Interview: The Mars Volta
Thu, 08 May 2008 15:08:25
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The Mars Volta's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is one fiery individual. Not only does he set guitar fret boards ablaze with his fleet-fingered virtuosity, he's one opinionated dude, to boot. He isn't afraid to speak his mind, regardless of who's listening. Yet, isn't that what artists are supposed to do? They're here to challenge and inspire us, and Omar sees that as his purpose. He walks around backstage at an Austin theater, emanating passion.
His most recent Mars Volta album The Bedlam in Goliath sees the band at their most kinetic and cohesive yet. It's a psychotic, polyrhythmic headtrip destined to satisfy Mars Volta fans and prog aficionados alike. The album highlights their weirdness, while featuring some infectious melodies. Of course, the long, epic numbers are there, but as Omar shows, everything has a planned structure. In this exclusive interview, Omar delves into Bedlam and much more for ARTISTdirect.
What's the concept behind The Bedlam in Goliath, lyrically and musically?
All of this music was written almost two years ago now, during the Amputechture-era. While mixing Amputechture, I was writing Bedlam. I took a trip to Jerusalem. That was my first time off since I started the band. I took a ten-day vacation, and I got a lot of nice field recordings. I bought a lot of things for people, too. I found an antique talking board there, and I bought that for Cedric. That became his focus for the lyrics and part of the concept for Bedlam. For me, I wrote most of the music in the midst of boredom, while mixing Amputechture. I say "boredom," only because mixing a record is such a painstaking process, not because I don't like the record; that's probably my favorite record.
Where Amputechture was more free form, Bedlam feels more direct. It sounds less improvised and jammed out.
There's no jamming on any of our records, really. Everything's structured. It's good that it comes off that way, because of the amalgam of architecture and science that goes into it. It's good that it doesn't sound like a science experiment, but that it actually sounds organic—like people jamming. All of our records have a very specific architecture, and all of them are in complete contrast to each other. When you make a record, you're about to move onto the next phase of your life and do something expressive. So you find a way to divorce yourself from your old clothing, your old skin and your old voice. Amputechture's architecture was much broader. It had much bigger hallways and a lot more space. Amputechture was the water element. It was about things that are see-through, like jellyfish and other entities you can actually look through. When I started writing The Bedlam in Goliath, the natural reaction was to revolt completely against that. I wanted the opposite of big hallways. I wanted claustrophobia. I wanted small closet spaces. I wanted darkness, the opposite of see-through. I wanted the fire element, the opposite of water. That's what was in my head when I was writing Bedlam, because creation is always in direct revolt to what I just did, especially since I was writing Bedlam during the mixing process for Amputechture. By then, I was so sick of Amputecthure that Bedlam had to be in complete contrast to it. Because of that, Goliath seems more structured, and it's definitely more to the point, in that sense. Amputechture was about space and big hallways. It was also about storytelling in the form of crescendo. Amputechture begins with one sound that turns into another sound. Then that sound turns into a guitar. One guitar becomes two guitars, which morph into the voice. So when I started this record, I thought, "Ok, what's the opposite of that? I want the whole band to be playing from the very get-go." No sound, nothing, it just starts. It's completely claustrophobic, and it becomes total asphyxiation until the end. I wanted the lack of the space, and I wanted every single moment to be filled with notes or sounds.
Amputechture sounded more cerebral and Goliath definitely has more of a physical sound. Would you say that's the case?
Yeah, I agree completely. I'm glad that it sounds like an evolution, because that's what it feels like. I'm just recording and writing all the time. Most of the songs start out on guitar, piano or bass. Within the structure, there is space for expressive playing like guitar solos. Those solos counterbalance the fact that there is so much architecture. The structure gets a bit daunting after awhile, so there has to be open spaces for expressive playing. That way you can escape the structure and play from the inside, rather than the blueprints.
Were you manipulating a lot of different chord voicings?
