“We kind of jumped into a time machine and, you know, pandemonium…” Black Pumas frontman Eric Burton reflects when he catches up with Live For Live Music by phone in late September.
Black Pumas, led by Burton and guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada, are in the midst of a run of high-profile festival dates, and Burton can’t get over how big the crowds have become. “Before the pandemic, we weren’t as big of a band, and not having performed for about a year, a year and a half, to see the growth and the evolution of the project has been amazing.”
Throughout a pair of Grammy campaigns behind their self-titled debut—for “Best New Artist” in 2020 and for “Album of the Year”/”Record of the Year” in 2021—Black Pumas have leaned heavily on their cinematic origin story: a Santa Monica Pier busker and a Latin rocker/producer form an unlikely pair that quickly ascends to the stratosphere, moving from weekly gigs at Austin’s C-Boy’s to prime-time slots at major music festivals.
But Eric Burton isn’t tired of telling this “origin story” just yet. In fact, he’s still enjoying the ability to take ownership of his own narrative. “I know the importance being able to tell a story well, the importance of being able to tell your own story well.”
[Photo: Keith Griner – Black Pumas at Mempho Festival]
While much of Burton’s current storytelling work comes by way of his music, he also has history with acting and theatrical pursuits that pre-dates the Pumas by a decade.
“I was into [acting] at a young age,” Burton explains. “I grew up in a household of musicians and dancers. My mom was a dancer, my uncle is a musician and songwriter. I have another uncle most immediately who writes novels and screenplays. So, I just kind of grew up in and around people with that sort of disposition towards art and entertainment. I started [acting] as a younger person as a part of church productions, and going into being in the high school and partaking in theater class. Then, studying theater a little bit in college, I took my one theater class a semester.”
That connection to the theater wound up informing his musical endeavors. “I would hang out with the music kids and I would hang out with the theater people—all while I was actually going to school for primary education. I was going to teach kids,” he reveals. “I think I look at music and performing therein as an extension of my love for the theater and creating characters and telling stories.”
Years before he linked up with Quesada in Black Pumas, Eric Burton was a primary extra in Begin Again, the 2013 romance drama starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo about a singer-songwriter and a down-and-out A&R man.
Burton chuckles as he remembers his silver screen debut, which amounted to a mere few seconds of him singing at an open mic. “Yeah, that’s me, man. My little teeny weeny afro, hole in my jeans, playing acoustic guitar…”
“You know what’s funny?” he ponders, “That process, that was the first time I’d been a part of a film production as an actor, and I was reminded that this stuff’s a process, it takes a while. It’s a lot of hurry up and wait and be at your spot when you need to be.”
But waiting around has never been Burton’s strong suit. “To be honest,” he continues, “between shots, I would take my guitar right outside of the building and start busking. I took a plastic cup and set it up and I started busking. The director, when he was telling me to be back on set, he came outside and he was looking for me. He was like, ‘where is this guy?’ And I’m outside busking. That was a funny thing.”
[Screengrab: Eric Burton in Begin Again, 2013]
Burton cherishes acting as an integral form of artistic expression, and he recalls his teenage experience in the ensemble of a community production of Guys and Dolls as a formative moment for his views on the subject. “I was in the chorus singing and acting without words,” he explains. “Here I am, this super bubbly kid, very funny and expressive, [and] I’d almost be part of the reason the chorus would kind of steal the show—because I was just ‘big energy,’ so to speak.”
That “big energy” was, in some ways, the catalyst for his latest acting project, Devexity, a film noir sci-fi short directed by friend and collaborator Luke Lidell in which Burton’s leading man begins to question the nature of his reality.
As Lidell explains to Live For Live Music, he had been friends with Eric for about a year when he began writing the conceptually dense project. “I pretty much had him in mind for the role immediately. … I didn’t know at that point if Eric would even be interested, but I wanted someone that had his presence. … Cool [is] the best word for it. You know when you meet someone and you can tell that the gears are turning behind their eyes?”
“I can be quite pensive and deep in thoughts,” Burton adds. “I love to observe poetic aspects of life. I like to take in reality and find the poetry therein to further enjoy the beauty of it all.”
After workshopping the Devexity script with his writers’ group, Lidell finally brought it to Burton—who had some notes of his own. Together, the pair rewrote the script again and again, working to make Eric’s character more robust and engaging.
“I’m very careful in how I process and take things in to then reciprocate something that will truly resonate with familiarity in everyone else,” Burton explains. “I think that it’s so easy to do as we get out of our own way. I always feel blessed by people who have the ability to do that—to take in reality and to reciprocate something that is digestible and palatable for people who maybe need a pleasant reminder.”
Devexity (starring Eric Burton) – Official Trailer
This most recent foray into filmmaking with Devexity represents just the first of many creative hats Burton plans to wear in the near future. High on his to-do list is a documentary about Black Pumas, which he hopes they can incorporate into the promotion of their forthcoming sophomore album. Calls are also starting to pour in for the band to start writing music for films.
In terms of Eric Burton, the actor, however, he’s content to immerse himself in the craft, take things slow, and soak up what poetry he can from his recently charmed situation.
He offers some fitting advice before hanging up the call—the same advice he’d offer anyone, the same advice he plans to take himself: take an acting class.
“I remember I took an acting class with my girlfriend and it was so therapeutic,” he notes. “It was so cool to take a step aside, right? To observe each other in a different light while we’re kind of working towards a common goal. It was cool. Generally, it’s so cathartic to act and be in a class where everyone around you fully supports your being vulnerable.”
“I’m looking forward to getting inundated with the classes that are around,” he continues, “because more than I want to be in a film or on a TV show to then, maybe, be this big star and to be known for my acting, I really look at it as a lifestyle. I just find a lot of solace in the sanctuary that is being surrounded by actors and playwrights, thespians. There’s a sense of enchantment that comes with that. I’m just looking forward to getting into some classes and getting to know myself through the eyes of the theater, so to speak.”
Devexity, the new sci-fi film noir short from director Luke Liddell starring Eric Burton, will be screened at a private media event on Thursday, October 7th, Burton’s birthday. The premiere event, set to take place at Austin, TX’s Native Hostel Bar & Lounge (807 East Fourth St.) at 7:00 p.m., will also feature a Q&A with the cast.
For a full list of dates to see Eric Burton on tour with Black Pumas, click here.