Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Mars Volta

[this piece ran in Mojo early in 2004. I love The Mars Volta, their questing sense of adventure, their music, and as people they've been among my favourite interview subjects. Always a pleasure to interview them]

Forget the fib your trusted history tomes have sold you: the evolution of rock music can’t be charted as some clear linear progression, artist passing influence unto artist, united in some utopian quest for future sounds. The truth is a more chaotic, intriguing beast, where ideas are born, explored, rejected and forgotten, then rediscovered, reupholstered and juxtaposed by later generations. The only ‘progression’ rock truly indulges is within the artists themselves, challenging not the limits of music, but of their own creativity. A challenge accepted by only a precious few.

The flaking magnolia corridors backstage at London’s Astoria echo with a most unearthly ululation, a skin-crawling howl contorting easily through octaves and decibel barriers. Eventually, it dies away, replaced by faint strains of Wilson Pickett’s I Found A Love, and the shrill metallic bark of a Dalek from TV’s Doctor Who. In the dressing room, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez cradles the toy dalek, a present from the record label for these Whovian aficionados, while bandmate Cedric Bixler Zavala, having just finished his vocal warm-ups for this evening’s show, slips on a Fela Kuti album, as per The Mars Volta’s pre-gig routine.

The two young men are of striking, similar build, almost childishly slight (onstage they wear specially tailored shirts and girls’ hipster jeans that hug their 26” waistlines, Cedric’s gymnastics often revealing a pair of Spiderman underoos). With his soft features, diffuse afro halo and loose smattering of beard, Omar resembles a younger Carlos Santana; Cedric’s fierce, focussed stare and recently-shorn mane, meanwhile, give him the air of some righteous freedom fighter. Even before they open their mouths, the bond between them is palpable.

The Mars Volta, Cedric and Omar’s polymorphous rock band, have already been tagged as some second-coming of the once-maligned genre, Prog. But while their stunning debut is a concept-album encompassing complex time-figures, tempo-changes, pockets of space-rock abstraction and flights of near-impenetrable lyrical fantasy, encased in a portentous sleeve designed by Storm Thorgerson (famed designer of Genesis’s *Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, and Pink Floyd’s *Dark Side Of The Moon), *Deloused In The Comatorium is not a prog-rock album, anymore than it is a punk-rock album, or a dub album, or a jazz-fusion album, or a salsa album, even though it draws potent influence from all these musics.

“We choose to take the ‘prog’ label literally,” offers Omar. “For us, ‘progressive’ means moving forwards, not sounding like our previous bands or our old records. When you think of it in those terms, it’s a positive association.”

“If, musically, you get in a spot where the sheets are warm and the pillows are comfy, I think it’s important to sleep on the floor every once in a while,” adds Cedric, smiling. “When I was fourteen, I didn’t want to hear anything but fast punk music. Older friends would make fun of me; ‘Oh, you’re a punk, huh?’ I wish I could’ve had the knowledge back then to say, I’m just fourteen, let me have my fun with this! Although Omar’s twelve year-old little brother asked [poet/rapper and sometimes Volta tourmate] Saul Williams what his favourite Mahavishnu Orchestra album was, which blew Saul’s mind… After a while, different things start to catch your ear, and you heed those friends saying, ‘You need to grow up a little and shed your uniform’.”

It was while dressed in those very punk-rock uniforms that Cedric and Omar first met, aged thirteen, in El Paso; a mostly-poor, mostly-Mexican city on the western tip of Texas bordering Ciudad Suarez in Mexico, infamously Johnny Cash was busted here in 1964 for possession of over a thousand amphetamine pills. It was to El Paso that the Rodriguez-Lopez family moved when Omar was eight years old, from Puerto Rico.

Cedric and Omar had been in punk-rock bands since their pre-teens, “offensive” bands in a scene awash with watery psychedelia in the wake of Jane’s Addiction and the imported ecstasies of Madchester. Their bands would cause riots, start food-fights onstage, blend the nosebleed rifferamas with noodly jamming. At first, the two enfants terrible regarded each other with wary suspicion, thinking the other was “Gay and on drugs”. Soon, though, they began a friendship they now describe as akin to soulmates.

“Usually, for two guys to be as close as we are, they have to be homosexuals,” laughs Omar. “We’ve gotten shit for it through the years, there have been rumours that we’re homosexuals. Women have relationships where they share clothes, go to the bathroom together, share secrets. Sometimes people are a little uncomfortable with that, if it happens between men.”

They continued playing in bands, together and apart, until Omar embarked upon an extended Kerouac-esque journey of self-discovery after his band imploded mid-tour. Cedric, staying at home, looked for new bandmates, musicians who, this time, actually might have the focus and commitment to clamber out of dope-clouded rehearsal rooms and into a recording studio.

“I gravitated towards Jim Ward, because I knew he was totally into the work aspect of being in a band,” remembers Cedric of the guitarist with whom he’d form At The Drive-In. “He came from a much more ‘pop’ sensibility than me; I’d never done anything so overtly pop-punk before, and it was good to try it, but then I got burnt out on it. I was longing for *White Light, White Heat, all that stuff I listened to before. All the people I hung out with in El Paso thought punk-rock was laughable, that I was dumbing down.”

