YOU COULD say it’s a sort of homecoming for Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero. The guitar-picking Mexican duo are back in their adopted country, where they will take the stage in front of a warmly welcoming crowd at Electric Picnic tonight; for most of their loyal Irish fans, it’s as though they’d never left, writes KEVIN COURTNEY
That’s because the pair have upped sticks and moved back home to Mexico. Having lived and worked here for the past eight years – conquering the world along the way – the pair have settled in the sun-drenched beach resort of Ixtapa, on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Well, given the summers we’ve been having lately, you couldn’t really blame them, could you?
“We love this country [Ireland]; we lived so many experiences here, and we learned so much here, not just for the fact that our career took off here, but for a lot of other things,” says Gabriela Quintero, the rhythmic half of the band. “Just the fact of going to live in another country, without a career. It is nostalgic to come back. And also knowing that there’s been a recession going on, it’s changed so much. When we first came here it was changing so much, it was getting wealthier and wealthier. When we were playing in the street, people would come up and invite us to open these new galleries, a new company opening, da da da, so we lived here through this transition, it was a whole life, so it feels great to come back here.”
Ireland, says Gabriela, is where it all started for them, so for them it’s only appropriate that they’re launching their new album, 11:11, here; tonight’s slot at Electric Picnic is by way of wetting the baby’s head, as it were. You suspect, though, that it would have happened for this prodigiously talented pair no matter where they were based. When these two fresh-faced, naive troubadours landed on Irish soil at the turn of the century, they had no idea where they were headed. They had first met while playing in thrash metal bands in their native Mexico City; when their bands broke up, they sold their electric guitars, bought two cheap classical guitars, and started playing in bars and restaurants around the resort of Ixtapa. As customers sipped their margaritas or ate their enchiladas, little did they know that the nice-looking duo in the corner were gently plucking tunes from Metallica’s Kill ’Em Alland Slayer’s Reign In Blood.
Swapping the sunny, easy life in Ixtapa for a hard graft in damp old Dublin gave them a cold dose of reality, but there was a master-plan of sorts at work.
“It’s exciting because we always liked to travel, even since before we became musicians, really, since we were kids,” says Rodrigo, the melodic half of the duo. “I wanted to travel around the world and get to see different cultures. Travelling and having the chance to do this around the world has taught me a lot as a person. On the musician side, of course, as well, but I think it’s more important to be a better person than a better musician.”
It didn’t take too long for word to get out about these two Mexican metalheads delivering killer licks on acoustic guitars, and by 2006 Rodrigo y Gabriela were an established fixture on the worldwide festival circuit. Their self-titled album from that year, featuring a mix of original tunes and instrumental covers of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heavenand Metallica’s Orion, sealed their international standing; today, they’re a world-reknowned act, admired by metalheads and indie kids alike, respected by musos for their virtuoso playing, and highly regarded for their ability to smash musical and cultural barriers with a few well-aimed hammer-ons. They’ve been filed – inaccurately, they say – under world music, but whatever label you put on it, there’s no doubting the world-class talent at work here.
In 2007, amid a busy schedule of touring and promotion, the pair made the decision to move back home to Mexico.
“I think it was the right time to move back home,” says Rodrigo. “And it was a little easier when the last album got released in the States. Mexico is closer, and we started going back first as a holiday. We’d have three weeks off from touring in the States and we’d say, Ireland or Mexico? Mexico. So it was closer and convenient. But once we went back and we saw our families and went to this part of Mexico by the beach [Ixtapa], we decided to move there.”
“It is lovely,” says Gabriela, “but you know, us humans, we do complain a lot. The temperature there is 35 degrees, so we complain about the heat. We’re never happy. It’s been a lot of success, but with a lot of success comes a lot of crazy shit. A lot of work, and little time to just write and play and explore more music. You kind of have to be careful with all your time.”
The pair have built their own studio in Ixtapa, and it was in this idyllic work setting that they spent six months writing and recording the new album. This may come as a disappointment to some of their fans, but there are no Zep, Metallica or Anthrax covers in evidence on 11:11(Eleven-eleven is how you say it or, in Spanish, Once-Once).
