Acoustic guitar stars go back to basics

Rodrigo y Gabriela will be playing tracks from their new album when they appear at Leeds O2 Academy. Picture: David Moulin
Rodrigo y Gabriela will be playing tracks from their new album when they appear at Leeds O2 Academy. Picture: David Moulin
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Mexian guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela are currently on a world tour which stops off in Leeds this month. Duncan Seaman reports.

It may be five years since virtuoso guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela last released an album of new material but the Mexican pairing have not fallen silent in the intervening half decade.

Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero have performed for President Barack Obama at the White House and played at Glastonbury, as well as writing and recording music for two major Hollywood movies. In 2011 they also reworked some of their best known songs with an orchestra of Cuban musicians and guests such as sitarist Anoushka Shankar and oud players Le Trio Joubran.

Now at last Sanchez, 40, and Quintero, 41, are back with their fourth album of original songs, 9 Dead Alive. A pared down affair, it draws the focus back to their intricate acoustic guitar playing, inspired by Latin rock, jazz and heavy metal. They have embarked on an extensive world tour to promote it.

The new self-produced album, I suggest, sounds subtly different from the ones they’ve made with previous producers. This time, Sanchez agrees, they’d reached a stage where they knew exactly how they wanted the record to sound. “We’ve worked with some excellent producers in the past, but this time we wanted a very organic sounding record, as close as possible to the live gig experience,” he says.

“We have a studio at our base in Ixtapa, Mexico and that is a great creative environment to work in, and we have a superb young engineer who understands what we wish to achieve.”

Eight of the nine songs on the album are dedicated to different historical figures. The likes of the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the Spanish guitar maker Antonio de Torres Jurado and American anti-slavery campaigner Harriet Tubman are all people, Sanchez agrees, who have inspired he and Quintero in some way.

“Definitely, with the dedications on 9 Dead Alive, we wanted to highlight some of the less famous people who we think have done important humanitarian or artistic work. If the album inspires someone to find out more about Tubman, or Jurado, or Nansen, then it will be mission accomplished.”

Sanchez and Quintero first met, as 15-year-olds, at the Casa de Cultura in Mexico City. Bonding over a shared love of heavy metal, they were a couple for more than 20 years, but in 2012 they announced they’d separated. Yet it hasn’t changed their working relationship, Sanchez says. “We were a couple for a long time, but we split up a couple of years ago. It’s a happy arrangement, it hasn’t had an adverse effect on the music or playing together.”

He puts the development of their distinctive acoustic playing style down to years of hard graft and extensive travel. “We played together in a Mexican thrash metal band called Terra Acida. When that band split up in the late 90s we decided to go travelling, and the acoustic guitar was important because it was easy to travel with, it gave us musical freedom, everything after that was simply practise, practise, practise.”

He attributes the step change in his own musical tastes to US thrash metal.

“My elder brother was in a band, and I remember him bringing home Master Of Puppets by Metallica, that was a big moment for me,” he says. “Before that I had been listening to classic rock – Beatles, Led Zep, Black Sabbath. When I met Gab she was playing in three bands, but they seemed to do more talking than playing.”

The duo honed their performing style thousands of miles from home – busking on the streets of Dublin.

“We went to Dublin because we knew nothing about the place, other than someone saying it was a good town for musicians,” Sanchez says. “When we arrived, we quickly ran out of money, so we started busking to bring in some cash. I think it helps you understand what works when you are trying to keep a watching crowd interested, and maybe we played faster because it was cold on the streets in Dublin.”

Over the past 10 years Rodrigo y Gabriela have become revered guitar heroes. As for his own own favourites, Sanchez says: “Personally I’m a big fan of Dave Gilmour, Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin and Alex Skolnick. All masters of feel, space and timing.”

One of the duo’s biggest moments occurred in 2010 when they were invited to perform for President Obama at the White House – on a 
bill that also included Beyonce.

Sanchez found the concert “not nerve racking, just very surreal”, especially “listening to the President of the United States telling the President of Mexico how much he loves your music, while you are standing there.”

Having written and recorded music for the fourth instalment of Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides, and the Shrek spin-off Puss in Boots, it seems Rodrigo y Gabriela would be interested working on other films.

“Well, it was an interesting challenge, and we worked with some talented people,” Sanchez says. “I wouldn’t rule out doing more soundtracks.”

When it comes to which song he most enjoys performing live, he says he likes the challenge of introducing audiences to the duo’s newest material.

“It’s been great getting the new songs from 9 Dead Alive into the set,” he says. “We really thrive on the audience getting involved and singing and clapping along, so I guess it’s the new stuff that’s exciting for me at the moment.”

• Rodrigo y Gabriela play at the O2 Academy Leeds, on Cookridge Street, Leeds on Sunday, November 30, doors 7pm, £25. For tickets visit