Gabriel Maciel admits that every song on his band’s new album is “a bummer.” The founder and primary songwriter of San Jose new wave-indie trio The Trims lets out a little laugh, a genuine chortle. Maybe it’s a conscious attempt to deflect, or he feels a bit embarrassed about baring his soul on record, or perhaps it’s because he sometimes feels like the depression he’s battled most of his life is silly—something he should be able to just brush off with a disarming grin.
Now well into his 30s, Maciel is quite capable of digging himself out of funks by playing music, writing poetry or just calmly talking himself through his feelings—performing a bit of self-psychoanalysis. But it doesn’t change the fact that there is always another downer lurking.
“I can be super happy, but I also have that sadness,” Maciel says over drinks at his longtime haunt, the Hyde Park Lounge. “That little dark cloud is always whispering in your ear.”
Themes of death, lost love and despair have always been a part of The Trims—just as they’ve long been a part of Maciel’s personal life. The group’s first full-length album, released in 2011, was titled We Cried For Fun.
Still, a superficial scan of The Trims’ newest yet-to-be-titled record—which Maciel wrote and produced with his band mates, drummer Billy Brady and bassist Mark Sharp—doesn’t scream depression. A preview of several unmastered tracks, which Maciel provided Metro, along with the new album’s finished lead single, “The One I Want,” are all tightly wound and propulsive. Many could be called upbeat if it weren’t for the words.
“Dying To See Your Face” features a bright, Strokes-ish major chord progression, while the song’s buoyant bass line and disco drum beat keep the track bouncing along. But from the jump, the lyrics paint a more somber picture. “Tell me what went wrong,” Maciel pleads. “I’m dying just to see your face.”
The way Maciel tells it, he didn’t always have such a bleak outlook on life. Music, however, has been a constant. His mother constantly sang around the house, and as far back as he can remember he’s wanted to play the guitar.
He was given his first six-string when he was just 5 years old and he remembers begging his parents to get him lessons. “So they did, but I got turned away because my hands were too small,” he says, recounting how he had to wait two long years before his tutelage could begin.
Maciel has maintained a close relationship with the guitar despite going through a heavy gangster rap phase, descending deep into the realm of house music and playing in sludgy metal bands. These days, when he sits down to compose, Maciel leaves his first love in its case.
“I always write on the bass first,” he says. Maciel’s process usually begins with him laying down a basic pre-programmed, four-on-the-floor drumbeat and then coming up with a bass line. “I’ve always felt, if you can lock in a catchy hook on the bass and then the drums match it, the song will just write itself.”
For the average listener, The Trims’ dedication to songcraft might go unnoticed—and that’s a good thing. The effortless feel of this collection belies how much work went into creating the album.
Tracked by local recording engineer Steven Glaze at his at Tone Freq Studios, just south of downtown San Jose, a great deal of planning preceded the sessions. The Trims recorded demos of every song and obsessed over little details before they ever even connected with Glaze.
“What I love most about these songs is that they are deceptively simple,” Maciel says.
Just listen to the bridge from “The One I Want.” A rush of soaring, delay-drenched guitars and a frantic disco stomp is glued together by a four-note bass line. That’s all straightforward enough. But upon repeat listens, the passage is flawless—a collection of exacting performances, all expertly layered for maximum impact.
This song is a far cry from anything on We Cried for Fun. The Trims’ first record was a much slower, downcast affair. While their 2011 LP recalls Interpol and Joy Division with its deliberate, plodding basslines and early post-punk rawness—the forthcoming album owes more to the rigorously agitated compositions of Bloc Party and the polished, synthy sheen of New Order.
It’s the kind of production that separates a talented local band from a radio-ready pop music machine, and Maciel knows it. “I couldn’t be happier about the new LP. I think our writing is the strongest it’s ever been,” he says. “The songwriting is different now. It’s better. It’s a lot tighter.”
Brady agrees: “We’re locked in.”
The Trims aren’t the only ones who believe in their music. In recent years, the band has emerged as one of Silicon Valley’s most promising acts. They’ve caught the attention of Aaron Axelsen, Live 105’s taste-making music director—who has featured the band on his Sunday evening Soundcheck program, brought them on the radio station’s annual summer music festival, BFD, and has even turned to the band for “bumpers,” 10-second interstitial tracks that run in between songs and to mark the end of commercial breaks. In 2015, The Trims were invited to play BottleRock—the same year Imagine Dragons, No Doubt and Robert Plant headlined the Napa Valley food, wine and music festival.
