To say Northern Virginia indie rocker Pablo Cabrera has a lot going on would be an understatement. When he’s not playing guitar for A MARC Train Home, keeping the beat for older notes., playing bass in Yeah, Cool, or engineering other people’s albums, he’s making music as Popolocho, his highly eclectic solo project.
Released earlier this month, The Minor Victory LP is his latest solo outing. Fans of MARC Train’s furious, fuzzed-out dream rock and older notes.’ ethereal emo will find plenty to love, but Cabrera also reaches outside his usual wheelhouse to dabble in hip hop and electronic rock.
Following the release of Minor Victory, Cabrera spoke to The All Scene Eye about engineering influences, the perks of collaborative songwriting, and how he got his start in the Northern Virginia scene.
How did you get your start in the Northern Virginia scene?
At first, I didn’t really break out into the scene, per se. My high school bands were just trying to do pay-to-play gigs, not really getting connections. Around the time I graduated high school, I started recording Loud?, which is this emo band from Woodbridge.
They had a big following, so I was really flattered they asked me, and even more flattered when they were like, “hey, do you want to play drums for us? we don’t have a drummer anymore.” I was like, “oh, wow, of course.”
I learned all their songs, and then on my birthday, they had their first show at my house, which is funny. I had a show called Pablofest, which is very narcissistic. Everyone was like “wow, I didn’t know you were in this band!” and I was like, “surprise!”
The first time I toured was with them–we played in Harrisonburg, and Philly. It was such an experience, and I met a lot of cool people.
To summarize the roster of projects you’re currently a part of, that’s Popolocho, that’s MARC Train–
A MARC Train Home is writing a new album, and we’re going to release it under a new name. It’s a super-secret thing right now. On the last albums, Bastian and Jack were in the band. Right now, we have a new drummer, Ethan, from Cape Farewell. And Jasiu, who was in Roraima. It’s still me and Genevieve. That’s still going on, but it’s kind of under wraps.
older notes. is planning stuff. We haven’t released anything in a while, but we’re working on it.
Yeah, Cool is really active; we have a full-length coming soon. So right now, my main bands are Yeah, Cool, the super-secret band, and Popolocho as a studio project.
It works because I have a lot of free time. I don’t have a job right now, so I can use all that time to make music. I’ll practice guitar for an hour, and mess around on my synth. I don’t play drums as often, but I mostly am starting to compose in the computer, just because it’s more liberating, almost more direct. You don’t have to set up patch cables everywhere.
My goal has been to stretch out of that typical 60s or 70s rock and go more into 2017, you know? As a musician, I’m very limited, but my taste is broad, so why not venture into more electronica stuff?
You hear a lot of that on this new record. The two that stood out to me were “In the Zone” and “Dream Crisis.”
Yeah, “In the Zone” I did really last minute, in a day or two. When I sent you the demo a few days ago, it wasn’t even on there. I do all my electronic stuff with a Roland EM101 Sound Plus box from the 80s. It’s only, like, $100, and it only has presets for strings, organ, brass, and then some secrets. If you press some buttons, there’s a fake digital piano sound, too. I’m limiting myself to these sounds, but I also put effects on the computer to try to push those sounds and make them more interesting.
Do you plug that into a keyboard?
I only have a 25 key midi controller keyboard. I think it’s better. There are some times I want to hit a high note, and i’m like, “no! I can’t!” But for overall purposes, I don’t do very complicated keyboard melodies, so this is a good setup for me. All of the synths were done on that, except for the drums, which were Cubase samples. I think I get a lot of the electronic influences from my brother. Growing up, he would always play Jean Michel Jarre, or Vangelis, who did the Bladerunner soundtrack, and Chariots of Fire. He’s also into Hans Zimmer. Siblings usually grow apart from their tastes, but I’m going back and being like, “man, that stuff is cool, I want to do that.”
I really enjoyed the eclecticism of this record.
I’m glad you liked it. I try to stretch my boundaries and try stuff I haven’t done before. This is the first time I had rap on the album. It’s also my first time having Jack Hubbell’s vocals on one of my own songs. We did some for A MARC Train Home, but we’ve always been saying we should collaborate on Popolocho stuff. We had ideas about doing “Baby’s in Black” by The Beatles, and we never got around to that, but at least we worked on this song together. It’s cool, because we always share recording tips and suggestions. We can both learn a lot of different techniques from each other.
That song is “New Place,” and the lyrics were written by Casey Meyer.
My thought process was, I’m not the best at lyric writing–I sucked at doing essays in school, and stuff. I trusted Casey to write lyrics for me. I’d tell her, “is it alright if I give you a rough idea, or a theme, or a concept, and you can build on that?” For “New Place,” it was like, this is about me moving to a new place and being anxious, but also having hope that it’s for the best. She wrote the lyrics based on that. I think Jack might have tweaked them a little bit.
