Two ami­gos

On the eve of their Aus­tralian tour, Jane Corn­well meets a fire­brand Mex­i­can gui­tarist, half of a duo whose wild mu­sic de­fies de­scrip­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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

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