Yeah, a lot of this stuff comes from a different place. Normally when I do interviews, I get criticized a lot, and people ask, "Are you trying to be complicated? Are you trying to outwit us?" It's difficult to explain to someone that, first of all, it has nothing to do with him or her. I'm not thinking about them or anyone else when I'm creating a record. Second of all, these people make it way more complicated than I ever could, because for me, it's just sheer boredom. I'm trying to fight boredom. If I'm doing a certain style of chords or phrasings for a long time, it's only natural to want to escape that and do something different. If I've been used to a certain structure, I'm going to manipulate that structure, because I want to experiment with things, because they become boring. Similarly, if you were raised in some religion, and you've only had sex in a missionary position, you start experimenting out of sheer boredom [laughs].
Well, The Mars Volta's always been a very natural and honest band. It is what it is?
Yeah, I'm glad that comes across! It is what it is. People are quick to snap. You know how it is. For a lot of people, it's easier to hate something than it is to love it. It's easier for people that don't have their own creative outlets to just tear down what other people do and try to attach all this meaning to it. Like I said before, people are always like, "You're trying to write complicated!" Man, I wish I could take all of these people and have them hang out for a week and see what it's really like. It's a lot more boring and mellow. They're the ones that attach complexity to it.
The Mars Volta is like the musical equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting. With Pollock, there are a lot of different layers to the paintings. There's a lot going on, but at the end of the day, it's just art. Similarly, you have a lot of different musical layers and a lot going on, but at the end of the day, it's just music.
I'm just a person expressing inner feelings that we all have. People think we're trying to be complicated. You have to point out to them, "You are a dynamic person. We all are. We don't feel one way all the time." We wake up, and in the span of a day, we can go through many different emotions. You can wake up, be angry and not even know why. Then you talk to a nice girl, and you feel better. Or, you make jokes with your friends, and someone pisses you off. We're constantly on a rollercoaster of emotions, and that's all that music is. For those of us where it's coming from an honest place, and it's not to make money or for fame, it's truly an expressive form—what people refer to as "art." Really, it's simpler than that. It's just expression. It's been here since the caveman. The people who didn't go out and hunt said, "My job is to make the drawings about the motherfuckers that go out in the field." That's all we're doing. We're just making personal pictures of what's happening in our lives.
Each record chronicles a point of your life.
Definitely, that's why they all sound so different. That's what's so strange about fans and critics. If they do end up liking a record by a certain band, then they just want the band to repeat that record over and over. They say, "Oh this sounds different than De-Loused, and we liked De-Loused better. Then Amputechture sounds different than Frances, we liked Frances better." There's no way for an expressive person to ever truly get stuck on one area of his or her consciousness. It's just completely impossible, because then they wouldn't be expressive. They'd end up having the same personality and doing the same things that they were doing five years ago. I, and most of the people around me, can't live that way. It's not enough for us. We need more to keep us interested. We need more to make us feel like we're living good lives. Who wants to be as selfish and stupid as they were, when they were 15? It's good to see things change. It's good to see old ideas die and new ones born. It's good to lose your selfishness and arrogance and grow into the world.
Fans and critics get so wrapped up in one record, because it really meant something to them at a point in their lives. They can't do anything themselves about it, so they want to rely on the band to replicate that same feeling for them.
Definitely! Then they get mad at the band, because they're not replicating that same feeling for them. Fans and critics have to realize that when it comes to honest music, it's not about them [laughs]. That's an easy assumption to make, because we're all selfish. I'm a completely selfish person. I say to you now, "I make this music completely for me, and I don't care what anyone's thinking about it or feeling about it, because it makes me happy." On the other end is what you're talking about. If a fan or a critic loves something and it makes them feel good, that selfishness comes in, and they say, "I want that again. They didn't do that again, and they're stupid! They're new album sucks! I can't relate to it anymore." They have all these things that they hold onto. Even people in the underground do this. They end up becoming the Republicans of music. If music were a country, they'd be the Republicans. They're the old has-beens sitting in their own juices, waiting to keel over, while the rest of us are ready for some sort of change and revolt. That's it. It's just so hard for them to understand. We're not making music for you [laughs].