“WWE Twinkledown,” the first song, went outside of her comfort zone. I told her, “how about you try doing something really sarcastic and playful, and maybe referencing current events?” I like lyrics that are very jokey sometimes. She had fun with it, because she’s such a good writer that she can adapt to any style. Even though she’s a great singer, writing lyrics is hard, and she’s taken a lot of writing courses.
It’s interesting how that song balances anxiety about contemporary life with a not-quite-conspiracy theory kind of paranoia.
Sometimes my lyric-writing can be weird and political like that. I left it up to her, so if anyone questions those lyrics, I’ll just be like, “it wasn’t me!” [laughs]
Did you pick singers deliberately for each song?
Yeah, we wrote the songs first, but when I heard “New Place,” I was like, “oh, this is definitely fitting for Jack’s voice,” because it’s very chill. It’s an airy, major-keyed song, and I wanted his falsetto.
For “Take Me,” I was like, this is a Cocteau Twins kind of song, and Casey does a lot of the jumpy vocals, where they go high, and low, and in-between, so I definitely wanted her on that.
For “WWE Twinkledown,” I wanted to get a more emo voice. I was going for a little more raspy and angsty, and I felt shy and unsure. I did a little more of a subdued voice, and it shows I’ve got to get over that insecurity. My ideal emo voice is Algernon Cadwallader, which is a band from Philly. They’re really awesome and I recommend everyone check them out.
There are also outtakes on this album from your Late Bloomer EP, which you released earlier this year.
The last two tracks, yeah. I guess they count as bonus tracks, because I didn’t think they were good enough to be on the album. Ryan Burke, who plays in Collider, I was using his practice space for a few months, because I didn’t have one. He was like, “I have all this random gear that I’m giving out.” So, there was this electronic drum thing from the 80s. It’s called the Pearl Drum-X. You hook up your drum pads to it, and it makes really cheesy fake drum sounds. It still works, surprisingly.
At that moment, I was like, “I’m going to make an 80s EP,” with all very cheesy sounds. I recorded that with live cymbals, but the kick, toms, and snare were electronic. Then I just put a lot of chorus on the guitar.
I kind of forgot I even had those two outtakes–“That Escalated Quickly” and “Sarah.” I was looking through my google drive trying to find something, and I ran into those. I was like, “oh, shit, I totally forgot I made these, I should have released them.” So I released them a little late.
There are a couple tracks with a stronger hip-hop influence. You’re doing more electronic sounds, and you’re featuring rapper Black Costanza.
I met Drew Manges, whose project is Black Costanza, at a venue in Pennsylvania called the Thought Lot. We were playing a show, and he was like, “hey, I’m friends with Genevieve, and I love the stuff you do, we should collaborate.” I was like, “oh, I’m going to keep my word,” so I messaged him later.
First what I did was a put up a Facebook thing like “I’m making beats, who wants to rap on them?” I got a lot of requests, but out of all of them, I wanted to work with Drew because he extended the offer initially. I’d heard his stuff, and it sounded really cool. I got him to do it, and I was so blown away with his vocal tracks. Those songs would be nothing without him. I love how he starts with a singing hook, and then goes into rapping. It takes you by surprise, and it’s like, spitfire all these words.
I don’t feel like there’s too much distinction between the hip-hop stuff and some of the other electronic tracks. I think it’s mostly the rapping. I do have a big affinity for a lot of 70s funk and soul records, so I’ve always wanted to do sample-based hip-hop. Nowadays, it’s trap music that’s all Fruity Loops.
You have the legal situation that prompted a lot of artists to stop using samples, and it never really came back.
Back then, you could get away with it, before it caught on. Nowadays it’s usually one sample to a song, and you have to get the copyright. I’m trying to do it on the down-low. I’m not famous enough, I don’t think my Bandcamp will get shut down. If it does, I have it backed up. [laughs]
In general, I’ve been compiling a list of samples I want to use on a future thing. Sometimes, you’re like, “man, the best music has already been made.” So instead of trying to make something like it, you can just take that. Sometimes I hear a short, five-second bit of a song that doesn’t ever repeat ever again, but it’s so sweet, you just want to loop it.
I think it was unusual in the way I used the Van Halen riff, because it’s not the usual kind of sample. One day I was really high, and I heard that song, and I was like, “I’ve got to do this.” I tried to do it on my phone, and I was like, “this is not going to work, I’m just going to do it tomorrow when I get home.” [laughs] It’s just when inspiration struck, and I liked it.
I also love that you used the Palpatine samples from Star Wars on “Loopyhead.”
That’s just a weird inside-joke, we always just say “execute order 66.” Once, we went to Five Guys, and my order was number 66, which was funny.
“Problematic Celeb” is a song that stands out to me lyrically. What can you tell me about it?
