The Mars Volta: a well-dressed "pop corpse"
Today’s interviewees are running late. A cup of tea is made, walls scanned, their adornments assessed. Many bands that’ve done many things. Nirvana. Nirvana. Wow.
Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López have a selection of healthy-eating foodstuffs laid out on top of a table; their PR officer offers some my way, but I decline, content with my tea. (Truth is that it all looks a little scary to me – I’m still, against doctor’s orders, fond of a burger.) The pair – founding (and core) members of The Mars Volta – have been shopping during a break in promotional commitments, on a European trip that’s seen them talk up their new The Bedlam In Goliath LP across the continent.
The Mars Volta’s fourth studio album is, like every one of its long-play predecessors, certain to divide critical opinion; rarely in the history of rock (or pop – explanation later) music has an outfit stuck so steadfastly to their singular guns despite fan defection and assessments bordering on the genuinely offensive. That it’s more reminiscent of album two, Frances The Mute, than 2006’s less-pleasing Amputechture collection is a fact; beyond that straightforward observation, though, this writer is presently in no position to write any critical cheques his reputation can’t cash. Expectedly, The Bedlam In Goliath requires concentrated assessment that hasn’t reached its conclusion at this juncture – a review will emerge on DiS ahead of the album’s release date of January 28.
Arriving, apologies forwarded, the pair and I step into an empty room, the only noise bar our voices coming from west London's backstreets through a barely cracked-open sash window. Omar and Cedric are full of smiles – this is the last interview of the day, the final time they’ll have to rummage through their personal and professional histories for the sake of plugging an album nine out of ten listeners will allow to fly over their head. I, however, have a trump card up my sleeve.
“Ha ha… that’s the best question we’ve been asked…”
Yes. Yes, it was.
Video (web promo): 'Goliath' (from The Bedlam...)
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Trips like these must be a little more relaxed than touring properly – you must get to see the cities you’re staying in a little more, for one thing?
Cedric: We’ve been all over Europe for this, to Milan, and France… we’ve been talking heads all day. We do get to see the cities a little more, and it’s pretty laid back. Having the biography the way it is, it gives everyone a lot of information. We don’t get so many inane questions. If anything, it stirs more interesting discussion, so that’s good.
Inevitably, inane questions will follow. But for the time being, I want to ask about your motivation, and inspiration. There’s so much going on in your average Mars Volta song, it baffles me how the pieces must come together…
C: Well, I’m quite surprised that he (motions towards Omar) doesn’t have microphones set up all around his home.
Omar: The way I see it is that you only live once, so you might as well make the most of what comes to mind. And, I have to tackle a library of his stuff, too.
C: Someone chose for us to have this attitude, and to write and sing the way we do, so we are taking advantage of it, y’know.
So you don’t have microphones dangling over bathtubs then, prepared for any fleeting moment of inspiration?
O: Well, it can be as simple as that, sort of. You can be in the bathtub and you think of something: ‘Oh fuck, that would be awesome.’ So you try to record it real quick, but there’s never a force or a stress to the songwriting – people have previously written about how we specifically try to be complicated, but if they could only have an insight into a normal day with us, it’d alleviate all the over-analysing of what we’re doing.
Just how does a band like The Mars Volta, given your reputation for indulgence, know when to draw a line under a song and deem it finished? I’m sure that few limits are in place during the songwriting process…
C: I just know that whatever the idea is, if it’s not laughable then it’s okay. I think we do encourage each other to sometimes be over indulgent, because we know nobody in the band is going to overtly laugh, or simply say no, as may have been the case in our old band. We have the freedom now, the freedom to write how we wish. Nobody’s yet said, ‘No’.
O: The musicians we work with get excited about playing this music, and they enjoy seeing where we’re at and what we’re striving for. Even when they don’t immediately understand what we’re doing, they have a blind faith that has to be there – ‘I don’t get it right now, but I WILL get it’. They can see the bigger picture, eventually.
It must be quite interesting for the musicians you work with in the band, to be presented with material that genuinely challenges their abilities and keeps them on their toes. Have you ever run up against any problems?
C: We have previously simplified things for playing live, but the songs just weren’t the same. There was only really the one time, and it wasn’t really simplifying things but just doing them slightly differently. We weren’t happy with it, so we didn’t do that again. It’s good that our collaborators speak up, but also if we’re not over-the-top happy with something, it’s really not worth doing.
