A HIGH(ER) VOLTAGE The Mars Volta

The Omar
Rodriguez-Lopez of 2012 is a far different person than the rigid “Little
Hitler” who ended his first band over a decade ago. He tells BLURT why.

 

BY RYAN REED

 

Just as I ring up Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (the producer/arranger/guitarist
responsible for every proggy, schizophrenic second of The Mars Volta’s six
full-length albums), the restlessly creative boundary-pusher is – for the first
time in his winding, unpredictable career -preparing to take his first
baby-steps backward. He’s less than an hour away from his first rehearsal with
At the Drive-In, the pioneering art-punk outfit co-founded in 1993 by his best
friend and current collaborator, frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and
guitarist-vocalist Jim Ward.

 

Rodriguez-Lopez isn’t much of a reminiscer, especially when
it comes to creativity. Not mentioning his work on multiple films, he’s written
and produced over 30 collaborative projects in the last decade, not including
his work with The Mars Volta, the critically acclaimed (and extremely
adventurous) band he created with Zavala after At the Drive-In’s 2001 demise.
For Lopez, “the process is the point.” The experience of creating
music, the challenge of pushing forward to wherever his muse takes him next, is
far more important than whatever the end result happens to be. So for many
critics and fans, the odds of an At the Drive-In reunion (at this point, solely
limited to a handful of live performances, including the Coachella Festival)
seemed as likely as a Beatles reunion.

 

But the Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of 2012 is a far different
person than the rigid “Little Hitler” (as he was dubbed by his Mars
Volta bandmates) who ended his first band over a decade ago. In The Mars Volta,
in which he composes and arranges music for every single instrument, Lopez grew
to be a studio dictator, teaching his players their parts individually and
leading them through a blind recording sessions with no idea what the final
product would sound like. He was controlling, obsessive, possibly even a little
out of his fucking mind. Which, ultimately, has led to an endless series
of band firings (particularly on the drum throne) and a blindingly fast
creative speed that ultimately left Zavala, his longtime creative
partner-in-crime, with a sour taste in his mouth.

 

After finishing sessions for 2009’s dreamy, atmospheric Octahedron,
Lopez immediately began work on the next Mars Volta album, a series of
stripped-down, emotional (and slightly futuristic) tracks, which he promptly
handed over to Zavala. Under pressure from Lopez, and needing more time for his
heady lyrical concept to bloom, Zavala threw up his hands in frustration,
leading the duo’s first major point of creative tension. Eventually, Lopez
relented, giving the singer the time and space to finish the job properly – and
the result is Noctourniquet, the band’s finest, most direct collection
of songs since their brilliant debut, 2003’s De-Loused in the Comatorium.

 

These days, Lopez has a new outlook on life. Though Noctourniquet still reflects his studio dictatorship (or “the end of an era,”
as Lopez puts it), it’s an album exploding with emotion and sonic
possibilities. Lopez’ once furiously overdubbed guitars are trimmed to a
strikingly melodic core, the band’s sound now dominated by spacious
synthesizers, the pulsating rhythms of newly implemented drummer Deantoni
Parks, and Zavala’s robust voice, which alternates between angelic coos and
demented rumblings. Though he says the next Mars Volta album will be the
product of an actual band (one built on collaborative ideas and, you
know, fun), it’s easy to see and hear the fallen dictator’s openness
already.

 

***

 

BLURT: I know you were kind of the straggler when it came
to the At the Drive-In reunion, and I know Cedric was influential in convincing
you to agree. I’m wondering about why you agreed to participate – is it because
of your philosophy at the moment of being less controlling and more open to new
experiences in both life and music?

OMAR RODRIGUEZ-LOPEZ: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s in
line with just the way I’m experiencing life now – which is exactly that,
wanting to be less controlling and less hung up on stuff. And you know, it’s a
whole lot more lighthearted now because so many years have passed, you know?
And we’ve all talked for the past three years, and we’ve all become friends
again. And then somebody offers you work the way Coachella did, and you’re just
like, “Oh, well, why not?” It’s like the same way you were
mentioning. It’s like, I was the last one to get onboard, and Cedric was like,
“Get over yourself!” And just that one way of looking at it makes you
go, “Yeah, I guess that would be pretty cool – hang out with everybody
again and play those songs.” And now would be the moment to do it – because
I can’t see myself doing it at 40, and I’m getting there, you know? (laughs)

 

When I talked to you last year, around the time of your
solo compilation, we talked a lot about your relationship with Cedric and how
you guys came to that point of tension. I know you don’t tend to look back on
your work, but when you listen to the album or play these songs live, do you
hear that tension between you and Cedric, or do you hear the resolution to that tension?

