an interview with Pablo Cubarle / by Meridith
Rohana is a freelance writer and managing editor
of LIT magazine.
She holds an MFA from the New School and lives in
New York City. Her writing
has appeared in hint magazine, gurl.com and is forthcoming
loosely translated, means against the flow. Contramano,
the band, fulfill their namesake. Their music is
like nothing you’ve heard before – edgy,
urgent, with a refreshing cross-cultural mix. And
Contramano is, on one level, a political band. Their
music addresses issues like government corruption
and class discrepancies, which are likely unavoidable
topics for an Argentine ex-pat. These days, Contramano’s
songs sound especially prescient as more and more
comparisons are being made between the future of
the U.S. and Argentina’s recent past. Pablo
Cubarle, the creative force behind the band, has
seen that future and the message is in his music.
Classically trained in the cello, Pablo crafts sometimes
beautiful sometimes irreverent songs and his treatment
of the electric cello is often more like the guitar,
though he plays that too. And did I mention the
bilingual lyrics? His identity as a transplanted
New Yorker makes for rich artistic territory and
Pablo mines it in a fresh way. In the song “Checking
U”, he dreams up the many ultimately futile
ways in which he hopes to protect his girlfriend
from a terrorist attack. In “I’m Crying
For You Argentina”, he wonders whether he
abandoned his country or it abandoned him.
I sat down with Pablo to discuss the importance
of an audience, the problem with Argentina, how
many cellos can fit in one rock song, and why he
ended up in New York.
MR: What strikes me most about your music is its
utter uniqueness – in sound and in lyrics.
You seem to have a clear vision of what you want
to express. Is it difficult to keep all the white
noise out, all the opinions we have here in New
PC: When I write music now it’s more about
the target. When I started, it was like, okay I
need to write, put something together, make it sound
good. And now when I’m playing live –
which I love to do – it’s like what
is the effect, what is the energy? The audience
is important, how they’re going to take it.
I don’t think it’s music or art if there
isn’t an audience. I’m totally convinced
of that. I would like to say I do it only because
I need to do it but I need to receive it, too. The
moment that you deal with other people you write
differently. You know exactly what works. When you
play live as much as we do, you know what makes
people move, what makes people cry.
MR: But the “Disposable Song” seems
like it wasn’t written for anyone but yourself
and that’s what makes it so great!
PC: It’s funny to hear you say that because
when I wrote that song, I was thinking about my
friends from college – I studied classical
composition and cello – and how they were
musicians but so intellectual in this academic environment.
I was going to school to learn but I hated it, I
wanted to make rock or pop. I wanted to be in the
real world. So what this song is about is how my
friends were writing these crazy, impossible to
understand pieces of music that no one would want
to listen to because they were horrible, but this
was what was considered art! And I thought, that’s
fine but that’s just for you. Of course they
were complaining about not having an audience. It
was music that was too much in the head. I didn’t
want to do that. I wanted to move people. The “Disposable
Song” was an experiment. I tried to do just
the opposite, to make a throwaway song but it actually
turned out pretty intellectual! What I say is that
art is decoration. You buy a painting because it
looks good in your house. So that was the meaning
of the song. You don’t have to do anything
with it, it’s a disposable song.
MR: Your answer to the over-intellectualizing of
PC: Sometimes the more you study music, the more
you get in a box. Instead of getting more creative,
more open to different styles or languages, you
can get obsessed with making something perfect that
no one can understand.
MR: How long did you study?
PC: At the university, five years. Then I quit,
I never finished. But in total, it was about ten
years, studying hardcore.
MR: And then you did the pop opera? (El Alma Virtual
de Azdrup or The Virtual Soul of Azdrup, performed
in Cordoba in 2000.)
PC: Yes, after I visited New York for the first
time. I decided I wanted to do something with multimedia,
with actors and visual art, paintings my sister
did. It was fun.
MR: How did you get started, can you talk a little
about growing up and when you got interested in
PC: I got into it by studying theory. When I was
17, studying jazz – it’s called popular
music in Argentina – with the method of Berkeley
School of Music. I wasn’t the typical kid
playing music and then deciding to study.
MR: That’s interesting because you started
out from a more intellectual place.
PC: Well I was surrounded by that kind of people.
When I finished high school I thought what am I
going to do now? I tried engineering but I hated
it. My parents encouraged me to study music for
real, as a career. So I went to the university -
I was playing guitar at that time – but they
didn’t offer guitar, only musical composition,
so I took that. When I saw the Symphonic Orchestra
in my second year, I decided to get a cello. I had
a rock band on the side, doing some professional
session playing but when I started with the cello
I quit guitar. I got up every day at five in the
morning to practice. I was so old – twenty-one
– to be starting a new instrument, I had to
make up the time! I was studying eight to ten hours
a day. I had no life, no friends. But after six
months I formed my first classical trio –
piano, violin and cello – and we started playing
professionally. I got into the Symphonic Orchestra
then I got a job in a string quartet at the university
to play pieces for the composers studying there.
Then the thing that changed my life. I went to see
this visiting cello player, Wolfram Koessel, he
was from Germany but lived in New York, and he was
amazing! After two years he came back and saw my
progress on the cello and invited me to study with
him in New York.
MR: How did that change your life?
PC: When I saw how good everyone was in New York,
I knew I would never be that good. In Argentina,
I could sort of pass as a classical cellist, but
not in New York. So I changed direction. New York
changed me. I switched to electric cello because
I wanted something to replace the electric guitar.
I met Erin (current wife) then I went to London
for three months.
MR: And your song “A Mess” is about
that time right?
PC: Yes, I wrote that song while I was waiting tables.
I was going to the bathroom and writing the lyrics.
MR: Do you write lyrics first?
PC: The lyrics parallel the music. It’s not
first or second. I write them separately and see
what fits together.
MR: How do you decide whether to play guitar or
cello when you play live?
PC: “New York Face” is mostly cello
on the recording but I play the guitar live. Most
of the songs have both on the recording. So much
more can be done in recording. The song “Contramano”
has eight cellos.
MR: And now you have a new band. Martin Balik, a
fellow Argentine, on bass and Eugenia Camacho, from
Spain, on drums.
PC: It’s so much nicer to play with people,
to do some of the songs I did solo with my band
now. The new song “Sharing” we wrote
MR: The political song.
PC: It’s about politics within the band.
MR: But there’s a broader appeal. You sing,
“The righteous blame the damned / With you
and me trapped in between”. It could easily
be about something larger.
PC: You can take it to that level. But when we wrote
it, we were fighting about ideas, about how to say
things musically, arguing yet still trying to do
the same thing. That’s cool that you saw it
MR: “I’m Crying For You Argentina”
is deliberately political, no?
PC: Yeah, but more like a need to say how fucked
up the reality is. A need to say goodbye to the
country. It’s the most personal song on the
CD. I also want to show how Argentina really is.
People don’t know that we have McDonald’s,
brand new cars. They think it’s all mountains,
jungle, indians. Capitalism is as big there as it
is here. It can pass as a first world country until
you look beneath the surface.
MR: The picture you paint in that song is pretty
dire. “Argentina you took our dreams / Teachers,
politicians and even our parents they said / You
can’t do that / Don’t even try”.
You say there’s no hope. Do you really feel
PC: It’s not going to get better for a long
time. I hope I’m wrong. I left because I knew
the kind of music I wanted to make. I tried to move
to the place where the music I did fit. I tried
London, Barcelona. From all the places that I went
to – there were many – New York was
the best place to be. Here I could have an audience.