Video (web promo): 'Wax Simulacra' (from The Bedlam...)
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And your label situation, with Universal – are the powers that be there generally accepting of anything you choose to do in the band, or have the shackles come down in the past?
C: Well, with the last record (Amputechture), I think they – label and our PR – really dropped the ball. It’s bilingual, there’s no ‘The Widow’ on it… y’know? I think they definitely dropped the ball there.
But it must’ve been a tough record to push to the uninitiated…
C: Yes, but I think people are definitely under a misconception that the label lets us run free. There are times when they really try to rein it in, and then we suffer because they don’t give us money for projects.
You must sympathise, to an extent, with writers presented with your albums when they’ve a very limited frame of reference to work a review from?
C: Well, if I was a journalist I’d be excited that I wasn’t going to be using the same adjectives, and that I’d be able to showcase some creative writing in trying to describe this to people. Many writers nowadays use obvious colours, or band references, to help people understand another band.
Depends on their audience, to an extent – some magazines only allow contributors a small amount of words per piece, too. Do you guys ever check the feedback to your albums? Do you think the albums bring out the best in writers who can flex their creative prose muscles?
C: Everything can be positive, even negative feedback. Part of our job is to elicit that sort of reaction.
O: It’s cool that our work does seem to inspire people, as even when reviews are negative they’re not just like, ‘This is bullshit’. We get four or five paragraphs outlining how we’re bullshit! They’re inspired to hate on our music, and get really witty and creative, and that’s kinda cool.
C: We opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers one time, quite a while ago, and the whole front page of this magazine’s review section was all about how much this guy fucking HATED us.
Given the fairly freeform nature of your headline sets – which can stretch for two-and-a-half hours and take myriad tangents – how do you find playing second-fiddle to another, bigger act? It must be tough condensing your set, and tougher still when the crowd isn’t yours and simply doesn’t get it...
C: There was always that… and there were times when the audience was really into it, too. But then there were times… Let’s say Quebec – I’ve never seen more Canadians acting American in my life, sitting down, eating hot dogs.
Like they were at a basketball match? Thing is, some big gigs feel like that, like sporting events, such is the level of detachment…
C: I do see that, for sure. But I think there’s an element of us throwing the pit-bull into an unsuspecting crowd, which can be fun… although sometimes it isn’t fun, too. There were times where I’d just turn my back for an entire set, as I don’t feel I need to give anything if the people watching aren’t giving us anything. We’ve been asked to play these places for a reason, and sometimes playing to such crowds pose good challenges for us.
Would you say that receiving a negative reaction, live, affects your performances?
C: Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. It can affect us in a good way, as sometimes I’ll get angry enough to come out there and shake you up a bit.
I suppose that’s one thing on your side, mobility. You can duck any projectiles that might come your way, footage of which I’ve seen, actually.
C: Some of my favourite bands have opened for inappropriate acts, and you hear about the riots that have happened as a result. Imagine Suicide opening for Elvis Costello – apparently someone threw an axe at Suicide. Can you imagine that? That’s good, that’s really good… Well, if anything like that ever happens to us, it’s only going to aid us in selling more records. Any kind of publicity is good for that side of the band, but stories like that are really inspiring. These bands are like the new kid in high school, the new kid who doesn’t speak the same language as the other kids, and who dresses differently and smells funny. I think we’ve always come from that sort of background.
You see yourself as an outsider band? Is that something with deep roots, back to school as you may’ve just implied?
C: For me, in high school, I had lots of friends. Maybe it’s because I sold them drugs, but I never got any problems from the jocks. I had the most problems from the charros… you know, the charros? Like Mexican cowboys, red-necks. They were the ones I got into scraps with the most, as and when I did get into scraps. For those times to translate into the music…? Well, maybe it’s kinda like that, but we’re never trying to be complicated or weird. What we do is entirely normal to us.
I suppose it’s easy for people to be put off by something immediately branded as ‘prog’, especially given the homogenised state of much radio, especially the mainstream channels over here…
C: It’s not just the UK – radio everywhere is bad.
