Earlier this month, tributes to Miami-bred, New York-based musician Kristopher Pabon began piling up on his Facebook page. Some were from old friends who didn't know he was losing his third battle with cancer; others were from close friends who had seen him recently. At the age of 37, he passed away April 2 in a Bronx medical facility just outside the center of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Almost all of the messages included nods to his charm and talent. Small in stature, Pabon had a big personality and huge musical talent. He inspired his contemporaries with his work in bands such as Pygmy, Down Home Southernaires, and Animal Tropical.
Pabon created Pygmy, recruited its members, co-wrote songs, booked shows and tours, and was the band's chief promoter. From there, the band names changed, but the same members played in each: Jorge Rubiera, Max Johnston, Jose Castello, Jarrett Hann, and Edward Adames.
“He’s the only member to play every single gig we ever had,” Rubiera says. “Certainly, he is the core of the band. The names and songs changed, but it was always the same guys — it was always the six of us."
Rubiera met Pabon in the late 1990s while studying photography at South Miami Senior High School. He played Pygmy demos for Rubiera on a MiniDisc player and then recruited him after graduation.
“Pabon was a mischievous and charming personality," Rubiera says. "He drew people to him and managed to make miracles happen with basically zero resources. Musically, his instinct was to create these strange little angular melodies that jangled, and, occasionally, heavy fuzz-distorted clangs that felt extremely familiar. His parts were probably the thing you’d miss most if they were removed from the mix because they sort of held together the identity of the song."
The band members spent nearly a dozen years of late nights building those songs and promoting them on many South Florida stages and around the nation on tours where they sometimes slept on front porches to play for small crowds.
"This process mutated each of us individually but also squashed us all into one strange creature. It’s hard even now, almost a decade later, to extricate myself from that identity," Rubiera says. "Kris was the catalyst that got the whole machine running and, to a large extent, kept it running, and I’m extremely thankful for that."
Many years before he performed on a stage in those beloved bands, Pabon met one of his first bandmates, Mitchell Luna, in his fourth-grade art class.
“We noticed that we were the only two kids drawing skulls and Mortal Kombat fatalities,” recalls Luna, laughing. After that, they were inseparable. “We always shared the same strange, morbid sense of humor. We loved to passionately dislike things and poke fun at just about everything.”
They did enjoy a few things, like trading tapes of their favorite rock songs recorded off the radio. At sleepovers, they played Sega Genesis while watching horror and objectively bad movies.
They created their first band in middle school. "If you even want to call it that,” Luna says. To this day, the memory of a cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today” at a seventh-grade talent show makes him cringe. “It was still a necessary stepping stone for us both, I guess, as it served as a catalyst for what the next ten-plus years would bring.”
Luna’s younger brother Johann says many of his favorite childhood memories were at Pabon’s shows. “I felt like I've always known him, even right away,” Johann says. “He was witty and quick to come up with a joke. Very animated, like a human cartoon character. I wouldn't be me if I never met him; same for Mitchell. [Pabon was] part of the fabric of our personalities.”
Luna's and Pabon’s musical tastes diverged as they grew older, but they remained friends. In 2003, the two collaborated on a joke band, Animatronic Terror Noise, making silly grindcore songs with lyrics that were inside jokes. They played a few memorable shows at Miami’s now-long-closed venue the Alley. “We would come out dressed up as fairies, throw glitter and cereal in the crowd, as well as all sorts of inflatable creatures,” Luna recounts.
Luna says Pygmy, Pabon's first popular band, was “criminally underrated. They were too ahead of their time and would probably have seen a higher level of success if they emerged a decade later.”
Musician and performance artist Nick Klein agrees. “They existed before MySpace, before YouTube rips, before Bandcamp," he says. "It's insane to me that such an important and beautiful band existed in the collective memory of a bunch of teenagers and young adults.”
In a Facebook post, Klein wrote that the band changed his life in eighth grade:
“I still remember the first time I saw them perform at Ray’s Downtown Blues in West Palm Beach in 2001 and looking at my other two best friends in complete awe... I'd never seen a band with so much energy, delivering insane technicality and passion in performances.”
Most important, he wrote, “They were one of the first bands I had seen that wasn't a bunch of white dudes in dumpy band shirts playing trash. They had uncanny style and were an absolute explosive whirlwind to watch live. They attacked every performance I ever saw them play.”
Klein tells New Times that Pygmy and Pabon's other bands “were so good and existed in a time when you couldn’t carve out a lane outside of your immediate context. A couple of nonwhite dudes playing country or playing weird pop or, in Pygmy, playing baroque punk or something — it would’ve been so nice to see them have the [social media] tools that we have now to share.”
The two became friends, and Klein modeled his own efforts after Pabon’s. He describes his late friend as unbelievably talented, kind, and patient. “I wept for hours the other night listening back to recordings. Special group of guys. Kris was a special spirit."
In 2011, Thomas Kennedy’s former band Ice Cream linked up with Pabon’s Animal Tropical in New York for a tour and the release of the EP Just Between Us Girls. When Kennedy and his band moved to New York, they found themselves living in a squat house with Pabon and later roomed with him.
Kennedy recalls Pabon as a bit of a musical mentor.
“He was the type of guy that would be like, ‘You want to come with me to the bodega to get a cigarette?’ and somehow you'd find yourself three hours later at some bar with people you didn't know, having a good time,” he says. “And he was a virtuoso guitar player, like one of the best, and not only really good at playing but supertasteful as well. He wasn't one of those people who showed off his skills or anything like that. He really was just interested in making beautiful music and being as tasteful as possible.”
In recent months, Pabon was visited and cared for by friends, in particular former bandmate Jose Castello. Luna, Rubiera, Adames, and Johnston visited last month.
“I got to hang out with him for four more days," Luna says. "We talked about stories from the past, watched Butthole Surfers, Pantera, and Flaming Lips music videos, as well as clips from The Toxic Avenger and the Wishmaster films — I wasn’t lying when I said we liked bad movies. And I was able to set up video chats with various friends from all walks of life.”
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Even then, Luna says, Pabon's humor and charm remained intact. “He had a way of charming his way through just about any scenario.”
Rubiera says that when he visited, Pabon played a song they covered long ago, Soundgarden's “The Day I Tried to Live."
Pabon's friend Alice Danger wrote a touching Facebook tribute in which she called him her best friend.
"Everyone who knew and loved him. Muses and musicians, friends and family. From other cities, from other times. Some who couldn't make it physically still comforted him through phone calls and FaceTime chats. It was all meaningful and appreciated," she wrote. He was "still the same Pabon — reaching for his guitar (sick musician), conducting lessons (a beloved teacher), flirting and making the nurses laugh (oooohh that Pabon) — but still always Pabon."