When David "Papi" Fimbres' mother was pregnant with him, she knew her child was special. A shaman told her so. She already had two children, but this one, she was told, would be born with profound spiritual abilities.
"I thought that was fucking awesome," says Fimbres over an afternoon beer at Lucky Lab in Northwest Portland, a wide smile stretching over his pudgy cheeks. "My mom always felt that. I'm three out of four, and all my siblings are crazy. They've all been to prison, they've been involved in murders, they've all done crazy shit. And I'm the one that's been completely away. It's not that I can't relate to them, but I'm so different from them. I've become my own entity."
Mystical powers would certainly help explain how the 32-year-old songwriter and multi-instrumentalist finds time to play in seemingly every band in Portland. At last count, he had 16 ongoing projects, ranging from his one-man drums-and-electronics outfit Paper/Upper/Cuts to Orquestra Pacifico Tropical, a nine-piece cumbia orchestra. Such is the creative drive of an artist for whom music has been both a shelter from his surroundings and, later, a link to where he came from.
Born in Los Angeles, Fimbres grew up near MacArthur Park, in a low-income, crime-riddled neighborhood. "I would hear gunshots, I would hear helicopters, and I thought that was normal," he says. But music was just as much a part of the landscape, blaring out of windows and from street corners. In his own home, too, Fimbres was inundated with different sounds, whether it was his father playing Santana and Pink Floyd records or his mom listening to Mexican rancheras on the radio. Even his brother, "a hardcore gangbanger," introduced him to Morrissey and the Pet Shop Boys. By the time Fimbres was 3 years old, his mother had enrolled him in free music and art courses at community rec centers, deliberately to protect him from the pull of the streets. "Growing up so poor, [music] helped me get away from that," he says, "and focus on being happy in the moment."
Typical of a kid who came of age in the early '90s, Fimbres' first bands were grunge-y Nirvana rip-offs. In 1999, Fimbres took a job in Portland, moving into a $250-a-month apartment and bringing along little more than a boombox and a backpack full of CDs. Within a year, he bought a drum kit, struck up friendships with the likes of Talkdemonic and Skylar Norwood, and started dabbling in Radiohead-inspired art-rock groups. But Fimbres admits that relocating to the Northwest left him reeling from culture shock. As he became ubiquitous in Portland's music scene, Fimbres began reconnecting with the heritage he left behind, incorporating Latin rhythms into the dance-party potpourri of O Bruxo and flourishes of South American folk into Paper/Upper/Cuts, not to mention playing straight-up Colombian cumbia in Orquestra Pacifico Tropical. "It was the only thing that kept me alive," he says.
It'd seem that, based on sheer probability, one of Fimbres' groups would've caught on nationally by now. But while several have been local favorites, none has ever toured beyond the West Coast or reached an audience outside Portland. That might change this year. In May, Sun Angle, the heat-scorched psych band he started in 2011 with fellow restless genius Charlie Salas Humara, releases its debut album, Diamond Junk. Produced by Menomena's Danny Seim, the record has the approval of one of Portland's most influential bands and a possible international distribution deal. It could end up being the most widely successful project Fimbres has ever been involved with.
And even if it isn't, Fimbres will keep playing. Because playing music is what he does.
"What I love about music the most is being on the spot," he says. "The immediacy, the intricacy, the love, the fear of it. It's all there. I guess I still continue playing…because I want to see how far I can go with it. Because itâs an endless possibility.â
SEE IT: Sun Angle plays Rontoms, 600 E Burnside St., with Summer Cannibals, on Sunday, Jan. 20. 9 pm. Free. 21kknd.