Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of The Mars Volta
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Is the music of The Mars Volta an exhilarating freeform amalgam of metal, prog, Latin, jazz, and psychedelic sounds, or a windy, undisciplined wankfest? Whatever your opinion of rock's most polarizing major-label band—there's some truth in both viewpoints, actually—at least The Mars Volta isn't boring. The band says its latest, The Bedlam In Goliath, is cursed by evil spirits conjured by a Ouija board that guitarist-songwriter Omar Rodriguez-Lopez purchased while vacationing in Jerusalem. Dubbed "The Soothsayer," the board supposedly brought on a series of calamities during the making of Bedlam: Rodriguez's studio flooded. Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala injured his foot and had to re-learn how to walk. The band's engineer had a nervous breakdown. Rodriguez-Lopez spent 37 straight days in the studio trying to shape the tracks into songs, and couldn't figure out why guitar parts kept disappearing. At one point, he was sure he'd never want to hear this music again once he was finished with it.
Fortunately, The Mars Volta worked hard to de-evil Bedlam before its release, though the mysterious spirit is still there in Bixler-Zavala's lyrics, which are based in part on messages he received via the board from the great beyond. (Fans can also "uncover the dark story that inspired The Mars Volta to produce their latest album" by playing a Goliath The Soothsayer video game on the band's website.) Rodriguez-Lopez recently spoke with The A.V. Club about whether his band is self-indulgent, whether it's cursed, and why people shouldn't hold their breaths waiting for a reunion of his previous band, At The Drive-In.
The A.V. Club: A lot of weird stuff happened during the making of The Bedlam In Goliath. Has any of that colored your feelings about the record?
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez: Not any more. I've been able to come down from the high of that record, or the low. For those of us who battled and overcome drug addiction, it's what it's like when you're a drug addict. You have these crazy realities happening in your head, where once you sober up and become a different person, you look back and go, "What the fuck was I thinking?" But it doesn't take anything away from what you believed was happening at the time. Right when I finished it, I thought, "I'll never hear this record again. I don't want anything to do with it." There was a period of time where I wasn't sure I wanted to play it. Through the months, I've evolved, and I can look back on it now and laugh at it and poke fun at it. It's taken on a completely different meaning. Now it feels like a very positive experience and a positive record for me. It has a feeling and meaning of triumph now.
AVC: Do you still think the talking board "cursed" the band?
ORL: Definitely. Because that was my experience. This explanation is completely reasonable and rational, given my environment and culture and where I come from. You put something out, and you create two sides: There are people who are going to be into what you're doing, and there are people who will make fun of it and shit on it. Both are just as valid, and both mean nothing. As time goes on, you loosen up and realize that's what makes the world so great. You and I can look at the exact same object and call it two completely different things. Just doing interviews has shed a whole new light on that. I do interviews in South America and the Caribbean, and they glance over this whole Soothsayer thing. The most they say is, "What were you thinking? Why would you play with that? Didn't your dad teach you better?" I do the same interview in Germany or Amsterdam, they say, "Wonderful fantasy."
AVC: Is this the sort of thing you seek out? You don't see Maroon 5 messing with evil spirits. But The Mars Volta has a checkered past.
ORL: [Laughs.] I've gone to an astrologer before, and I've gone to a Tarot-card reader. Whether you believe in that type of thing, they both told me in different ways the same thing, which validated what my friends say about me. What the astrologer and the Tarot-card reader told me was, "You're marked. Chaos is attracted to you. Chaos sees you as a portal." People in my band and in my life see me as someone who is seeking out chaos, and that's why it comes to me. And these people who have never met me say because of when I was born and how the planets are aligned, chaos sees me as a portal. So I don't know if we seek it out or it seeks us out, but it's definitely always coming. It was always the joke with our friends: "I shouldn't really get close to you, because if I do, I'll most likely die." Because all our closest friends, they always died, and tragically. We had Julio, who we based our first record on, he died. Jimmy, who would have been the bass player for this band, he died at a very early age. Sara and Laura, two very close friends of ours, and Jeremy, who was in the band. We definitely carry a lot of chaos and drama with us.
AVC: Like previous Mars Volta records, The Bedlam In Goliath takes several listens before it starts to make sense. Is that by design?
ORL: I guess so. It's just a byproduct of the process and inner emotions that are coming out. This music is just therapy for me, as Cedric's lyrics are therapy for him. At times it gets quite layered and convoluted and confusing, but when you step away from it and revisit it—as I usually do years after I made a record—you get into it and find a deeper meaning, and I get to the root of what I was trying to say at the time.
