Hotstar: Black Pumas Bound For Greatness

Black Pumas
Frank Hoensch/Redferns
– Black Pumas
Puma Power Black Pumas’ Eric Burton and Adrian Quesada light up the Frannz in Berlin Nov. 12.
Just more than two years ago, Black Pumas was barely in the formation stage of its career. Frontman Eric Burton was busking on the streets of Austin, performing his own neo-soul songs for passersby while honing his songwriting skills. Guitarist Adrian Quesada was mulling over what his next project might look like, reaching out to friends and looking for a fit with his bluesy and soulful guitar stylings. Now, heading into 2020, the duo is nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy award, headlining an international tour, and has become the toast of Austin.
The journey to get here has largely followed the tried and true artist development steps, just at a highly accelerated pace. Forming in the fall of 2017, the duo connected through mutual friends and felt an immediate musical bond. 
“In the beginning I didn’t really know how to sing some of this stuff, I come from playing an acoustic with my own folk, neo-soul soft-singing, but I connected to the music right away,” Burton tells Pollstar. “[Quesada’s music] was in the style of some of the late-greats that my family had in the house growing up. I feel like I made that connection as soon as I heard the music. So I wasn’t surprised that we were going to get along musically.”
The pair got a band together and, after just a few rehearsals, began holding residency in February 2018, at C-Boys Heart & Soul in Austin. The goal wasn’t so much to become an international critical darling, but more to fill a room with friends and share some of their vibrant, soulful rock music. One attendee at those early residencies was Ryan Matteson of Ten Atoms – who also reps Whitney, Japanese Breakfast, and The Mountain Goats – who would soon become their co-manager with Arthur Penhallow Jr. of True Grit. 
“When I left C3 Management to form Ten Atoms, I was never planning on signing another artist,” Matteson says. “My plate was full and I was happy. A few people who I’m close to told me, ‘You’ve gotta check out Black Pumas.’ I listened to the song ‘Black Moon Rising’ and loved it.”
By March, Matteson signed Black Pumas and the buzz in Austin was growing. Soon there were lines down the street every Thursday at the 200-cap C-Boys, still with only one song out, through word of mouth and a strong live performance. “If you were in Austin and you liked music, you heard about it and you came. And that’s basically what we’ve replicated all around the world. If you put it out there that Black Pumas are coming, they have some of the most engaged fans in the world, people are gonna find it,” Matteson said. 
He contacted Paradigm’s Joe Atamian and invited him to attend the C-Boys residency. 
“The dynamic that Eric and Adrian have onstage together, you could just tell they have something going on,” Atamian says. “Eric, watching him onstage, it’s captivating. You really can’t look away. At this jam-packed, sold-out show, nobody had their phones out. Everyone was transfixed on those two onstage together.”
By June, the group was moving to multiple nights at the 400-cap Antone’s in Austin, still with no album. While the group was hammering out the music and working on getting a record cut, Atamian and Matteson had Black Pumas hitting the road. In September and October the group was opening for St. Paul & The Broken Bones and played a handful of dates with Anderson East.
“[On the St. Paul tour] we learned how to stretch out on a big stage,” Quesada told Pollstar. “We were used to cramming into clubs, not having room, but I could see the progression over a few shows – particularly with Eric, because I just stand there with a guitar in the back – in how to really own a room of 1,000 people and connect with everyone from the front to the back.”
“I have to give Paul Janeway a shoutout for his generosity,” Burton said, adding that he learned from the St. Paul frontman’s vocal workouts and has continued developing his own pre-show rituals based on that experience. “[He] would always say beautiful things like ‘these guys won’t be an opening act for very long.’” 
And they weren’t. The group had already been getting on festivals like Wildwood Revival, Grandoozy and Pickathon over the summer, and took on select headline dates in Texas and the South in the fall. Still really in its first year of existence, Black Pumas took on more winter and spring dates in stride. 
The eponymous debut album – released through ATO Records – dropped in June, and now with the Grammy nom, things are only picking up in pace.
“It’s moved very fast, but in a very organic way, which is kind of counter-intuitive,” Atamian said. “They’re getting A+ festival looks for next summer …. There will be a fall tour, we will be taking steps up into 3,000-capacity rooms, given the numbers they did on the fall tour of 2019.”  
Those numbers include $20,406 grossed over two nights at The Independent in San Francisco, their largest gross reported at publication time.
Now hometown heroes, Black Pumas won Best New Artist at the 2019 Austin Music Awards, played three nights at The Mohawk and is set to play three nights at the legendary Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in Austin in 2020 (with 7,000 tickets sold, Matteson notes). 
The group also has a trip booked overseas early next year and will be attending a little function called “The Grammy Awards” in January. 
Despite being a music industry lifer, Quesada says he has never been a part of anything this big – and his previous group, Grupo Fantasma, won Grammys on their own. “Eric and I talk about it, we’ll be in Europe – not pinching ourselves exactly, but looking around and soaking it in – and I’ll say ‘This is all new to me too,’” Quesada said. “I haven’t gone on nonstop, sold-out tours around the world before.”
To deal with all the rapid changes in his life, Burton says he is turning to the thing that got him here: songwriting. “All I know is songwriting, just trying to get better at moving myself with music, and maybe other people might be moved as well. I’m clinging to the songwriting process to get me through this.” 
A previous version of the story read that Pollstar won Best New Artist at SXSW 2019. Black Pumas actually won Best New Artist at the 2019 Austin Music Awards.