The eclectic sounds of Rodrigo y Gabriela

Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero came to this beach resort seeking a fresh start after realizing that their Mexico City metal band was a dismal failure.

More than a decade later, Ixtapa is again a haven for them — this time from the rigors of soaring success.

The couple, known as Rodrigo y Gabriela, have lived a story that could have sprouted in Hollywood: The pair swap electric guitars for acoustic ones, move to Ireland to play street corners and develop a distinctive style. Record and movie deals ensue, and a devoted fan base spreads across the ocean. Rodrigo y Gabriela sell more than 1 million albums.

The pair are back and taking a much-wanted breather along the craggy coastline of Ixtapa, where they once strummed covers of Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana songs for hotel guests. In the last year, they've played festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, released a live album and recorded musical scores for two films, the fourth installment of "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Puss in Boots."

The duo also squeezed in time to record a studio album, "Area 52," with Cuban musicians in Havana. The album, reworking earlier Rodrigo y Gabriela songs to lend a jazzy, Cuban flavor, came out last month in the United States and will be released in Mexico in March.

A new album means a new tour, beginning in Europe this month and then shifting to the United States in early April.

Little wonder that Sanchez chugs raw protein by the quart.

Rodrigo y Gabriela's eclectic style of music, all instrumental, has won fans by mixing heavy metal's breakneck energy with a Latin flavor and percussive use of the guitar that evokes flamenco, but isn't. Sanchez leads with pretty, inventive melodies, often at a pace best described as careening. Quintero provides rhythm, strumming and thumping the guitar so fast that her hand seems at times to vanish.

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The couple talked with The Times in their Ixtapa studio, a converted apartment done up with Zen accents and cushions lining a tidy meditation nook. A recording room was set up this day for a YouTube webcast by Sanchez.

Lounging on pillows, Sanchez and Quintero were in a playful mood, cracking up over failed head-banger dreams — "We just realized we were ... terrible," Sanchez says.

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The two, both 38, remain unrepentant rockers and bristle at being marketed as a Latin act. The way Quintero sees it, pop culture is increasingly forced into a "Happy Meal little box."

"In the Latin market, there's pop music, there's DJ music, there's rock music, there's banda music," she said. "So what ... is this ... Latin thing?"

Sanchez and Quintero seem to delight in how difficult it is to pigeonhole their style, which carries far-flung influences, from Metallica to flamenco to acoustic duo Strunz & Farah. Quintero has even found inspiration in an Irish drum known as a bodhran.

To a rock crowd, 90 minutes of live acoustic guitar might sound like a snooze. But Rodrigo y Gabriela keep up a headlong pace, with Sanchez assuming an open-legged stance modeled after that of his metal idol, Metallica's James Hetfield. During solos, Sanchez impishly teases the crowd by throwing in the briefest samples of rock classics (at a December show in Mexico City, it was the opening notes of Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine").

Some have suggested metal acoustic to describe their sound. Sanchez proposes acoustic rock. "With a super-loud PA," Quintero blurts. She doesn't want them to come off like a soft-rock act.

Some critics have dismissed Rodrigo y Gabriela's music as less virtuosity than gimmicky sleight of hand. But as audiences have swelled, admirers say it works, no matter the label.

"It's not flamenco. It's not pure heavy metal. You don't know quite what it is, but it's really catchy," said music producer Peter Asher, who worked with the pair on "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and "Area 52." "They make really great melodies and play them in this special style."

Rodrigo y Gabriela's sound emerged after going to Europe in 1999 and working street corners and small bars from Dublin to Barcelona. On rainy days, they stayed inside and labored over their compositions. They got a break when Irish singer Damien Rice, a former fellow busker in Dublin, asked them to open for him at a concert in 2002. It would set them on a path to their album "Rodrigo y Gabriela," released in 2006. The two moved back to Ixtapa two years later.

Rodrigo y Gabriela have only slowly gained notice in Mexico. Word of mouth is seeping from abroad, though. Besides shows in Mexico City, the duo also played Guadalajara and Monterrey last year, with good results.

Oscar Sarquiz, a noted Mexican music critic, compared Rodrigo y Gabriela's sound to that of "a forest full of animals moving through the trees at high speed."

"They have pieces that are more airy, more meditative," Sarquiz said. "But there are enough things going on so that they aren't boring."

"Area 52," released by ATO Records, was recorded mostly in Havana and includes 13 Cuban musicians, among them drummer Samuel Formell of Los Van Van, plus British jazz pianist Alex Wilson.

The title is a wry reference to Area 51 of UFO fame and meant to evoke the alien sensation of making music in Cuba.

"Going to Cuba for us was like going into a very unknown area of music that we hadn't experienced," Sanchez said. "They understand music in a very different way than we do. They have a very different concept of rhythm. It's like another world."

Both artists conceded that touring with a full band — they plan to invite about half the Cuban players — carries risks after years onstage as a duo. Quintero, laughing, said she will have to learn to play less.

"I'm open to the possibility of really screwing this up," Sanchez added.

Sanchez has begun turning over ideas for the next duo album — maybe something a little moodier, less structured, something with the DNA of the rock of their youth. Quintero says not to over-think the music.

For now, there's time — a little, at least — to lean back on a comfy cushion and savor the remarkable present.

"The two of us — we never have big expectations of anything. Our main rule is to not follow any rule in order to be successful," Quintero said. "This is what we do. Now it happens that a lot of people like it. That's fantastic."

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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