The album is a slap in the face for every rock star who has ever decided to arrange acoustic versions of their songs and forgotten that "acoustic" doesn't necessarily mean "slow and boring".
Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero have been influenced by a variety of music. "Jazz and rock and Latin music and all that", Rodrigo says, "but, definitely, we play like we feel". Gabriela agrees, more forcefully. "I hate to think 'what kind of music I play'... all that to me is shit, to be honest. You play what you can express and people gonna put a label in it."
Their MySpace page lists other bands as "not influences but good links", and a note at the back of Rodrigo y Gabriela's liner booklet reads, "A lot of people, when describing our sound, say we play flamenco. We don't." That's after "Foc", from their Live Manchester and Dublin CD, was included earlier this year on World Music Network's Rough Guide to Flamenco Nuevo. If World Music Network's compiler is reading that, then he must be wincing.
The bottom line is that they don't like to be pinned down. "If people want to say we play dance music or disco music, I don't care," Gabriela says defiantly, "it doesn't change what I play." Yet it's evident that they do care. Listening to all of this, my first thought was, "Oh great, and now I've got to write eight hundred words on two people who hate you if you describe them. Fabulous," but afterwards I realised that to describe something is to take a kind of ownership of it, and if I had dozens of critics writing about me and adding me erroneously to flamenco compilations, and if there was a publicity machine gearing up to break me in the States -- all of these people putting names to something that I wanted to believe was internal, imperishable, and unique -- would I feel pressured; would I want to warn people to get off my back? I think I would. Who wouldn't?
Their careers began in Mexico City. Gabriela acquired a guitar by way of her older sister's "cheesy" boyfriend and jammed with several girl groups during her teens before joining an otherwise all-male metal band of which Rodrigo was a member. Video footage shows them headbanging. There's so much long, dark hair flying around that it's difficult to tell which one is her. The group worked toward a record deal, and then, once they had it, fell apart. "We got what we wanted but it's not really what we wanted," Rodrigo explains.
The pair moved to a small town on the Pacific coast. One of the tunes on Rodrigo y Gabriela is named after that town: "Ixtapa". It's the only track on the album to introduce a third musician, the Hungarian violin player Roby Lakatos, who makes a few improvised contributions. It sounds as if the tune had already been worked out well before he got to it, which makes "Ixtapa" less like a collaboration and more like a well-built house with a ghostly voice drifting in from next door. Their stay in Ixtapa also gave them a title for the first tune, "Tamacun", which is named after a thin, determined man who cares for the region's endangered crocodiles.
After that, they went to Ireland. A Mexican woman had told them that they could stay in her Dublin home, but when they reached her front door they discovered that the offer had been rescinded. They had to busk to support themselves. "It was fuckin great, we made good money and we met loads of people and it was fantastic." It was in Ireland that they began to make a name for themselves as acoustic guitarists; in Ireland they began to put out albums as a duo.
In concert they still look as if they're busking. They dress casually and sit on two plain chairs on a plain stage, whacking and plucking their guitars while the crowd in front of them punches the air as if it's watching a rock band. At first glance this spectacle seems incongruous. Shouldn't two kids with wooden instruments be at the back of a café somewhere, playing to an audience of perhaps ten polite people engrossed in their mocha latte and plates of cake? Shouldn't they be in some downtown dive only known to the cogniscenti? Shouldn't they be, well, smaller? More modest? Folkier? With less of the screaming and the whistling and the hey-hey from the audience? But then you listen and you realise: wait, they're still playing metal, they're still playing rock, and the current of Latin-Spanish folk rhythm that runs through everything they do only serves to make them sound brisker and more exciting.
Once you've heard this album you'll know why Metallica is prominent on their "Not influences but good links" list. (In the liner notes they list the group explicitly as an influence; they cover one of Metallica's songs, "Orion", as well as Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven".) In "Ixtapa" they play a soft passage which you might mistake for gentle scenery-setting, as in an ambient piece, until the music begins to build and you realise that there is an undercurrent of heavy metal threat running through it. They do the Metallica chug -- that is, they have the guitar bite hard on a note, like a bulldog, and then chomp its way forward, grinding down until it lets go. They play with the same energy that Gabriela puts into her interview: the rapid, rebellious cry of someone who doesn't want to be told what she is.
Their speed, along with the Spanish inflections in their tunes, explains their presence on the Flamenco Nuevo compilation. They play with the fiery snap that people associate, rightly or wrongly, with flamenco. Roughly halfway through "Diablo Rojo", the percussion begins to rap and tap like the "typewriter," the flamenco dancer whose heels are flying. There is a lot of percussion on Rodrigo y Gabriela and all of it comes from the musicians' hands smacking the bodies and necks of their guitars, or from their stamping feet. The guitar is harmony, melody, and accompaniment. The album is a slap in the face for every rock star who has ever decided to arrange acoustic versions of their songs and forgotten that "acoustic" doesn't necessarily mean "slow and boring." Rodrigo and Gabriela went in the opposite direction, from electric to acoustic, and listen to the way they spit out that rock!