On the eve of their Australian tour, Jane Cornwell meets a firebrand Mexican guitarist, half of a duo whose wild music defies description
KWEST Hotel in London’s Shepherds Bush is a favourite stopover for international rock musicians. The only posh hotel in an otherwise shabby neighbourhood, its minimalist decor and rather self- conscious hipness appeal to those — both the great and the gigging — booked to play the nearby Shepherds Bush Empire. K West’s open- plan lounge tends to fill with musicians and hangers- on after midnight; this lunchtime, save for a couple of ageing rockers in too- tight jeans and a handsome, casually dressed Hispanic man sipping espresso in a corner, it is largely empty.
The barman’s bleary eyes attest to the previous evening’s after- show celebrations, festivities that came courtesy of Rodrigo y Gabriela, an unlikely Mexican guitar duo who wowed a filled- to- capacity Empire with their riff- based, rapid- fire sounds. It was, as always, a technically astonishing performance: dressed in jeans and trainers, armed with battered acoustic guitars, they perched on wooden stools and delivered a genre- defying mix of jazz, Latin rhythms, Mexican folk and heavy metal. Tracks from three of their albums showcased their ability to turn on a dime, to tear off in different directions. An improvised duel had the crowd punching the air.
In Britain Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero have sold more than 150,000 copies of their latest record, Rodrigo y Gabriela , which went straight to No 1 in Ireland when it was released there in 2006. Having sold out five tours in the US they are practically household names there and their tracks are play- listed on numerous American radio stations.
They have performed their cover of Metallica’s Orion on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno , headlined the world jazz stage at Britain’s renowned Glastonbury Festival and count the likes of Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood and Metallica as fans. Yet in concert they still behave like the buskers they were. They play to please rather than impress.
Just don’t try to label their music. It is not, as one critic suggested, mariachi metal. Despite their lightning- fast fretwork and rhythmical patterns — Quintero beats the body of her guitar like a drum while simultaneously strumming jagged chords — it is certainly not flamenco. It’s the duo’s healthy competitive streak that makes them unique and keeps things harmonious and energetic. Sanchez handles the lead and melody lines, often playing up and down the neck of the guitar while staring intensely ahead. It’s Sanchez, too, who provides most of the between- song banter, the witty relaying of their stories (‘‘ This song,’’ he announced, ‘‘ is about a bureaucratic mix- up. It’s called F . . k the US Visa Department’’).
‘‘ I hate to have to think about what kind of music I play,’’ the long- haired Quintero, 34, says in their sleeve notes. ‘‘ That to me is shit, to be honest. You play what you can express.’’
Quintero isn’t here today, having left the hotel early to catch a flight back to Mexico and her home in the fishing village of Zihuatanejo, 200km north of Acapulco on the Mexican Riviera. Sanchez has a house in Ixtapa, five minutes down the coast. But tomorrow he’s off to India for a holiday, taking time out to explore the subcontinent before he and Quintero tour
Australia. Both of them spend a few months of each year in Ireland.
Sanchez — who is, in fact, the man in the corner — hasn’t been up for long. ‘‘ This is helping,’’ he smiles, raising his espresso. He looks good, nonetheless. Gone is the long hair that used to fly about when he and Quintero were head- banging guitarists in Tierra Acida, a thrash- metal band based in Mexico City. His winged- collar shirt is pressed. A large, stoneinlaid silver pendant hangs on a chain around his neck. He’s wearing some subtle cologne. He exudes precisely the sort of laid- back confidence that comes with great success.
Gone, too, is the goofy Spinal Tap fan I interviewed four years earlier, when they did their first tentative gigs in London.
‘‘ I still watch it sometimes, though,’’ says the 34- year- old of the cult spoof rockumentary. ‘‘ Man,’’ he adds in his curious Mexican- Irish accent, ‘‘ it’s so funny.’’
Back in 2004, Sanchez and Quintero were a couple, stars of the live music scene in Dublin, where they had moved in 1999 with very little English and $ 1000 between them. It was a curious choice of locale for two Mexicans who had never experienced a winter. ‘‘ It was cold and windy but we were sick of big cities,’’ Sanchez explains. ‘‘ We knew nothing about Dublin but a Mexican girl had said we could stay with her, so we decided to go there.’’
There were a few Spinal Tap moments: ‘‘ When we got to Dublin we found a note on the door saying actually, sorry, but we couldn’t stay there after all, so the taxi driver drove us around hostels and hotels all night.’’ And their money ran out in a week. They discovered they couldn’t get gigs at hotels by just turning up and asking, especially in their faltering English: ‘‘ Even just trying to say the most normal things was a problem, and we didn’t understand anything.’’ Panicking, they decided to try busking.
From their pitch on Dublin’s main drag, Grafton Street, they drew crowds from the getgo, making up to £ IR250 in just half an hour. ‘‘ The first time we played, I had my head down the whole time,’’ Quintero told me. ‘‘ Grafton Street was packed but I didn’t look up once. When we finished, there was loads of money sitting there.’’ The invitations started pouring in. They said yes to all of them. ‘‘ Our first gig was a religious party in Bray, in County Wicklow, which we thought might be a sect but ( turned out to be) a little boy’s communion. We spent the evening drinking with the guests.’’
