By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
By Karli Evans
By Jose D. Duran
By Pablo Chacon Alvarez
Rodrigo Sanchez really wants you to like heavy metal.
"Sometimes people don't even have a minute for metal," the guitarist notes. "They think it's too loud, or whatever stupid thing they think."
As half of Rodrigo y Gabriela — the dynamic Mexican duo who became international world-music superstars with their self-titled album of aggressive acoustic guitars and irresistible Latin rhythms — Sanchez hopes to turn a few sedate world-music fans into headbangers. "It isn't part of our statement or anything," he insists, "but in a way, it works that way."
It's not uncommon for rock and pop musicians to turn their fans on to more esoteric music or music from other parts of the world. In the Eighties, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel brought African sounds into their work. Electronic acts such as Gotan Project, Squarepusher, and Kruder & Dorfmeister have educated their fans in elements of tango, jazz, and many other unfamiliar sounds. But Rodrigo y Gabriela are reversing the flow.
Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero met as teenagers in their native Mexico and bonded over a love of carefully crafted, masterfully played metal. They performed together in a band called Tierra Acida, inspired and heavily influenced by their devil-horned heroes. When that group stalled out, however, the members began playing in hotels and lounges to scrape by.
At first, Sanchez and Quintero didn't know the traditional Latin American music that tourists and hotel owners expected to hear, so they just played what they knew: metal. When guests asked what they were playing, the two young musicians simply lied, telling people the Sepultura and Metallica songs they'd arranged for their acoustic guitars were ancient Mexican songs they'd unearthed.
After getting all they could out of the Mexican resorts, the two headed to Europe to try their luck. "It was an accident, really," Sanchez says of their 1998 relocation to Dublin, Ireland. "We wanted to go to Europe, and a friend of ours was living there for three years. She said it was a beautiful place, the people were friendly, and they liked music. We didn't know much about it. We were superignorant. We went there and we didn't know anyone; we thought the place was charming, and they welcomed us." The combo busked around Dublin and traveled throughout Ireland, earning quite a reputation in the small, musically rich country.
Ever the nomads, however, Sanchez and Quintero soon grew restless and decided to explore the rest of the continent. "We left Ireland and went to Denmark, Spain, and France," Sanchez recalls. "We'd only spend three or four or five months in one place. It was like two years of busking. We met a lot of people. We had a lot of crazy fucking experiences."
During those years, the two friends began to hone their skills and perfect their craft. Quintero developed her trademark, percussive rhythm style, drumming on the body of the guitar as she played, and Sanchez further polished his frenetic, precise leads. "That was probably the time we practiced the most guitar ever," he says. "We were playing every day like fucking gypsies, and it was great. And then we went back to Ireland and things changed."
At that time — thanks, in part, to support and encouragement from singer-songwriter Damien Rice — Sanchez and Quintero began to tour and think seriously about pursuing the business of music as well as the art. In 2003, Rodrigo y Gabriela's debut album, Re-Foc, was released, followed by a live album the next year, which included faithful, loving takes on Metallica's "One" and Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." The live effort did a better job of showcasing the act's exceptional talents but still failed to earn the international acclaim that 2006's Rodrigo y Gabriela finally won.
Recorded with acclaimed British producer John Leckie — whose hands have touched records as diverse as Pink Floyd's Meddle, the Stone Roses' brilliant debut, Radiohead's The Bends, and My Morning Jacket's Z — the self-titled album revealed a truly unique musical phenomenon. While covers of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" and Metallica's "Orion" made the album readily accessible to rock fans, the world-music community jumped on the Latin rhythms, which drew from classical, flamenco, tango, Mexican folk styles, and, less obviously, metal.
"That album was a reflection of us back then," Sanchez points out. "When we started playing this music, we were playing in theaters. If you hear the album without going to our concerts, you could think you're going to see a duo playing in a seated venue, but we're too crazy for that kind of crowd." The widespread appeal of the album, however, had the act selling out theaters around the world.
As they became more confident and drew larger crowds, Sanchez and Quintero began peppering their sets with more metal and rock elements, sometimes taking the largely unsuspecting audience on extended journeys through Metallica's back catalogue. Getting back to their roots significantly influenced their ideas about their next record, which is still in the works.
"Now we feel free to do whatever we like," Sanchez enthuses about the act's new direction. "It's naturally coming back to the rock. The metal thing hasn't ever really left our sound, but the music we're working on for the new album — without a second thought — sounds more like metal, with hints of Latin music. It's the other way around. It probably won't be successful, but who cares? We feel we'll be closer to what we truly are."
Returning to their rock roots is also part of the personal growth the pair has experienced through the whirlwind success of the past couple of years. "I've learned how not to give a lot of value to things that aren't worth it," Sanchez notes. "I don't look at the reviews, and I don't get involved in the industry. I stopped being obsessive and got older and more mature — let's just say older. I'm just trying to enjoy it." Part of the ability to enjoy and care a little less about critical response comes, of course, from being in a far better financial situation than either of the musicians ever dreamed possible. "We have our space in the industry, and we're in a financial situation where we can decide what to do and what not to do. We have to take advantage of that."
For Sanchez, regaining his center and focus required going back home to Mexico. "I love Ireland. It's a very musical country," he muses, "but they have a lot of money now and it's changing. Now you go there and every cute old pub is all new and trendy, and I don't like that. I think it's losing a bit of its character and personality, and it's a shame. These people are naturally organic, kind of hippie people, but now they're wearing suits and trying to look trendy, and they look funny trying to be trendy. Even my Irish friends agree."
Sanchez now calls the western Mexican beach town of Ixtapa home. Though the village, just north of Puerto Vallarta, sees its share of tourism, it's still admittedly sleepier than Dublin — and far from trendy. "Ixtapa is still a small town," Sanchez insists. "If I need some strings or something, I cannot get them in Ixtapa, and that's kind of good. I love going on tour, because I can get what I want abroad, but I can come back here and it's this little town."
Even with the precipitous rise to international fame and the resulting constant touring and intensive practicing that Sanchez and Quintero endure, they still maintain their friendship. "We have a lot of respect toward each other," Sanchez says. "It might have been different 10 years ago, but we don't really get into trouble anymore. We don't fight when we're writing music. We know that the most important thing is to go back to the times when we were writing for the sake of writing, when we didn't have any particular goals and weren't trying to make it." Beyond music, the two also share a passion for ecological issues, which they work on together and independently. "We have the same views," Sanchez explains. "That helps to not fight or get caught up in stupid shit."
Although lifestyle changes and concerns outside of music cause Rodrigo y Gabriela's sound to change and evolve, lovers of the act's more traditional songs needn't worry. Sanchez says that even after traveling all over the world and refocusing on heavier music, there will still be plenty of Latin American influence in their new work.
"The Latin thing is always gonna be there," the virtuoso says excitedly, "because we're fucking Latin people."