Grupo Fantasma has never considered itself a particularly political band. But the Austin, Texas troupe takes a stand — with help from members of Ozomatli and Locos Por Juana — on “The Wall,” premiering below from the group’s upcoming album American Music Vol. VII.
“It took us a little while to become comfortable with it,” says the group’s Beto Martinez, who’s from Laredo on the American-Mexican border. “We’ve always sort of written about good times and music and dancing and that sort of thing. But I think we couldn’t escape what’s happening around us right now considering our circumstances and our location in the world and some of our backgrounds and what we represent. I don’t think we could escape it if we tried.”
Nevertheless, Martinez notes, “The Wall” — a funky track propelled by a sinewy bass line and stabbing brass charts — found its way almost by accident. “We initially recorded it as an instrumental,” he says. “It wasn’t a conscious effort — ‘Hey, let’s do something political!'” Ozomatli and Locos Por Juana took it there, bringing in themes about the definitions of immigrant and illegal and the historical idea that “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” — which is especially true of areas such as Laredo. And Martinez and his bandmates found themselves ready to make those statements.
“The song is saying, ‘Look, we’re coming here not as criminals, not as rapists as some have said, but to work, to be productive, to get educated and make a living and bring our families here,'” Martinez says. “And then there’s some mention in there about how ineffective the wall would be, anyway.
“After it was written we did sort of think about it a second and say, ‘Look, do we want to begin these conversations and invite this line of questioning, if you will?’ We decided that it was something that was on our minds. I feel like we would’ve gone there, anyway. We decided it was probably a duty for us to do that. It definitely hits home for us and we have direct experience with it, and it’s just tragic that this is what’s consuming the public and the administration. It’s so unnecessary. So we did embrace it, cautiously, but we’re happy we did.”
On a positive tip, however, Martinez notes that the recent prominence of Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke “has raised some awareness about pronouncing my name right, because it’s usually butchered.”
American Music Vol. VII comes out March 29 on Blue Corn Music and is Grupo’s first new album since 2015. The group members have been working on other projects, and Martinez says the new album “was kind of rallying everybody again to record and write and put something together.” That said, the guitarist acknowledges that 19 years in there’s less of an urgency than Grupo had when it started.
“I think back to the first 10 years of this band when it was the singular focus for everybody,” Martinez says. “Those were really productive times, and really great. We’ve all kind of spread out at this point doing a whole bunch of different stuff, but we never wanted this (group) to fade away. I think we always had in mind we would get another one out at some point and we finally did. We’re just trying to show we’re still here and still capable of making music and making a record we’re proud of. And we’re definitely proud of this.”