AVC: It sounds like you aren't conscious of the music you're creating as you're creating it.
ORL: I'm just trying to express myself, and get everything out before it leaves me. I hate the idea of intellectualizing my music. That's why I usually don't share the music with the musicians until right before they have to record their parts, because I hate discussing it and just intellectualizing it on any level. I just want to speak from the subconscious, which knows way more about me than my intellectual side will ever know. Once I start doing the arrangements—what I call the architecture of the song—that has a lot of thought put into it.
AVC: Critics often call Mars Volta self-indulgent. How do you respond to that?
ORL: I think it's wonderful. It goes back to looking at one thing and seeing it two different ways. For some people, "self-indulgent" is a criticism. For me, it's a huge compliment. I'm in this to be self-indulgent. I have no idea what I'm doing. My music is my therapy. I go and I ramble on a lot, and I put it down so years later, I can come back to it and say, "Of course, that's what I was feeling." Then I can go back and apologize. I can say to Cedric, "I'm sorry I was being so stand-offish and weird at the time. I listened to the record and realized I was mad about that thing you did 10 years ago." Self-indulgence is a beautiful experience of being a human being. All the teachings of the great masters, or even the most clichéd self-help book, it usually starts with, "You can't love someone until you love yourself." It's a huge part of being a human.
AVC: Now that The Mars Volta has made four full-length records, do you feel the band has a "sound"?
ORL: It's something I'm constantly trying to discover, where our sound can go. The thing is, from the beginning, we've always been locked into a sound by virtue of the structure I made for the group, which is I write all of our music, all of our parts, all of our instrumentation. Cedric writes all of our lyrics and does all the singing. He has a very particular voice, and I have a very particular way of writing. Usually, people can hear our music—whether it's bad and good—and go, "Oh, there's The Mars Volta." Aside from that, you're constantly trying to discover a new way to express that sound, a new way to make the point you're making. A good example is this record we're discussing now. I turned that in six months ago, and ever since, I've been working on the new record. Bedlam is probably our most, for lack of a better word, aggressive record. Naturally, I've been going in the other direction and making a very mellow record. You're constantly guided by the last thing you made.
AVC: The Mars Volta's New Years Eve show in San Francisco included an acoustic set. Is that the direction you're moving in?
ORL: I keep telling Cedric, this new record I'm writing for us, I consider it our acoustic album. Us knowing each other for 17 years now, he understands what I mean by that. It doesn't mean it's going to be an acoustic album in the way that we played it on New Year's. This new record, I consider it our acoustic album, but it also includes electronic instruments as well. It's not a typical acoustic album, but that's the feeling I have in my head as I develop this record. I think about acoustic records I like and how the idea of an acoustic album can be moved forward or just be made something different, a little more interesting. I ran into this same situation when I decided to put out a live record of the band. I listened to my favorite live records, and said, "Okay, that's nice. What would I want as a fan?" When I was a kid, I always wanted little moments about the band on tour, so I could imagine them in my head. You hear our live record, and it starts with sound check and our technicians speaking about what's wrong with the microphone. And then there's us backstage, and then it goes into the concert, and then in the middle of a song, I put in some conversations we had on the tour bus. All these things are really appealing to me. A lot of people who were upset said, "This is not a live album. It includes all this other bullshit. And it has overdubs!" It has no overdubs, it was just mixed in a creative way.
AVC: It sounds like you were going for a documentary feel.
ORL: Definitely. Something more cinematic. That's why I always liked getting bootlegs when I was a kid, these live recordings of The Misfits or The Dead Kennedys. I loved hearing what they were saying between songs. I loved it when guitar strings broke. I loved when there was downtime. I was left to my own imagination to picture what these people were like, and what it was like to be on tour and onstage. It was really fascinating to me.
AVC: You and Cedric have spoken out against slam-dancing and other examples of oafish audience behavior at your shows. Does the audience add or detract from the experience of playing live for you?
ORL: They have the power to do both. That's why it's a hot medium. Recording is a cold medium—you're isolated in your studio, and you try to make the moment as perfect as you can make it. Live, anything goes. You have the interaction with people. When we go and play in South America and Mexico and the Caribbean, people are dancing from minute one to three hours and 30 minutes. It keeps you going and motivated. When you get to a town that's more reserved and internal, you're like, "They just don't like this." Sometimes you play harder, like, "Fuck them!" [Laughs.]
