Rodrigo y Gabriela play a trio of UK dates this week – they played Glasgow yesterday (21 February) Manchester‘s HMV Ritz tonight (22) and London‘s O2 Academy Brixton on Friday (24) – as they tour their latest album Area 52. With the record seeing the Mexican duo reworking their songs with a host of international collaborators, we spoke to Rodrigo Sánchez about adapting his own songs, his experiences of going from being a duo to a cast of thousands, their friendship with Muse, plus find out which one of them really wears the trousers in the band…
Hello, how the devil are you?
“Just arrived in Dublin to start tour rehearsals; great to be back in Ireland.”
You’ve reworked a lot of your songs for your new album, what inspired you to take this approach?
“Honestly, the original idea I had at the outset didn’t come out the way I thought it would. It started like a project in the middle of two albums, but my first notion – work with a Latin band – arrived and we liked the idea. Then I thought some more on it and settled on Cuba. We both grew up in very musical families, as in they both listened to lots of different kinds of music. So we would both been exposed to Cuban traditional music through our grandparents. We had been touring hard, and also working on film soundtracks; so hearing our songs played in Cuba by a big band seemed like a fun and interesting thing to do. Then it turned into something much bigger than we originally anticipated.”
Did you feel some songs needed to be expanded? Have any songs surprised you by the way they evolved during recording process?
“We worked with a British arranger and pianist called Alex Wilson; the first arrangements he did were terrible to listen to because the samples he used were really cheesy; but you could hear the brilliant ideas hidden in the tinny sound. It’s a big band on the album, 13 musicians, and me and Gab. So he was arranging for that big Cuban sound, but with a contemporary edge. I’m delighted with the way that 11:11 came out. The original was a Pink Floyd tribute, so now you’ve got this Gilmour goes Cuban fusion which is what I was hoping for. I find our earlier records hard to listen to, ‘cos I always think things could be improved, but I’m enjoying listening to this for the quality of the musicians involved.”
Which came first, the musical direction or the collaborators?
“First it was the decision to go to Cuba to work with local musicians. We had a guy on the ground there who sent us clips of the players on YouTube to pick the best ones. We knew that we didn’t want Buena Vista Social Club, it had to sound more modern. They understood that we came from a rock background, and that the rhythms couldn’t be all traditional Cuban.
Can you talk us through the people you’ve collaborated with for this record? What did they bring to the record?
“In the Cubans, you’ve got local legends like the bass player Feliciano Arango Noa who has played on over 200 albums. Los Van Van were in the studio next door, so we managed to get their drummer Samuel Formell Alfonso to guest on Santo Domingo and he just came in and nailed it. When we had finished basic tracking in Havana we came back to Mexico and Carles Benavent came over from Spain to play bass on a couple of tracks. He’s one of the flamenco jazz greats. We felt a couple of tracks needed a bit more of a metal base so we did a couple of tracks with John Tempesta on drums in LA, as we love what he did in White Zombie. I knew Anoushka Shankar so I asked I asked her to add sitar to ‘Ixtapa’ which she did in London. It’s a very international record.”
The albums is called Area 52, do you believe in aliens?
“The title is kind of playful. We had never been to Cuba before and hadn’t met the band until we arrived in Havana so it was a bit of a step into the unknown. The skill of the Cuban players was a revelation, literally out of this world ability, so they were like aliens to us.”
How does this record translate live, are there hundreds of you on the road now or just the pair of you trying to sound big?
“Well we are in rehearsals with the band in Dublin at the moment, working hard to get the sound right. Alex Wilson is putting the band through their paces, there are seven of us on stage for the forthcoming shows. The crew has been bigger than you might think for the last few years. You end-up with extra crew for sound and lights when the venues and festivals get bigger because we like to put on a good show for the fans. We did a back to basics tour around Europe at the end of last year, just five of us in total, and that was good fun to be small and mobile again.”
There are some solo slots in the live show now, how does it feel to be onstage without the other?
“It’s cool. We’ve had the solo spots in the show for a few years now. It’s the part of the show where you don’t know what is going to happen, you improvise or you might take requests from the audience. It’s good to have a space that keeps you guessing and keeps it fresh for both of us and for the fans.
Do you find fans like one of you over the other?
“Good question. Put it this way, I don’t think either of us is planing on doing a solo tour anytime soon.”
Talking of fans, Muse have championed you a bit and you played Wembley Stadium with them. Were you surprised by their interest, and what do you have in common as musicians?
“Well that’s just one of those nice things that you get offered and it was great to play there, especially as a football fan. There were a few other bands on as well. We like Muse I don’t know what we have in common with them. We’d have to swap iPods to check that out.”
What have you got planned for you next album, even bigger, back to basics or something else)?
“I don’t know at the moment; I can just see the tour for Area 52 stretching out into the summer for now, so let’s see how this goes. We might go full electric, we might go back to basics. I think Area 52 has opened our eyes to the possibilities of future collaborations. That’s the great thing about being a two-piece, we have complete freedom to do whatever we want next.”
Finally, who is the boss Rodrigo or Gabriela?
“It’s a democracy!”
Head to Rrodgab.com for more information and music.