Q&A: Rodrigo y Gabriela

Tad Hendrickson

By Tad Hendrickson

on 01.24.12 in Interviews

A pair of metalheads from Mexico City, Rodrigo and Gabriela became famous by taking that genre’s highly technical approach to shredding and adapting it for the acoustic guitar. Over the course of four studio albums and a handful of live records, their style has grown more cunning and precise. They’ve even branched out into soundtrack work, scoring films as diverse and decidedly un-metal as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Puss in Boots.

The two returned this month with Area 52, several of their old songs re-recorded and re-imagined with backing by a young 13-piece traditional Cuban orchestra named C.U.B.A., as well as guests like sitarist Anoushka Shankar, White Zombie drummer John Tempesta and bassist Carles Benavent, who has played with both Miles Davis and Paco de Lucia. The results are a full-on fusion of classic Cuban sounds with the duo’s singular guitar attack. The duo plans to bring C.U.B.A. on tour with them in support of the album.

eMusic’s Tad Hendrickson caught up with Gabriela Quintero in Montenegro, Mexicovia phone to get the lowdown on the new direction.

So, why go to Cuba to record?

It was just a sort of very personal dream we had. We both grew up in very musical families – not [a family of] musicians, but people who love music. In my family for instance, my granddad always listened to Cuban music. There is a big tradition betweenMexicoandCuba. So you grow up listening to this classic music with the big orchestra. For a long time, Rodrigo and I wanted to go toCubaand do something different. Not just go as tourists, but to go and play some music and learn something. We didn’t want to go to a school because then, to me, the magic is gone. The idea we had was to do our music with a Cuban orchestra that plays in a very traditional way – well, as traditional as you can while playing our music! So it’s really a fusion more than traditional, and that’s what we did.

How did it go, the process?

It flowed completely. We found the right sounds really spontaneously and organically. The pianist also made the arrangements for the orchestra. Then we met this guy Pablo who lives inScotland, but he’s Cuban so he knew both worlds. We recorded inCubafor 20 days. We’d play along with the musicians so they could hear our energy and then we would rerecord our guitar parts in our studio inMexico. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun.

I think of Cuba as a place where music is so interwoven into the culture.

Mexicoused to be that way, but not anymore, because there are a lot of different things to distract people. As a musician here, you kind of have to make a concerted effort not to be distracted by the other things that are going on at the same time. John Leckie, who produced our first album, did an album with [Senegal's] Baaba Maal, and he said that there, people sit around all day and play music. That’s not the case in this part of the world. They are distracted by mobile phones, all the video games, cable TV – they just take a lot of our attention.

It must have been different working with an orchestra when it is usually just the two of you.

Yes, it is! We love to play by ourselves, but we also like to do other projects. I think it’s important, because it plays with your brain. You can’t just do one thing, you have to become a good musician in other areas, too. So between the new Cuban album and the films we’ve been working on – Puss and Boots and Pirates of the Caribbean – we are getting out of our comfort zone. We feel like a beginner again. It’s painful, but it is very good. You have to keep growing. You can’t just remain static. That’s natural for anyone who does creative work.

Did this album come out the way you expected it to?

No. [Laughs] Not really. I really like it. It transformed completely every single day and we discovered many things along the way. Then when we were at the end of the day it was totally different. From my point of view I think it’s a good record. I enjoy the playing and I enjoy all the musicians playing our own lines – that’s really satisfying.

What were you expecting?

We thought it would be more like how we play the music live, but we had to change a lot of the guitar parts so they would fit with the new sound. We had to learn all these new rhythms that they played. Meanwhile we didn’t read music, so we learned it in this really wild way. We love how it came out though.

They are amazing musicians down there.

They are all classically trained, so they know how to read music and [notate] it. Then they have that clave in their DNA, all those rhythms that are just a part of who they are. They are just complete musicians. So for anyone to be there in the studio is amazing – how they learn their lines and stuff. At the end of the day it’s just really, really cool.

Metal is all about precision, and the band is used to playing in a looser way. Was this an issue when playing with a larger group of musicians?

Me and Rodrigo are two different types of musicians. I’m more of a person who goes by feel – something may sound good even if wasn’t played perfectly. Rod is like: “No way, you need to re-record it.” He’s super-technical. The band followed their charts, and they could hit all the notes time after time. We asked them to do some improvisations here and there.

The band is touring with you. How is this all going to work live?

I think it’s going to be great. A lot of people like it to be just us, but you can’t stay there forever. We are working on a new album with new songs with the two of us, so those types of gigs will come back. But this is a project, and I hope that people really like it. There’s been a good response to the album so far, but if you don’t like it: Sorry! [Laughs] We are also hoping to have guest appearances by Anoushka Shankar and Mike Tempesto, who also play on the record. We will see what happens. We’ll be playing most of the gig on our own, but then we’ll bring out the band for some spice. Some spice from a Cuban orchestra! [Laughs]

What does the title of the album mean?

It’s a game really. Area 51 is a restricted military area andCubais sort of restricted to people in theUnited States. Also, Megadeth has a tune with a similar title. So it’s a bunch of silly things like that, but we also like that it’s easy to pronounce in different languages, because we tour everywhere.

The album cover has the devil horns, so you’re keeping it real.

Yes. There was this artist inL.A.and we came up with the idea and she painted her hand. It’s a simple cover but it’s dynamic. You wouldn’t think of it as mellow music, you know?

So did you actually plug in to all the gear behind you to record the video of “Hanuman”?

The one where it looks like we are on Mars? That was shot in Mexico City. No we didn’t plug in. [Laughs] It would be great to do a gig there though. It looked so crazy, it was a mine that was closed because the workers were on strike.

I know you had to take a break from performing because of all the banging you do with your hands when you play. How are they holding up now?

They are fine. I was just overworked then – we would do four dates in a row for months. So I was just tired. I went to see a therapist about it and they said I was just tired. I was freaking out. My hands were fine, but my head wasn’t doing so well. [Laughs] When the tour was over I was fine.

Rock guitarists tend to focus on the left hand and the fretboard, but you guys are the antithesis of that, drawing on the folk and classical tradition that focuses on the right or plucking hand to generate lines and rhythms.

You can get so many sounds from the acoustic guitar playing that way. It’s really incredible. It’s like an orchestra, so there are a lot of things to explore. The music we hear in our head is much closer to straight metal with drums. We always have the band in our heads. We just cover the drumming by using guitars. We lived inSpainfor a while and I wish I could play flamenco. They are incredible players. It’s hard to pick it up. I’ve seen it performed and I’ve gone home and tried to play it, but I realize that it isn’t the same rhythm. Instead I came up with a new rhythm, which is good too.

I’m sure it will be nice to bring some other musicians out with you.

Yes, we have like 11 people normally, but it will be nice to have the Cubans along. And to have them on stage with us. Being on stage with someone is very intimate. You have to be very respectful of your fellow musicians when you play together onstage. We have to forget that we are Rodrigo y Gabriela. We step on stage with a humbleness and humility and just let the music play.

The mix will be more complicated with all those people with you?

I’m very loud on stage. Rodrigo is very loud on stage. We are going to need a Buddhist monk to have patience with us to balance out all the levels. Guitarists are the worst – they are always super loud. Our soundman is very chill. He’s been with us since the old days in Ireland.