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Neko Case
Pablo Cubarle
Cultura Clash: an interview with Pablo Cubarle / by Meridith Rohana
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, and is forthcoming in Citizen
Contramano, 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 York?
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 music.
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 music?
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 together.
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 as political.
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 that way?
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.

-Meridith Rohana

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