There seems to be a burning desire, if not a philosophy of sorts, that pilots Rodrigo y Gabriela - a constant hunt for adventure. Practically this manifests itself not in the pursuit of fame, success, money or stability but rather a pursuit of the new, the unexpected, and the unknown, wherever that may lead. It is precisely that yearning that's gotten them to where they are today. No avaricious ambitions, no obsequious kowtowing to record labels or producers, just a simple, earnest statement sums it up: The adventure was pretty much our goal." These are the very first words uttered to me by Rodrigo Sanchez, the melodious one in the group, and they set the tone for the rest of our conversation, and indeed for their entire musical career. So simple, yet so poignant, this mantra has carried Rodrigo y Gabriela from the depths of obscurity to the worldwide spotlight. Of course, having face-melting chops and a unique sound concocted from an array of assorted influences didn't hurt either.
However, this adventure-seeking behavior is not just the product of youthful intoxication, but rather a way of life that still absorbs the fast-fingered Mexican guitar duo. As youths this behavior dragged them precariously across Europe from their home in Mexico City with little more than their classical guitars strapped to their backs and eventually took them all the way to the top of the Irish charts and beyond.
Once again it takes them in a new direction with their latest recording, 11:11 (released September 8 on ATO), an album dedicated to their biggest influences that manages to shatter all expectations of what a Rodrigo y Gabriela album sounds like. 11:11 is an adventure, taking you through a number of twists and turns, exploring the eclectic roots that influenced them via many previously unexplored avenues. With what almost seems like a disdain for monotony, one can only wonder what quantum leap to parts unknown the duo will make next.
From Humble Beginnings
You've probably heard it a thousand times before, the same old rags-to-riches story; a musician homeless on the streets with the entire world seemingly against them, but after years of hardships and struggles, a tenacious desire for success and an unbreakable will eventually carries them to the top. Touching, I know, but this one's a bit different.
For Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero the story begins with all the key ingredients for that quintessential rags-to-riches story - humble beginnings and of course, undeniable odds stacked against them - but that's not what makes this story so damned interesting.
Growing up in Mexico City, that country's pinnacle metropolis of culture and arts, Rodrigo and Gabriela were exposed to music from an early age. As teenagers the two developed a keen love of music and eventually met when Gabriela joined Rodrigo's thrash metal band, Tierra Acida (Acid Earth). With ambitions of becoming serious musicians, they applied to a music conservatory, but having had almost no proper musical training both were denied entry. And so they continued their affair with Mexico City's rock scene. Yet opportunities were scarce, and success even scarcer. Years of unrequited pursuit left them frustrated and disheartened with their home city's music industry. So with about $1000 and no English skills whatsoever, the duo picked up and moved to Dublin, Ireland. Though it may have been by choice, the odds were certainly stacked against them, but Rodrigo y Gabriela weren't in music to play the odds.
It was all about the adventure. We didn't actually want to be part of a record label anymore, especially when we first went to Europe. We were in a backpacking situation but we were happy," says Rodrigo of their early excursion to Europe, with a much improved English vocabulary now. We were young and totally irresponsible; we weren't really worried about anything."
Success in the music world had eluded them in Mexico for so long one might see this escape to Europe as a possible last chance at making it big, but was that really the case?
Not really," explains Rodrigo. It's weird, we didn't really think about being famous. It was kind of the opposite. We went to [Europe] because we didn't make it in Mexico. We had a band for so many years and we wanted to quit. When we left Mexico City for Europe we thought that was the end of our relationship with the music industry."
But serendipity had different plans. After several years of aimlessly drifting through Europe, from Dublin to Copenhagen to Barcelona, the duo received a call from one-time busking friend Damien Rice. Rice, an already well-established musician throughout Ireland, invited them back to the Emerald Isle as a supporting act at the Oxegen Music Festival in 2005. From there, they went on to achieve fame all over Ireland, and eventually the world, culminating in the debut of their second studio album, the self-titled Rodrigo y Gabriela, which hit #1 on the Irish charts. So much for ending their relationship with the music industry! Hey, that's life," jokes Rodrigo in retrospect.
