The Mars Volta: In Control

By Tom Vale
April 21, 2008

“There’s a misconception that we’re so serious, and we’re so artsy, and we’re trying hard to be tortured,” says Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, lead guitarist and founding member of The Mars Volta. “We have that part, but we have the whole other side too.”

Their music is so consistently ambitious and challenging that one might picture them brooding quietly offstage between shows, working out complicated time signatures or perusing ancient texts. They’re not. They’re just as likely to be listening to Badfinger or watching Reno 911.

This side of them, the unpretentious enthusiasm for ideas, music, art, and life itself, is the most striking thing about Omar and lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala in person. They’re more like passionate college kids than rock stars; they’re eager to bounce ideas back and forth and get at the truth.

They’re also happy just to talk — they touch on Luis Buñuel, Big Star, Pier Pasolini, Family Guy, Radiohead, Drive Like Jehu, and Frida Kahlo. They recommend a series of obscure British comedies; they tell stories from the road. The rapid-fire profusion of ideas should be no surprise to anyone who’s heard their mazelike albums. But they’re also open and down to Earth in a way that’s difficult to reconcile with their onstage command.

Cedric and Omar have been playing and touring together since the early nineties, many of those years as part of El Paso’s influential hardcore band At the Drive-In. The minimal press coverage they enjoyed during their first few years was usually centered on their championship-caliber afros. The band’s reputation has grown since their 2001 breakup, but it was a long time coming.

“We played to five people for ten years,” is how Omar put it. At the Drive-In would eventually release Relationship of Command, an album hailed by many as one of the masterpieces of the genre. Omar and Cedric don’t remember it fondly. The band dissolved soon after.

“Now we look at that band, we look at all the material we presented, and we think, ‘God, it could have been so much better,’” says Omar. “And people think it was so great and blah blah blah, but we were dying inside the whole time. Those records we can’t even listen to anymore. I can’t listen to Relationship of Command. That mix sounds so horrible. It sounds so much like a toy.”

Without second thoughts, Omar and Cedric left a band with newfound success to start something wholly new. Walking away from At the Drive-In, they knew they didn’t want to be stuck with compromises again.

“We said, ‘From now on, we don’t want to be dicks about it, but we’ll make it clear to everybody once they walk in that this is a dictatorship,’” says Omar. “And when we finish this band, we can say, ‘That was great.’ And if we don’t feel that it was great, we can know it was because of us.”

Omar brings this kind of levelheaded, practical intensity to most decisions. The recent decision to close down Gold Standard Laboratories, Omar’s co-run independent label, was made largely because it became too much of a headache, too much of a distraction from the primary goal of creating his own music.

He explains, “It’s hard enough as it is to say, ‘Yes, I will manage a business as well as a creative thing.’ For a creative person, that’s a really hard step to take, to say, ‘I’m going to divide my brain into two parts, and I’m going to tend to one and then the other.’ You lose a part of yourself.”

When the business got too crazy, he shut it down. “We had a great run where we just put out our records and we had complete creative freedom. The only things we had to think about were simple things: let’s get the ads into the magazines, let’s get the bands on the road — the old-school approach, the approach that we come from. Now it’s turned into this thing of, ‘No, you need MP3 players, and you need a little keychain thingy, and you need MySpace.’ That’s what the business has become.

Omar and Cedric’s top priorities are always The Mars Volta and their vision for the band — a vision that can be stubborn and contrarian. “When we started The Mars Volta, we were anticipating all the hate,” says Cedric. “People wanted more At the Drive-In. But we’ve always had very thick skin with that kind of stuff.”

True enough — artistic bravery (or simple restlessness) may be the defining characteristic of the Cedric & Omar team. They gleefully test their audiences. Cedric cites notorious audience baiters Andy Kaufman and Suicide as influences.

“Those stories about Suicide opening for The Cars or Elvis Costello and causing riots because people hated them so much — that’s inspiring,” says Cedric. “I wish I were in that band.”

One of their recent shakeups included the replacement of popular drummer John Theodore. The Mars Volta don’t question Theodore’s talent, but they were losing him to a digital world.

“Video games are cool and all,” says Cedric, “but there’s this whole other world out there.” The new drummer, Thomas Prigden, seems to fully embrace real life; he beams behind the kit like a kid with his favorite toy. At least part of the joy now evident in The Mars Volta originates in Prigden’s heart.

Lineup changes often draw objections from fans. The fact that The Mars Volta have never experimented themselves out of a job is more surprising. This is partly because they’re not always contrary; they’re not always experimental.

The Mars Volta like to push at the sides of conventional music, but they like their regular old rock and roll too. “It’d be boring if it was only experimental music,” says Omar. “You gotta have a good Slade, or Big Star, or Badfinger.” It may be that the war between those two impulses is what provides the backbone for the band’s powerful and precise sound.

