by Vanessa Bell
Photo by Olivia Ford
For a man whose latest album is entitled 'I regret everything' (Me Arrepiento de Todo), Tomi Lebrero appears to be the antithesis of this, seizing life with both hands. The first live performance of his new album was a rowdy full-frontal affair (he stripped off to the waist down at least), at times a chaotic but brilliant palate of musical influences. An artful alchemist with his approach to composition, he juggled guitar, bandoneon and colorful spoken narrative with the audience with an indefatigable creative energy that had everybody enthralled.
I arranged to interview Tomi a few days after, his first discussing the new LP. As we gorged on freshly baked facturas (still warm!) washed down with green tea in his cozy flat in the up and coming Colegiales district, I discovered that Tomi was anything but repentant.
Why that title - what do you regret?
Tomi Lebrero: I can't say it's the most uplifting or optimistic title but it's the one that I came up with, and I guess the idea was that I can be quite reckless, I'm always getting myself into trouble, I regret everything just in case. Also I wanted to do away with a certain seriousness that prevails In the context of the singer/songwriter scene in Buenos Aires, it’s not really the norm to have a parodic title, I thought that was an interesting concept. But in reality I don't really regret anything. There are always things one can regret, like how cowardly one can be in terms of the inadequacies that one can have, it’s like a joke really. It's interesting that when I give out flyers people immediately react by saying that they don't regret anything, which I think is a bit excessive.
I thought the idea of regretting everything was also a bit of a loser's standpoint, which I preferred. I’m sticking with ‘loser’.
What´s your musical background?
TL: I started playing the guitar when I was 10 and got really hooked, then at 18 I began playing the bandoneon and bought myself one shortly afterwards. I also studied piano, singing, had some formal instruction as I studied at the conservatoire. I see myself more as a composer than a musician per se. My affinity lies with composing, it's what I was supposed to bring to this world. The bandoneon and my instruments keep me company, in effect they're like my friends.
Can you tell me a little about the sampler which you have attached to your bandoneon?
TL: In the solo set, which is when you last saw me play, I play around more with that. On my last trip to Japan I bought back a bunch of 'toys' with me to experiment with. I like this idea of an instrument characterized by being old and traditional and experimenting with that profile interests me. I always like to chop and change from one thing to another in what I do.
I notice that you have a wide variety of musical influences to your sound.
TL: I grew up in quite a conservative household, musically speaking, but with relatively good taste. Lots of rock nacional, particularly Charlie, Fito, Leon Gieco, Spinetta, Sui Generis. My dad used to listen to a lot of Jacques Brel and other french music which perhaps isn't so common here. That narrative style made a really big impression on me as a kid. At 14 I became totally addicted to Piazzolla, I formed a rock band but immediately started playing tango and got wrapped up in that scene. When it comes to electronica, especially with the more extreme/radical stuff some of it goes over my head, I like it but I don't follow it avidly.
The live show for this record is very 'audience friendly' and accessible and there is a strong interaction between you and the crowd. The various musicians all seem to project a strong character and energy in their performance. How did you feel the first show went and how did this group of musicians come together in their current incarnation? I get the impression you also like to establish a dialogue with your audience.
TL: I think it's hard to keep a group together like this, especially without a steady stream of income. It's a big effort, I've been playing with some of them for over 6 years, others more recently. They are all great musicians, it makes me happy that they are in the band with me. But I think that it's a pretty one sided dynamic, in so far as I am a soloist and they are accompanying me, I didn’t manage to give it a real group dynamic. Usually I let the music do the talking, but the other day I felt like interacting with the audience a bit about how the record had come about. You learn as you go along, that’s one of the things that I find with a cycle of shows, you learn from one gig to the next, fine tuning if you like. I felt that the show created a nice vibe, it was nice.
How did your collaboration with Vincent Moon come about and the subsequent Take Away Show for his Blogotheque series?
TL: I was lucky to meet Vincent. He came to one of my shows by chance at Pachamama. I didn’t know who he was, he wanted to do a video and it was a friend of mine who said I should do it, and it was great. Many people saw it in different places around the world, and in fact it was a video that Vincent personally liked very much and showed extensively, he was always really friendly with me. From then on he wrote regularly, he would tell me that they had shown it in Japan for example. It was a nice boost, but that audience was more part of another phase, playing BA 6 years ago, especially certain cycles that I had going in various very underground venues, Pachamama in particular, last year I played every Wednesday on a weekly basis for 6 months, the place was always full to capacity. There I gained a following that knew all the songs, space for 120 people, always very crowded and everyone singing along.
It’s a great experience but it’s also tiring, a bit trashy, without a microphone, etc.
What I notice listening to your record and live show is how personal your lyrics are, inextricably linked to emotions and experiences related to BA. What does this city give you creatively and what are your views on the scene here at present?
TL: I feel like BA is my city, but I love and hate it in equal measures, because it's also a massive metropolis, with lots of disadvantages, such as the pollution for example. But there is a lot that I like, especially that volume of people, meaning there is always scope for a new audience. I totally feed off it. I got really enthusiastic about tango at one stage and I explored all the neighborhoods, being from San Isidro I was somewhat of a foreigner in the city, I would to go to Constitucion and Pompeya. I do feel very Porteño and Argentine at the same time. There is a specific Porteño humour. Obviously when I play internationally (this year I played in Mexico and Japan) I’ll adapt. I’ll concentrate on the music rather than there being as much emphasis on the lyrics. I feel that the shows at Cafe Vinilo are geared towards 'my people', those who come and see me play regularly. That said, I notice that people from abroad come to my shows and seem really into what I do. I suppose it's because the music transcends the lyrics, much like us listening to music sung in English without understanding the words, yet there is something that transcends. In terms of what's happening in the city at the moment. I’m happy, I like what’s going on. I feel that this city is unique in comparison to other Latin American cities. This idea of BA being in the arse end of the world, yet both very Latin and very European at the same time. We draw reference from Europe, with many roots there and that makes an impression on the spirit of the city. It’s great, i don’t there we have anything to envy other vanguards elsewhere,Tokyo for example, and in fact they look to us for inspiration in Japan.
What's in store for this year?
TL: In the first instance I feel like doing another two cycles which I’ll probably do at Cafe Vinilo, weekly shows in August and September, and then for November I'll be planning a month in Europe and then Japan again. I've never been to Europe to play my own music. I also teach, I organise musical composition workshops three times a week with a friend of mine Alvy Singer, who’s also a singer songwriter. I've also got a side project with a friend called Mongos, we have a costume dressed as siamese twins, so essentially we perform stuck together. We rap about it, about being inadequate, a loser double act.
This Saturday the 28th of May is the final show of a month long series, at Cafe Vinilo (Gorriti 3780) at midnight.