In the late ‘90s, Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero (of acclaimed guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela) were playing in the streets of Dublin, Ireland, busking for passersby and slowly honing their sound. It’s a sound they describe as fusion music; “It’s mainly got Latin harmonies and rhythms but the structure is rock. It’s not jazz because it’s structured, and we don’t improvise; our solos are exactly what’s on the record.”
Six albums later, today Rodrigo y Gabriela are headlining all over the world and bringing their unique synthesis of musical styles to historic venues like The Hollywood Bowl. Mettavolution, the duo’s newest album, represents their latest winning sonic exploration, melding two guitars and vocals against a lyrical backdrop of spiritual themes. Join us for a conversation with the duo’s lead singer and lead guitarist, Rodrigo Sánchez for a look at Rodrigo y Gabriela, past, present and future.
Rock Cellar: In terms of direction and concept, what was the thinking behind what you hoped to accomplish with the new album Mettavolution?
Rodrigo Sánchez: Well, I think the concept comes from personal space that we have both been going through for the last two or three years where we found ourselves in a very comfortable place, where things weren’t moving backwards or forwards or anywhere. We basically realized that we had this urge of moving on and coming up with something different, and not to rest on our laurels for too long.
We kind of had a moment of awareness and then we just started writing music without knowing the concept of the album. It took three years until we basically found the music and recognized it was the right one. And then by the end of last year we were recording the album and the whole concept was spirituality without basing this spiritual awareness on any kind of religion. But it is an insight. So it’s pretty much based on that. Instead of writing the usual way, we wrote songs and made some instrumental versions. The songs and the lyrics had that concept.
Rock Cellar: The songs are based on a Buddhism spirituality?
Rodrigo Sánchez: Mettā is a form of Buddhist meditation but it’s one of many; but it is not a Buddhist concept in general. Mettā is a Sanskrit word for compassion, and basically Mettavolution means evolution through compassion, which is a word I’ve got to admit we kind of made up. But it’s pretty much the way we imagine the world evolving.
We have evolved a lot, technologically speaking, but our behaviors as humans still have a long way to go. Meditation has shown amazing results all over the Western world in people with anxiety so it’s one way to do it, but the basic concept is to try and be more aware.
Rock Cellar: Plenty of artists have covered Pink Floyd songs in the past, but the choice is usually a well-known number. On your new album, you elected to select a unique choice by covering Pink Floyd’s “Echoes.”
Rodrigo Sánchez: Two reasons. First of all, we are and have always been Floyd fans. That song has been in the back of our heads for years now. We kind of made a reference to the Pink Floyd video “Live In Pompeii” when we recorded the video for “Hanuman” for the 11:11 album almost ten years ago.
It’s one of the best examples of what Pink Floyd is all about. Basically that tune gave the band the direction later to become their sound. That song just changed the whole game for them. Last summer we were gonna play the Hollywood Bowl and we were doing a few shows here and there before the recording of the actual album and we already had played the Hollywood Bowl before and we wanted to do something different.
I proposed to do “Echoes” that night after we played with the orchestra. I knew it was going to be a challenge to do that song with just two guitars. We did it and it went down very well. The label and the management were there and that night we decided that song had to be on our new album. The lyrics are pretty much in context with the whole album so why not?
Rock Cellar: You’ve covered songs by the likes of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, what’s the criteria for a song that the group will tackle? Is it simply, “This is a song we both like” or “This is a song that will translate well with the two guitar approach that we have?”
Rodrigo Sánchez: It has to be something that we really love and we feel that we can really express. We don’t think too much about how we need to come up with a sort song that can be played on radio. We don’t really think about it. We think if there is a strong enough reason for us to cover a song we should do it.
Rock Cellar: Growing up, was there a song you wished to master that was far beyond your abilities? What was the song and did you ever learn it?
Rodrigo Sánchez: Yeah, I’m sure there were many and from different fields. Of course, when I was growing up the first music I was introduced to, thanks to my brother who was five years older than me, I was 10 and he was 15 and already in high school, was Metallica and all those guys, so I wanted to play thrash metal.
That’s the way I started. Once I was 15, 16, 17, I started to listen to different guitarists. I was never a super guitar head. I didn’t want to play super-fast; I wanted to write music. But I started to open up to different guitars and I found Al DiMeola’s technique very interesting and I studied it a lot.
I was trying to understand a different world after five or six years of playing or trying to play heavy metal. One of the first songs I wanted to play and I eventually did were songs from Metallica’s album Master Of Puppets or even earlier like Ride The Lightning or it could have been the Kill ‘Em All album. And then I discovered Al DiMeola and all of those guys but I was never into that vibe of trying to become a super-fast guitarist. Composition was my thing, just to write music.
