Friday, July 2, 2010

The Kinetic "Kino" Esparza of Grupo Fantasma

Interview with Rodolfo “Kino” Esparza
by Pablo E. Yglesias
Photos © 2010 by Mark Mantegna

© 2010 Bongohead Productions – Text and images used by permission.

I recently caught up with "Kino" Esparza of Grupo Fantasma while I was researching for my liner notes to their new album El Existential that was about to be released on Nat Geo (it's out now!). Señor Kino is a very talented musician, vocalist, and composer. He's also fun to talk to and full of humor and shares some interesting anecdotes. Read on if you are curious about what makes him tick, where he's coming from and where he's going. There's some nice shots by Mark Mantegna from a couple of years ago when they played the Iron Horse. ¡Vaya!
- Pablo Yglesias aka DJ Bongohead

"Here you go bro. Feel free to tweak it a little if you have to. Just don’t let me sound bad. Ha, ha. Have a good one."
- Kino

Where did you grow up, and how did that influence you as far as music is concerned?

I was born and raised in Eagle Pass TX. a small town close to the border of Mexico. I would say the biggest influence was the Hispanic culture that surrounded me.

Do you like rock influences in tropical music?

Yes, it's different and gives it a unique "raw" and heavy flavor.

How did you meet the members of Fantasma and how did you get involved with them?

Back in the day when I was at Texas State University, I was involved in the salsa band ensemble, Salsa Del Rio. In that band was also the Fantasma conguero, Sweet Lou (Matthew "Sweet Lou" Homes) and ex-Fantasma alto sax player, Gene Centeno. I became really good friends with these guys. Anyway, on Dec 28, 2005, around 3 P.M. I was having lunch with my family at home, in Eagle Pass Texas, when I received a call from José Galeano (vocalist/timbales player) asking me if I was interested in auditioning for a vocal spot in Fantasma. With no hesitation, I said, "Hell yeah!!". That same week I drove to Austin Texas, went to one of their rehearsals, did my thing, and the rest is history. I think because I was good buddies with Gene and Lou, and knew I could sing, they mentioned my name. Thanks Gene and Lou!

What is your biggest influence, musically?

The number one influence would be my grandpa, Rodolfo "Kino" Esparza.He is the reason I wanted to be involved in music as a kid. I always enjoyed watching him perform and loved the stories he would tell me about his music life. I just want to be like him. He is my role model. That's why I go by Kino....

What is your favorite instrument?

That would be the trumpet. For four reasons.

1) That's the instrument I've been playing for 12 years. Someday I'll bust it out in one of the Fantasma performances
2) its rich sound
3) the clarity of tone
4) I love the fact that the sound cuts through anything when you rip some high ass notes.
I feel like playing trumpet now, please excuse me....

Talk about how you share the vocals with José - do you do backing vocals for each other only? Or do you share leads on any songs? Who decides which vocalist will sing lead on a song?

We used to do our own backups for a while, but recently a few guys like Adrian, Gilbert, and Speedy have stepped up and been helping out on those. This is awesome 'cause now the coros have more body to them, and there are more voices/harmonies that we can play with. I don't know why it took them so long to do this, but they are doing it now and that's all that matters...maybe they were scared? Hmmm. As far as deciding who sings lead on what, it's all on the individual who wrote the piece. He decides.

How do you work on the vocals when you record - do you make it up on the spot in the studio or do you practice it and work it out with the musicians first?

It depends. If it's music we've been playing for a while, that stuff gets recorded quickly. The only thing we change for those tunes will be who sings backups and what voice/harmony that individual will have. For the music that has never been performed, which in this album's case was like 80% of it, we, the vocalists would take the rough tracks home and practice them for a couple of days. This allowed us to get comfortable with the tune and gave us time to change the lyrics and/or melody a bit, if needed, before recording it. We've had a few "make it up on the spot" moments too.

Do you write music or lyrics?

Yes, I do both.

What are your themes?

If it's my song, I like to write any theme based on experiences I've had in my life in a form of a story whether its love, hatred, difficult moments, good times, life changing moments, etc. If there is a song someone else wrote and they need help with lyrics, they usually come to me with a theme in mind. Their themes suck most of the time...I'm just kidding, they're cool.

Is romance (emotions, relationships, sex, obsessions, love) a big part of your lyrical theme?

Not as much as I want it to be but it's there. It's hard for me to write anything with that theme in mind without making it into some type of slow ballad. I love singing romantic ballads and would be really lucky if I could sing one of those in this band someday. Oh wait, I do, “Juan Tenorio”. Although that one is not romantic. It's very dark, BUT I love that it's a slow piece.

So where does your inspiration come from then?

When it comes to writing music, I get inspired by the music I listen to, or even ideas shared by the Fantasma guys. As for lyrics, anything I've experienced, or someone I know has experienced, and everything around me: friends, wife, family, places I visit, and even movies I watch, believe it or not.

Do you think the new album is dark? Explain.

It is definitely the darkest one we've recorded that's for sure. Not all of the songs are dark, but the few that we have are based on personal experiences or just a story that came to mind. Examples :someone going through some type of emotional depression, life crisis, on the run from the law, and even killing somebody. Let me make the killing story, “Juan Tenorio”, clear. That one is definitely a story my uncle came up with. I don't know how he came up with that one. My guess would be he had finished watching some type of movie or soap opera.

What was it like to work on the album in a rented house?

It was fun and a great learning experience. The vibe was pretty laid back and we
had so much time to brainstorm, collaborate, and experiment with different styles. I think that house became our 2nd home during those 3 months. Most of us were always there even when we didn't have to be. I miss that house already.

What does your family think of Fantasma?

With the exception of my mom, they all love it. Not saying my mom necessarily hates what I do for a living but you know how moms are, they just want what's best for you...In my case, she prefers for me to go back to school,get a degree in music, and teach. Every time we touch the subject I always end up telling her. "Look mom, school will always be there. Fantasma on the other hand, won't. I'm sticking with Fantasma for as long as it goes."
*sigh* I love my mom.

Is music an obsession, or is it just for fun?

Obsession. There are so many things around it that you just can't get enough of. Such as writing music, performing, traveling around the world, the fun you have on stage, the energy you feed off from the crowd and vice-versa. I can go on forever here, there is just so much.

Thanks, Kino. See you in a couple of weeks!