Rodrigo y Gabriela interview: Border Crossing
Fusing metal with flamenco-derived acoustic guitar work, Rodrigo y Gabriela have found a road to success through two very different musical worlds.
If you’ve already heard of Rodrigo y Gabriela, chances are that you know two things about them: one, they’re a Mexican male-female all-instrumental acoustic guitar duo, and two, they cover Led Zeppelin and Metallica songs.
On the basis of this information alone, you might be inclined to write them off as a novelty act. That would be a major mistake, for a number of reasons. First, their takes on Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Metallica’s “Orion” are dazzling examples of the art of reinterpretation. Second, they write their own material, too, which is just as engaging and as virtuosically played. Third, this isn’t some goofy attention-getting shtick; Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero may play nylon-string guitars, but they’ve been serious metal fans practically all their lives.
“I’ve got every Testament album in my iPod,” Rodrigo says, “and everything by Megadeth, Metallica and Overkill. That old metal stuff is still what I love listening to the most. Nu-metal seems forced to me.”
“My aunt was a Black Sabbath fan,” Gabriela recalls, “so I knew that music early on when I was starting to take guitar lessons. Then I discovered Metallica when I was 15, and when I heard them, I instantly said to myself, ‘This is what I want to play.’ ”
You probably wouldn’t expect an acoustic act to have metal in its blood, but then Rodrigo and Gabriela are making a career out of not meeting others’ expectations. Back in the Nineties, they were both members of a Mexico City thrash band called Tierra Acida, which nearly got signed to a major record label but fell apart before they could seal the deal. Instead of forming a new band, the two guitarists decided to completely reinvent themselves, trading their electric axes for acoustic ones and taking instrumental duo jobs in various seaside restaurants and hotel lounges. Eventually they left Mexico and moved to Europe, scraping out a living as street musicians in Dublin, Copenhagen and Barcelona. It was in those cities, over many grueling months of practice and performance, that Sanchez and Quintero forged a style all their own.
And what a style it is, mixing the harmonic sophistication of jazz with the aggressiveness of metal and a technical flash derived from flamenco. Rodrigo handles most of the high-speed finger-knotting lead parts, while Gabriela holds down the rhythm with a furious right-hand attack that sometimes makes her sound, and look, more like a percussionist than a guitarist. “Gabriela always loved the right-hand flamenco rhythms,” Rodrigo says, “but she never got them completely right, so she created her own thing, and she started really slapping the body of the guitar around.”
This eye- and ear-catching approach to the instrument attracted the attention of singer/songwriter Damien Rice, who invited the duo to be his opening act for a series of shows in Ireland. That turned out to be all the exposure Rodrigo y Gabriela needed; the gigs kept getting bigger and the labels came calling. Their latest studio disc, titled simply Rodrigo y Gabriela (ATO), is one of the most acclaimed guitar albums in recent memory, raising their profile even higher. In the fall of 2007, Sanchez and Quintero embarked on their first American tour as headliners. Shortly before their appearance at the Riviera Theater in Chicago, Guitar World caught up with them to find out how they put together such a multicultural chops fest.
GUITAR WORLD Let’s go back to the first band you both played in, Tierra Acida. Rodrigo, were you a guitarist in that group as well?
RODRIGO SANCHEZ Actually, I was the singer, but I already knew how to play guitar. I started playing very young. I never took any lessons—my family is very musical, and my older brother, who was the bassist in the band, taught me a lot. I picked the rest up from records. There was another guitarist in the band, but he left and Gabriela joined in ’93.