Mars VoltaMars Volta Interview

An edgy, nervous tension mixed with the blood running through their veins—the kind of brutal anticipation that can both stimulate and torment even the truest musicians and fans. Many of the combustible beings in attendance had experienced the same kind of impatient yearning during the wait between the releases of Tremulant and De-Loused in the Comatorium. An eerie restlessness hung over the crowd at Emo’s that night like a canopy of ghosts prepared to both plague and illuminate the thought processes of those already savvy enough to be in the know. The show had been sold out for over a month. Those in attendance were part of a spiritual wave of sonic intellect that existed with the realization that the domain of modern rock music creativity was being dissected and stretched by the unabashed seriousness of five musicians on a vivacious mission, free of worldly reluctance. The Mars Volta was riding the snake, and it wanted sink its teeth into souls and senses alike.

Flashback to early 2001: Upon returning from a European tour with former band At the Drive-In, (the ground breaking emocore outfit which was finally receiving recognition after countless years of DIY touring and indie-label surfing) Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez was unhappy with corporate demands and, more importantly, bored with the music that the band was playing. “We were just going to keep making the same records,” said Rodriguez. “It was nice to finally get the attention with At the Drive-In after six years, but it left us musically bankrupt, spiritually bankrupt.”

So, just as the five-piece from El Paso was about to break out and breathe fresh air into the expired lungs of pop music, Rodriguez, along with childhood chum and fellow ATDI band-mate Cedric Bixler Zavala, split the band apart in hopes of exploring a revitalized taste of emotion and sound. “The idea was to have a band that was free of boxes, free of conceptual limitations. We both knew that would mean a lot of sacrifice, a lot of broken hearts and a lot of change in our life. But we were both willing to accept that so that the music would not suffer,” said Rodriguez of the ATDI’s demise.

Without wasting much time, the Puerto Rican Rodriguez and the Chicano Zavala began to move the puzzle pieces into place for what would become a Latin timbre-seasoned painting of prog-rock conquest and free-jazz jubilance. By combining the open ended key-jabs of Ikie Owens and the chilling sound manipulations of Jeremy Ward, two members of Zavala and Rodriguez’s experimental dub side project known as De Facto, the two visionaries laid the ground work for the kind of art that leaves room for experimentation while yielding warnings of genre-bending superiority. With the addition of the meticulous Jon Theodore, a seasoned stick slayer and whip-smart sequence provider with drumming experience in several jazz-rock projects, the band was ready to take on their journey with punk-rock aesthetic and perseverance.

Mars Volta The group released the Tremulant EP in 2002 on their own Gold Standard Laboratories label. The three-song, twenty-minute ride and teaser dabbled in spacey dub progressions, waltzy jazz beats that stopped and started on a dime and hellacious spitfire guitar fuzz that sifted between distortion and precision while being loosely tied together with the moaning tweaks and coos that are the starved romantic pipes of Zavala. Several surprise shows and brief touring led to a quick buzz within indie-rock masses. Notable boards chairman Rick Rubin signed on to produce the band’s first full-length album, and at the end of 2002, the group of restless and weary guardians of rock retired to Rubin’s haunted mansion in Laurel Canyon near Los Angeles to record De-Loused in the Comatorium.

The daring task of putting such a concept record together was both disturbing and uplifting. “The initial fear anyone had of the studio was not understanding what’s haunting you,” said Rodriguez of the Laurel Canyon estate, the same place the Red Hot Chili Peppers recorded their classic BloodSugarSexMagik. “Once you understand the mutual existence between something frightening and something inspiring, it can be very uplifting.”

For the album’s theme, Rodriguez and Zavala decided to create a fictional story based upon Julio Venegas, a childhood friend and punk rock mentor to the two while growing up in El Paso. Venegas had committed suicide in 1996 but was a huge inspiration to both band members—turning them on to certain films, literature and music outside of bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag which the two young punkers celebrated as chieftains when they were teens. The lyrics on De-Loused, written by Zavala and Ward, celebrate the life of Venegas and fictionally take on the pre-suicidal coma and surface-scratching dreams battling good and evil that Venegas possibly explored in his last days. The end result is a nightmare of scathing pleas that question one’s vision and purpose but manage to offer some kind of hope at the bottom of the pile of pain and suffering.

The music itself is an open invitation to explore your own livelihood. Each track is a fruit-bearing epic that offers depth and speed along with soothing swirls of unconventional time signatures and a cultured know-how that would merit respect from many heroes resting in their place of solace. Psychedelic grit takes hold of the album from the get-go, while the often punk, often angst, but seldom soft drum work of Theodore actually disappears before your ears into clouds of salsa and meringue, suggesting sexual tension and spastic shifts, turning sharply like a riding roller coaster while wearing a blindfold. Each track at times sounds like it may fall apart or not make it out of the stereo speakers; however, each song is tightly bound by sharp musicianship and reluctant passion.

These are the kind of realizations that the band hoped would come true at the dawn of their creation. The balance of success and failure in life, however, is constant. The record illustrates that concept, and just upon its release earlier this summer, Jeremy Ward was found dead of a heroine overdose.

It is 1:30 a.m. at Emo’s, and the Mars Volta has been playing for over an hour without pause. The band’s live performance is a cerebral, indulgent adventure that constantly delves into improvisational changes, solos and harmonies. “We try to keep a balance between complete structure and complete freedom,” said Rodriguez of the band’s live show. “The way songs sound on the record are just the way they happened to come out the night we recorded them.”

At this point, the band has played nearly every track from the album. Zavala, whose discerning eyes stare at the crowd with a disgruntled annoyance, has managed to keep a piece of gum in his mouth through the entire set while wailing in pitches that pierce ears and gleefully plea for invitations into the brain and spirit of the audience.

Rodriguez, armed with two Orange half-stacks and a collage of effects petals, gallantly solos around the stage while meringue dancing and hand-clapping in between the vocal sputters of Zavala. Owens, who sports shades at night, looks like an animated church organist, bobbing his head to every pound of Theodore’s drum kit. John Alderete follows on bass, often fitting in his conjectures with the rest of the melodic mayhem.

The music actually comes to somewhat of a peaceful pause before Zavala dedicates the albums calmest track, “Televators,” to the late Ward. “Not a day goes by that we don’t think about that motherfucker,” he utters with a melancholic grin. The song then pulsates into a ballad-like hymn that climaxes with Zavala begging the audience to, “Please take my hand.”

The Mars Volta gives and takes. The balance is a concept adopted by the most notable musicians in history. If an artist isn’t taking anything from the music they create, then giving it to someone else is rather pointless. The Volta illustrates this point with a vital offering of eclectic despair, neatly nestled between the haunted and demented lives that most humans experience at one time or another. Mars was the God of War in Greek Mythology. Volta is a Latin term for “shift in music.” The time is now kiddos. Go create. These guys have set the much needed standard.

-Smitty, photos by McPhail

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