Fantastic Negrito: We Can Turn It Around (Part 2)

Continued from Part One

A 2014 EP titled Fantastic Negrito debuted Xavier’s new approach. Ostensibly blues, the five-song EP draws from a wider array of influences. Released to enthusiastic critical notices, the EP created a buzz but didn’t break through on a large scale. Undaunted and sure of his musical direction, Xavier created a low-budget video for a new song, “Lost in a Crowd,” and submitted it to National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Contest. The performance features Xavier backed by three musicians on acoustic instruments, and looks to have been shot in a freight elevator. The song is a hypnotic amalgam of field holler and country blues, somehow delivered with a feel that recalls heavy metal. The claustrophobic visuals and impassioned singing and playing combine to create a tension that threatens to burst out of the cramped industrial setting.

Fantastic Negrito won the first annual contest, earning a high-profile spot on Bob Boilen’s taste-making Tiny Desk Concerts program. Soon thereafter, rocker Chris Cornell took notice of Xavier’s music, and in 2016 Cornell asked him to open for him on tour. Their first leg together was a string of European dates; that was followed by a North American tour. And in Fall 2016 – after Fantastic Negrito’s full-length debut had been released – he and his band opened for Cornell again on the latter’s tour fronting Temple of the Dog. “He had more belief in me than I had in myself,” Xavier says.

In 1982 Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders wrote “My City Was Gone,” a lament over the changes she saw as having affected her hometown of Akron, Ohio. In some ways, Fantastic Negrito’s The Last Days of Oakland is a cousin to Hynde’s rocker. But his perspective is quite different. “I remember being in New Orleans, and thinking about Oakland,” he says. “I hadn’t been there in 20 years, and it was a different place. But then I thought, ‘Everything’s a different place, and everything changes. And if you’re yearning for what used to be, that’s a road of misery.’”

Xavier effortlessly cites a laundry list of influential artists who came out of the Oakland scene: “Sly Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Too Short, the Grateful Dead, E-40, Green Day, Tony! Toni! Tone!, En Vogue, MC Hammer … you can go down the list … Metallica, Santana.” But nearly all of those artists represent the past. “All these things used to be,” he says. “But we’ve got to reach for something else right now, and build upon what we have.” And that, he emphasizes, is what Last Days is all about. “It’s kind of a celebration,” he says. “That’s over. Now, let’s do this.”

I first spoke to Dphrepaulezz in 2016, a few months after The Last Days of Oakland was released. Though the presidential election was still a few weeks in the future, Xavier expressed worry and concern about the “downward trajectory” in which he saw the United States heading. He explained that the album was his attempt to contribute something to that conversation, and that he took that opportunity very seriously. “If I wanted to make money,” he laughed, “I’d do something else.” Xavier characterized The Last Days of Oakland as the work of “a man in his 40s who really understands the meaning of life.” And though the lyrics and delivery on that album are impassioned, Fantastic Negrito never comes across as preachy.

The Last Days of Oakland won a 2017 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. While Xavier is visibly pleased with the award, he chafes at his music being consigned to a specific genre. When the subject comes up, he often provides a pithy quote: “Genre is a good place to hide,” he says. “For me as an artist, creativity is my attraction to writing, playing and performing music.” for Xavier, connecting with the audience is the the primary motivation, irrespective of genre.

But he does draw inspiration from blues men of old. “I was very influenced by all the Delta musicians when I embarked on the idea of Fantastic Negrito,” he says. “Of course I was not going to do exactly what they did, but it’s all in the spirit. I listened to Skip James and Robert Johnson and Charley Patton when I was coming up with concepts.” But his goal was never to model his music after theirs. In fact he cites influences as stylistically far-flung as Cornell, Miles Davis, Kendrick Lamar, Led Zeppelin and Johnny Cash.

Live onstage, Fantastic Negrito is deeply engaging; without a hint of show-biz artifice, he involves the audience in his performance. “My live show is like church without the religion,” he says with a broad smile. “That’s the only way I can do it. If I don’t feel it, I don’t think people are gonna feel it. And I want to feel it. To me, it’s like group therapy.” He says that he approaches every performance as if it’s going to be his last. “I draw upon the spirit, the vibration that’s out there. So many great artists who have come before me have laid out this groundwork for me, and I channel that. I gotta be able to feel it, man. That’s why I don’t do any drugs: that stage is my drug.”

Xavier has very specific and exacting ideas about the instrumental components of his songs. When he played a high-profile afternoon set at the LEAF Festival in Western North Carolina, his band included a stand-in keyboardist. To the audience, the man’s playing seemed fine. But Xavier clearly found it wanting. “I find a group of people, whip them into shape and we go,” he says. “My touring band is ever-changing until it doesn’t change anymore. I interchange people depending on availability and mood and things like that.” But, he notes, “You just have to get everyone on the same page.”

In the studio, Xavier is similarly focused on creating the sounds he has in his head. “I have a definite vision of what I am trying to portray sonically – the tone, textures, how many notes to play – every time I sit down to produce a record,” he says. And he gets what he wants. “I’m fortunate enough that I’ve invested in those relationships that people put up with me.”

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