The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has a long tradition of booking high profile covers acts as part of their lineup. Past groups have included Zappa Plays Zappa, Dark Star Orchestra, and Bustle in Your Hedgerow. This year finds one of the more unusual cover bands ever to grace a Bonnaroo stage as Brownout, the Latin funk band made up of members of Bonnaroo veterans Grupo Fantasma, brings their Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath show to The Farm on Friday, June 12. We caught up with Brownout guitarist Beto Martinez by phone on May 25 to discuss their show, the Brown Sabbath album, and how they incorporated horns into into heavy metal’s most iconic group’s music.
We’re talking with you today because Brownout will be playing Bonnaroo in a couple of weeks.
Yeah. It’ll be the third time we’re out there. We’re really excited to get back and start things off on Friday. We’re looking forward to it.
The last time you were here, you were with Grupo Fantasma backing up GZA on “Liquid Swords.”
That was really a great night. It was the first big show we’d done with them. I think we went on at 3 in the morning in one of the tents and it was just completely packed with people. It was a really energetic show. A memorable one for sure. We were there with Grupo Fantasma in 2008, the first time we went there. That was a really big year for us. We were in the middle of a really big tour and, being our first time at Bonnaroo, we weren’t sure how we would be received as a Latin band, but it was amazing.
Talk to me a bit about how you got from Grupo Fantasma to Brownout to Brown Sabbath. That’s a pretty big shift.
It started in 2013 at a place called Frank. It was going to be four Thursdays and we decided to do a different theme every night with some funny names, one of them being Brown Sabbath. We did a Black Caesar night called Brown Caesar. We did a night with a bunch of hip hop artists and brought a bunch of DJ’s in called Fear of a Brown Planet, then we did a B-boy kind of thing, and the final one was Brown Sabbath. But that name was one of the first one to come out. The name was easy, but it was the hardest to get together. But we put it out on social media and it turned out to be one of the most anticipated one and by the time the show came around it was a huge line and a huge success. There was so much demand for it we decided to do it again and then we had a record label interested so here we are a year and a half later touring it.
I’m guessing the audience mix for this is interesting at the shows, with Grupo and Brownout fans mixed with some hardcore metalheads coming to hear Sabbath.
Yeah. We noticed that from the beginning and frankly it made us a little nervous, but we’ve gotten it down to where we’ve won the metalheads over. But those first few shows outside of Texas you can always pick out the metalheads. We walked out and said “some Brownout fans, some other guys with metal shirts who are only here because it says Sabbath so we’ve got to try to impress them too.
You’ve got some Slayer fans attending Bonnaroo, so there’s a definite metal contingent!
Yeah! We have since played a couple of metal fests, a couple of metal clubs. We’ve opened for some metal bands. We’ve had our own mosh pits! Coming from from a funk band, that was pretty cool.
As a guitarist, how much influence was Tony Iommi on you as a child?
Oh, it was a lot. I think I first discovered Black Sabbath in 8th grade, it was a cassette for “Paranoid” and I just burned it out. When I started playing, I was into metal. Metallica was the first band I was ever obsessed with and I branched out from there. Even as I started getting into funk and jazz, Sabbath was always there because even though it’s heavy and they’re the progenitors of metal, it’s really funky. Especially the “Paranoid” album, there’s just a funk to it. Geezer Butler and Bill Ward just have a funk to them, but Tony Iommi for sure as a guitarist. Just the sound is amazing and I tried hard to emulate the solos and things. He definitely had an impact.
For the Brown Sabbath album, you had just a few songs to pull out of a 40 year catalog of Black Sabbath songs. How did you decide on which songs to include?
Well, for the first record it was all the stuff we did live eventually and that came from everybody just throwing out our favorite Sabbath songs and not just the ones we know but the songs we assumed would be crowd pleasers and the things most people would know, so that meant not delving too deep into the older stuff. We stuck pretty heavily to the early stuff and pulled a lot from “Paranoid.”
Do you have a particular song from the Brown Sabbath show that is a favorite of yours on the guitar?
“Into the Void” is probably my favorite. It’s so heavy and epic in its form. I love doing that one. We do it as an instrumental with the horns doing some of the vocal melodies and I do some of the vocal melodies. It’s so heavy. That’s got to be the favorite.
I wanted to ask you about the horn section. You guys on guitars, bass, and drums had a bit of analogue to pull from, but the poor horn section had nothing to compare to.
Our trombone player, Speedy, we have to give him a lot of credit. He was able to come up with these parts and arrangements that just sounded like it was always there. I’ve heard from so many people that it sounded like it belonged and we even heard from Ozzy on a radio show how much he liked it and how much it sounded good. So he was really able to pull it off. Those guys are horn players! They didn’t grow up listening to Sabbath, they grew up listening to jazz. So major props to Speedy for being able to pull that together. It’s a real testament to his talent.
You guys used three vocalists on the Brown Sabbath album. What led to that decision?
That was going to be part of the whole night when we did the original show. We reached out to a bunch of singers because, in Brownout, we do kind of a group vocal thing and none of us is really strong enough to be a lead singer. And one guy we didn’t approach, he approached us, was Alex Marrero. At the time we had this whole list of singers so we said “yeah, we could probably squeeze you in for one tune” and as the night approached a bunch of our singers backed out and flaked out on us so we came back to Alex and asked if he could do 4-5 songs and he was so gracious and said yes. He just came out and rocked those tunes and he just embodied Ozzy and was just so good.
Have there been talks about doing a second Brown Sabbath album, pulling from some other tunes, maybe even dipping into the Dio era?
Yeah! We actually have the recording done. We have seven songs that are done and it’s in the process of mixing and we hope to have it out in the next few months. We didn’t make it into the Dio era, but we did progress to the later Ozzy stuff, some of the more epic material moving into “Masters of Reality” and things.
Any last words for folks coming to Bonnaroo and considering checking out Brown Sabbath?
We’re ready to go out there and rock it. Be sure to come check it out because it’s going to be a great show!
Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath will hit the Bonnaroo stage on Friday, June 12 at 2:00 p.m. on the Which Stage. Bonnaro 2015 will take place June 11-14 at Great Stage Park in Manchester, Tn. Other performers include Billy Joel, Kendrick Lamar, and Slayer. You can see the full lineup here.