Foundations: Omar Rodríguez-López

The Bosnian Rainbows and Mars Volta man's inspirational LPs...

Formerly a member of At The Drive-In, De Facto and The Mars Volta, and currently playing in alt-rock foursome Bosnian Rainbows, Omar Rodríguez-López is a musician who needs no introduction to anyone even vaguely into rock music since the turn of the millennium.

Here, the guitarist talks Clash through five albums of absolute importance to his musical development – five truly foundational records.

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Bosnian Rainbows – ‘Turtle Neck’, from the album ‘Bosnian Rainbows’

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La Sonora Ponceña – ‘Hacheros Pa’un Palo’ (1968)

“The thing about doing this feature, for me, is that all five of my picks could have been records by salsa groups. Salsa records were the classics for me, until I found American, English-speaking music. I was 10 when I moved to America.

“So this is my pick for an all-time favourite salsa record. They’re from Puerto Rico, and I think they’re the best band to have come from there. Some of my friends from back then would kill me for saying that, as there are so many other great bands. But La Sonora Ponceña is actually from the town my father’s from, Ponce, and their keyboard player was only 13 when he joined the group. His name is Papo Lucca, and he’s one of the most brilliant piano players to come out of the movement.

“This is late-1960s salsa, so it’s known as hardcore salsa. After the mid-1970s, salsa began to get more polished. This is club salsa, with a lot of influence from New York jazz. For the Puerto Rican musicians, American jazz was a whole new thing. So they started to incorporate elements, instruments not native to salsa. This music was being played in small clubs, rather than outdoor spaces.

“This record is just… well, it’s a classic. It’s their first record, by which point I think Papo Lucca was maybe 17. It’s just one of those records where you just never lift the needle. A lot of the salsa bands that went to New York started to think about incorporating songs in English on their records, and they might put a boogaloo song on there too. And that was the song you’d skip! But this is just pure hardcore salsa, at its best. The record is amazing. You can feel the passion in every track. And Papo Lucca is just a legend.

“I was born in 1975, so this is music I heard being played in our house. A lot of Puerto Rican culture centres around music, so everybody played something. We know all the traditional stuff, and this is what my father and mother would listen to, and what we’d go to see. This is what most spoke to me, as my dad was into the hardcore salsa. He used to cover some of these songs, which were songs that my whole family knew.”

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Umm Kulthum (Oum Kalthoum) – ‘Tichouf Oumori (1926-1935)’ (1995)

“I’m not sure how to pronounce the title of this, actually. But Umm Kulthum is basically… Well, if you ask any Egyptian, or Armenian person about Umm Kulthum, they’ll know who she is. She was like the Arabian Billie Holiday, and made records from the 1920s onwards.

“When she died in 1975, people committed suicide, they threw themselves off balconies. For being a woman in the Arab world, she commanded so much respect, and her influence stretched into politics. Culturally, she was held in the highest esteem. When you look her up, she has a title of sorts… ‘Star of the East’.

“The man who wrote songs with her, he was passionately in love with her, and she may have even fallen in love with him. But the legend has it that the two never became an item because she was afraid that might dilute their songs – because all the songs were about not having things.

“And most of the songs are live recordings, so you can hear the passion in them. You can hear, between her words, the house erupt. This album is a collection, with lots of short, concise songs, but she put out a lot of records. Some of those might have a 10-minute intro before she comes on stage, and you can hear the audience singing and clapping along to these musical passages. You can feel their excitement, and then when she walks on stage they go crazy.

“An Armenian friend of mine turned me onto this. I don’t know what she’s saying, but despite that she makes the hairs stand on end. You can feel the realness, with the full orchestra, and it completely changed my perspective on what music was.

“World music is a funny term. When I think of world music, I think of this really light, inoffensive thing you play at a restaurant – this polished thing, that’s not meant to unsettle. It’s nice. Like, ‘Oh, I’m experiencing music from another part of the world.’

“But with Umm Kulthum, you’ll either love it, or it’ll drive you crazy. Friends of mine have heard it and they’re like, ‘What is she wailing on about?’ And I don’t know, but to me it sounds good. There’s so much soul and pain in her voice. I don’t think of this as ‘world music’. This is just music from a different culture, and it immediately spoke to me.”

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Run-D.M.C. – ‘Run-D.M.C.’ (1984)

“This is the first Run-D.M.C. record, but I bought it by accident, actually. It was my introduction to American music, as before when I heard English-language music, it was actually from England, like The Beatles, and my brother would play The Police. But when we moved to America, to South Carolina, right away I saw the segregations in society, the racism. I saw, at just 10, the essential problem with America, the race thing.

“All of my friends were black, because I wasn’t white, and I remember coming home from school and asking, ‘What does spick mean?’ Because the white kids would keep calling me that. My dad told me it meant ‘cool guy’. But I saw Run-D.M.C. on the TV, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I went to buy their album of the time, but I accidentally bought their first one. It would have been 1987. But even though I didn’t mean to get this record, my mind was blown.

“The bass drum, and that snare… the handclaps, and these weird rhythmic things. It was absolutely mind-blowing. So, I went to go see them. And this is another reason why this was life changing for me, because the lyrics on a few songs are about the social situation. And there’s rock guitar here, too. I was trying so hard to figure it all out, and they looked so cool to me, with how they dressed. So I saw them, and the Beastie Boys, and that was the first English-speaking concert I’d gone to.

