A lot of your songs have that sort of classical-intro style that a lot of ’80s metal bands used. Which bands or albums influenced your songwriting in that regard?
We got that from ’80s thrash metal bands like Metallica. Their intros to songs like “Battery” or “Fight Fire with Fire” contained elements that were translated from classical guitar. When I first started writing metal songs as a kid, I added that to my composing skills. If there was one album that made a huge impact on me in that way, it would be Testament’s The New Order. That’s how I became a huge fan of Alex Skolnick. What fascinated me were these massive pieces of intricate music before the heavy part came in. It just seemed so mysterious and well executed. There are other genres of music that we blend together and they all have their own aspects that we like to concentrate on, but that’s certainly the one for metal.
I guess what it really comes down to is what we think we can play well. We prefer to keep the sound really tight, which comes down to this type of structure. That also really helps people relate with our music, because it is not a jam-type of music, where it takes two hours or something like that to do a solo. I don’t think that we can do that! [Laughs.] We like to stick to what we do best.
Every song on 11:11 is dedicated to a musician. How did those dedications affect how you wrote the songs?
When we were writing the songs, some of the people we dedicated them to were already in our minds. Some were afterthoughts. That’s because it took a good while to select 11 artists that we both love equally. There is not an act in there that I liked more than Gab, and the other way around. We already had some of the melodies written before some of the acts were chosen, but when we actually started working some of the material changed a bit. A good example would be the title song, “11:11.” We knew we had to dedicate a track to Pink Floyd, so we already had the idea to do something more spacey and open—the Pink Floyd kind of vibe, you know? Some of the tracks, such as “Triveni,” had nothing to do with the dedicated artist’s type of music. That one is dedicated to Le Trio Joubran from Palestine, and it’s totally a Latin influenced track. However, they did inspire pretty much all of the Middle Eastern sound that’s present throughout the entire album. Songs such as “Atman,” which is dedicated to the late Pantera guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, has Le Trio Joubran’s influence all over it. They inspired us to write those types of harmonies and melodies for a lot of the music that we write. At the end of the day, though, we just adapted everything for what we thought was best for each track.
Let’s talk gear for a moment. You guys recently collaborated with Yamaha on the NCX and NTX guitar lines, which are based on their grand concert designs. What sort of input did you provide on those?
Yamaha pretty much followed us for about two years and made us loads of prototypes until we were happy. We gave them all of the measurements from the guitars we were used to playing with—which were also Yamahas. They were more from the classical end of things, with that kind of look and feel. Mine had a very nice neck with a really thin body. We used those guitars for a few years while we were busking, and then when we started playing larger, more proper gigs in Ireland we were approached by a local Irish luthier named Frank Tate. He said he had been building instruments for a while and that he wanted to build our guitars. We told him we were very comfortable with our Yamahas and that we didn’t want to lose the shape, size, and measurements of those instruments. He was free to use any type of wood that he thought would be a good fit, just as long as the measurements of our Yamahas were there. And the guitars he built us were great—acoustically they sounded really good. We still have them, in fact. The only problem with them was that the electronics were weak, and it really started to show when we started playing bigger venues. Since Gabriela plays the top of the guitar with her hands, her guitar tone has to be two separate signals, one from the electric pickup and a mic from the top of the guitar. It got pretty complicated after a while. So, Yamaha approached us at just the right moment.
The main difference now is the electronics—they ended up making an entirely new pickup system. They knew what our needs were and they worked with our sound engineer to get it just right. The system is made up of a lot of piezo pickups, more than just one or two. Gabriela’s guitar, for example, has seven piezos. Mine has five. Also, I like really, really low action. Gab’s is the same way. When I played electric guitar, I had a really thin neck, so the neck on my Yamaha is really thin, too. Probably as thin as you can get on an acoustic guitar, with the action being as low as you can get, too. My guitar also has 24 frets, which is a big difference. Gab’s guitar has more of a classical body shape. Of course, they both have cutaways. They were really dedicated to giving us what we wanted.
Yeah, in our studio back in Mexico, we like to keep our playing strictly to acoustic guitars. We find that a lot of natural elements and sounds come out that way. The idea was to properly translate those sounds in the studio to a big PA setup, to take those acoustic sounds and move them to a rock-band volume level. My requirements for the Yamaha engineers were that the guitars had to avoid feedback, keep the clarity of my percussion parts, and have big bass frequencies. So they put a lot of piezo pickups in the tops of the guitars to pick up the percussion. My guitar has seven spread out across the top of the guitar, so no matter where I hit, it will sound out loud through the PA. They’re always coming up with something new for us, because sometimes we come up with different parts and it ends up being a problem for the sound guy. Then everybody cries and it’s a mess! [laughs] They’ll send one guitar after another, just because they keep developing new things.
Did you use the new Yamahas to record 11:11?
Some parts of the album were recorded with them, and some parts were actually recorded with the old Irish acoustic guitars—because some of the parts needed more acoustic-sounding tones. The new Yamahas are great, but they’re better for live situations, for big PAs and all that.
What kind of strings and picks do you use?
We use medium-gauge D’Addario nylon strings—we’ve used them for years. My picks are the small Dunlop Jazz III picks.
What were your favorite moments from the 11:11 sessions?
I think the best thing was working with Colin Richardson. We were mixing the record in the studio with my engineer—sometimes for 17 hours a day—over the course of five months. It was great, we were using Skype with Colin, and he was sending us the mixes that he was working on. We’d send a pre-mix to him, so he’d get an idea of what we wanted, in terms of panning and all that. We’d finish a song every week or 10 days, fully recorded and mixed to our liking. Then we’d send it to Colin in England and he’d work the track over and send it back with different alternatives and different we’d send a really rough track in and when we’d open the file that he’d send back, the sound would be massive. It was always really surprising in terms of the overall sound, and we’d look forward to getting a new mix from him every time.
Gabriela, what inspired your percussion style—and what did you do to perfect it?
Actually, that technique was almost completely inspired by flamenco music. I’ve always been thrilled by the way flamenco players play rhythms with their right hand—it’s so incredible. I didn’t have any clue how to do it at all. Eventually, I met a flamenco player who taught me one movement, and that was it. I practiced it a lot and tried to copy what other flamenco players did, but I never got it right. Nowadays, I still don’t know how they do it.
We saw some flamenco players in Barcelona years ago, and they had a completely different rhythm style than I have. That’s when I realized my rhythms weren’t like theirs at all and that they sounded “rockier” and far more aggressive. I like it my way more, you know? [Laughs.] I also realized they use their thumb for a plectrum, which makes everything completely different. After that, I discovered some players in parts of Mexico that used really colorful scales that aren’t used that often, and I just adapted some of that and gave it more volume. I never realized while I was living in Mexico that some traditional Mexican music could be so colorful until then. So, basically, all the rhythms that I use I came up with on my own. But I would like to learn how to play traditional flamenco at some point. I just love that music.
Where would you suggest other guitarists start if they want to learn this style?
I wouldn’t recommend taking lessons, because the learning experience should feel a little more free than that. If somebody really wants to learn that style, they should go live in the caves. [Laughs.] Don’t take any lessons. Just learn it on your own as you would a language, and then after you’ve got your own feel for it you can go back and take lessons. That’s actually something that I would like to do when I’m not busy—just live away from everybody else like a wild monkey and learn.