Rock Cellar: How did your move to Dublin, Ireland early in your career in the late ‘90s impact on your ambition, musical vision and creativity?
Rodrigo Sánchez: Well, Ireland is such a musical country, and not many people know this but Gabriela’s technique with her right hand, some rockers don’t know much about other music and they confuse Gab’s technique with flamenco. The right hand, for many people, looks like she’s playing flamenco, but she’s far from it. Whatever she does with her right hand is coming from the Irish tradition of music.
Do you know the word Bodhran, which is this Irish percussion? It’s played normally with a stick in the right hand and you carry the percussion with your left hand. Gab’s technique is coming from there. It’s not flamenco, and we respect it so much we have nothing to do with it. It was in Ireland where we discovered this way to use the percussive elements on the guitar, so whatever she does in the right hand is something coming from that world. That really explains how much influence we got from Ireland.
Rock Cellar: The assimilation of styles you and Gabriela embrace is very unique. At what point did you both hit on that synthesis of sound?
Rodrigo Sánchez: We were living in Mexico and we left a heavy metal band and we came to Europe. We were playing in the streets and we hit upon our style. We were playing covers, we were playing Santana songs and songs by others. We started to feel like we wanted to write our own stuff. As soon as we started coming up with our own stuff and started playing that on the streets, because we were so into it, people gave us more money. That was the reason we continued writing our own music.
After two years of being in Europe we had truly discovered out style in a way. We had been polishing it a little bit. At the start Gabriela she played a little bit of lead, but when the first album came out in 2006 we had already decided that Gabriela was gonna be the drumming and bass side of the band and I was going to be the singer and the lead guitarist. That’s the way we wanted it to be. We wanted to sound like a band.
Rock Cellar: It’s amazing that two people can create such a big sound.
Rodrigo Sánchez: Well, we were so used to playing with a band in Mexico so we needed to sound like a band. Yeah, that’s what I think makes us sound a little bit unique.
Rock Cellar: Given your technique, are you able to play everything you hear in your head?
Rodrigo Sánchez: Almost. (slight pause) Well, you know what, let me say yes because I don’t like things that are super complicated. The music in my head is quite commercial, although the music that we play is not mainstream. But in my head the songs should be easy. This album is a little bit more than that; the songs are easier and they’re more constructed like a song. I would guess today I can pretty much play everything I hear in my head.
Rock Cellar: Tell me about the audience that’s coming to your shows.
Rodrigo Sánchez: The fans come from absolutely different areas. You see the metal heads for sure, but you don’t see the Mexican traditional people because that’s very different. We don’t play Mexican music and we don’t even have a hint of it. We love it, but we are a little bit ignorant of all these Mexican and South American rhythms.
I know much more about the history of heavy metal (laughs) than Mexican music and it’s a little bit embarrassing to say that, but I do.
I left Mexico more than 20 years ago. Mexico has beautiful folk music, but what we do is not anything like that. If I have to say what kind of fans we get I’d say music fans. Music heads. They can be metal heads, they can be jazz heads and they can be just general rock heads. But it all comes down to people that are open to just listen to new stuff. Some of them are tired of listening to the same sound and have taken a right turn to listen to other stuff.
Rock Cellar: If someone said, “I want to listen to Rodrigo y Gabriela for the first time,” what’s the song you’d want them to hear?
Rodrigo Sánchez: That’s a very good question. Today I’d tell them to listen to the first or second track of the new album because today is what represents us. This is the best work we’ve done thus far and it captures my soul. I would not tell them to listen to the first album, although we still play “Tamacun” and that’s the most popular song we have. I’m so grateful to that song because that opened the doors for us in many places. That song was written so many years ago so I’d want this person to listen to who we are right now.
Rock Cellar: What’s the most glorious aspect of being in Rodrigo y Gabriela?
Rodrigo Sánchez: That’s another great question. To hear the stage with someone else can be difficult, making the decisions with a band of four or five members could be complicated, especially for someone who is a control freak. But in our case the best part of being in this band is Gab and I are the best of friends.
We share so many things together, and it’s good to have our best friend in the band. On the other hand, to be part of a band and this goes for a lot of bands, when you are in a band and you are leading this lifestyle, I used to think that it was hard. At the beginning it’s super fun but then you get to stage where you start feeling the pain of being on tour and then you want to run away from it.
But at this stage we are in a position where we are so comfortable in a way with the pain that comes with being on tour. That’s where meditation comes into play. When you mediate seriously and start really going deep, you’re going to face your dark side. Once you can do that you start to see the light. It’s a blessing; instead of seeing these shadows as your enemies, they become your friends. And they’re friends that you have to tell to stop and sit in the back and let me play the music.
But it’s good when that happens, and that helps you grow, and that’s the best part of being in a band.