Oh, I don’t know. We’ve some true treats waiting to cross over stateside – Scouting For Girls, The Hoosiers…
C: Well, I don’t know them yet, but I think we repel as much as we attract, so with each album I think we gain new fans. Hopefully, wishfully thinking, the same thing will happen this time around.
If they can pronounce the song titles, that is. I’ve had my difficulties… ‘Aberinkula’… ‘Askepios’… ‘Ilyena’… I can envisage radio DJs struggling: “See our website, we’ve written it down there”…
C: Maybe the titles can be related to, say, someone wanting to take a vacation to Barbados, but that person not being able to say ‘Barbados’ right. Half of it is going because you can’t pronounce the name – it feels exciting. In another way, what we’re doing we consider to be a new movement for us, to introduce a new language. It’s just FUN, you know, to do all this stuff, and dress it in clothes that we can identify with. It’s not to be difficult – it’s just to feel normal moreover.
O: And to fight boredom, too. When you’ve been making music for a long time, and you’ve written a lot of songs and given them a lot of titles, you can’t start calling songs ‘You Betrayed Me’, y’know! You start to run out of options when you do the same thing every single day.
C: There have been occasions when there’s been a prog-rock band with a similar sounding name to one of our titles, but I had no idea. I was reading about this band called Art Brut – I don’t know if they’re any good – and they have this song called ‘Jealous Guy’. For me, knowing who wrote the original one, I would never fucking consciously fucking name a song that. ‘Who’s he?’ ‘Just John Lennon.’ ‘Well fuck him!’ I’d be out of my mind… so that’s pretty ballsy. I don’t know if they’ve the content to back it up. But anyway, why not?! Why not have a new language? Why not push it?
Video (promo): 'The Widow' (from Frances The Mute)
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I suppose it’s all part of working within self-constructed conceptual frameworks, however complex or not they are from album to album.
C: Yeah, yeah. We never do ‘conceptual’ particularly ‘normally’… it’s never Tommy – this is a guy, he’s blind, and plays a mean pinball. We have concepts, but they’re never so obvious. We’re not Xerox machines.
Speaking of concept albums, My Chemical Romance’s latest, The Black Parade, was something of a concept record by all accounts. Do you think a band like yourself, given your profile, has opened doors for bands to explore more, let’s say, ‘creative’ sides to their songwriting?
C: I don’t know if we’re the ones who freed that up for more bands.
O: I thought it was Green Day!
Apparently American Idiot was a concept album, yeah, but it’s tough to tell given I can’t stand to listen to it. Anyway, is it hard to acknowledge, as the band in question, your influence on other bands?
C: I don’t know. I mean, no disrespect to those bands, but if we’re influencing them then we have got to try harder. No, no… maybe they then do influence kids.
They’re gateway bands, I reckon. Like, say, a kid listening to Green Day now might be into Fugazi a year from now, or over here we’ve had a band called Enter Shikari produce a hollow echo of Refused, and the same progress should apply.
C: Hopefully, yeah. You’d hope that kids come to realise there are certain Green Day riffs that are direct rip-offs of The Kinks. ‘Picture Book’, in particular, has been ripped off really badly, except Billy Joe comes in instead of Ray Davies. If anything I hope kids do their homework – this is the information age, and there are loads of rug-rats out there who crave and demand more from culture, and one day they will be in charge.
Do you suppose many people require ‘lead-in’ records in order to get into the work of The Mars Volta?
C: I guess so, maybe. Some people need their training wheels first.
O: I think the best feeling you can have is to put on a record and just go, ‘What?’. Then you revisit it again and again, and search it through to find your own answers.
C: Or there’s a dramatic pause and then… BANG. I think there are moments on Frances The Mute, and on this album too, where you can’t hear the beginning of a song, so you turn it up and turn it up and then…
And then it gets really loud, really quickly. It’s really great fun on a train… the guy next to you practically jumps out of his seat.
O: I did that on purpose. We gathered together some friends to listen to Frances…, and they all had that same reaction. Turning it up and up, and then hurriedly turning it back down…! Ha ha, we’re trouble-makers.
C: It’s fun being like that.
Given your predilection for the mastering of the complex, do you suppose you could turn your hand to conventional pop with ease, and ultimately excel in the field?
