Fiery latin-rhythm adventurers Rodrigo y Gabriela talk to Mark Hudson about their ambitious new album Area 52.
'When I go on stage to do my solo spot, I don’t know what the hell I’m gonna do,” says Gabriela Quintero of Rodrigo y Gabriela. “I just see what happens. It makes me nervous, but it gives the music an edge. Whatever we do, we have to keep the element of surprise.”
Has there been a more romantic musical story than that of the two Mexican heavy-metal aficionados – lovers as well as musical collaborators – who traded in their electric guitars and amps for a life of acoustic adventure on the road: blowing into Europe via Dublin, busking the streets, then setting festivals alight with their incendiary blend of metal-inspired riffing, jazz dexterity and latin rhythm. With stocky, pointy-bearded Rodrigo taking the lead, and clear-browed Gabriela more rhythmic and intuitive, their talents and personalities feel at once clearly defined and fused into one entity.
Even now, after sales of more than a million, when they’re headlining above personal heroes such as Robert Plant , they exude a sense of “beat” freedom. Dressing always in T-shirts and jeans, they look as though they’d be as happy getting to gigs by hitchhiking as by limo .
“For us, a gig isn’t about the artists, but about the total event,” says Rodrigo Sanchez. “It’s about the energy coming back to us from the audience. Sometimes when we get on stage, we’re so exhausted we know from the first few notes that our fingers aren’t working well. But the audience somehow understand that and accept it.”
Having undertaken an extraordinary range of collaborative projects, from albums with members of Metallica and Rage Against the Machine to the soundtracks of Pirates of the Caribbean and Puss in Boots, the pair have now embarked on their most unlikely project to date: the album Area 52.
Working with former Apple A&R man Peter Asher, known to an earlier generation as one half of Sixties vocal duo Peter & Gordon and hardly the most obvious choice of producer, they have reworked their best-known pieces with the backing of a full Afro-Cuban orchestra. Lush string and horn arrangements and rich, polyrhythmic percussion offset their signature wildfire picking. For an act whose raison d’être is the interaction of just two guitars, it represents quite a departure.
“It was supposed to be a fill-in album,” says Rodrigo. “But it became the most ambitious thing we’ve done. It opened our eyes to a lot of things, opened up paths we were maybe afraid of in terms of experimentation and collaboration.”
If their excursion into Afro-Cuban rhythm feels logical to an outsider – there is a strong latin inflection underpinning even their most straight-ahead riffs – it was a major turnaround for the pair themselves.
“This kind of music – salsa, whatever you want to call it – was all around us when we were growing up in Mexico, and, to be honest, we really hated it. It was one of the things that drove us towards thrash metal. But in Europe we heard these rhythms in a different way. I had a couple of latin-jazz tracks on my iPod, and I remember sitting in a hotel in Paris, and I suddenly thought of a way we could use these things.”
While you can imagine Area 52’s sumptuous latino fusion finding a substantial audience in America, he rejects the idea of it as an attempt to “break the States”, a territory where Mexicanness is seen very differently from the way it is in Europe. Here, a Mexican is an exotic figure; in America, he or she is probably the cleaner or the gardener.
“People in America see us a bit differently, because we came via Europe. When we went there, we thought the people coming to see us would all be Mexican. But now we can play a 10,000-seater venue in LA, and we won’t see a single latino face.”
Rodrigo doesn’t dismiss the idea that they may use vocals in the future , but the focus of their music remains their near-mystical personal and musical chemistry. Trading relatively simple phrases, while building remorselessly in speed and rhythmic complexity, the pair know how to goad an audience to a frenzy of excitement. But hasn’t their music lost subtlety through the obligation to deliver these crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics?
“Maybe slightly,” says Rodrigo. “But we never went to music school. We applied at the same time, and were rejected at the same time. So we can’t read music. We started in thrash metal, and we love that exchange of energy with the audience.” Yet, at the same time, the sense of simplicity and freedom with which they started out must be difficult to maintain under the pressures of international touring.
“The freedom of just having an acoustic guitar and being able to go and play anywhere, that disappears as soon as you start playing venues of even 200 people. The place you have to keep that simplicity and freedom is in your head. We’re not doing this for fame or money. We have a life we enjoy, and we’re very thankful for it. We just want to take people out of their suffering for a while – to heal them and ourselves.”
But surely the mere fact of being a couple who spend all their working lives together must present its own pressures.
“It’s a funny situation, but we’ve learned to deal with it,” says Rodrigo. “First of all we are best friends, and we respect each other’s space. Every night I close my eyes and listen to Gabriela’s solo spot. The way she plays is unique. I write the melodies, and she does something else with them.”
“We have to surprise each other,” says Gabriela. “We’re not tired of each other yet. It could happen. If it did we’d stop playing together for a bit. But there’s no sign of it, and we don’t think about it.”
Rodrigo y Gabriela play the 02 Academy, Glasgow, on Feb 21, then Manchester and London. 'Area 52’ is released on Rubyworks.