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Gabriela Quintero approaches her guitar percussively, as if she’s playing a hand drum, while Rodrigo Sánchez attacks his nylon string with a plectrum to achieve a more commanding sound. Photos by Jim Mimna.
What did you learn from busking in Ireland?
Sánchez: We learned a lot ... it was like school in a way. For the first time, people really listened to the music—they weren’t getting drunk and talking over it—and we were constantly forced to adapt to new situations. It was a great way to gain experience and confidence, and I would really recommend that all young musicians try such a thing.
Quintero: Ireland’s a very musical country, very alive and progressive, where going out to listen to music is a way of life. Before we moved there we’d been playing at hotels to tourists drinking piña coladas and not really paying attention to the music. Then all of a sudden we were in cold, gray Ireland with our freezing fingers, trying to play for all of these people who were watching us attentively on Grafton Street. Every Saturday, throughout the day we’d play for about 40 minutes, take a little break, and then play for another 40 minutes. We’d be very excited to put new music together and would practice together a lot during the week, up to nine hours a day, refining our concept of the acoustic guitar. Many percussive elements came out of the gig, like using drum ideas to make the guitar sound as if we were an electric rock band. We had so much music going on inside our heads, and in trying to express it, we learned that a lot more things were possible on the guitar than we’d imagined.
How do you feel about your music being categorized as rock?
Sánchez: It might be the closest way to label it, though obviously we don’t have the same instrumentation as a typical rock group. People often think we play flamenco, but they’re totally wrong—obviously they don’t really know what flamenco is. I love flamenco and am friends with some of the great players and love jamming with them. When I get together with Vicente Amigo he might try to show me how to play some flamenco, but when playing with him, essentially I do my own thing, using a pick, and he does his own thing.
Quintero: I don’t really know what our music is. There’s not exactly anything new under the sun. Whether it be in art, cinema, literature, or music, great pieces always bear other influences. So I don’t think we’re totally original, but what makes us different is that we play the acoustic guitar in a nonstandard way, blending two guitars into one sound as if we’re a full band. We do play at rock festivals, but on the other hand, the music is more eclectic than rock. As for flamenco, we don’t even try to play it out of respect to the style. I do have such a love and respect for Paco de Lucía and all those incredible players—and I wish I could play like that—but we must do our own thing.
Tell us about your compositional process—do you work together or alone?
Sánchez: Here’s the way it’s worked since the first album: I write the main melody or riff on my own, and once I think I understand it, I show it to Gabriela. Then when she has done her thing to the music, we both sit with the piece and play it to see what happens. We normally take our time—we don’t write a song in a day—and when we work through new one together, we let it mature on its own and decide where it wants to go.
Quintero: When Rodrigo gives me a little melody, I do take over the rhythm, adding a lot of harmonies and bass lines, things that sometimes influence a melody to change entirely. Then we both work together on the structure of a piece, which involves the longest process of all, even though it’s typically a standard rock form of intro, melody, bridge, and solos. And all of our music is composed from beginning to end—we don’t really improvise within the structure.
What are the secrets to getting the heavy sounds on 9 Dead Alive?
Sánchez: I play with a pick, which is pretty unusual for a nylon-string guitarist. It’s so much easier to play techniques from the rock side of things—like palm muting and power chords—this way than it is with the fingers. With her percussive approach, Gabriela has to work the whole body of the guitar. Translating these sounds live requires the guitar to be outfitted with multiple piezo pickups, like Yamaha has done for us in our signature models. Another thing about playing live is that we try to make the guitar sound as big and natural as possible, often without effects. This is something that’s quite complicated, so I leave it to the sound guy to handle.
Quintero: I might not play flamenco, but I think that a lot of my heavier percussive sounds are inspired by the flamenco approach to timekeeping. Another element is that when we were living abroad we were playing a lot of traditional Irish tunes, and that music often includes a drum called the bodhrán. I learned how it was originally played with a stick, and I translated some of these moves to the guitar. In general, I wouldn’t say there are any secrets to my style—I can teach anyone how to play it if they have enough time. It just takes a lot of determination, plus hours and hours of practice and breaking things down slowly, to be able to produce complicated rhythms using nonstandard approaches on the guitar.
What was it like to record the album?
Quintero: In recording the album, we decided to go without any producer. We wanted to do it ourselves, just two guitars and two microphones, and no effects. It was important to get rid of the metronome, to get a relaxed feel, and from the two guitars we went for a crystal clear sound, warm like candlelight, a very organic sound from the wood and the strings.
Sánchez: We’ve been through periods where we’ve been very anal about recording, using metronomes so that the timing is absolutely tight, so that we come in exactly on the right spot on overdubs. But this time we approached the album with a different kind of process—we wanted it to feel fresher, like more of what we do live or when we’re just playing in a room together. We’re so happy with the sound we achieved for the album. It’s really aggressive, yet clean and natural sounding.
The album’s single, “The Soundmaker,” is inspired by Antonio de Torres Jurado, the father of the modern guitar, and other tracks are inspired by historical figures from Harriet Tubman to Fyodor Dostoyevsky. How did you channel these inspirations into music?
Sánchez: For this album we actually wrote the music first and then chose the titles based on what the composition suggested to us—just like many people choose to do when naming a baby. We tried to tell a story with the titles, and we wanted the dedications to draw attention to things listeners might not know about. Torres, for instance, had a very sad story. He shaped the modern Spanish guitar, but ended up impoverished, and we wanted to bring that to peoples’ attention.