If you ask Rodrigo Sanchez, one half of the fleet-fingered Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, what the COVID-19 personally wrought for him, know that it would be spiritual enlightenment. Having contracted COVID-19 in the early part of the pandemic, Sanchez’s bout with the coronavirus came at a time when he and creative partner Gabriela Quintero were figuring out how to follow up the duo’s prior outing, 2019’s effort Mettavolution.
RyG’s fifth studio album, which also netted the twosome a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, was influenced by Sanchez and Quintero’s longtime interest in Buddhism. Having already been well down a path of spiritual searching, being put at an existential crossroads due to his having contracted a disease that upended Sanchez’s sense of mortality led to his discovering Advaita Vedanta, a Hindu philosophy rooted in the concept of nondualism. It was a game-changing moment that not only led to his sharing it with Quintero in the studio they built in the remote Mexican city of Ixtapa back in 2008, but influenced the creative direction they were going with what became their new album, In Between Thoughts…A New World
”While I was sick and recovering, I went back to the studio and talked to Gab about it and she thought I was crazy and started asking me what I was talking about,” Sanchez explained. “She thought it was nonsense and I said I didn’t know how to explain it, but then I started to share stuff and it became mind-blowing for her. We started working and recording this album. We didn’t know that the world was going to continue so we were just doing what we do. Gab had said recently in some other interviews that we were like musicians on the Titanic. We had to be playing anyway and we kept playing while the ship was sinking. We started recording because we were thinking that while we didn’t know what was going to happen, we had to do something. We were so inspired by this self-realization. It was so liberating. Things are happening and we cannot fight it. This is what’s happening—it’s up to us what we do with it. The album is like a soundtrack if you pay attention to it.”
Recorded back in February 2021, In Between Thoughts took six months to complete. While RyG’s trademark flamenco-flavored playing and interaction were front and center, Sanchez and Quintero were incorporating stylistic nuances into their process from adding analog synths, Mellotron and other electronic instruments into the mix to connecting with Vienna-based composer Adam Ilyas Kuruc to have him contribute lush string arrangements and powerful percussion, no mean feat during a time of stringent social distancing.
“We couldn’t travel anywhere but we knew this guy in Europe and asked him about some orchestral arrangements,” Sanchez said. “First of all, he actually sent an incredible arrangement with super high-end samples. It sounds great but we asked what it would be like if he got an actual orchestra. He went for it. Orchestras weren’t really working but the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra was actually doing recordings in Sofia, Bulgaria. He contacted them and asked if they’d be up for doing this and they agreed. He drove over there and it was so exciting to see in the middle of this silent world this orchestra recording the music there and getting the music from this guy. It was awesome.”
Despite clocking in at just over a half hour, this nine-song collection of songs provides plenty of musical manna. Highlights range from “The Eye That Catches the Dream,” which starts off on a subtle acoustic guitar intro before veering into a frenetic cavalcade of thumping cadences to the album-closing title track which is an auditory parry-and-thrust between RyG’s kinetic strumming and the orchestra’s bold string section. Elsewhere, “Egoland” chugs along a reverb-soaked cadence reminiscent of a distaff spaghetti western vibe while “Broken Rage” occasionally gives nods to the duo’s unplugged hard rock roots. Most pleasing for Sanchez was how organic the whole process wound up being.
“It was all a flow where we had no expectations,” he said. “I can only imagine how the record Gab and I had to put out after the Grammy and not dealing with a pandemic. We’d just be wondering what we’d be doing. I’m so happy that we didn’t have to go through that. It was just pure joy and it was evolved the way it evolved. The names of the songs are pointing to this thing. We were writing a story as we were recording. When we finished the album and its nine songs, it just stayed like that. We were recording as we were writing. The process was so different. And as well we started adding electronics. It wasn’t like we approached this like we were going to do ‘the new album.’ We had no limitations whatsoever. The whole thing changed our lives completely.”
This current chapter of the story of Rodrigo y Gabriela not only features a new album, but a host of sea changes.
“Many things happened during this process,” Sanchez said. “Our long-term relationship with our management—an Irish company—ended. The record deals ended, so we had to have a new record deal in place. We didn’t have management. We felt like while this may not be the end of the world, maybe it was the end of our careers. Once we had the album selections and saw the world was coming back, we thought about getting a record deal and then how to deal with our management situation. We put together some listening sessions in L.A. for some people. We called our long-term partners—ATO Records. We didn’t have a deal in place. We called many other record labels. They loved the sound and that was a good sign for us. We knew we’d get a deal for sure. We’re thankful for everything we did before with our old team. But having new people on board was so incredibly exciting because we saw new excitement and people that were going to kill for the album. We got the best record deal of our careers 20-plus years into it. And not only that, we’ve started working on a new album [to follow up In Between Thoughts] since then. We have to put a message out there and we need artists to work on this album.”
These changes have extended to RyG’s live show, which will be heavy on the new music the duo is currently creating.
“We have a full-on, different show because we have these visuals that go with the backing tracks that are connected through time codes for us to play the album fully the way it is,” Sanchez said. “It’s a totally different experience. We’re doing meet-and-greets after the shows. Gab and I never had this. We’re so happy that the message is getting out and that people are questioning the concept because they recognized something through the music. We get confused sometimes when we see this because it’s some other form giving us this freedom or feeling. But it’s not that way. It’s something that we really fell in love with. We fell in love with our own beings. It’s just magical.”