Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero, aka Rodrigo y Gabriela, first began playing together in a thrash metal band in their hometown of Mexico City. When that band split, the duo moved to Dublin and began busking and performing acoustic gigs in the city. A support slot with Damien Rice gave them their break, and they have since built up a rather large following for their mix of metal covers and original songs.
Released last week through Rubyworks, their latest album, ‘Area 52′, sees them recording with a group for the first time. The group in question is a thirteen piece Cuban orchestra from Havana, called CUBA, with whom Rodrigo y Gabriela reworked a selection of songs from their earlier albums.
With UK tour dates, complete with CUBA in tow, coming up next month, CMU Editor Andy Malt spoke to Sánchez to find out more.
AM: You started out playing in a thrash metal band in Mexico. How did you get from there to being an acoustic duo supporting Damien Rice in Ireland?
RS: Our metal band fell apart and after that experience we decided to go travelling and we brought acoustic guitars with us. We went to Dublin because someone said it was a good place for musicians. We really didn’t know very much about Ireland as a country, but it felt good to put ourselves in an alien place. We used to play on Grafton Street; it was cold for us but it was good fun. Damien was a busker then and we met each other playing on the streets.
AM: Metal has remained a heavy influence on your work, both in your original songs and those you’ve chosen to cover over the years. Did you have a plan for your sound when you first started playing together as a duo, or did it just develop naturally?
RS: When we started playing on the street we used to play a lot of cover versions. These were songs that people recognised and we would get a good reaction from. We played the songs we knew from Metallica, Testament, Led Zeppelin. This is the music we like and which inspires us. I think our style developed naturally from this time to what it is now on our original songs.
AM: ‘Area 52′ sees you performing nine of your original songs with a thirteen piece Cuban orchestra. How did that come about?
RS: The record company was asking when we would record new music. We had done two film soundtracks after [2010 album] ’11:11′; and we were on the road for two years promoting it. ‘Area 52′ was an opportunity to take a break and do something fun and different. And we were interested in going to Havana for the cultural and musical experience.
AM: How did you originally foresee the album turning out, and how close is the finished result to that?
RS: It was an experiment at first, to see what it would be like to play with a big band over other musicians. We were curious about Cuba and the music that comes out of there. It started as an interesting experiment but then it grew into something much bigger. It was supposed to be a fill-in album but it became the most ambitious thing we’ve done. It opened our eyes to a lot of things, and opened up paths we were maybe afraid of in terms of experimentation and collaboration.
AM: It’s the first time you’ve recorded as Rodrigo y Gabriela with another group of musicians. Was it easy to adapt to each other’s styles?
RS: We were blown away by the quality of the local players; Gabriela says it was like going to music school, and she was right. They didn’t know who we were – but then again they don’t know who Coldplay are either – it was just about playing together and listening and learning. Those rhythms, you really have to adapt to them. In the beginning, it was painful. I was like a beginner again.
AM: You worked with Alex Wilson on new arrangements of the songs on the album before recording them, did the group then add their own input? Was there much room for improvisation?
RS: Alex was great for bringing all the Cuban musicians together, for guiding them and helping them to adapt to our style, because our styles are very very different. He wrote out the parts for the musicians. They learn classical music from the age of four but they learn Cuban music from their parents. There was a mixture of written down and improvisation. They let fly on their solos.
AM: On ‘Ixtapa’ you’ve also got Anoushka Shankur playing sitar, adding yet another cultural layer to the mix. Did you ever worry that it just wouldn’t work?
RS: It was a risk to mix the two styles, but we have known Anoushka for some time. We met through some friends in India. The whole album was an experiment, a trip into the unknown – that is where the title ‘Area 52′ comes from. We don’t work with other musicians often, so this was the chance to work with Anoushka.
AM: How have the songs changed from their original versions?
RS: The Cuban rhythms are everywhere on the songs. They really change the feel of everything. On ‘Hanuman’ and ’11:11′ I am playing electric guitar for the first time on a record. ‘Hanuman’ was written as a tribute to Carlos Santana – and that sound comes through much more on this version.
AM: You begin a European tour with CUBA next month. What can people expect from the shows?
RS: It is a very new experience for us. It will be the first time ever that it will not just be the two of us on stage. We are still getting used to the idea and figuring out what will work for the show. We will be playing lots of music from ‘Area 52′, but will also have sections where it will be just me and Gab playing songs from other albums.
AM: Will this be the first time you’ve performed live with CUBA?
RS: Yes, it is a completely new show, a new tour. We are beginning the rehearsals now for the tour and we are excited for it to begin. It will be different for us to travel with other musicians around the world. We are used to it being just the two of us and our guitars.
AM: What are you planning to do next?
RS: We will be playing this tour of Europe and then we go to America for a tour there. We also hope to come back in the summer to play at the festivals.