Rodrigo y Gabriela return to their roots with a new album

NEW YORK — Years ago, when Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero would show up at some small European town with their acoustic guitars, they loved to tease the audience.

People would spot the two Mexican artists and assume they should brace themselves for some sort of classical or traditional performance. Then Sanchez would play a little "Stairway to Heaven." Giggles would fill the pub or community centre.

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"If we're playing two nylon-string guitars, you're not supposed to play Led Zeppelin or Metallica," Sanchez said. Quintero, of course, was in on the joke: "You break the cliche."

Rodrigo y Gabriela have been busting musical barriers ever since, melding the power of thrash metal with fiery Spanish melodies. The acoustic, instrumental rock duo has gone back to those memories to create "Mettavolution," their first album in five years.

"The challenge for me and Rodrigo was to reconnect with that original idea — just doing music that is authentic to us and that is genuine," said Quintero.

"Mettavolution," a word they created to mean evolution through compassion, offers six original tracks and one ambitious cover — a 19-minute version of Pink Floyd's 1971 epic song "Echoes."

For the album, producer Dave Sardy added some bass, synths and percussion for texture to Sanchez's mesmerizing finger-picking, and Quintero acts once again as the rhythm section — complete with her drumming on the guitar body.

Intriguingly, the duo added lyrics to many tunes but didn't record them. "I think it was a very important change in the way we approach music in this album because it made it much more melodic," Sanchez said. They hinted that perhaps they may one day release the tracks with a real singer aboard.

The pair has long done covers of other artists' songs and Pink Floyd is a favourite band. They wanted to do their version of "Echoes" for at least 10 years but only attempted it last year for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. A representative from their record label came and loved it, insisting it appear on their next album — something Rodrigo y Gabriela had quietly wanted.

"Echoes," with its lyrics about reconnecting to humanity, also works into the theme of the album. "I think we are at that age where you start to think differently now. And to understand that life is about all of us — we are this one entity here," says Sanchez, 45.

Listening to Sanchez and Quintero play, it's hard to believe two people playing guitars can make music this powerful and absorbing. It's even harder to believe that they're self-taught musicians.

"This is my theory: Because we didn't go to school, we've got no boundaries in our heads," says Quintero, 46. "For us, it was not sacrilege to try to jam with any piece we both liked. It could be a punk piece to any classic sort of thing."

Both began their careers playing in a little-known Mexico City speed-metal band. They then teamed up, moved to Ireland, and played unplugged Slayer tunes on the streets of Dublin until the 2006 release of their self-titled U.S. debut.

Along the way they got plenty of advice, particularly from people suggesting they add a vocalist because radio wasn't receptive to instrumental music. They refused.

"Our meaning of success was playing guitar and travelling the world. So we already made it from that point of view," Quintero said, laughing.

Looking back, they say they've become less perfectionistic. It's not about playing every note perfectly but being present and letting the music speak.

"I mean the notes have to be the right notes, obviously. But it's more important to understand that you play with heart, with soul, and if you miss one or two notes, OK. It doesn't matter if you know the interpretation was good," says Sanchez.

Asked if they've yet reached the limit on what they can do on two acoustic guitars, the pair laughs.

"Twelve notes for everybody, from Mozart to punk. That's it," says Quintero. "The acoustic guitar has no limits. It's just endless."

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Online: http://www.rodgab.com

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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