At The Drive-In released a first 7”, *Hell Paso, in 1994, touring once across Texas, before falling apart. Omar, whose mystical Hitch-Hike across America had come to a messy end, joined as guitarist. Over the following months, Cedric, Omar and Jim would all leave and rejoin the band; the lineup solidifying somewhat, they recorded several albums for indie labels, before the Beastie Boys’ imprint Grand Royal signed them for 2000’s *Relationship Of Command.

Producer Ross Robinson, who fashioned Nu Metal’s template with epochal albums by Korn, Limp Bizkit and Slipknot, finessed their combustive post-hardcore sound, indebted to genre godfathers Fugazi, to the point where it seemed their righteous riot might supplant the dullard Nu Metal figureheads. But already the creative friction within ATD-I was becoming unbearable. They recorded an infamous performance on Jools Holand’s Later… show in December 2000, Omar’s flailing, electrifying contortions damaging and detuning his guitar within the opening seconds of One Armed Scissor; by the song’s end, he’d thrown his guitar offstage and was dancing feverishly with Cedric and pulverising a tambourine while Jim Ward vainly tried to stick to the script. The division between the two camps within the band was unmistakeable.

“When Omar joined, he became like my partner in crime,” explains Cedric. “We were both passionately obsessed with *Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and that was our dirty secret in this punk-rock band! We’d get ridiculed for playing Tom Waits and dub music in the tourbus when the others just wanted to play Weezer albums. We wanted the next ATD-I album to be like Talk Talk’s *Laughing Stock, something that sounded nothing like anything else they ever did. But we never made it that far.”

In February 2001 they cancelled several tours booked for that Spring; a month later, ATD-I were declared on “indefinite hiatus”, and by August they announced their split and future plans. Ward, bassist Paul Hinojos and drummer Tony Hajjar formed textbook emocore band Sparta, while Cedric and Omar, shedding their warm sheets and comfy pillows, prepared for some nights on the floor as The Mars Volta.

“Compromise,” reflects Cedric today, shaking his head. “It’s a horrible way to live.”

*Deloused In The Comatorium is a concept album, a form that, in the realms of American underground rock, is no mere ‘prog’ relic – cf Husker Du’s Tommy-goes-hardcore classic *Zen Arcade, Neutral Milk Hotel’s folk-psyche Anne Frank fantasy *In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, even Liars’ terrifying treatise on witch trials *They Were Wrong So We Drowned. Few concept albums are quite so personal, however.

It follows the last days of Julio Venegas; one of the loose conglomeration of freaks Cedric and Omar ran with in El Paso, Julio was an artist and poet who lived life with an experiment bent; when, in 1996, he slipped into a coma as a result of a suicidal overdose, his body was covered with scars, and his arm had shrivelled up from shooting rat poison. *Deloused… dramatises the comatose Venegas’s profound and frightening dreams. At the album’s close Venegas surfaces from his coma, but chooses to commit suicide anyway. [The story is told in Bixler-Zavala’s idiosyncratic script of made-up words and oblique poetry; many Mars Volta websites host pages of fans’ own interpretations of their meaning.]

The band themselves have defended this essentially downbeat story as a celebration of Julio’s life and work. “But life isn’t always pretty,” adds Cedric. “It’s not a three-minute pop song. As surreal as the album might seem, that’s how life is; you have no control over it, and sometimes it just doesn’t make sense.”

The Mars Volta – now numbering drummer Jon Theodore, keyboard player Ikey Owens and sound manipulator Jeremy Ward (Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea was a member for the studio sessions, later replaced by Juan Alderete) – wrote and rehearsed *Deloused at their house in Long Beach, California. They dubbed it Anikulapo, after Fela Kuti – the name means He Who Carries Death In His Pouch, an awful omen of what would follow.

Early on, Cedric and Omar had both subscribed to the abstinent punk-rock movement Straight Edge, coined by the Minor Threat song. “There was something really cool when all the people around you were drinking or doing drugs, and you’re not, and you feel different for it,” remembers Omar. “Eventually, though, you hit a point where you want an adventure, you want to explore; you don’t want to judge things you haven’t actually experienced.”

Cedric and Omar’s experimentations with drugs, beginning in their mid-teens, were just that: an extension of the very questing attitude they adopted towards music. They weren’t simply seeking oblivion, at least not yet. The voyage began with pot and LSD, but as heroin, cocaine and crack entered the equation, the experimentation became harder to control. Omar dropped out of high school for a tour with his band that was swiftly curtailed when some members got arrested. Stuck in Berkley, he hitch-hiked across America, selling acid at Grateful Dead shows to finance his travels; eventually, he ended up in Baltimore.

“All I did was shoot heroin,” he remembers. “That’s all I was doing. I sold my guitar. I sold everything. I called Cedric, crying, wanting to come home. That’s how I joined ATD-I. But in El Paso, it’s easy to get some every once in a while. I thought I had it all under control, though in retrospect I was doing lots of fucked up stuff to people around me. But seeing how it affected Jeremy changed our whole view on the situation.”

