Thu 26 Jun 2008
The Haunt of The Volta
Much more exciting legends than the Chainsaw Masscare come out of Texas these days. Experimental art rock prodigies The Mars Volta are just that. They’ve nothing left to prove in New Zealand – they’ve come, played (twice), and conquered. Now they’re back to do it all over again!
On the eve of their third appearance on our shores, I talked to both Omar and Cedric at different intervals about the trials and tribulations they’ve experienced of late that are well-known by now, surrounding the making of their latest album The Bedlam In Goliath. Fortunately the weird psychotic reactions the boys have had now see them nurse what is arguably their most exciting and aptly titled album yet.
The monstrous gargoyle-esque beast that influenced The Bedlam (that is, the infamous cursed Ouija board they’ve spoken so much of in the press that saw them lose a band mate, lose tracks from the album and almost lose guitarist and auteur Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s entire studio), has seen them rise above, and in reconciliation and remembrance, they deliver explicit, telling and downright awesome answers.
Of the now infamous experience, Omar said previously “I’ve had my time with it and I just want to move on.” Looking back now, he says: “I’m not trying to glorify that or keep my interest in it… That was something that happened in my life and it happened almost a year ago now.”
When pressed on whether he thinks humans are prone to glorify or downplay the dramas in their lives – such as the one he endured, Omar is honest. “I think people have very different ways of dealing with trauma, and I think it’s not always up to them, you know? I think people have different reactions to things like that. Some people glorify them, some people play it down, some people become completely internal; I think everyone is individualistic.
“Even with that having been said I think people go through changes, you know, people can dramatise it then internalise it later, or vice versa. For me when I finished this record I didn’t want to talk about it, I didn’t want to play it, I wanted to move on to the next record and I said we cant play these songs while we’re recording the next record, I definitely don’t want to do interviews about it and I don’t want to talk about it. Cos people wont understand, they’ll just laugh at us.
“What people don’t understand,
they ridicule, and they want to destroy it.”
“So I was very serious at the time and I was wound up in my emotions about it, and the clichéd saying goes – time heals all wounds. And months later, like I said, I found my laughter again, and I became secure with myself and secure with my own beliefs and my own ideas. And when this happens, you really don’t care what people think.
“So I said, you know what? Let’s do this, let’s play this record; I like it now. Let’s not just talk about it, let’s make up something, let’s make up a different scenario of what the record’s about, you know. And then a month after that, I realised no, that’s stupid too, and then I re-re-became comfortable with everything that happened. And I said ‘you know what? I really don’t care who believes us, who doesn’t, what they say, blahblahblahblahblah’”, he mumbles, so quickly it’s barely audible. “So you know, I went through a series of emotions, from being dramatic about it, completely immersed in it to just finding it funny and saying you know, whatever happens let’s just put it out there, and now I’ve moved on.”
The band has a renewed energy that Omar says even the fans have noticed. “It was only one person that was replaced (in the band recently), and it was a night and day difference. It’s brought so much more energy to the band and togetherness and so much more power; it’s something we’re also hearing from the fans. You know, people that have come to see us eight, nine, ten times, they’re surprised that there can be more power, more energy, you know, they’re saying these are the best concerts. A lot of the fans also comment on how happy they are to actually see us so happy, and smiling and enjoying what we’re doing. So (the lineup change) definitely had an impact – it’s been a wonderful one.”
I mention when I spoke to Cedric earlier that he said he’s been unhappy with certain music videos that have been made for the band. Were the webisodes a revolt against all of that unhappiness? “I don’t know, maybe… Maybe it was just a revolt against the whole idea of a fucking music video, you know? I think people take music videos way too seriously, even people who have fun with them, you know what I mean?
“For the amount of money that people
normally spend on a music video,
I could make about three feature films.”
“When we did Francis and we had to make a video, they gave us $500,000 to make the goddamn music video. And I made the video the way they wanted it to be made, the way that most labels want it to be made, with all the professionalism and all the sophistication, blahblahblahblah. And that $500,000 was just shit out the window for just nothing, for a piece of shit theatrical trailer, basically. For an album that’s gonna be run for maybe a month or two, and even if they play it, there’s all this bullshit behind the scenes and all your guidelines…
“I turn in your video and you say oh, ‘you can’t have blood in it, and there’s a guy smoking a cigarette in the first scene, and you can’t have blahblahblahblah’, but they can have women degraded at any moment, at any hour in the day, they can have women being degraded, they can have champagne poured on them, and being treated like animals, but you can’t show somebody smoking a cigarette, and you can’t show blood, and things that are normal to life. And so there’s all these politics, and there are politics about whether or not they’re going to play it, it’s not about if the band is good, it’s about how much you kiss ass to the executives there, and what have you done for them lately, and did you play their executive party they had lately that they wanted you to play, and have you said something nice about them in an interview.
