How Rodrigo y Gabriela changed their style to make their most experimental album yet

The Mexican guitar duo on changing approaches, throwing caution to the wind, their five years in the wilderness – and why they’re not as good at guitar as people think they are.

Rodrigo y Gabriela
All images: Eleanor Jane

If Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero wanted to feel like they were going up in the world, the ultra-modern high-rise offices of their new record label, BMG, would be a good place to start. It’s been a long journey for Rodrigo y Gabriela from their native Mexico City to relaxing on mid-century modern sofas looking out over London’s urban sprawl far below, but it’s a journey that’s clearly at the forefront of the duo’s mind as we sit down together.

“Today is exactly 20 years since we first landed in Ireland,” Rodrigo tells us, the disbelief palpable in his voice. “We wanted to make a living in music. We didn’t know if that would come just through playing in bars – we didn’t care, we just wanted to make music.”

The pair are both into their 40s now, and have come a long way from busking the streets of Dublin. Played the Royal Albert Hall? Tick. Performed for President Obama? Tick. Sold a million records? Tick. And yet it’s clear the attitude the pair had back in their early days is the root of all their success.

Rodrigo y Gabriela both with guitars

“We were so focused,” Rod affirms. “We’d practise six or seven hours a day trying to improve our technique, and we started writing music without any expectations. But being so focused then, what does it tell you? It says that we weren’t living in the past, we weren’t living in the future, we were all about the present. And that presence opened up the door for what we are doing now.”

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Stunted evolution

What they are doing are now is welcoming the arrival of their sixth studio album, the bold and experimental Mettavolution. It’s been five years since Rod and Gab’s last record, 9 Dead Alive, but the extended hiatus wasn’t necessarily intentional…

“We wanted to come out with the album earlier, like two and a half years ago, but we didn’t have the music,” Rod admits. “It actually took us until the last eight months to really come up with the songs for the album. We had a lot of material, but eventually, everyone was very excited. It was a long process, but it finally felt like it was the right time, the right songs, and here we are!”

It’s rare that an album takes such a long time to come together without there being some issues along the way, and finding the right tone and direction for the new record was a real stumbling block.

“After so many years of doing what we do… the way that you live your life, and the changes in the world, the economy… everything has to affect your creativity,” Gabriela explains. “So for us, it was important to do something that was surprising for both of us, that was different to the previous works.

“When we finished the cycle of the 9 Dead Alive album, we felt a little bit under pressure to come up with something that followed the trends. You hear about how the music industry has changed… and that can place a lot of pressure on your creativity.

“And so all of the things we wrote at first… we didn’t know where to go with it. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves. And so we got to a point where we spent maybe two years writing songs that were influenced by these comments.

“But then we decided… fuck it! We are what we are, we can’t change what we are, so we’re going to stick to our guns – if people like it, great, if they don’t, then they don’t. So we just gave up all these crazy ideas and then all the creativity started to flow naturally. We decided to write a lot of music and it was important not to think about an album as such, but just to make music – we had enough that we could have recorded three albums if we wanted!”

“It was a long process,” Rod agrees. “But I think in general, it was a midlife… not crisis! But a transformation! We’ve both been practising different kinds of techniques to heighten our awareness – meditation and stuff like that – and that has helped a lot.”

The transformation hasn’t just been a metaphysical one, however – that newfound comfort and confidence in their own skin has had practical outcomes as well.

“I stopped pursuing speed… I just don’t care about it any more, y’know?” the fleet-fingered Rod exclaims. “I think that the personal experiences that you go through – especially at my age! – should mirror how we develop in our music.

“And so I actually tried to change my way of playing, technically. I changed the size of my pick – I use a larger one now, because I’m doing a lot of funky stuff on the new album, funky rhythms, which felt better with a bigger pick.”

Home comforts

Listening to Mettavolution, it’s clear that choosing to remain true to who they are hasn’t left the duo adrift in a sea of nostalgia and repetition, and in fact it gave them the confidence and the comfort to step out of their comfort zone – literally.

“We’re neighbours, and we have a studio in the same neighbourhood, so we go there every day – every single day!” Gab says, explaining way the pair have written on the last few albums. “Our way to hang out together is to play! So we had actually started to record the album in our studio, and were trying to experiment there… but there was just this moment where we thought, ‘We’re doing the same thing in the same place in the same way as the last two albums.’”

As the frustration built up, their manager made a controversial suggestion – maybe the pair should try working with a producer for the first time?

“We were like, ‘NOOOO!’ Because it felt unnatural, and it felt wrong,” Gab explains. “But then we thought that’s why we should do it – to produce different results, we have to start doing things differently.

Interview Rodrigo y Gabriela side by side

“So we talked to a lot of different and amazing producers, but we didn’t feel like this extra little bit of connection. But then when we talked to Dave Sardy on the phone, we felt like we locked in and we had the same ideas and the same vibe.”

Sardy – who has produced records for everyone from LCD Soundsystem to Marilyn Manson to Oasis – jumped onboard with the pair’s plans to break from the norm, getting them out to Los Angeles to record much of the album’s bedrock at Sunset Sound studios.

“Sunset has such great acoustics,” Gab enthuses. “We recorded the structure of the album as if we were playing live – we even had a mini-stage and a PA and candles. And then we moved up to his studio in the Hollywood Hills to do some more bits and pieces and to try to do those different things that we talked about. We just wanted to think differently, and take risks with our sound… and it came out very naturally.”