I’m definitely not a perfect person. Cue Hoobastank, you know. [laughs] But it was mainly about a gripe I had with a friend I won’t name. I feel like they were abusive to me, in a way. When I see them get ahead, it makes me sad, because it’s like, “wow, they like to smooth-talk a lot of people, but I know for a fact when I was with them, they would be really mean to me.”
It was more like, I don’t want to be a two-faced person in the scene. What you see is what you get, I guess. It comes from a moment of bitterness. It’s not in me to make such a harsh song like that, but I see a lot of artists who have that kind of bravado. They’re very forward with their lyrics, and they’re not afraid to express anger or frustration. I was like, you know, it’s time I try to do a song that has a little more attitude. I’m always too scared to get there.
Overall, my lyrics aren’t that deep. I’m not trying to make a statement, it’s more like filler for the music. [laughs]
That one is very pointed, though. There’s the lyric, “even if it’s my favorite band, I’d rather not sell out myself.”
It’s like, say there’s a band you really like, and you could use that opportunity to be like, “hey guys, let me play a show with you.” I feel very disingenuous doing that. I’ve tried, and I’ve given up, so the line goes with that, saying I’m not trying to get ahead on other people.
That’s happened to me, where I felt like someone was trying to use me to get ahead. But I wasn’t offended by it, I was like, “ok, you obviously see that I’m partially successful, and you want to get some help from it.” I try when I can, but then I see more successful people complain about, “I hate all these people, these leeches, trying to get things out of me.”
I think it’s understandable too, because they’ve got so much on their plate. They’re so busy, and getting bombarded with emails. I’m learning, recently, that’s the music industry. Usually, I was just an instrumentalist, but never part of the actual booking aspect, which is really complicated. I leave my bandmates to do that part. They’ve also done a lot of research about the business side of things. I run the studio business, but that’s more of the craft itself. I’m not really worried about the marketing part of it, which I leave to other people.
What’s the title of Minor Victory about?
It ties in with the Late Bloomer EP. It’s an idea I had, a quarter-life crisis thing, which is what propelled me to do these albums. I want to keep making music, and not waste my time. The Late Bloomer EP was a reference to how I’m just getting the hang of making music, even though most people are in their prime when they’re 17. It’s crazy.
Led Zeppelin, when they came out with their first album, Robert Plant and John Bonham were 19, and John Paul Jones was 20 or so. I called the LP Minor Victory because completing the album is a victory for myself, even if it’s not going anywhere. You interviewing me is a victory–I love that I’m going to get to show everyone, like my family.
You’ve recorded for other artists, Birds For Eyes being an example. Who are your engineering influences?
I really like Alan Moulder. He mixed Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and My Bloody Valentines’ Loveless. Also more recent records, like Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light. He’s one of my favorites.
I think what got me into the idea of recording in the first place was listening to The Beatles’ Revolver and hearing how the production sounded so epic. When I heard it, I was 8 years old, and it sounded like a record made in 2000. I didn’t know why until a few years ago, when I read a book about the Beatles, and it said they switched engineers for that album. They got this young guy, Geoff Emerick, who was a lower-level engineer, and he had to be the main one. So he went all the way. He started experimenting in the studio and doing a lot of stuff that was never done before, or wasn’t even allowed. All the records after that, too. Sgt. Pepper was a real breakthrough.
Everyone loves Steve Albini, so I don’t want to say that, but I will just because everyone loves his drum sound. In Utero is also my favorite Nirvanna album, and the Pixies stuff is really good. I like his mentality, because he’s definitely an interesting engineer. From a certain perspective, he’s a little oddball.
Other engineers would be Will Yip, and all his records with Title Fight and Pity Sex. He’s a really incredible engineer. There’s this guy who did Deafheaven’s album Sunbather, whatever his name is.
On this album, you’ve got 90s rock, hip-hop, electronica–are there any other styles you’d want to tap into you haven’t yet?
Oddly enough, I’ve been starting to listen to a lot of blues rock. I always was a fan of Led Zeppelin, but I’ve been digging through the Van Halen discography, and Whitesnake, and more obscure bands as well. I want to do an album that’s very blues-rock, very riffy, kind of like what Wolfmother and those kind of bands do, but take it a step further and make it more wacky, with more modern influences thrown in. It’s hard to find people to do it with. Everyone right now is doing their own thing and not the old hits, but I can always listen to that stuff. I want to do some project like that, maybe for the next album, and then on the other end have an electronic, hip-hop kind of album. That’s what I’m pointing towards.
What’s your dream collaboration? Who would you want to work with on a record?
I would love to have Jimmy Chamberlain, the Smashing Pumpkins drummer, on recording jobs. I would love to collaborate with Pharrell or N.E.R.D.–he just came out with a new single with Rhianna that was really good. Also, I really like Timbaland’s beats. As for guitarists, I’d love to collab with Kevin Shields, but it takes him so long to make a My Bloody Valentine album. I don’t know how long it’ll take for us. I would love to meet him and talk to him about stuff, and find out some things I still don’t know about those albums he made.