent [the playlist] to iLe and I was like, “Check it out!” and she was like, “I love it — but what about this, this, this and this…”
She sent me Sandro, she sent me a mix of songs and sounds that I wasn’t necessarily thinking about. So I told her to give me a couple of weeks to go through what she had sent me and it took a while to make it happen — I wasn’t catching onto any of it, until all of a sudden I started to really understand and the music just stuck with me. She expanded this album and made it so that the first song on the record was a statement. The whole collaboration turned this project into more of a journey, rather than a collection of songs.
“El Paraguas” feat. Gabriel Garzón-Montano
This song in particular was one of those that I just didn’t think anyone was going to like. I didn’t think Gabriel would be into it – I remember when somebody connected me with him – I was like, “He’s awesome! But there’s no way he’s going to be into this.”
I had just totally written him off, and we were still brainstorming who would be good for this song and out of nowhere [Gabriel] texted me and we set up a phone call… I was super nervous. I just always thought of him as this kind of enigmatic person — which he is — but he was probably the most enthusiastic person I spoke to about the whole project.
Because the song is not like a real traditional bolero, he brought a unique approach to it. The lyrics are based on drawings that his dad used to do of a man holding a paraguas (umbrella) with the rain. It took him a little while to get them down because he was struggling to find a concept, but he made it seem almost as though he had pulled it out of thin air. One moment it wasn’t there, and then it was.
“Ídolo” feat. Angelica Garcia
One of my favorites. Angelica is amazing – I knew I wanted to do something with her. I had been talking to Carlos from Chicano Batman when I was working on the project and he was the one who turned me onto her. Her vocals are incredible and we just totally ran with the bolero theme.
I remember she sent me the parts for the song that she had recorded and I thought there was a glitch in the files that she sent me because there was like this weird sound that I kept hearing and I was like, “Can you fix that computer glitch in the vocals?”
She didn’t know what I was talking about but I explained to her, “It’s doing and showing this weird sound that human voices can’t do, it skips.” [55-second mark, if you want to hear]. Finally, I called her and she showed me it was just her voice… we kept playing it over and over, and I was just in awe.
“Hielo Seco” feat. Marc Ribot & Money Mark
Obviously, Money Mark and the Beastie Boys were a huge influence on me growing up — everything he’s done. Carlos from Chicano Batman also connected me with him. [Mark and I] were talking and I found out he has a lot of Mexican family in South Texas so he was instantly like, “Oh yeah man, I’m all about that stuff.” I sent it to him and I didn’t hear back for a long time, but I checked my email one day and there were all the parts of the song with no explanation.
And with Marc Ribot, actually he used to have a project called Los Cubanos Postizos. It was very old school Cuban stuff like the cha-cha-cha, boleros and stuff like that. But he has this real irreverent take on it where he plays electric guitar. He made it sound like him while still paying homage to the traditional rhythms and overall style. I always thought it was so unique and it kind of had a sense of humor to it — like he wasn’t taking himself too seriously. He called his band Los Cubanos Postizos, the prosthetic Cubans — because he would speak in English when they played.
When I was looking for which instrumentals I wanted to include, I was stuck. I couldn’t come up with anything myself and another mutual friend had just mentioned that he knew him. Both of the Marks were difficult to pin down, very mystifying. I emailed [Ribot] and didn’t hear back either until one day he called me and told me he was into the ideas I had.
I wanted to pay homage to [Los Cubanos Postizos] because they influenced me. Like this project, you could have your foot sort of in line with tradition but also do something new with it and have fun.
“El Payaso” feat. Girl Ultra
Mariana [Girl Ultra] was really into this idea at first, and I had been connected with her for a minute. I was surprised how much she knew about the artist Sandro that iLe had also spoken about, she had so much knowledge of the style.
When I finally received her vocals, I ended up changing the song a little bit. The biggest chance I took on this album was maybe on this song, where I made it less like the other songs and just gave in, sonically matched her vibe. She’s got this whisper going on, so I made the instrumentals more ghostly. Her vocal range is insane, but I was just surprised at how well she understood the vision I had and what she was able to add, to take it to this level.
“Tus Tormentas” feat. Mireya Ramos
Because Mireya exists in the mariachi world – she brought what they’re so good at — they have that way of like real dramatic belting. Compared to the last track which has more of a whisper, I knew Mireya was going to bring that over-the-top mariachi expression. Also, she added all of those strings you hear – I didn’t even ask her to do that so again, the song became this whole other entity once I received those vocals and strings.