Electric soul

The risk-taking spirit meant finding new melodies and textures to accompany Rod and Gab’s nylon-string core, which meant more use of electric guitars and electronic sounds than ever before. In Rod’s case that meant bonding with a Fender Jaguar (“I absolutely fell in love with it”) and thinking of some leftfield ways to uncover new melodies…

“I wrote songs with actual lyrics, and then we worked on the instrumental versions of those, and that’s how we got the melodic content,” Rod explains. “I wanted to have different tones for the ‘vocals’ and for the ‘chorus’ and then the solos – and that’s where I knew having effects and electric guitars was going to help.

Rodrigo y Gabriela Rodrigo with guitar

“I use a Fractal live and in our studio, but we didn’t use those with David, because he was unfamiliar with it. So instead, we recreated the sounds that we were using for the demos in the studio with his equipment.

“We also used a lot of different percussion… there’s the case of a kick drum on there! We used Leslies and ran the guitars through it… honestly, I have a huge list that I asked the engineers to keep because I needed to remember it all!

“If I was going to record the album again tomorrow, I would probably use more! But for the time, it was the perfect amount.”

The most striking example of this new approach is the album’s side two – a 19-minute instrumental cover of the Pink Floyd opus, Echoes.

“Rod started to come up with the idea of covering Echoes, not necessarily for the album, just to play live,” Gab says of the decision to put this ambitious piece on the album. “So we had the whole track already worked out for two guitars. And so we said: ‘Oh yes, let’s just do it – let’s just risk it!’

“It was obvious that what we had to do was deconstruct the way the actual song is, which is based on full-on electronics and all that,” Rod adds. “The reality is, the simpler the better. We worked on several different versions and it was getting better every time we took some elements out of it.

“I guess having David Sardy produce the album helped to create the right atmosphere, adding a couple of electric-guitar parts to create some harmonies here and there. That gave it a different dimension, but it’s still us, it’s still two acoustic guitars.”

Full circle

Two acoustic guitars it might be, but it’s a far cry from the stripped-down instrumental music the pair were playing when they burst onto the scene in the early 2000s. We wonder if they could have conceived of making music like this back in their busking days…

“Honestly, yes!” Gab enthuses. “Because when I’m in my head, I always have had a world of music that has no borders. I imagine things how they would sound with this or that. But also, people think that we can play anything on guitar, that we’re virtuosos, but it’s all very different! We can’t play everything on the guitar – nobody can!

Rodrigo y Gabriela Gabriela with guitar

“When I started playing the guitar I used to play normal guitar! Like, fuckin’ chords, riffs and solos and melodies and everything. Then over the years of playing in the band, I became very good at what I was doing, but that became a comfort zone… and so getting out of that, playing things that are actually simpler, was challenging! Like to go back and ‘play the guitar’ was difficult!

“But by bringing all those elements together, it creates an album that has a different colour. Rodrigo in his technique has also changed – he’s practised playing with more rhythms and all the funky stuff, but there’s a lot of practice behind that! We’ve always had it in our heads, but it takes time and work to get it out properly.”

Working with Sardy in LA clearly helped the pair get creative, leaving them with far too much material for one record, but despite the volume of tracks to choose from, cutting it down was a fairly simple process.

“We did a couple of tours shortly before we recorded, just to do that,” Rod says. “Because we had so many songs, and we had to cut some of them off because we wanted a shorter album. These particular ones felt instinctively right. They flowed together, and they felt like the old days, but with new exciting material in our ears.

“This is the first album that we’re going to play the full album every night. Because it’s 40 minutes of music, and this is the first time where I don’t have one song that I think is maybe a little bit out of context.”

Feedback loop

With the troubled gestation of Mettavolution now receding into the distance, there’s a palpable sense that Rod and Gab have come out of the other side re-energised and keenly aware of the lessons the process has taught them.

“We always wanted to create new sounds and make something that was different to what everyone else did,” Gab explains. “The core elements were there from the beginning, but at some point, I think we lost sight of that. And that was the big lesson – what we do and play comes from a very deep presence, so we like to be present.

“That’s the way that it talks to people. And if we don’t heed that element, it’s funny, but it’s hard to express it in a way people relate to. So the lesson is to have this humble attitude and to understand that we are in service of this music. That when we go out and play, when we step onto the stage, whether we are playing in front of two people, a hundred people or two thousand people, that’s the core of it.”

Rod chimes in: “During the process we were showing the songs that we’d written to our manager, which we never do usually. And he was like, ‘Alright, whatever… not memorable!’ I thought he was picking on us, but he was just being honest.”

“We didn’t like it, though… we were almost offended,” Gab interjects, laughing.

“We definitely didn’t like it at the time!” Rod chuckles. “But he was pushing us. The lesson is that you have to surround yourself with good people and to trust them. Once you know them, you have to trust them.

“At the beginning, I wanted to add much more electronics and I was so confident that this was the right direction, but Gab and our manager didn’t want to. And then at one point, I just let go of it… and they were right! And then everything started to open up.”

With their focus and creativity stoked, we’re tempted to ask Rodrigo and Gabriela if they think this will be the first step to even greater success, but as they reveal, they felt they’d made it 20 years ago, and anything else is a bonus.

“For us, we had succeeded when we were able to play our own music and make a living out of it,” Gab reflects. “So for us to go out after busking and have a cappuccino and a chocolate cake was just amazing – we’d made it! Because we were in Europe… we were like monkeys let out of a cage – this is the world! And for us, that was the ultimate success.”

Mettavolution by Rodrigo y Gabriela is out now on BMG.

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