Jeremy Ward, cousin of ATD-I’s Jim, had been a buddy of Omar and Cedric’s for many years; the duo played alongside Ikey in Jeremy’s dub band, DeFacto, and he was a key offstage part of their sound. In May of this year, Jeremy was found dead in his home of a drug overdose, aged 27, a month before *Deloused… hit the racks.

“I was getting high off of freebase, and he came in to tell me he was having problems,” remembers Cedric, of what he describes as the “strong moment of clarity” his friend gave him. “He came in and asked for help; I’d never seen anyone look so bad, had only equated problems with drugs with a bad acid trip. It sobered me up from the freebase instantly. We talked, and I promised I wouldn’t touch drugs again if he wouldn’t. One of the main reasons I stopped was I didn’t wanna be that person anymore,” he continues. “Not everyone is geared up to be the superman Burroughs, you know?”

“Some people hear things in such a beautiful way without taking anything,” offers Omar, “Like King Tubby. He made all these great dub records, and he never drank in his life, he never smoked pot; he was completely pure. There was just something going on in his head, know what I mean?”

The link between The Mars Volta’s music and their drug use is nothing so crass as, say, Bill Hicks’ semi-serious belief that Musicians + Drugs=Good Music. Their experimentation with narcotics was itself an extension of their approach to music, to reach beyond what they already knew, to throw away the warm sheets and comfy pillows and sleep on the floor for awhile.

The excursion came with a terrible price tag, but you figure, for Omar and Cedric at least, the journey is a lesson in of itself. As a result, they have a remarkable album, a work of stealthy complexity and volcanic drama, a moving and exultant testimonial to friends they have loved and lost. They’ve already begun writing the follow-up.

“Omar’s got a lot of new ideas we need to sort through, make sense of,” explains Cedric. “I haven’t got anything yet. For the last album, I exhausted my whole notebook of ideas; I have nothing left, I have to start over totally from scratch. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

London Astoria, later that night. Even the venue’s nosebleed balconies heave with fans desperate to experience The Mars Volta live, old Prog heads rubbing tee-shirted shoulders with earnest punk-rockers and even kids so young cynicism demands their attention spans surely too shrivelled to stomach The Mars Volta’s two hour swarm of ideas and improvisation.

But the energy, the interplay, the fierce sincerity and catch-your-breath excitement with which The Mars Volta ply their art demands and rewards your attention, sprawling from lightning-flash jags of punk-riffage, to the sinewy brutality of *Agharta-era Miles Davis, to the acid-tipped ooze of prime Funkadelic, to righteous explosions of seething mutated Salsa rhythms, to bristling convulsions of drum’n’bass nirvana, to the headfuck avant-rock of 1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)-era Hendrix, sometimes in the space of a single song.

And its impossible to take your eyes off Omar and Cedric, the former spazzing across the stage like his guitar, spitting shards of crazed skronk, were shooting countless volts through him; the latter unleashing dance moves that would make a young James Brown envious, hurling himself gymnastically across the stage, snatching the microphone to unleash wails that locate the enervated strain of blue Robert Plant essayed on Tea For One, before bounding off again, his chest pulsating, sweat coursing down his body, compounding the fact that, no matter how cerebral and complex this music might seem, its essence is as primal and honest as the beating of a human heart.

It’s the kind of performance that makes you want to grab every cynic and Cassandra by the lapels and show them that, even this late in the day, rock’n’roll still harbours artists like these, lunging far before their reach, challenging their every limitation, creating music that’s desperate, that’s ludicrous, that’s wonderful. That, for all the dumbing-down of modern pop-culture, for all the supposed turmoil of the music industry, art of such passion and untrammelled creativity and sheer daredevil daring still floats to the top. As Cedric himself says, of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in LA the Volta recently played, “There’s a lot more freaks around who we feel kinship with; it feels good to see them pour out of the woodwork.”

It’s a cliché and so, by definition, shouldn’t fit iconoclasts, die-hard originals like The Mars Volta so well. But they who dare, shall win.

(c) Stevie Chick 2004


shinanos said...

Mmmm, Stevie! You're really great writer... Fantastic!! I only knew some oldies and late pop/rock/R&B/soul etc...just choose by my tastes. But here I can get something never heard of or interesting. And hey, your writing work...! Really nice :D♪ Tnanks for yr apprause for my English blog - I love yrs too :)
Worth reading & translating, I think!!
(And "x" to yr friend & me, look so cute..lovely, Stevie Chick!)

Shina x

intervale said...

Stevie, your article shows a deeper understanding of the philosophy and linage that is at the root of TMV. Exactly what has been missed by nearly every mainstream writer and critic in recent years. It acknowledges the importance of At The Drive-In and avoids digressing into a tired Sparta vs TMV rant. A particularly enjoyable read especially given the news of Paul Hinojos' defection from Sparta to TMV yesterday. Much respect sir, jona

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