Her vocals, to me, are probably the most intense and dramatic. She sent me the string arrangement and it was like 20 tracks of violins and it was just amazing. It sounds the most like Mexican mariachi to me, vocally, which I wanted and I liked that we brought this influence to the album.
“Puedes Decir De Mi” feat. Gaby Moreno, originally recorded by La Lupe
The covers chosen for this album were all songs I just could not stop listening to. So the covers serve as sort of anchors for the album, but we are also paying immense tribute to them. And for this cover, I just knew there was no way I could make anything better than the original. I discovered [“Puedes Decir De Mi” by La Lupe] maybe late 2019 – I heard it and I was trying to work my way around doing it in my own style but eventually, I just decided the best thing to do was to just cover it.
I’ve played live with Gaby – I’ve heard her do all kinds of stuff and she’s one of the best interpreters of anything in terms of covers. My favorite are her Selena [Quintanilla] covers, but she does all kinds of stuff – and she makes everything on her own. I knew Gaby was the perfect person to bring this song to life because it’s not an easy song to sing or emulate.
“Eso No Lo He Dicho Yo” feat. College of Knowledge, originally recorded by Omara Portuondo
College of Knowledge also goes under the name Surprise Chef, they’re an instrumental group from Australia that I also discovered during the pandemic.
I had recorded this song in my studio but I wanted some instrumentals in there because part of what I had wanted to do was make the project carry a cohesive storyline. I had imagined [the album] almost as a movie with the instrumentals serving as interludes in-between. In my head, this album is almost like a telenovela so these instrumentals serve as intermissions and also give listeners a breather from the drama of the vocals.
So I had tried to record it by myself with some of my friends in Austin and I just couldn’t get it right. I was really digging on [College Of Knowledge] and we had exchanged a few messages over Instagram and I sent them what I had, they sent it back and the only thing we kept was my drumming.
That’s what I love about this kind of stuff, they’re from Australia – they don’t even know the references. It comes back to the concept of what Marc [Ribot] did – like not being a purist about it. People can borrow and interpret from all over the world and everybody is so easily connected now, it’s great for music.
“Esclavo Y Amo” feat. Natalia Clavier, originally recorded by Los Pasteles Verdes
This one has a long history. I had recorded and released this with Natalia once before and it’s what led me down the path to creating this entire album. We recorded this over 10 or so years ago and she was the first person to understand this music. I mean, I would show [psychedelic boleros] to people and they would laugh at me and be like, “This is so ridiculous, it’s so dramatic!” She has this kind of operatic, dramatic style.
Because I was obsessed [with the original song by Los Pasteles Verdes], I would buy it whenever I saw it and it was rare to find it. I would buy every CD with this song on it, many “Grandes Exitos” [Greatest Hits] compilations. [Los Pasteles Verdes] re-recorded this particular song like four times – so there are like five different versions of it out. So I thought it would be funny to re-record the song and it became a little inside joke. If they can record it four or five times, I’ll re-record it twice and make it better this time.
“Ya No Me Quieres” feat. Jaron Marshall, recorded by Omara Portuondo
The keys are a huge part of this song, a friend of mine played them. We recorded the song in my studio together, and I remember it because it was one of the few times I was able to work in person with someone. One or two people in total, by the time I finished the record, stopped by the studio. This song serves as a great transition for the next one, definitely an interlude moment. It sets the final tones of the album.
“El León” feat. Rudy De Anda
Rudy is a friend and a frequent collaborator of mine. He opened for [Black Pumas] for a while on our tour and we became really good friends. He brought a unique influence as well in the sense that he just knows all of the deep cuts, and that was obviously a big part of a project like this one. But what was so interesting was that he comes with a punk rock approach.
It all sounds natural to him because he grew up as a Mexicano in Los Angeles, so not only does he know all of this music, but he understands this stuff more than most people. I loved the punk feel he brought on.
“El Muchacho De Los Ojos Tristes” feat. Tita, originally recorded by Jeanette
I took more liberties with this cover than any other one on the project. The other covers are more true to the originals, but with this one I tried to give it its own feel while still following the bolero formula with the chord progression and the lyrics. I discovered this song and this artist early in the pandemic, I was embarrassed to say I hadn’t known it until then. There was just this allure to it…the visual of el muchacho with the sad eyes was just so cool to me.
When I was talking to Gaby [Moreno] about this project and mentioned I wanted to cover this song specifically – she said her sister [Tita] knew it, and the rest unfolded pretty naturally.