They’d already fine- tuned their act in the hotels of the Mexican Riviera, playing bossa novas and standards such as Fly Me to the Moon. Bored, they would entertain each other with an unexpected flourish here, a Metallica chug there.
The two are children of creative, middle- class parents: Sanchez’s father is a jeweller, his mother a former flamenco dancer; Quintero’s mother is a novelist. They came of age in Mexico’s 1980s metal era. They rated salsa, jazz and classical guitar but adored Megadeth, Metallica and Led Zeppelin.
Their show- stopping version of Led Zep’s Stairway to Heaven ( from Rolf Harris to Dolly Parton, one of the most covered songs) is a fierce jazz instrumental.
‘‘ The melodies we compose are influenced by flamenco and classical guitar,’’ Sanchez concedes. ‘‘ There are lots of Latin rhythms but I wouldn’t know which ones because we never studied and I don’t read music. The basic structure is rock. I learned everything from the old school of metal,’’ he adds proudly.
Ultimately, however, metal wasn’t enough: though Tierra Acida were rewarded with a record contract after eight years of playing Mexico City’s roughest clubs ( Quintero, with her gothic glamour and Marshall amp, was the stuff of a thousand Mexican boys’ fantasies), the pair realised it wasn’t what they wanted, after all. They quit. ‘‘ Crazy, huh?’’ Sanchez flashes a grin. ‘‘ But you know, I’d been in that band since I was 15 — Gabriela came in a couple of years later — and we used to fight at every rehearsal. You couldn’t hear our guitars over the distortion, anyway.’’
In Dublin they began to be booked for gigs; they played music venues, weddings, gallery openings. ‘‘ Some people thought we were Brazilian. The only thing most people in Ireland knew about Mexico,’’ he says, ‘‘ was ( cartoon mouse) Speedy Gonzales.’’
They jammed with local folk musicians in the bars of Ireland’s booming Celtic tiger economy and, after brief busking stints in Copenhagen and Barcelona, were invited to support feted Irish singer- songwriter Damien Rice on his 2003 tour. They released a self- financed CD, Foc ( Catalan for fire), then their official debut, ReFoc ( which featured Irish musicians on violin and bodhran) on Ireland’s Rubyworks label. After touring extensively in Britain and beyond, they released Live in Manchester and Dublin . Their latest self- titled disc, a mix of originals and rock classics helmed by Stone Roses and Radiohead producer John Leckie, continues to top international album charts.
‘‘ It’s amazing,’’ Sanchez agrees. ‘‘ It’ll take us another six months to finish doing promo for this album because it has come out at different times all over the world.’’
Already two years old in the US, Ireland and Britain ( where it is at No 1 on the world music charts for the second time), it was released in Australia in June 2006, but has only just been released in Japan ( they’ll go on to play a soldout concert in Tokyo after Australia) and Mexico. Australia succumbed to the live charms of Rodrigo y Gabriela on their tour in March 2006, but their mother country has taken a while to catch on: ‘‘ It’s only now that we’re getting a big buzz in Mexico because of our success in the ( US). Though our friends are more impressed by us getting on the Jay Leno show,’’ Sanchez muses. ‘‘ We haven’t played Mexico yet, but we’re ready.’’
After seven years in Dublin, they moved back to Mexico last year. Why? Sanchez turns his palms up as if the answer is obvious. ‘‘ Er, the weather. The food. My house in Ixtapa is 100m from the beach. When I’m there I get up and go for a swim before breakfast. Some days I take the path up into the mountains and just sit up there listening to the birds. I do yoga on my balcony three times a week.’’ Quintero and Sanchez also do yoga on tour; it keeps them calm, he says, and focused. ‘‘ I play football ( soccer) for a team twice a week,’’ he adds guiltily. ‘‘ Although I shouldn’t. Not really. If I hurt my hands, I’m done for.’’
The move home may have been sparked by the couple’s break- up. If so, Sanchez isn’t saying. ‘‘ We are super friends but we’re not together any more,’’ he says, a bit taken aback. ‘‘ Our tour manager usually tells journalists not to ask ( such questions).’’ Well, since your tour manager isn’t here, is it fair to assume that those onstage exchanges got pretty fiery when you weren’t speaking to each other? Did your healthy competitive streak turn a little, I don’t know, Spinal Tap - like?
‘‘ Si , si , of course,’’ Sanchez says, laughing good- naturedly. ‘‘ Now we’re more respectful to each other because we see each other as band members and human beings.’’
He pauses, shrugs. ‘‘ But what has always been important, what has always made us work, is the fact that we have very different styles of playing. I don’t do the things Gabriela does. I don’t even try. Otherwise,’’ he says, eyes twinkling, ‘‘ we really would end up smashing each other’s guitars over our heads.’’ Rodrigo y Gabriela, Point Nepean festival, Melbourne, March 22; Byron Bay East Coast Blues & Roots Festival, March 23- 24; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, March 26; The Forum, Melbourne, March 27.
It takes two: Gabriela Quintero and Rodrigo Sanchez busked in Dublin before fame beckoned