It may be five years since virtuoso guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela last released an album of new material but the Mexican pairing have not fallen silent in the intervening half decade.
Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero have performed for President Barack Obama at the White House, played at Glastonbury festival and wrote and recorded music for two major Hollywood movies. In 2011 they also re-worked some of their best known songs with an orchestra of Cuban musicians.
Now at last Sanchez, 40, and Quintero, 41, are back with their fourth album of original songs, 9 Dead Alive. A pared down affair, it draws the focus back to their intricate acoustic guitar playing, inspired by Latin rock, jazz and heavy metal.
They’ve embarked on an extensive world tour to promote it. When WOW247 catches up with Sanchez, he’s in Scandinavia.
The new self-produced album, I suggest, sounds subtly different from the ones they’ve made with previous producers – whose ranks include John Leckie and Peter Asher.
This time, Sanchez agrees, they’d reached a stage where they knew exactly how they wanted the record to sound.
“Thanks for noticing the difference. We’ve worked with some excellent producers in the past, but this time we wanted a very organic sounding record, as close as possible to the live gig experience,” he says.
“We have a studio at our base in Ixtapa, Mexico; and that is a great creative environment to work in, and we have a superb young engineer who understands what we wish to achieve in the studio.”
With the exception of Torito, a homage to “animals and nature”, eight of the nine songs on the album are dedicated to different historical figures. The likes of the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the Spanish guitar maker Antonio de Torres Jurado and American anti-slavery campaigner Harriet Tubman are all people, Sanchez agrees, who have inspired he and Quintero in some way.
“Definitely, with the dedications on 9 Dead Alive, we wanted to highlight some of the less famous people who we think have done important humanitarian or artistic work. With all due respect, it would be all too easy to dedicate a song to Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. If the album inspires someone to find out more about Tubman, or Jurado, or Nansen; then it will be mission accomplished.”
Sanchez and Quintero first met, as 15-year-olds in Mexico City. Bonding over a shared love of heavy metal, they were a couple for more than 20 years, but in 2012 they announced they’d separated. Yet it hasn’t changed their working relationship, Sanchez says.
“We were a couple for a long time, but we split up a couple of years ago. It’s a happy arrangement, it hasn’t had an adverse effect on the music or playing together.”
He puts the development of their distinctive acoustic playing style down to years of hard graft and extensive travel.
“We played together in a Mexican thrash metal band called Terra Acida. When that band split up in the late 90s we decided to go travelling, and the acoustic guitar was important because it was easy to travel with, it gave us musical freedom, everything after that was simply practice, practice, practice.”
He attributes the step change in his own musical tastes to US thrash metal.
“My elder brother was in a band, and I remember him bringing home Master Of Puppets by Metallica, that was a big moment for me,” he says. “Before that I had been listening to classic rock – Beatles, Led Zep, Black Sabbath.
“When I met Gab she was playing in three bands, but they seemed to do more talking than playing.”
The duo honed their performing style thousands of miles from home – busking on the streets of Dublin.
“We went to Dublin because we knew nothing about the place, other than someone saying it was a good town for musicians,” Sanchez says. “When we arrived, we quickly ran out of money, so we started busking to bring in some cash. I think it helps you understand what works when you are trying to keep a watching crowd interested, and maybe we played faster because it was cold on the streets in Dublin.”
Over the past 10 years Rodrigo y Gabriela have become revered guitar heroes. As for his own own favourites, Sanchez says: “Personally I’m a big fan of Dave Gilmour, Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin and Alex Skolnick. All masters of feel, space and timing.”
Rodrigo y Gabriela play at the O2 Academy Leeds, on Sunday, 7pm, £25, http://www.o2academyleeds.co.uk/event/67590/rodrigo-y-gabriela-tickets