Black Pumas were thrown into a whirlwind a few months ago when their debut album, Black Pumas, was nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy. But it’s not the first time the Austin psych-soul duo’s guitarist, producer, and co-songwriter Adrian Quesada has had to cope with show-biz craziness: There was also that time in the late 2000s when he found himself drawn into the wild and unpredictable world of Prince.
At the time, Quesada was guitarist in Grupo Fantasma, the 11-piece Texas aggregate that mixed up funk, traditional music, and everything in between. In 2006, their then-manager sent a copy of the band’s cleverly titled live album, Grupo Fantasma Comes Alive, to an associate who knew Prince. No one had any expectations, but then the word came down: Prince was going to set aside time to play it. “The way his team worked was you’d hear that Prince would be listening to your album tomorrow at noon,” says Quesada. “They knew how to build mystique. We thought, ‘Oh, wow, Prince is going to hear our album.’ We were all excited at noon the next day.”
Although Quesada says the band didn’t receive immediate feedback, Prince clearly liked what he heard. That year, he had just opened a performance space, Club 3121, at the Rio hotel in Vegas, pegged to the release of his 3121 album. When the house band opted out of its weekly gig at Thanksgiving that year, Grupo Fantasma were offered the slot. The band didn’t see Prince at the gig, although they later heard he was watching by the side of the stage. “By the time we got home, he had fired the band and made us the house band,” recalls Quesada. “He kind of plucked us out of nowhere and we were in his world.” Grupo Fantasma now had a new standing engagement: They’d be playing every Thursday at 3121.
Thus began a whirlwind few months where Grupo Fantasma were drawn into Prince’s blissfully chaotic universe. They would fly to Vegas weekly, play their gig at 3121, then zip back to Austin first thing the next morning. One night, Prince briefly popped up on stage with them, playing a bit of crazed guitar, and left. (Prince himself played the club on weekends during its six-month life span, from November 2006 to April 2007.) In February 2007, Prince flew them to Miami for a Super Bowl party, where he joined them onstage for a 20-minute jam of “Oye Como Va.”
Quesada recalls Prince could be both playful and serious. ‘When we were at a rehearsal, it was all business,” he says. “He set the tone when he walked in. He didn’t want to joke around, and it wasn’t like we went around joking with him. But he was he was pretty damn hilarious and really sweet. He would sit there and listen to our tunes and give us feedback.”
The wildest night, though, was probably a moment in January 2007. The group had just arrived back in Austin after a 3121 show when they were told to get right back on a plane to go to L.A. for a special, mysterious event. Arriving at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, they were ushered into the hotel’s massive Presidential Suite. “All our instruments were set up, and I saw his guitar amp next to mine,” says Quesada. “So we asked the sound guy or maybe the guitar tech if they knew what was going on. I remember them saying, ‘We have no idea, but we know the other band is not here and it’s just you guys.’ Then Prince showed up and said, ‘I’m just going to play with you.’ We were like, ‘Well, we haven’t actually learned your stuff!’ And he said, ‘Play whatever you want you. I’ll play along with whatever you’re playing.’”
The event, it turned out, was a party pegged to the Golden Globes, and suddenly the room filled up with the likes of Jennifer Lopez, her then-husband Marc Anthony, Mary J. Blige, and Will.I.Am, all of whom (except Lopez) joined in with Prince and Grupo Fantasma at various nights in the evening, playing old James Brown and salsa songs. “We literally played an entire set with a room of nothing but A-list celebrities and Prince just jammed with us,” Quesada says. “ ‘Stressful’ is not the right word. But definitely you’re on edge musically. I told people it’s like taking a really good community college basketball team and throwing them into the NBA finals in game seven. That’s how he groomed us. He didn’t give us a chance to think about it or prep for it. He threw us into it and said, ‘Play.’ It did loads for our confidence.”
During this period, Quesada says Prince sent the band a song he wrote for them. Grupo Fantasma recorded it and sent the tape to Prince, but never heard anything more. “We never knew whether he actually added anything to it,” he says. That summer of 2007, though, Prince invited the group to play one of his legendary after-show parties during his multi-night stand at the O2 Arena in London.
And then, also typical of the world of Prince, it was over. Club 3121 closed and Prince went onto other musical adventures. Grupo Fantasma carried on, winning a Grammy a few years later in the Latin Alternative category. (Quesada left the band in 2014, but the group continues; last year, they released a new record, American Music: Vol. VII.) Quesada never heard from Prince again, although someone or another from Prince’s camp would occasionally reach out to the band and stay in touch.
Four years after Prince’s death, and many years after Grupo Fantasma’s brush with Purple madness, Quesada says he still thinks about that period, especially the moments when they were able to watch Prince prepare for one of his own shows. “When we were dong week-long rehearsals with him, we got to see him put a whole show together,” he says. “He would rehearse a medley, record it, and take it home, and by the next morning have feedback. It was the way he analyzed and dissected a band. He broke us down to nothing — literally separated each instrument and then built it all back up. And by day three, we were playing better than we’ve ever played. Seeing that the attention to detail was just absolutely inspiring. I think about it to this day.”