Instead of covering the work of other musicians, Rodrigo and Gabriela have written 11 originals, citing a different musician as the inspiration for each tune. Opener Hanumanis inspired by Carlos Santana, while Buster Voodootakes Jimi Hendrix as its touchstone.
Other names on this roll call of greats include Al Di Meola, Paco De Lucia, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and former Pantera guitarist, the late Dimebag Darrell. Other, possibly less familiar names include Argentine bandoneon player Astor Piazzola, Israeli oud players Le Trio Joubran and cult Mexican composer Jorge Reyes, who died earlier this year.
“It is very truthful for us because all these people have influenced us, among thousands more maybe,” says Gabriela. “The first album, we wanted to pay tribute to Metallica and we wanted to pay tribute to Led Zeppelin. When we first came to Europe, people got the idea that because you were Mexican you must play Mexican music and wear a sombrero, which is a crazy, non-objective view. If you come from the States, you won’t think that guy is gonna be a cowboy and he’s just gonna play country music. So we wanted to show that musical tastes in Mexico for middle-class kids is the same as everywhere in the world.”
Anyone going to a Rod y Gab gig for the first time might be puzzled to see audience members giving the metalhead devil’s horn salute, but wherever they go, the band can always rely on a core fanbase of metalheads. And, says Gabriela, they’re not just here for the Metallica covers.
“We have the rock audience, but we also have a very diverse audience. It goes from the granny to the very young boys to the teenagers; it covers all this range of different ages, which I think is great. I think the audience that goes to our gigs is just music lovers, from all sorts of genres in music. But wherever we go, we always have a little bunch of metalheads who go ‘Yeaeurrrgh!’”
“Speaking as a metalhead, we are music lovers,” insists Rodrigo. “If you were talking to a real metalhead, he would be into different kinds of music, no doubt. It’s pretty common to go to a Paco De Lucia concert and see a lot of metalheads as well.”
There is a treat for metalheads in store, however, in the form of a guest slot from Alex Skolnik of New York band Testament, according to Rodrigo one of the “five gods” of thrash metal that includes Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth.
“As teenagers, we loved those bands. And we loved Alex Skolnick’s playing. We thought he was incredible player and we worshipped him. He walked off Testament and he did a jazz trio. And he did all these versions, metal, classic tunes in a jazz version with a trio. And one day he wrote to our website, said, I’m Alex Skolnick, blah blah blah, I love your stuff. Wow! So someone hooked us up, and one day at a gig in New York, we invited him to jam with us on stage. Since then, we have become friends, and we invite him to do a tribute with us to another amazing guitarist.”
“Now he’s back with Testament,” says Rodrigo. “The metal thing is kind of happening again, with these new bands, so the old bands are coming back and showing them how its done.”
The duo have also added some more sounds here and there to their basic two-guitar attack, including percussion, piano, oud, sitar and – steady on, there, metalheads – electric guitar. But don’t expect a return to the ear-splitting metal mayhem of the pair’s teenage years – the album already goes up to 11 without any need for steel. When Rod and Gab bring out their arsenal of acoustic guitars at Electric Picnic tonight, expect an aural assault that will make your average metal band sound like Peter, Paul and Mary. Welcome back, Rod and Gab – you’ll always be Irish in our eyes.
- Rodrigo y Gabriela play the Electric Arena at Electric Picnic tonight at 11pm. 11:11is out today
Inspired by Jorge Reyes, Mexican composer who fused electronica and traditional music from around the world, including pre-Hispanic music, with his band Chac Mool. He died of a heart attack in February aged 57.
Rodrigo:“He had an amazing show – you’d see these these Aztec dancers and stuff – it was incredible.”
Gabriela:“He was this big cult, arty, mysterious act, he played in the University of Mexico and he played there every year on the Day of the Dead, and it was a tradition to go there. We all grew up with that and it was shocking that he died.”
Inspired by Argentinian tango composer and virtuoso bandoneon player Astor Piazzola.
Rodrigo:“The bandoneon is like an accordion, but it’s Argentine, for playing the tango.”
Inspired by former Panteraguitarist Dimebag Darrell, who was shot dead onstage in 2004 while performing with his new band, Damageplan. His killer, Nathan Gale, was a Pantera fan who may have been motivated by anger at the break-up of his favourite band.