“We’ve been able to be a part of shows that I wouldn’t even have dreamt about being a part of before,” Maciel says. “When I was sitting in my living room on my laptop, writing dumb little hooks on my guitar, I never thought it would lead to this.”
Fronting a band on the verge of breaking out has its downsides. For example, Maciel recalls being backstage at BottleRock, eating a plate of lasagna and salad, while Portugal. The Man ate their lunch at an adjacent table. This was couple years before the Portland band landed their massive crossover hit “Feel It Still,” but for Maciel, who has followed them for many years, it was a surreal and conflicting experience.
He thought about trying to strike up a conversation, “but I was like, ‘Dude, you can’t. You gotta be cool.’” And then Maciel saw Robert Plant. “I wanted to run up there and be like, ‘Um, Sir Robert, could I get a picture?’ In hindsight I’m like, ‘Fuck it. I should have just done it.’”
Of course, Maciel also has more practical concerns than keeping his inner fanboy in check—like elevating his band to the next level by incorporating lights, synthesizers and convincing everyone else to play to a click track. Syncing the band to a computerized metronome allows for the incorporation of pre-recorded backing tracks into live performances. This can give a group a more fully fleshed-out sound, but also requires a level of precision that can be intimidating.
When Maciel proposed the idea, his band mates initially resisted.
“It was a fucking argument and a half,” Maciel remembers, noting that the other members were worried that if they got off beat, the backing track would be off and an entire song could be derailed. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, dude. What if anything? What if a meteor crashes into the club and kills us all. I mean, let’s go for it, man!’ Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Maciel can come across as a bit of a cut-up—the kind of guy who might have held dual roles in high school as class clown and teacher’s pet. And yet he has a solemn streak that comes through in his poetry and his work ethic.
Published in 2016, Truth By Moonlight collects Maciel’s poems, prose and lyrics—of The Trims and his solo side project, Moonlytz. The book features dark passages about heavy drinking, womanizing and wrestling with other demons. It is an undoubtedly sincere work and serves as a time capsule, providing insight into the experiences that have shaped Maciel.
There was a time when he never would have considered sharing this poetry with anyone. But as he’s grown older, he says, he finally “found my stride.” He’s dialed back the partying, gained the confidence to share his writing with a larger audience and will soon complete his bachelor’s degree in humanities from San Jose State University. He’s got just a few more night classes to go before graduating in December.
Maciel’s confidence and newfound purpose have clearly shaped The Trims’ evolving sound. Defending his push to get the band playing to a click track, he says the move only served to make The Trims tighter—elevating their level of play. With each Trims album, Maciel says, he has tried to one-up himself.
“This is fun for me,” he says. “But the other part of it is business. Let’s either go all the way or not do it at all.”
Maciel is certainly the driving force in the band—drummer Brady calls him “the Trim”—but the singer praises the work ethic of Brady and bassist Sharp, the newest member of the band. Maciel says the two often slave over their interplay, taking the time to ensure that the Sharp’s notes hit at the same time Brady is stomping down on his kick or punching his snare.
At the moment, Maciel says, The Trims are a well-oiled machine blessedly free from ego. “It’s not about us,” he says. “It’s about the song.”
Of course, that’s what all musicians say: It’s about the music, man…
But as Maciel looks back on his life, perched on a stool at Hyde Park Lounge, he seems genuinely content—or almost content, as wisps of that little dark cloud swirl faintly in the back of his head.
“There’s still a little a part of me that feels like I’m a little kid in my dad’s suit,” he says.
Then again, things are good right now.
He’s riding high from a recent midweek show at San Francisco’s Elbo Room, where The Trims drew the bulk of the crowd. Maciel recalls how one of his idols, Tom Petty, defined making it: “Do something you really like, and hopefully it pays the rent. As far as I’m concerned, that’s success.”
While The Trims may not be paying rent with their guitars just yet, Maciel is happy just to do what he loves, on his terms, finding appreciation. “The fact that I can play a show and a few hundred people show up? I’m fired up about that,” he says. “It’s a victory in itself if anyone shows up.”