The slam-dancing thing, that's something we've always battled over the years. I think now, more and more, we just let people do what they want. But a lot of times, the younger people, the smaller people, the women—the weaker people—they're the ones at the front, because they geek out and wait all night to see you play. We've seen people get bloody noses, instant black eyes, people hauled off in ambulances, from crowd-surfing and stage-diving. When you remember what it's like to be a kid and go to your favorite concert, and pair that up with getting two black eyes and a broken nose and having to be wheeled off in an ambulance, to some people, that's exciting, but for me, that is the most horrible thing that could happen. It puts you in a negative mood. Especially if it's a woman. Because men usually like that kind of brutality. It's part of the expression they're taught by society as males. You'd wish for something more, but people are always at different stages of development, is what we've realized. You can't tell them how to feel. They'll figure it out on their own when the time comes. But slam-dancing and stage-diving, that's 20 years ago now. You'd think that would evolve into something else. But what can you do?
AVC: The Mars Volta also doesn't play encores. Is it the phoniness of most encores that turns you off?
ORL: Every once in a while—I think it's happened once in the past two or three years—we actually play an encore, and it's completely real. We got offstage and people were going crazy forever and ever. Something about that night, people in the group were like, "Let play another one!" But the whole staging of it—"They're gone now!"—and the lights are off, but you can still see the technicians onstage, tuning their instruments, so you know they're going to come back, it's just not for us. We can go play for three hours, give 110 percent, and then we're pretty much done. I imagine the crowd is, too. I know when I go to a concert, I don't care if it's my favorite band, I usually can't watch for more than an hour. [Laughs.] My ears are done, my legs are done, and I go home and enjoy the memory.
AVC: You've been in bands with Cedric for nearly two decades. What has kept you together for so long?
ORL: I don't know. [Laughs.] I guess it's our roots. We just understand each other. I'd like to say we work at it, but it doesn't even feel like that. It's like falling in love with somebody. We've been making music together for 17 years now. We grew up together. We're childhood friends. Most people don't even have a friendship that dates back to high school. We grew up together on the road, we found love together, we went through romances, we experienced each other's heartbreaks and talked each other through it, we experienced the death of our best friend Jeremy. We've experienced everything that it is to live, and the experience of living is what has kept us together.
AVC: Does being in a band together enhance or put a strain on your friendship?
ORL: Both. It's just like a marriage. When people get married, it enhances their relationship and puts strains on it. All of a sudden there's family involved. There's bills to pay. But the things we're calling strains are really just tests. When you overcome them, you become that much closer. It's always been an uphill struggle with this band. We're constantly replacing people. We have financial troubles, because we don't play the game to its full extent. But we take the battles as they come and get through them.
AVC: You've said anyone who wants to understand Mars Volta should watch Fitzcarraldo.
ORL: It's always been the metaphor of the band, just as the boat was a metaphor for [director Werner] Herzog. The love of something, the love of the process, being able to carry you through to the end.
AVC: You've often talked about being easily bored and restless when it comes to music. How long will it be before you tire of The Mars Volta?
ORL: It remains to be seen. Like anyone else, I go up and down. You wake up some days, and you're like, "Life is great." You wake up other days, and you're like, "This is so shitty. I just want to stay in bed." Right now, I feel confident that as long as I can keep the sound moving forward, this is something I'll be doing for at least another five years. Other times, I feel like the clock is ticking. I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about anything at any given moment. When you feel like you've arrived somewhere, that's the real problem. With the old band, I felt we arrived somewhere. Like, "Okay, this is what our records will sound like from now on." When you keep contributing songs and they keep coming out the same, and there's no room for growth, you got somewhere. That means the lifespan is over. It's death.
AVC: So you don't ever wish for an At The Drive-In reunion?
ORL: Not at all. [Laughs.] It's like going back to an old girlfriend you're happy you got away from. You wouldn't replace the experience at all. I'm like, "I'm glad I met you. I learned so much from you. I learned how not to be. I learned how to be. But I'll be damned if I have to go through it again." We ran out of steam right at the point when the world started noticing what we were doing. Seven years into it, people were like, "Hey, what about these guys over here?" And behind the scenes, I was already thinking, "I guess this is it. It's just more of the same now." I felt like Relationship Of Command, our last record, was just a rehash of In/Casino/Out, and Vaya was the last interesting thing that we did. Cedric and I wrote most of the music for that band, and when you see it put through the wheels of what's supposed to be a democratic group environment, and you see it spit out the same way, you start to learn things. You start to learn that democracies don't work when it comes to artistic expression. You learn that if you don't handle your business, someone else is going to handle it and be sneaky about it, and put an extra dollar in their pocket. You learn all sorts of things you take to your next relationship. You're constantly learning about what you don't want to do, first and foremost, which leads you to what you do want to do.