Fantastic Negrito: "I try to keep some of that ugliness in there – it’s very organic"

Fantastic Negrito
(Image credit: Lyle Owerko)

There are effectively two categories of people alive in 2020: those whose mental health and overall sanity have taken a meteoric nosedive since January, and those who aren’t paying enough attention to the world around them. It feels like these past ten months have lasted a decade each, what with the bushfires, floods, global health crisis, economic downfall, rise in Western neo-fascism, etcetera, etcetera… Can you tell we’re a little bit jaded?

The music industry has especially taken one hell of a kick to its metaphorical crotch. Most bands out there can’t tour, push records out on schedule or get out and about with their fans – it’s not a great time to be on the precipice of your mainstream breakthrough, to say the least. And if you’re active in both politics and music, you’re almost certain to be on, what, your fourth mental breakdown of the year so far? Fifth? 

Some artists have been fortunate enough to channel their frustrations into art, however. For the Californian blues and roots luminary best known as Fantastic Negrito, music quickly became a coping mechanism to deal with the oppression and depression his day-to-day life was being flooded by. The end result is a timely album with a timely question for its listener: Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?

The two-time Grammy winner’s fourth album, out now on Cooking Vinyl, is his most insular work to date, each of its 11 tracks dedicated to someone Fantastic Negrito is close to. But musically it’s his most far-reaching, with hints of pop, rap, funk, soul, rock ’n’ roll, blues and beyond all gelling into one beautiful chasm of sonic colour. As we learned from the man himself, it’s as crucial a body of work for himself as it is for the world he’s still figuring out how to navigate.

How are you vibing on everything now that the record’s out there, and people have had a chance to really soak it all in? 
I always change so much between each of my records, I think people are going to hate them when they come out; the jump in sound between The Last Days Of Oakland and Please Don’t Be Dead was really drastic for some people, and I think the leap from that record to Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? is even wider. I was in a funkier mood when I was making this record, so it’s a lot funkier. And that’s a good thing, y’know? 

I think the question is very timely, too. I could’ve asked that question at any time in history: “Have you lost your mind yet?” But I think it’s all extremely relevant today with everything going on right now. A song like “How Long?” is extremely timely, especially with the proliferation of gun violence in America and this recent insurgence in police brutality.

It was good to break out and do some collaborations, too. I did one with E-40, “Searching For Captain Save A Hoe”, and then one with my fellow NPR Tiny Desk Concert winner, Tarriona ‘Tank’ Ball, on “I’m So Happy I Cry”. That was a different one, but I love that song. 

And it’s so diverse. This record is spread across four different genres on Spotify – it’s on the rock playlist, it’s on the funk/soul playlist, it’s on the blues playlist, it’s on the alternative hip-hop playlist… I’m very happy with those results – I feel great that people are listening to it and becoming engaged, and it’s great that it means something to them, because that’s why I do this – I did this to become a contributor. 

How does music help you to reckon with, or process everything that’s happening around you? 
It’s extremely cathartic. It’s a vehicle for myself to express what I’m feeling, and human expression is extremely vital – that’s how we resonate, that’s how we survive and that’s how we individualise ourselves. And my message goes out to you, man, it goes out to my peers. My struggle and my joy and my optimism – it all goes out to you. 

I mean, this album is… It’s visceral. It’s a feeling album – I feel like it was so important to bring in the Hammond B3 to kind of be the star of the record, because it’s an extremely visceral instrument; it’s not a very heady, y’know, brainiac album; it’s this soulful rock, blues, stompin’, gospel, black roots, funk-rock, soul… Blues, alligator shoes, cornbread – I mean, it’s swanky and it’s unapologetic, and… I need that. I need that for myself.

Funk, soul and blues – this kind of music is innately very personal, but when you invite someone into your world and have them connect with you through that music, it’s a special thing. It means something more than just the sum of its parts.
That’s it, man. This was the hardest album that I ever made, because it was so personal – it was more micro than macro. Each song was about a specific person I knew and how they were dealing with the world – their mental health through all this technological chaos, and the internet, and the proliferation of too much information, where the mainstream machine is telling us how to think, how to vote, what to say, what slogan we should repeat, who we should scream it at… 

Left-wing politics is extremely polarising, and it’s so exhausting and toxic – I did lose my mind through all of it. And the way that I lived to reclaim it was just by sitting in that studio, man, firing up that Hammond B3, grabbing my trusty guitars and bass, and letting the songwriting games begin.

What were those trusty guitars? 
There’s three of them. I used the Chapman semi-hollow Telecaster model, which was just outstanding. This guy from England, Rob Chapman: he’s a genius, man. I played that on all the rhythm parts on the album. The Gibson Les Paul – y’know, I always have to use that, that one’s a classic. 

But the strange star of the record was this ABS-style hollowbody that had… Man, I can’t even call it a pickup, it’s a microphone! It was this 1960s Harmony that was broken, battered… It was literally split into four pieces, and I had it glued back together – and all the slide solos that you hear were played on that guitar. 

What made you want to take so much care to restore that guitar? 
It’s like me, y’know? It’s the story of Fantastic Negrito: discarded, broken, battered, lost in the world… But I had a feeling about it – just like I have a feeling about Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? and all the records I’ve done: it’s gotta be beautiful. And it was – if you listen to the guitar solo on “Chocolate Samurai”, or that really strange part that almost sounds like a glockenspiel on “King Frustration” – all these solos are played on that guitar, and they sound incredible. It was an amazing piece of wood.

Some of the tones you play with on this record… I think the best way I could describe them is that they’re luscious. They’re bright, bouncy and catchy, but simultaneously so deep and funky. What are your secrets? 
This is probably going to make you cringe a little bit, but I usually just had an amp – the Orange Tremlord on this record, to be exact – and I’d just plug right into that baby. I turn everything off on that amp and it’s just so clean. I get it in there clean, and then once I’m in there, I’m able to do a little bit of manipulation with a couple of pedals. I’ve got a pretty standard wah pedal that I use, and I’ve got a fuzz pedal. But I don’t really try to do too much, y’know? 

A lot of it’s just ugly tones that end up being very big and beautiful and warm – but there’s still an ugliness to them. I try to keep some of that ugliness in there. It’s very organic. I’m very open to what can happen – what the possibilities are when it comes to effects and pedals. The spring reverb is a go-to, of course, and that Tremlord amp has an incredible vibrato. But other than that, I don’t like to play favourites. 

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…