Rodrigo y Gabriela talk their unusual blend of flamenco and thrash metal
Most songs need lyrics to become popular. But don’t try telling that to the Mexican instrumental duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. “Music was here before language,” said Gabriela Quintero. “You don’t need words to tell people something true or to convey your real feelings.”
For proof, look to Rodrigo y Gabriela’s video plays on YouTube. Each clip has drawn between 300,000 and 1.7 million views, while the duo has attracted nearly half a million monthly listeners to their Spotify station. By adopting a thrillingly aggressive approach to dual, acoustic guitar music, the pair have been able to headline scores of tours around the world over the past 15 years. Their latest and sixth studio album, “Mettavolution,” is their first release in five years.
Nearly two decades ago, lead guitarist Rodrigo Sanchez and rhythm player Quintero devised a style inspired by the speed of thrash metal and the drama of traditional flamenco, with influences along the way swiped from samba, classical Spanish guitar and art-rock. Sanchez dominates the lead parts, using a conventional pick to pluck prickly melodies, while Quintero provides the brisk rhythm, informed by the bold strums of the Andalusian rasgueado technique. Rodrigo y Gabriela don’t simply play their instruments. They attack them, knocking and pounding on the wooden bodies of their guitars as if they were drummers. They’re just as assertive with their strings. They can pick at them like scabs, or rub them like deep-tissue masseurs, letting listeners feel the full, bruising texture of nylon against flesh.
Given the intense physicality of their music, Quintero said, “Rodrigo and I really need to take care of our hands. I put them in ice because it’s an anti-inflammatory.”
Quintero acknowledges that a key draw for their audience is the music’s velocity. “With up-tempo music, people can dance,” she said.
The force of the sound honors the duo’s strongest inspiration: thrash. Growing up in Mexico City, Quintero first heard rock through her mother, who loved Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and Jimi Hendrix. As a teenager, a friend exposed her to Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.” “It was like a romance,” she said.
Sanchez, also from Mexico City, learned about metal from his older brother, who was also a director of “La Casa De La Cultura” (House of Culture). The two guitarists met there when they were 15 and became romantically involved. (Seven years ago, they shifted to a pure work relationship, which, Quintero says, functions far better for them.) As a teen, Sanchez formed a metal band, Tierra Acida, which Quintero later joined. When that band broke up, the guitarists honed a portable, acoustic sound, which they brought to the resort clubs of Ixtapa. To attract international attention, they wound up relocating to Dublin, Ireland, though they spoke no English at the time. “Music is the international language,” Quintero said. “And Ireland is so musical.”
The duo’s all-instrumental approach turned off record companies, so they self-released their debut, “re-foc,” in 2002. Their second album, in 2006, proved a surprise hit, getting to No. 1 in Ireland, buoyed by radically refigured covers of Metallica’s “Orion” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It also got attention stateside, earning them showcases on top late-night talk shows. They’ve worked largely as a twosome since, though on their 2012 album, “Area 52,” they collaborated with the Cuban horn and string orchestra C.U.B.A. as well as Middle Eastern musicians.
The new album features half originals, with the other half given to a 19-minute take on Pink Floyd’s 1971 stoner classic, “Echoes.” They were drawn to the piece because “it’s the song that made Pink Floyd the band they became,” Quintero said.
While their version takes inspiration from David Gilmour’s more declarative interpretation on his 2008 recording “Live in Gdansk,” they rethought both his and the original’s approach, recasting Richard Wright’s classic opening piano ping to acoustic guitar, and speeding things up considerably. It was particularly challenging to find an acoustic equivalent to the song’s abstract middle part. “It was like a puzzle to come with a version that has the vibe of the original, but different,” she said.
The theme of “Echoes” fits that of their new album. “Roger Waters said at the time that we were disconnecting from our humanity,” she said. “With this music, we are trying to reconnect.”
To achieve that, Rodrigo and Gabriela regularly meditate. “We are both prone to anxiety,” she said.
It may be hard to find a clear connection between the duo’s manic music and the calm of meditation, but the guitarist says that while “for some people, meditation is quiet, we hear it in this music.”
Similarly, Quintero believes that the lack of lyrics in their songs allows listeners a wider range of interpretations. “Our music isn’t subject to any specific idea,” she said. “People can hear in it whatever they want.”
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