These days success is no stranger, playing venues all over the world such as the main stage at this past year's Bonnaroo, but Rodrigo never forgot the significance of those humble days busking in the streets of Europe.
Well, both are actually pretty interesting experiences. You play Bonnaroo, but when you have a long career you can play shows like that so many times. But busking is like a totally different way of living. It's not just the playing; it's a learning experience," says Rodrigo. At Bonnaroo you'll learn but in this world you need to learn how to hold onto the things worth living [for]. Seeing the question in a wider sense I think both situations give you a lot to learn. Just thinking about Bonnaroo, though, it has certain connotations like making a lot of money, but that's really not enough. You also need to think about the different pieces in life, and in that case busking could be more important."
A Sound All Their Own
One thing that often surprises people is the lack of musical training possessed by Rodrigo y Gabriela. In spite of this lack of training, these bards used their background as metal guitarists and Latin heritage to carve out their own unique sound, not to mention a highly virtuosic technique. Anyone who's seen them live can attest to the speed of Rodrigo's fingers and the hypnotic, rhythmic gyrations of Gabriela and her guitar.
Rodrigo Sanchez by Rod Snyder
We didn't have any proper training; we weren't accepted to music school. We basically learned everything from rock & roll and from where we grew up," says Rodrigo. We mixed these different styles and rhythms and that's what changed our playing. And that's something unique in a way, regardless of how good or how bad we are... And then you have those metal [influences] mixed with all the Latin styles we have in our blood. It kind of gives [our playing] this metal fusion."
Listening to their music these influences are immediately apparent. Of course, the sheer speed of Rodrigo's playing could have come from almost nowhere else than thrash metal. And any remotely worldly person can pick up on the Latin rhythms and chord changes so eloquently strummed out by the lovely Gabriela on her luscious classic guitar. Being from Mexico and formerly from a thrash metal band, it's not surprising that these are the two main ingredients in their music, but the concoction is not quite so simple. Elements of jazz as well as classical and a gamut of other genres are constantly peeking their heads up in their blend. As early as 2003 the duo created their own inimitable arrangement of Dave Brubeck's jazz classic Take 5" on their first studio album, Re-Foc. On 11:11 several of the tracks are dedicated to jazz and classical musicians, such as John McLaughlin and Astor Piazzolla. Still, though they decidedly avoid labeling their music as any one genre, instead opting to simply dub it 'fusion music,' it's quite odd hearing all these different influences laced into the soft, supple tone of nylon string guitars, and yet the mix feels rather natural.
There are certain complexities about the duo's music that tend to pique the interest of the academic musician - certain chord progressions, melodies and techniques - that make one think this music could only have been based on years of studying music. Yet astoundingly, none of their music is based on theory.
Not anything, and if you asked someone like [James] Hetfield [Metallica] he'd probably answer the same thing," says Rodrigo. Metal music is sometimes underrated, but at the same time it's pretty complex to write that kind of music. And because we started to write music in that kind of genre, listening was the only way to learn. From my understanding, we feel a lot of [our current] music is the same way as we did it in a metal band, just listening to the songs and obviously the sound treatment."
Instead of using any kind of theoretical construct as a template, their writing process is much more organic.
Normally, the way it happens nowadays and for the last few years, is basically I just play around and I come up with a melody," explains Rodrigo. Once I'm happy with a melody I go to [Gabriela] and I play it for her and if she likes it she'll start to work with it by adding the rhythm. Once we have that main thing going we then talk about the piece together, and if there's something that has to be done that's more melody based then I work on my own and then I come back. It also works the other way around; if there's something that has to be done with harmonizing whatever I'm playing then she takes the piece away to work on it."
A Tribute To Their Heroes
Keeping in line with their operating principles, 11:11 is a whole new direction for the duo.