“The whole thing is geared for such commercialism and such bullshit, and it has nothing to do with what the bands are doing and what the music is about, it’s just based on the levels that, ‘we want a video, we want one video’ and they’ll give you a fraction of the money that they gave us last time, they gave us $50,000. And I said fine, you know what? I’ll give you five videos. And I’ll make them for $10,000 a piece. And that’s what those webisodes were. That’s why I came up with the doctor’s scenario; because it was all about blood. So I guess in a way the rebellion is just all about these little trailers that people call music videos, and how much money and time that people invest in something that’s just really not worth it, when we could be using that money to make, you know, a short film, a feature film; things that are worthwhile.”
Speaking of worthwhile feature films, Omar recently scored the music for a film called El Buffalo Del Noche. “It was the fourth screenplay for Lenore Deigna (SP), who did Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros, those wonderful films. It was a very difficult but very nice experience,” he says. When asked if he’s seen any interesting films himself lately, Omar cites No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood as “phenomenal”. “I think that director with There Will Be Blood has just jumped a whole other level, he made it clear to us that he is probably the leading great visionary of cinema right now, and I think he will be remembered as such even if people don’t see it right now.”
To him there is no necessary differentiation between all of his artistic output. It is all relevant, regardless of the umbrella name it is published under. “There’s just a constant surge of energy and ideas and battery power that’s going towards making music. And I have to start spreading all the music kind of into groups, and say I want to focus on these songs right now. And then again with a big label, we get money, and having money means that we get time, and so when I get time I get to focus on certain ideas. So I have to scramble to pick which idea and which songs I want to focus on the most, and those become Mars Volta records.
“Now we’re also contractually obligated – we can only put out one record a year. So for most bands they put out one record every two or three years, but you know, I fought for the right to put out at least one, once a year. If I could have, I would put out way more out a year, but contractually I can only put out one a year. So then I have all this other music that sort of falls everywhere, that I work on, that I love, that turns into something later… but also at the same time, some of it I want to share with people, others I want to put it out because if I don’t I’ll grow sick of it and then I’ll just throw it away, and sometimes I just need money,” he laughs, “So I’ll put out a record. But contractually I can’t say it’s Mars Volta, even though it’s my music, even though I’m writing everything, producing, Cedric’s singing on my record; everything’s the same as Mars Volta, but we can’t put it out as such. So I put it out as a Omar Rodriguez Lopez record. And then I can get paid, and Cedric can get paid, and then we have some extra money.
“I’m always going broke, cos I’m always
putting my money back into the work, back into the projects, because for me
there is no separation.”
“So I have to constantly be rehearsing, rehearsing with the studio, rehearsing my ideas, getting ideas out, and that way also that goes into whatever starts to become a Mars Volta record, and that way I’ve had all this time practicing with all this other material, so that I can take the best of the best ideas, everything that’s been refined, and sort of poured in to that moment, you know? And so what happens is a lot of things get made up on the side, and even for every quote-on-quote ‘solo record’ or ‘Mars Volta’ record that I put out, there’s still, as I mentioned before, plenty of records that just sit in my studio that are done. They’re mixed, they’re mastered, but no one will ever hear them because I just start getting bored of them.”
In the past year he has made eleven. Eleven Mars Volta records that might never see the light of day. Including, he says: “an all-orchestral record which was all string arrangements; one was a completely electronic record, and one was just a very simple rock record and I made also an ambient record. I have an experiment also with making traditional salsa music; I’ve made a record that was very melodic and it was all nice melodies with no percussion; and then I did another orchestral record that was completely dissonant.” Dizzy yet? “This is why, again, I’m always going broke,” he laughs good-naturedly.
The important thing to him is the process, not the end result. So it doesn’t bother him if these albums never see the light of day. Just the fact that he made an electronic record, an ambient record, a salsa record, all adds to where Omar stands now, at the pinnacle of experimental rock music. This is why he is amongst the best of the best; because of his tireless work ethic, un-ending humbleness and celebration of creativity and output that just soars light years above others. This is why he can now travel to places like New Zealand and lose himself in the ether of experimentalism on stage in front of a plethora of screaming, pulsating fans, come out on top, and do it all over again. Around the world a million more times or so.
This is why you should go to the Mars Volta’s show here in Auckland tonight(!), to bask in some of their creative energy, hope that it will rub off on yourself, then go start a band or something. Omar has said he is currently working on The Mars Volta albums five – an acoustic-based record – and six – a more “upbeat, aggressive record”, you know we’ll be all over those like a rash when they get released to the world.