Can acoustic guitars sound heavy? Five minutes of the Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela will prove that the answer is, definitely. Ex-thrash-metallers turned Dublin street buskers turned global critical darlings, on their breakout 2006 self-titled album they pulled off an astounding feat: They made "world music" seem cool to the rest of us. An arresting blend of rhythms from both sides of the equator, tango skips by flamenco, meets a little classical picking , and then crashes head-on into a weirdly epic riffage courtesy of Anthrax and Slayer.
In homage to the group's metal roots, the album even included covers of "Stairway to Heaven" and Metallica's "Orion." Anchored by the Gabriela's percussive banging on the body of her guitar, it may be the world's first band to claim equal influence from both the music played on Mexico's public buses, and Testament and Slayer.
Rodrigo y Gabriela play tonight at the Fillmore Miami Beach, their first appearance ever in Miami. I caught up with Rodrigo by phone last week, while he was preparing for the opening of the tour in Richmond, Virginia. The full Q&A follows after the jump.
Also, click here to read what the Miami New Times had to say about the group last week.
Details: Wednesday, August 13. The Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $30 through www.livenation.com
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New Times: So, I remember looking forward to seeing you guys play down here at the Langerado Festival in 2007, but you couldn't get into the States because of visa problems. What happened, and how were you able to finally clear that up for this tour?
Rodrigo: My name apparently matched with another name, you know? And basically they had to go through everything to make sure I wasn't the same guy.
A terrorist watch list or something?
Not a terrorist, just a guy who had some criminal records or something, you know? And they just had to go through every item to make sure I wasn't the same guy, and it took a while, but I’m clear now.
Your first band that you were in while growing up in Mexico City gets described as a thrash band. Is this accurate? What were you into growing up?
Yeah, that's right. It was thrash metal. We were pretty much -- my brother and myself -- into all the early Eighties thrash metal scene like Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax, and all those bands, and basically that’s what I started listening to.
Did you take any guitar lessons early on?
Not really, no never. I started picking up songs from the albums.
Do you remember some of those albums?
Yeah, exactly, I remember it was the first Metallica album, Kill Em All, trying to fix things up from the riffs. And then some glam rock, like Mötley Crüe and all those guys. But basically after we started listening to thrash metal, all the glam scene disappeared, thank God for my record collection! This was in, like, '83.
How old were you at that point?
I was born in '74, so 9, 10.
That's pretty young to start playing.
Very young… The first band I started when I was 15, 16.
What was the scene like there at that point?
It was pretty tough, you know? It was pretty underground. We were like, less than 10 bands playing metal in Mexico City, but pretty soon it grew up to a lot of bands because all the metal bands started going down there. The scene was big for the American bands. When Metallica went there for the first time, they played like five nights in a 30,000 capacity venue. And then all the bands started to go down. It was crazy.
But what about the local bands?
It was difficult. We had to try to -- the venues weren't very keen to open the doors to thrash metal bands, so our only hope was to support some of the bands that used to go there and play in little arenas or whatever. And that was kind of our goal, and we did support some bands.
A band called Reverend and … I don't even remember. Bands not very famous, but they were into the metal scene…. Metal Church, they were pretty big in the Eighties? Do you know them? They were kind of second generation, after Slayer and Metallica, and Anthrax, and all those. A lot of American bands came down. It was a good move for them as well, but it didn't last very long.
What happened to end the scene there?
The Latin rock scene started to grow, and it grew up very fast, and it was very different from the metal scene. So basically we were trying to sound very Americanized, but Mexico and all the rest of Latin American countries were playing some Latin rock, and that was strong. It was pretty difficult. So that's why we left. I left Mexico City around '98.
What about your brother with whom you were in the band? Did he leave then as well?
He stayed in Mexico City for a while and years later, he went to Europe and he started helping us out with this thing. He's still working with us now, not on stage. Now we are all back in Mexico, even my brother, and he's helping us with accounts and stuff.
When did you meet Gabriela and start playing music with her?
We met back then, 20 years ago, we were a bunch of kids. Gabriela had her own band, I had mine, and then a few years later she joined the band, and that's when we started playing together. We had kind of the same ideas, and same musical influences. And when we were in the band at the end of that time, it seemed that we had the same goal, musically speaking, and that's why we decided to go together.
What goal was that?
Just playing different styles. Even when we were playing rock, it wasn't within one sound just as a thrash metal band. It was nothing against the actual genre, but it was much more about something different, you know? We were trying to accomplish more goals, musically speaking, and get better playing guitar.
And then you started playing around the resorts in Mexico, right? The story is that you'd play metal songs on the acoustic guitars, and tell tourists they were ancient Mexican songs. Is that true?
That's true. The tourists -- these resorts were kind of old people, so they didn't care. The owners, they were never there. We played Slayer, Sepultura, and Metallica, a lot of covers. I don't really remember which ones, specifically. What we did is, if we knew some riffs to one of the songs, we linked that song with another riff, and then join it with another tune, nonstop.
Obviously though you have all these other influences besides metal, so where did those come from, growing up?
We always listened to different music growing up. There are obvious Latin rhythms that you can hear everywhere in Mexico on the public transport, but as well, my mom and Gabriela's families are very musical. And when we were kids we used to listen to jazz and flamenco and a little bit of classical. And Gabriela's family was into the Beatles and Rolling Stones, so we were pretty open-minded.
You said you taught yourself how to play guitar, though, so was it difficult to master the technique for say, flamenco, or any of the other styles you might touch upon?
The thing is, we don't have that flamenco technique or classical technique, so we just developed something in the middle, which in my case was based pretty much on those metal years. I think in Gabriela's case, it developed from a unique place, especially using the right hand, using the body of the guitar as a percussion instrument. We try not to follow any rules, basically.
Your last album had a lot of global music influences, but it's been said your live sets have been getting a lot more rock-oriented. At what point did you decide you were comfortable enough to go back to your roots, and why?
It was something that happened naturally. We didn't really plan it. You know, you feel more comfortable playing standard venues and playing rock festivals, because I suppose we come from there. You never know, that changes every now and then; maybe on the next album we play the other stuff.
How have your audiences reacted to the change?
Good; if they didn’t react to it well, we wouldn’t be playing these places. It was a natural process. We started this back in Europe when we were living there, and suddenly all the rock festivals were into getting us to play there. When the album came out in the States, it happened the same.
We weren't ever part of a world music festival or whatever, you know? We just didn’t belong to that part of the musical genres. We are happy -- I tell you sometimes things change, and maybe next album we play concert halls or whatever. That’s the good thing about our music, we can approach different venues and different styles of clubs depending on what we want do.
How far are you from finishing up your next album?
We are far, because we are basically gonna start…. We have written some new stuff, but from September onwards, we are gonna really work on it, get into the studio. We don't have a deadline, so we can take up to a year, you know? We need a break from touring as well. We are excited to work on the new album. We're excited every time we have time to write something new.
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Do you get to write on the road at all?
When it's possible, but it's not that easy, you know, to get the time to do so.
Are you planning any covers on the next album?
I don't know. We haven't decided that, but it doesn't look like it. When we decided to do the other two covers on the last album, it's something that came naturally. We didn’t plan it. This could happen this time, and maybe in the studio we just decide to throw one in there. But at the moment, we don't feel like doing it. We play a lot of covers, well not a lot, but we put a lot of references in our set, as a part of the show, and to play with people and all that. But to do a whole version, I don't know.