That's very true.
Maybe it's because there are so many bands that have made music to appease people. That's for entertainment, which is also necessary. That's another thing. When I talk about these things, people get the impression that I'm down on the other half. I'm not down on the other half. We need both. We need entertainment, and we need personal forms of expression. If entertainment was the entire musical spectrum, that would be just as fucking boring as if there was only self-expressive music. We need both, because we're all different people from different walks of life, and we go through different moods. Sometimes I like heady, intellectual music, and sometimes I like music you can dance to. That's all ok. It's these really greedy motherfuckers that want it all to be one way. They can't see outside their little box, and they can't see that there should be a spectrum with all different kinds of colors. If they don't like the colors that we're producing, they don't have to come to us. They don't have to listen to our records or attend our concerts. Again, humans are also sadomasochists. They hate us, but they still want to write about us and come to our concerts. It's beautiful, because it allows us to do what we're doing. We can't exist, as big of a group as we are now, without all of the people that write really mean things about us. We have a lot to owe them for. They keep the name, spirit and vibe alive, by putting the energy into it. The universe isn't decisively saying, "This is a good Mars Volta review. This is a bad Mars Volta review." The name is out there, and there's an energy that's kinetic, and they're adding to it. So we're thankful for it as well.
Our culture doesn't encourage evolution or individuality. People just take what's fed to them in terms of culture.
Not at all. That's why I go back to saying, "These are the Republicans of music!" If you look at the power structure of the country, it's exactly that. "Let's keep our money old. Let's keep it white and male. Let's have the old ideas, even though everything around us is changing." Even though we see it, we're still too afraid to talk to our children about homosexuality or sex. We're afraid to, but at the same time, we don't want the school to talk about it. Even though everything's changing, they want to apply the old system of how things are done. They want it to be like the '30s, '40s and '50s. The culture doesn't want to change.
You came out when the paradigm shift in the record business had begun. You haven't compromised that integrity.
It's good for people. I get inspired, you get inspired, we all get inspired by seeing people live out their dreams and do what they want to do in the face of everyone saying no. It inspires us all. People don't have to like it. There are plenty of things that I don't like, but they still inspire me.
We need to see people following their own creative impulses above everything else.
We definitely need that. We need it all the time, and we need it, because we need balance. We still need people who don't follow their impulses, who want to do what people tell them and who feel safe just listening to other people or the radio. Again, there has to be a spectrum. There has to be balance. Everything is an eco-system. Everything is a balance.
Where'd you find time do your latest solo record Calibration?
There is no difference between solo records and Mars Volta records. I'm writing all the time and recording all the time. I have a big, gigantic mess in my room, which is my laptop of songs and ideas. At some point, I just go through and start putting the mess together, and they become an album. There's no difference in the approach. It's all my music. We're only allowed by the label to put out one Mars Volta record per year, contractually. So some songs have to come out as something else. I was so fond of most of the Calibration material that I needed to put it out. A lot of it is from 2005 or 2006. I learn so much from each record and I know what I want to share with the world. Songs are pictures from a certain part of your life and hints about your personality.
Your evolution is chronicled with each album, so it's got to be fun to go back and look at it.
Definitely, it's like baby pictures, man! That's what I love about is. I do these things, and I don't think about them much. I invest thought into the architecture, and that's the only time. I make sure all of the counter rhythms and melodies work together. Aside from that, you just let it come out of you. You let it happen. You just take your picture, then later on, a year later or so, you look at it. This is when the real joy comes. It's like baby pictures or an old high school picture. It's a reminder. Years later, you look at it and say, "Oh shit, that's what I was trying to say back then. This is what I was excited about. This is what I was upset about. I get it now."