Has there ever been a band less likely to be wildly popular than Rodrigo y Gabriela, who are about to play two nights at the Albert Hall and have a London arena date in the offing? The hit parade is not exactly littered with Mexican instrumental acoustic duos who delight in energetically plucked tributes to historical figures including Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen and Eleanor of Acquitane. But then, who knows what direction the next Justin Bieber album will take?
This is specialist stuff, surely, so what are the pair doing so right? “It is surprising,” admits Rodrigo Sanchez, 40, who is now considered such a major figure in Mexican culture that he and Gabriela Quintero played a White House concert at a meeting between Barack Obama and the last Mexican President, Felipe Calderón. Obama told them he had their music on his iPod; Calderón didn’t know who they were. “It’s a different proposal but people were ready to open up to dfferent ideas,” Says Sanchez.
“I had a very clear idea in my head: I won’t be something that I’m not,” adds Quintero, also 40, in a singsong voice that leaves no doubt that English is not her first language. “I can’t write a friendly radio song. That requires a certain talent. We are not gonna try to be something else — we are this.”
Theirs would certainly be a tough blueprint for copycats to follow. Having begun their music career in the early Nineties in a heavy metal band, Tierra Acida (“Acid Land”), in Mexico City, they moved to Dublin at the start of the last decade to busk as a duo. They started covering hard rock songs in a raw Latin style, including Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and Metallica’s Orion, both of which appeared on their first proper album, a self-titled release from 2006. It was a number one in Ireland, and their popularity swelled to other countries from there.
They strum with violence, their melodies snaking around each other, often thumping the body of their instruments for percussion. And that’s it. No singing, no drums, bass or electric instruments. “We’ve always done exactly the opposite of everyone else,” says Quintero. If it sounds simple, you need to see them live, where fingers blur, feet stamp and the pace and intricacy of their work is almost unfathomable. At their big concerts there are no dancing girls, costume changes or fireworks — the real special effects are the cameras that capture their fiery fingerwork in extreme close-up.
They’ve become a big-time band through word of mouth, not media attention. “We’re not a radio band, but we have played a lot. We develop fanbases just by playing and playing,” says Sanchez. He’s an earnest, smiley guy who’s long since tidied his heavy metal hairdo, a passionate vegan (as is Quintero) who runs for fun and swaps recipe tips with his mate, the American ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek.
Although the duo aren’t big in Latin countries, which presumably have a wider choice when it comes to flamenco-style guitar sounds, these days Sanchez lives in Barcelona and Quintero is based in Ixtapa on Mexico’s west coast. They were a couple but split up two years ago. Thankfully, the working relationship has continued. “We have a really good relationship. Much better actually,” says Sanchez.
“I don’t know how we managed to do it,” says Quintero of touring as romantic as well as musical partners. “We fought all the time. But music was one of those things that we could agree on.”
United about their musical direction, they’ve managed to resist any thoughts of adding lyrics or dance beats to their potent but minimal mix. So they’ve had to find different ways of progressing. Their last album, 2012’s Area 52, saw them revisiting their earlier songs with a Cuban orchestra. They also worked with Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack to the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, On Stranger Tides. Now they’ve given their songs on this week’s new album, 9 Dead Alive, some heavyweight subject matter, dedicating them to eight figures they deem to be of historical importance — four men, four women. The ninth song, Torito, is named after a Mexican cocktail.
You may not hear immediately what the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral has to do with the haunting notes of Megalopolis, or why explorer Fridtjof Nansen is the subject of Fram’s rapidfire strumming. Rodrigo y Gabriela chose their subjects after the songs were recorded, so they’re not directly related to the music, but it’s enough for the duo that you might look them up afterwards and learn something about eight significant lives.
“It’s just part of what we do as part of our expression. We want to make it speak to us on a personal level. Particularly in my own imagination, the music we play is very visual. When I’m playing I have all these images,” says Quintero in an attempt to explain their process.
Essentially, if it didn’t have a subject, it would just be music. But thankfully for those who haven’t read any Dostoyevsky, it’s very good music indeed.
Rodrigo y Gabriela perform at the Albert Hall, SW7 (0845 401 5045, royalalberthall.com) May 20-21.
9 Dead Alive is out this week on Rubyworks/Because Music
The strangest full houses in town
Elvis Presley — Live on Stage
May 24-25, Eventim Apollo, W6
(0844 249 1000, eventimapollo.com)
Rodrigo y Gabriela are far from the only musical oddities selling out massive shows. Elvis was obviously a major concert draw for decades but that was when he was alive. Now the band is real but the star is a projection, singing and bantering in footage lifted from televised concerts. If you’re used to watching the big screen from the back of an arena, it feels surprisingly normal.
Sun Jul 6, Sonisphere Festival, Knebworth Park, Herts (sonisphere.co.uk)
You’ll never hear this Boston-formed band’s uncool mix of prog and metal on the radio, yet they played Wembley Arena two months ago and are high on the bill at the Sonisphere rock festival this summer. Solo piles upon solo in sets of up to three-and-a-half hours.
Video Games Live
Sun Nov 2, Eventim Apollo, W6
(0844 249 1000, eventimapollo.com)
Never mind the songs in the pop charts, what a large number of concert goers apparently want to hear is the soundtrack to Sonic the Hedgehog. An orchestra plays the memorable themes from games old and new such as Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda and Halo, and even accompanies audience members having a go at some arcade classics on stage.
Tue Dec 9, Eventim Apollo, W6
(0844 249 1000, eventimapollo.com)
If you got to the end of the year thinking, “Hey, how come I haven’t been to more Belgian rap shows?”, here’s your chance. Stromae, aka Paul Van Haver from Brussels, had a hit across Europe with Alors on danse in 2010, leading to work with Kanye West and will.i.am. Now he’s written Belgium’s World Cup song and is playing this 5,000-capacity venue.
Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds
Sat Dec 13, O2 Arena, SE10 (0844 824 4824, theO2.co.uk)
One of the biggest-selling albums of all time is also one of the weirdest, a two-disc orchestral prog take on HG Wells’s classic sci-fi tale. In what’s billed as its last arena tour, it will feature an unlikely cast in Jason Donovan, Brian McFadden from Westlife, X Factor alumni Shayne Ward and Joseph Whelan and a holographic Liam Neeson.