Critics often compare the band to Pink Floyd, Yes, and Led Zeppelin; The Mars Volta acknowledge those influences. But the difference between that set of influences and The Mars Volta is like the difference between a doll and a child. You can see how one leads you to think of the other, but if you can’t tell them apart, you’re in trouble.

“People are constantly trying to relate it to the colors that they know,” says Omar. “It’s like we know: blue, green, yellow — Zeppelin, Floyd, Yes. People stick to that, and they say, ‘Yeah, that’s what it is, that’s what it is,’ because they don’t want to invest the time.”

Yet the legendary leaders of Yes and Led Zeppelin have both tried to crack The Mars Volta’s code. “If you ask [Yes keyboardist] Rick Wakeman, he has no way of describing what we are,” says Cedric. “If the main member of Yes couldn’t even say what it is, and it sounded like chaos to him, we’re on the right track.”

As for Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, “He said, ‘It’s wonderful sound. I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t think you sound anything like us.”

The Bedlam in Goliath has already sparked confusion in some quarters. Spin Magazine offered a brief, uninterested review, the most telling statement of which was that “their context has always been obvious.” The reviewer explains that context as prog.

This is a categorization that has plagued The Mars Volta since their inception. It isn’t necessarily wrong; the problem is that progressive rock is an all-encompassing term, ultimately meaning “not simple,” or “features long songs.” But that doesn’t get any closer to explaining The Mars Volta, and it’s usually applied in a dismissive way: it’s just prog, you see, and that’s already been done. Lack of originality is an odd complaint to lob at this band.

Live in Burlington, Vermont to kick off the Bedlam tour, The Mars Volta blast a heavily bearded crowd with a set equally drawn from their four studio albums. The material from The Bedlam in Goliath is staggered throughout, all of it working well. The show is seamless. Their nearly three-hour set passes in an instant. Really, they owe their survival to being a beastly live band.

Their studio albums, however, don’t conjure thoughts of a great live band. The albums are fractured, dense, and difficult for singing or dancing along.

Their eleven- and twelve-minute songs feature nearly formless passages and odd breakdowns of winds, trumpets, and computer beeps. One might think they would struggle to be compelling live, let alone be able to transport their equipment. Yet they’re consistently ranked as one of the best live acts in music.

This is a reputation they fully deserve. They’re punishingly loud. (When the ex-drummer of Suicidal Tendencies offers you earplugs, take them.) They get your attention. They don’t bother much with stage patter, but they project confidence and tremendous focus.

They’re a band in complete control, and they have a gifted sense of dramatic timing — they lack instantly hummable melodies, chants, or traditional crowd-pleasing weapons, but they know how to pull back and wallop the crowd. They know how to tease and deliver.

This precision is hard earned. “I rehearse the band nonstop — as much as I can,” says Omar. “And we do long days. At the beginning, it was very much boot camp. I literally had them rehearsing twelve hours a day.

”They both laugh about the common impression that they’re an improvisational band. “There’s the misconception that even our records are improvised,” says Omar. “Our records are the least improvised of all — they’re complete architecture.

“It’s good on one hand, it’s a compliment, to know that it sounds natural, it sounds like a band playing together, because it’s made as the complete opposite. It’s made one person at a time; it’s made very scientifically, very cold, so it’s great that it comes off warm.

“But when people say, ‘Oh, that’s great, you guys just jam and record,’ on the one hand, that’s great. On the other hand, I want to pull my hair out, thinking of all the work it took to make it sound that way.”

To anyone raised on blues-based rock, their live show often feels as though it’s left the map. But The Mars Volta just have different maps. They take great risks with the audience, veering between thumping rock and roll charisma and introverted noodling.

Cedric is the real showman, whipping the microphone cord in huge loops around himself and frightening the roadies with equipment-endangering leaps and lunges. Omar wears an absorbed and happy expression, occupied with his clear purpose in life.

Together with Thomas Prigden, they form a triangle of power, building a series of addictive, mind-peeling crescendos. The music becomes incrementally more ferocious and mesmerizing. The show has a wavelike rhythm to it; the band pummels you and then pulls you closer. It’s like they teach a new musical logic in the course of a show.

Omar and Cedric speak with great admiration of the filmmaker John Cassavetes, telling the story of how he once overhauled a film because the test audience laughed and cried in all the predictable places.

“He said, ‘They’re seeing all the surface stuff, but they’re missing the point,’” says Omar. The band’s artistic goals are not so far removed from those of Cassavetes. Seeing The Mars Volta live calls to mind Bill Murray’s character in Tootsie, who said, “I don’t like when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, ‘Hey, man, I saw your play. It touched me; I cried.’ I like it when a guy comes up to me a week later and says, ‘Hey, man, I saw your play. What happened?’

By Tom Vale April 21, 2008

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