No, I don’t particularly hear the tension just because the
tension happened afterwards, you know what I mean? Since these songs were
already recorded. The songs themselves remind me of a completely different era,
but as a whole, you hit the nail on the head. As a whole, as looking at far
away and not particularly the songs or the era but as a whole, as a finished
thing that is now coming out, it definitely symbolizes the revolution that
you’re speaking of. Because I know for me that that album is the last of its
kind, that I’m not gonna run The Mars Volta in that way anymore. That’s exactly
what it symbolizes.

 

There’s definitely a newfound emphasis on keyboards and
synths on Noctourniquet, which I find interesting because that’s
actually happening after Ikey (keyboardist Ikey Owens) left the band. I always
loved Ikey’s parts in the past, but they always felt a bit buried in the mix
and were never really the emphasis of a given song. Did you go in that
direction just to try something new for yourself, or were you inspired by
anything in particular?

It was really just to do something new. It was really just
what I was going through in the sense of realizing how my own totalitarianism
and my own obsessiveness of doing my band the way I wanted had sort of
alienated everyone close to me. So I started doing less guitar. What you have
to understand is that’s the reason why Ikey quit, for example: I write all his
parts, and he’s just sitting there playing. It’s not fun for him. It hasn’t
been fun for anyone in the band. They’re just used as puppets. It’s not like a
normal band where people get to hang out in the studio and everybody shares
ideas, and someone says, “I like that” and another guy says,
“Oh, I’m not sure!” And then you get to the mix or whatever. For 10
years, I just brought someone in, showed them their parts, and as soon as they’re
done, I kicked them out. They didn’t get to go to the mix, they didn’t get to
hang out, they didn’t get to do anything. So it hasn’t been fun for people.

        So after 10
years, I started to realize the fact that I was alienating all these people who
were kind enough to play my music for so long. So when I would get upset and
fire people, I would later realize I gave them no reason to be excited in the
first place, so of course it was going to go down this path. And so this time,
I just wanted to have more of an emphasis on these keyboard parts that I’d been
writing, and for whatever reason when I go to the mix, I always push the
guitars more – I guess because I literally played the guitars. And on this
record – Lars Stalfor (the band’s engineer, who also plays keyboards live) is
just a live musician. He didn’t play anything on this record, and neither did
my own brother (keyboardist-percussionist Marcel). I played all the keyboards
on this record. So this time, it was like, “Fuck, if there’s ever a moment
to do it and push the keyboards, it’s now.” It wasn’t because -t he
difference before, I pushed the guitar because I literally played it. I wasn’t
pushing the keyboards because I played them because again, I’d written all the
parts, so you’d think I’d want them all to be heard. It’s because the guitar
represents more of that old persona of myself, that old controlling person, and
that’s what it started to represent for me. And so I just chose to have those
lower in the mix and have them be less and strip them down. For me, it was a
symbolic way of sort of killing off that era.

 

The chorus to “Dyslexicon” is one of my
favorite Mars Volta moments ever. Cedric sounds so confident and powerful
throughout this album. Do you think simplifying the arrangements and being less
of a studio dictator has given him more confidence?

I think in his own life, he was going through things that
gave him a lot more confidence. Again, this record symbolizes the last of its
kind. I wasn’t any less of a dictator on this record. This record is literally
the nail in the coffin. This is the last record where we’ll hear how The Mars
Volta has been in the past 10 years, which is just my project, my thing. It
hasn’t really been a collaboration, which is what Cedric and I realized. It’s a
collaboration when you do something together. Mars Volta has always been: I
make these tracks, I write all this shit, and then I record it all and hand it
over to him, and he writes his lyrics. So in that sense, it’s more like a pop
act or a hip-hop act. Somebody has tracks, and somebody else sings on them. So
what I do is completely independent, with little to absolutely no input from
him, and what he does has little to absolutely no input from me. So I think for
both of us, and for him, knowing that this was going to be the last of its
kind, you give it your all. And plus, I think it’s reflective of what he was
going through in his life in that moment.

 

Do you know what he was going through at the time that
would have boosted his confidence?

He sobered up, you know? Something I did years ago – and
that’s something that gives you a whole different level of confidence.

 

There seems to be a lot of confusion and
misinterpretation from the press about Cedric’s lyrical concept for this album.
I know it has something to do with the Solomon Grundy nursery rhyme and
some Greek mythology. Do you have any personal interpretation of the concept?

I don’t. Simply again because it’s always been two things
that are done completely independent from each other. He writes his lyrics, and
I’ve never once asked him what a lyric means in our whole time writing
together. My job as a producer is to make them blend and make them seem like
one cohesive thing. So I know what you know – what he said. He was listening to
The Cockfathers, and I know the Solomon Grundy thing. There’s a big Scientology
thing, too, because he’s into that. That’s the stuff he’s into, and I’m into
other things. So I’m not exactly sure what the concept is.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Eliot Lee Hazel]

 

 

 

 

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