Under the Influence
Rodrigo y Gabriela turn it up to 11:11
Gabriela Quintero and Rodrigo Sánchez
Since Irish songwriter Damien Rice discovered them busking on the streets of Dublin in 2005, Rodrigo y Gabriela have become unlikely global superstars. The acoustic guitar duo is beloved by new agers and world-music aficionados, who thrill to their esoteric spirit and genre-hopping ingenuity. But they are equally worshipped by metalheads, who appreciate their ferocious technical precision.
The music Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero create is as difficult to define as their fan base is diverse. They spent their formative years honing their chops playing thrash metal in their native Mexico City, and rock and metal are still major, evident influences. They also have a Latin American flair — often inaccurately labeled flamenco, which is Spanish. Their music exhibits, and inspires, a worldly curiosity.
Last fall, Rodrigo y Gabriela released their third studio album, 11:11. The record comprises 11 original compositions written in tribute to 11 individual artists who had a profound impact on the duo’s music. The honorees range from guitar visionaries Jimi Hendrix and Al Di Meola to lesser-known and less obvious influences, including experimental Mexican composer Jorge Reyes and jazz pianist Michel Camilo. The album succeeds in shedding light on the duo’s formative inspirations. But in doing so, it also deepens a mystery the two have been hard pressed to solve themselves: Which of those influences carry most weight?
“It was difficult to bring down the number [to 11],” says Sánchez in a recent phone conversation. “We had, like, 100 artists we could have chosen from.”
How they did pare down the list? They did what any modern duo might under the circumstances: compare iPods.
“The rule was that we had to feel the same for the artist,” says Sánchez. “There is not an act on the album that I feel more for than Gab.”
Sánchez cites a specific name on which the pair disagreed: Megadeth. “Gab likes Megadeth, but she didn’t feel as strongly about it,” he says.
Quintero’s counter? Björk.
“I do respect Björk,” says Sánchez, “but I didn’t feel like she has inspired me enough to write a track.” Similar dialogues played out frequently as the pair struggled to trim the list. “That wasn’t a fun part,” Sánchez concedes. “There were so many artists we left aside.”
The album’s opening tracks, “Hanuman” and “Buster Voodoo,” pay homage to Mexican guitar god Carlos Santana and Hendrix, respectively. Appropriately, the former is a fiery Latin rock number. But the nods to Santana (the guitarist) are subtle. Quintero’s speedy, percussive rhythmic play emulates the fusion of rock and Latin syncopation pioneered by Santana (the band), while Sánchez’s hyper-melodic licks are searing and virtuosic, much like those Carlos Santana himself might play. It’s evocative without being derivative.
In contrast, “Buster Voodoo” is willful hero worship. It begins with a roiling blues-rock line clearly modeled on Hendrix’s raunchy foundation riff from “Voodoo Child.” Later, Sánchez even quotes that song’s iconic, wah-pedal-twisted opening phrase. (Go ahead, hum it aloud. You know you want to.)
Sánchez and Quintero may have had to whittle down the number of artists to honor on 11:11, but they certainly didn’t limit their scope when deciding how to approach each tune.
“There were no rules,” says Sánchez. He notes that some songs, such as “Hanuman,” were created “in the style of” a certain artist. Others, like “Buster Voodoo,” are far more overt tributes.
And still other songs on the album were written in homage to a specific artist or group yet bear them no resemblance at all. Take, for example, the surging “Hora Zero,” a paean to Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla that is most decidedly not a tango. Or take the album’s third cut, “Triveni,” written in tribute to Le Trio Joubran, a virtually unknown Palestinian oud three-piece that the duo encountered in Paris.
“That track has nothing to do with the music they play,” Sánchez says. “But definitely they have inspired us.”
In fact, Le Trio Joubran were the unlikely inspiration for another song on 11:11, “Atman,” Rodrigo y Gabriela’s tribute to late Pantera lead guitarist Dimebag Darrell, who was shot and killed onstage in 2004.
“The minor scales and Middle Eastern scales on that song, and in a few others on the album, came from their music,” says Sánchez.
11:11 is also notable for the introduction of effects pedals into the Rodrigo y Gabriela oeuvre. The most obvious example is, of course, the Hendrix tune. But wah, flange and even distortion effects are subtly interspersed throughout the tracks. These sounds may jar listeners who have only experienced the pair’s previous studio albums, which are almost virginally acoustic. However, Sánchez points out that they have been experimenting with effects pedals in concert for years.
“It’s been part of our setup for a long time,” he says, and adds that their experience using pedals live made it easier to lean on effects for this record. But do those innovations suggest a hidden desire to plug in once again and revisit their thrash-metal roots?
“I have my guitar backstage and a little amplifier,” says Sánchez, and notes that he typically uses his electric, a Gibson Les Paul, to warm up before shows. He reveals he’s begun plotting an electric side project.
“It’s definitely going to happen,” he vows.
Sánchez won’t dish specific details of the new endeavor, saying only that it will involve friends he and Quintero met in their travels, many of them musicians they looked up to in their metal days. It’s easy to speculate that the group could contain Testament lead guitarist Alex Skolnick, whose jazz-rock trio is supporting Rodrigo y Gabriela on their current tour, including their performance at the Flynn MainStage this Saturday.
In the meantime, fans will continue to swoon, ponder and, yes, rock out to the enigma that is Rodrigo y Gabriela.