No one might have expected math rock (and its close relative post-rock) to become popular in a country like the Philippines; but in the 2010s, bands like tide/edit, Run Dorothy, and others began drawing crowds to venues like Route 196 with their odd time signatures, chiming guitars, and dynamic arrangements.

Among the local acts that rode this wave was Tom’s Story, an instrumental trio with Gabba Santiago on guitar. The band released a self-titled disc in 2016 but suddenly splintered in 2019 without a follow-up album. 

However, a tireless multi-instrumentalist like Santiago (who also played drums for Fools & Foes) couldn’t be kept silent for long. In December 2020, he released the single “Puzzle” under the moniker Gabba, with a music video showing him playing guitars, bass, and drums.

“Puzzle” sounds like a logical sequel to his previous band, but it’s more involved, with multiple layers of guitar and a renewed sense of focus. More singles followed until his full-length solo debut Recollections was released July this year. The 14-track album is the culmination of three years of “scrapped ideas, revisited songs, and re-recorded elements” in collaboration with co-producer Francis Lorenzo (The Ringmaster).

Gabba in article 1

Aia Solis Calvelo

Billboard Philippines caught up with Gabba after the recently concluded Recollections tour, prior to flying to Australia to perform at the first SXSW Sydney festival in October.

Billboard Philippines: After years of playing for several bands, what led to the decision to go solo and record music under your own name?

Gabba: I’ve always been creating songs that didn’t fall under my previous projects. They were like snapshots of my musical ideas, ranging from quick 10-second riffs to fully formed 4-minute songs, all stored on my computer. While I never released them, they were a personal archive of my creativity.

When it came to pursuing this solo venture, it just felt like the right time. Years of experience with past projects and session work had equipped me with valuable knowledge and confidence. I decided to formally acknowledge it as an ongoing solo project, providing a clear direction rather than letting it linger. In 2019, I began recording, but it was during the lockdown in 2020 that I truly immersed myself in ‘Gabba’ and brought it to life.

Billboard Philippines: How is Gabba different from your past music projects? The music on Recollections sounds more spacious but focused, and indulgent in a good way.

Gabba: The main difference for me lies in the total creative freedom I now have. It’s incredibly liberating. This time around, I’ve had the chance to step back and view the project from a more holistic perspective. Previously, I was hyper-focused on my specific role, whether it was drums or guitar. Now, I get to see the bigger picture.

From a technical standpoint, there was a newfound freedom. I didn’t initially have plans to perform these songs live, which meant I wasn’t restricted by the number of tracks or elements I could add. If a string section felt right, or if the song called for two drummers at the finale, I went for it.

This whole process has been a truly refreshing experience. I believe it’s during this time that my relationship with music has reached its deepest point.

Billboard Philippines: Were there any challenges in writing and recording Recollections, or was it easier because you made all the decisions?

Gabba: It was a blend of both, I’d say. Being the primary decision-maker streamlined the process, as it was mostly just me. However, when it comes to the actual music creation, I firmly believe it thrives in collaboration. There’s magic in making music with others; technology just gives us the option to go at it alone. As I delved deeper into the album, I realized the value of involving more ears.

Throughout this journey, Francis Lorenzo played a crucial role as my second set of ears. Having him was invaluable, especially because I tend to get carried away with recording. I vividly remember doing over 20 takes for a mere two-second part — Fran pointed out that takes 2 through 20 sounded nearly identical!

Billboard Philippines: Are you pleased with how Recollections has been received?

Gabba: It’s been an incredible journey! When Recollections finally saw the light of day, it was a mix of surreal and a touch of nervousness, to be honest (laughs). Sharing this vulnerable side of myself was both exhilarating and a little daunting.

Through conversations online and during the tour, I’ve had the privilege of hearing how Recollections has positively impacted them. Whether it’s been their travel companion, workday tunes, or simply a source of solace, it warms my heart.

Billboard Philippines: With key peers like Run Dorothy and tide/edit no longer active, do you feel like you’re on a mission to keep the math/post-rock sound alive locally?

Gabba: I definitely miss sharing the stage with them, and they have been an integral part of the musician I am today. But I think we’re alive (laughs)! We have AOUI, Trippy Oh!, Luncheon, and Shutter Life to name a few, and other artists from outside Manila like Amateurish and Turncoats.