C: You’ve got to understand that we are in a pop format, it’s just that we don’t wear the same clothes as some of these other bands. The pop corpse is there, but everyone’s become so used to stuff being understandable right away.
O: We’re just dressing things up to the degree where people don’t recognise that there’s a pop skeleton, or like Cedric says a pop corpse; people are distracted by the flashing lights and the colours, and the smoke coming out, and you’re like, ‘What the fuck?’. But we’re still a vocal group, and we still have very recognisable elements – when you break it all down we’re a pop band, just a little perverted.
C: It’s a good choice, y’know. I don’t mean, ‘Oh look at us, we’re good’, but it’s good to have the choice we offer, as there’s not much out there in this major label world to chose from. If you don’t want dessert all the time, you can definitely come to our hut for some out-there cuisine. Or maybe it’s not too out-there; maybe it’s just our version of the hamburger that people like better than the McDonald’s version. We’re the Hamburglars.
Video (promo): 'Televators' (from De-loused in the Comatorium)
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Don’t see so much of you these days… guess the authorities caught up with you and your burger-sealing ways… But anyway, those inane questions. Sort of. When the band’s wrapped up, done and dusted, how would you like to be remembered?
C: Like a donkey choking a waffle. Yes, like a donkey choking a waffle.
What? With its hooves?
O: It’s mushing it up the whole time. It thinks it’s choking it, but it’s just squashing it.
Where’s a waffle’s throat?
C: Who knows? But the donkey’s like, ‘Is that blood? Oh no, it’s syrup. Same thing…’.
Touring plans – I take it you’ll be in the UK to support The Bedlam…?
O: By the time we get to Europe it’ll be March. You’ve (looks at Cedric) been like, ‘Check out my dates, dude’.
C: Yeah. When you meet up-and-coming MySpace generation guys in hipster towns, the first thing they say to you is, like, ‘Check my dates, bro!’.
O: Shit on a Steak at MySpace dot com…
You were up and coming once, though. Have you stayed in touch with people who helped you out way back when at all?
C: I attempted to contact people I used to play with, and old promoters, from our hometown, to say thanks to a few people. Especially this one promoter named Ed Ivy, who was in a punk band called The Rhythm Pigs. He was the one guy who took a chance on us, and went broke throwing these shows and putting on bands who nobody knew when they came to town, so I made a point of saying thank you to him. I am who I am, mainly, because he gave us a chance. He wrote back, too – the first thing I’d said to him was, ‘I don’t know if you remember me and my friend Omar’, and he wrote, ‘Are you fucking kidding? How could I forget you guys!’. We learned a lot from him. He was yelling at kids: ‘You slam-dancing kids, you’re fucking all the gear up. Go listen to a Charles Mingus record. It’s as punk as your Black Flag.’ When you have someone shouting things like that at you, well… it’s the best teaching you can have. I miss some of the old days, simply because then there were no barricades, and you could touch people.
You could play shows like that again, I’m sure, if you really wanted to.
C: Yeah. I suppose. It’s not the same, though, when you’re playing and people are RIGHT THERE. We’d love to do some shows like that again, but in the States at least it’s sometimes illegal to do so.
Well, it’s not here. Next time you’re over, I know some great basement clubs…
C: It’s fucking great doing those shows, man. People are close enough to even smell how I stink.
I’d guess, though, that you need a good PA these days…
C: Yes, that’s true. We do make full use of the technology available to us.
O: We need a certain amount of space nowadays to play, and most of the time if you have that sort of space a lot of things comes with it – you must have a barrier. Expect for a few places in Spain, and Sweden.
Finally, something I’ve noted here that I forget why I’ve noted it: eagles, or lizards?
O: Lizards, man! They’re desert animals. They show the way out of the desert – they guide you!
C: The eagle is literally becoming extinct. And it’s no good to you in the desert.
O: Ha ha… that’s the best question we’ve been asked. Lizards or eagles? I like that.
The Mars Volta’s new album, The Bedlam In Goliath, is released on January 28 via Universal/GSL. A full biography and more information – tour dates and music – can be found on MySpace, here. DiS's review of The Bedlam In Goliath to follow. UK dates:
11 Glasgow Academy
13 Manchester Apollo
14 London Brixton Academy
Photo: Ross Halfin