Mexican acoustic guitar rockers Rodrigo y Gabriela – Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero – are unlikely pop stars, no matter how rousing their live shows. Last year they rehabilitated the concept album with 9 Dead Alive, its songs inspired by enduringly influential historical figures – from pioneering Spanish guitarist Antonio de Torres Jurado (the token single, The Soundmaker) to abolitionist/suffragette Harriet Tubman, to Eleanor of Aquitaine, medieval ‘she-wolf’ and arts patron.
Sanchez felt that the instrumentalists needed a distinct angle, or narrative dimension, for their fifth album, and so he conceived 9 Dead Alive while reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel Crime And Punishment. “We just wanted to, in a way, add something different to the actual music we were writing at that moment – and we decided to pick these different personalities,” Sanchez explains.
“Gabriela picked the women and I picked the men. We had a long list. But we didn’t want to pick obvious things – we wanted to kinda introduce different personalities, so people from different cultures could learn more from them.” The vegan duo also penned a song for “animals and nature”.
Sanchez and Quintero met as teenagers at a cultural centre in Mexico City. Sanchez’ older brother worked there. The pair connected over their love of (hard) rock, becoming romantic and musical partners. Sanchez gigged in a metal band, Tierra Acida (YouTube ’em), and, being unimpressed by other guitarists, brought in his talented girlfriend. However, the group didn’t find traction.
Having resolved that Mexico City “sucked” for musos, Sanchez and Quintero set off for Europe. “We were unhappy, but it was because we were young and we thought happiness was somewhere else,” Sanchez laughs. “Now we know that that was not true – but back in the day we decided to look for it.”
Rodrigo y Gabriela randomly settled in Dublin, Ireland. It was all the braver since neither spoke English. They busked, and it was on the streets where they befriended Damien Rice. He invited Rodrigo y Gabriela to support him, and helped them network.
Rodrigo y Gabriela developed a unique sound: a mash-up of folk, flamenco rumba, jazz and blues played on classical guitars with the flamboyant intensity of heavy metal, Sanchez on lead and Quintero providing the rhythmic and percussive elements. In 2006 they broke through with their eponymous second album, complete with a Metallica cover. It topped the Irish charts.
Watch: Rodrigo y Gabriela – The Russian Messenger (Live In Studio)
Rodrigo y Gabriela soon generated buzz Stateside. Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer recruited them for the soundtrack to Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Sanchez aspires to take on more scoring, schedules permitting. “It’s interesting – we learned to work in a different way and we liked it.”
Rodrigo y Gabriela called time on their personal relationship in 2012. They now lead separate lives – and appreciate having space, their creative (and professional) dynamic less fraught. They finally matured, Sanchez suggests. “We are family – we know that our relationship was much more than the one we had, the ‘couple’ thing. We met when we were kids, so we’re kind of family. So [there’s] no dramas about it. Today we have a great relationship – and even now I think we respect each other more, for some strange reason!”
Sanchez is still “officially” based in Ireland but, following a stint in Barcelona, he’s been spending time in Oslo, Norway. Nonetheless, today Sanchez is speaking from Mexico, where he and Quintero are progressing on a hush-hush enterprise, “experimenting” with alternative genres.
“We are recording a different kind of project,” he discloses. “We’re not thinking of putting a new album out soon. But I just came up with different ideas that I presented to Gabriela of doing some collaborations with people that obviously I can not mention. I mean, some of these collaborations we are doing are with big names, and some others are not with big names, just friends – pretty much it’s just based on friends, collaborations, and [with] no record deals involved… We’re recording a lot of the songs remotely, with all these different musicians. We want to have all this material out – and then we’ll decide what to do with it.”
Rodrigo y Gabriela are increasingly into collabs. They cut Area 52 with a Cuban orchestra, and recently aired a remake of Spirit’s psy-rock Nature’s Way, featuring Norway’s Øystein Greni.
The prospect of new Rodrigo y Gabriela music should gratify their most powerful fan, Barack Obama. The guitarists encountered the US President when in 2010 they performed at the White House. “He was very, very, very nice and polite – and Michelle Obama was very, very nice, too,” Sanchez enthuses.
Rodrigo y Gabriela are returning to Australia to headline the ever-eclectic Byron Bay Bluesfest. “We’re really looking forward to go back,” Sanchez says. “It’s been two years now.” And punters can expect to hear 9 Dead Alive in all its conceptual glory. “We play probably seven out of nine pieces from that album.”
Rodrigo Y Gabriela play West Coast Blues N Roots Festival on Sunday, 29th March, Byron Bay Bluesfest 2015 on Saturday 4th & Sunday 5th April, followed by two headline shows in Melbourne and Sydney – details below.
Listen: Rodrigo y Gabriela – The Soundmaker
Rodrigo Y Gabriela Australian Headline Tour Dates
Tuesday, 7th April
The Palais, Melbourne
Tickets: Palais Theatre
Thursday 9th April
Sydney Opera House, Sydney
Tickets: Sydney Opera House