“The other big thing about that was that it was the first time I saw punk-rock people. I went to the stadium, where the concert was, and saw people with mohawks for the first time. It was such an eye-opening experience. I asked this girl to go with me… I don’t know what I was thinking. I was 12, and I remember my mum helping me make her a chocolate rose, which is something my mum would do back then. I think my parents thought it was cute.

“My mum was gonna go with us, but when the girl came, she was 18. So I couldn’t go with my parents. Later, obviously, I saw how ridiculous it was to ask an 18-year-old to the show – how could she have accepted me? I guess she really wanted to see Run-D.M.C… and when she came, my parents were laughing. I remember this girl brought a pair of binoculars. I remember not understanding why, until we got to this coliseum. So I had to stand on the chair, and she gave me the binoculars.

“That was my introduction to American music, and it opened the doors for me to get into both punk and electronic music. And it showed me integration between these social groups, too, which I didn’t see every day.

“I actually wrote letters to both the Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C. afterwards. I asked both of them if they would take me on tour. I told my dad when I came home from the concert that I wanted to travel with them, and play with them, and rather than just saying that was impossible, he told me to write them letters. Of course, neither got back to me. But I got to tell that story to Mike D of the Beastie Boys when At The Drive-In signed to Grand Royal.

“So yeah, Run-D.M.C. were a huge game-changer for me.”

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Caetano Veloso – ‘Araçá Azul’ (1972)

“Caetano Veloso is one of the greatest-ever Brazilian songwriters, and he helped start the tropicália movement. So, my dad and mum loved his more traditional stuff, but my friends gave me a copy of this record, and man… it’s just…

“When I read up on this record later, I think he’d gone into exile. And it was a time of experimentation. This record… again, only knowing his other stuff, and then finding this, it’s like he’s doing tape loops… He’s doing things that would interest me later, and that I’d hear in bands like Faust. But this was way before I heard that stuff, and from a completely different place.

“The first or second track here, he’s singing things a cappella, and he’s using tape loops to move the sounds around. One moment he’s on the left, then he’s on the right. It’s like, what’s going on here? As well as traditional-sounding songs, he was now experimenting with his arrangements. It’s a very twisted version of something I already knew.

“Also, all of these things early on gave me this liberating feeling that this was music. Just the sound of his voice on a loop is music. To someone else, that wouldn’t be music, and would perhaps be frowned upon. Luckily my parents were never like that – apart from when I had my small stint with metal.

“Later, when I got more into psychedelic records, I could appreciate this as a twisted tropicália record, but at the time it seemed like a fairy tale… I don’t know how to explain it. When you’re a kid, you’re so imaginative that you go with all the strange music, where maybe an adult would have these barriers. You still have an analytical part, but it changes as you get older.”

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Dead Kennedys – ‘Plastic Surgery Disasters’ (1982)

“So I had to pick one punk album, and I’ve gone with ‘Plastic Surgery Disasters’. I’d already been getting into punk rock when I heard this. I was about to hit 13, and we’d just moved to El Paso, and all the Mexican kids were into punk rock, and skating and stuff. They were particularly into the Misfits, I think because of how the culture celebrates death. Black Flag were popular too, because they had a Puerto Rican singer, Ron Reyes.

“I’ve picked this because of the social aspect of coming to America, and Dead Kennedys really focused in on politics when I was beginning to understand it myself. I was starting to question everything. I remember that the label was weird on this one, so I put the second side on first, so my opening song was ‘Riot’. I was expecting this fast punk song, and instead I hear this slow thing. I’d been listening to Circle Jerks and Black Flag, so I was like, ‘What the f*ck is this?’

“As I read along with the lyrics, the satire hit me. I could have very easily, at that age, read the song as being about rioting, like, how it was cool. But being so immersed in the lyrics, that was part of the process for me. When I finally got to side one and heard what they were talking about, it really resonated with me, with what I was seeing at school. The spick stuff, I was coming to understand it. And moving to El Paso, I wasn’t the minority anymore, and that was incredible.

“Hearing Jello Biafra’s voice, sometimes I couldn’t tell what he was saying, like it had this old-lady quality to it. The songs, the mechanics… everything spoke to me, starting with ‘Riot’. There was ‘Halloween’, that really stuck out, where he sings about people just living for the weekend and dressing up as what they’re not… ‘Remember what I was / Back on Halloween.’ But what about everything else, ‘Where are your ideas?’ Looking weird, skating or whatever, I’d read that and feel free to do what I wanted to.

“We’d play this out loud on a boombox, but it was okay because the cholos didn’t mind it, they liked it, because it was extreme. They had to respect this weird, crazy, aggressive music. When I think back to this record, it really was my introduction to guitar playing, too. You can trace it back to this record, back to the weird atonal stuff, the barre chords. I thought I could do that.

“When I started The Mars Volta, there was all this emphasis on prog, and people would always mention that – but I’d turn them back to this record, as it’s a punk record but there’s loads of weird stuff on it. This is a band having fun with the medium, with what they were able to do. They’d already made the four-on-the-floor records. So this is a perfect example of a band breaking out of expectations.”

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