The recording process and approach was totally different," explains Rodrigo. There was a goal and we didn't want to do the same kind of thing as the second part of the first album, so the sound had to be different. So, of course, the recording process had to be different. The music itself is based on, to be honest, something we've always wanted to do. So, we decided to depart from our normal thing and do this album as kind of tribute album."
Each song on 11:11 is dedicated to a different musician or band that influenced Rodrigo y Gabriela over the years. These influences are vast and rather eclectic, ranging from classical musicians such as Michel Camilo in the song Santo Domingo" to metal hero Dimebag Darrell [Pantera] on the song Atman" to rock gods Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd on the songs Buster Voodoo" and 11:11," respectively.
It was a long process, but in some of the pieces you can hear the reference directly to the artist we were paying homage to, but in some others you can't really. But we were thinking about them, so certain aspects will be very similar [to the artists], such as a solo or whatever," says Rodrigo. Because of this I think there is a massive difference between [this album and the last two], both in the technical aspects and composition-wise. In general, the album is more compact and it has the feel of being a proper concept album."
And what a masterful job they did. This album really lets you get in touch with their roots. It allows you to see, from a musical standpoint at least, where they are coming from. For the avid Rodrigo y Gabriela fan it's more than just a good listen; it serves as a beacon of enlightenment. It's kind of like eating a delicious dish where you can't quite pinpoint the ingredients and then having the master chef come up to you and divulge the recipe.
The album though, as Rodrigo illuminates, is not merely a departure from their last two albums conceptually, but aesthetically as well.
Rodrigo y Gabriela by Chris Strong
This album relies a lot more on dynamics and it's more colorful in general. I think the fact that we incorporated different sounds like strings and a little bit of percussion that's very subtle, as well as bringing in Alex Skolnick [Testament, Tran-Siberian Orchestra] and Strunz & Farah and songs like Logos" [dedicated to Al Di Meola] and Chac Mool" [dedicated to Jorge Reyes] which have a lot of arpeggios, is something that we didn't do before."
Rodrigo y Gabriela have become known from their first two albums for their raw, unadulterated sound of meshing nothing more than two classical guitars, with the occasional drum or violin as a supplement. Yet on 11:11 they changed that aesthetic a bit by adding electronic effects to the guitars and even a bit of tweaking after the actual recording process. Working with producer John Leckie, the mastermind behind such works as Radiohead's The Bends and My Morning Jacket's Z, this comes as no surprise. However, these new twists were not the doing of Leckie, according to Rodrigo, but in fact their own divination.
John Leckie came down to the studio [and] we recorded eight tracks, but we didn't like it. We had different ideas," he says. John wanted to do a similar sound to the first album, and what he recorded sounded exactly the same. And you know, I'm not particularly fond of the sound of the recording of the fist album."
But, in typical Rodrigo y Gabriela form, they kept exploring.
After eight tracks we just called it a day and he went back to England and we re-recorded the whole thing together without John. We just kept one track that we did with John and the rest was totally new and we had to start from zero," explains Rodrigo. It was great. We came [up] with a completely different approach that was our idea. And John wasn't going to say no anyway knowing that we were going to mix the album with Colin Richardson, well known for [producing] all these metal bands through the years [Machine Head, Slipknot, Napalm Death]. So, I tried to approach the album in the same way a metal band would have."
So, what can we expect from Rod y Gab in the future?
Well, I don't know. Definitely you won't see the same exact thing, because that's the idea - to make a whole new approach for this album and not to repeat the first one," says Rodrigo. The first one was pretty successful and sold a lot of copies all over the world. A lot of artists just try and find that formula and repeat it, and I'm sure this [new] formula won't last for two years until after the next album is done. We want to take a risk and change the whole thing. I think [11:11] in general is getting great reviews and people are liking it, but whether this album sells more or less than the last one, I'm sure we're going to make a lot of changes for the next [album]."
Rodrigo y Gabriela are on tour now; dates available here.