The Mars Volta

“...a celebration of the absurd.”

“If you’d be so kind as to leave your preconceptions at the door, The Mars Volta will see you now.”

This isn’t how I’m ushered into a small, glass-walled meeting room for my interview with vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and multi-instrumentalist Omar Rodríguez-López, but it should be. The pair you see plastered across magazine pages, straight-faced and serious: they’re not here. Instead, a couple of amiable individuals chuckle their way through our allotted time, even dangerously lowering the tone when it serves to illustrate a wider point, one more relevant to their wondrously ambitious brand of progressive rock.

Case in point: Omar turns to Cedric and says, “It can be a cool thing that I might’ve literally just dreamt about raping your mother.” They both laugh extremely hard, wicked cackles that one can only let loose in the company of a best friend. They do this a lot, like a pair of mischievous children who can’t quite believe they’ve not yet been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Metaphor untangled: the hands are their music, the jar the messed-up insides of your head when you’re listening to it.

And the context behind the quote: we’re discussing the method behind the madness, the bubbling cauldron of creativity that’s endlessly stirred just behind the sparkling eyes of the duo. When critics commend the band – ostensibly the pair, but both on stage and in the studio they’re assisted by a wealth of talented musicians – for their complex polyrhythmic passages, their skewed signatures and conceptually deep lyricism, what do they think? Do they hear the same, or…

“I hear a lot of inside jokes, sarcasm and absurdity,” answers Cedric. “I hear a celebration of the absurd.”

“That’s the best way to describe it, I think,” continues Omar. “I did an interview on the television the other day, and the guy’s first question was: ‘People describe your music as…’, and he went on to describe it, before asking, ‘And how do you describe it?’ And he was looking for something musical, but I think what Cedric just said is perfect – it’s a celebration of the absurd thoughts that we all have, that sort of spring from the darker side of our subconscious. Rather than repress them – like, ‘What the fuck was that all about?’ – we go: ‘That was a weird thought, I’d better write that down! I have no idea what the fuck it might mean, but it was inside of me and I’m not trying to keep it in there.’ It’s better to celebrate these things, rather than let them freak you out.”

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The Mars Volta – ‘Goliath’ (live, T In The Park)

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The latest tangible product of this everlasting outpouring of peculiar passion is ‘Octahedron’, The Mars Volta’s fifth studio album – that their first, ‘De-Loused In The Comatorium’, was released in 2003 is evidence enough that the band have hardly been slacking in the productivity stakes. While traits remain present from record to record, the group’s sound has morphed over time, from beguiling interstellar overtures to subdued flirtations with the most reserved introspection, and everything between. ‘Octahedron’ is, by its makers’ admission, not as rigid of thematic framework as previous efforts, the relatively freeform ‘Amputechture’ of 2006 aside, but its tracks do touch upon definite narratives. The track ‘Cotopaxi’, for example, tells of child disappearances in a small town, lines like “Don’t stop dragging the lake” vivid in their imagery. Cedric’s words aren’t as wrapped up in mystery as once they were; here, like the music that surrounds them, there’s an emphasis on directness, and ‘Octahedron’ is without doubt their most comparatively traditional album yet.

“People have always been saying that we don’t know how to write songs,” says Omar, referring to the perception that the band live only to confuse with their compositions, “but they don’t know anything about us beyond what they’ve read in the magazines. We started by writing traditional songs – when we were very young we wrote like that, but slowly you get fucking bored. So, you take the traditional structure of a song and you break it up a bit, you insert new sections, and you keep yourself interested – not anyone else, just yourself, because you’re the only one playing it in the practise room for four hours a day. You begin to fuck with the traditional formula of the song… and then people ask us why we can’t write a song? Writing a song is the easiest part; you can do that in your sleep. But challenging yourself to go further and further and further, that’s what takes will and exercise. Now, we’ve flipped that, and we’re a little bored of breaking up a song. It’s like, ‘Hey, remember when we were fourteen and we used to write those little songs? Let’s do that again, but with the sound we’ve got now.’ So we’ve done that, and now what? We’re constantly searching for the new feeling.”

The search for this new feeling drives the pair to the edge of reason, to an outer limit of existence where the quest consumes reality, and the world twists into a distraction from the never-ending pursuit. Explains Omar: “It’s like the same when you get a craving for food – it’s beyond your own instincts. I’m not saying I’m great because I feel something new all of the time, but I’m chasing something, constantly. Maybe it’s my own tail, but that’s how it is. You’ll catch it, do it, and then find that it wasn’t what you were looking for, so you move on. There it is, over there! You’re chasing this gigantic question mark, trying to form it and capture it, but you’re never going to quite accomplish it.”

So your mind never switches off? “No. I think I have one of those minds, and Cedric too, that just won’t shut the fuck up. And when it really gets going, it’ll be at midnight. The circus gets going, and then you’re up all night… I think it happens to a lot of people. You get all these crazy ideas, songs coming back to you from the 1980s that you never even liked but now you find amazing, it’s all nonsense. And then eventually you make yourself go to sleep, wake up and then there’s that internal monologue again. We all have it, and I think we’re all trying to escape it.”

Escape is expressed in the form of writing and recording, and the impression The Mars Volta give is that this is when they’re at their happiest. Performing can be a rush, too, but there’s pressure from the audience at play, and not every night can be as big a thrill as the one before it. “There’s a great expectation for Cedric to have an ‘on night’ every single night,” comments Omar. “He’s who most people notice, but they forget he’s a human being, that he gets tired and will have off nights; he can’t go crazy every single night. They don’t understand that’s it’s not a premeditated thing, that you either feel it or you don’t.” But in the studio, a certain tranquillity descends, individuals in their elements. “I think it’s playtime when I get to tell other people that it’s work,” says Cedric of this part of the process. “Deep down inside I know that it’s playtime, even though there is discipline involved. But it’s all play for me!”

Play it might be, but the singer never entertained the idea of having a plan B should his band endeavours hit the skids. “I always hated it when my mum would say that to me,” he says. “I love and respect her, but I’ve always discussed this with my girlfriend: if we ever get to the point where we have kids, I don’t want to ever ask the about a plan B. If my kid wants to be a dentist, I want them to work really hard, and dream about drilling mouths!”

Omar continues: “It’s a bit of a sick concept, having a plan B, if you think about it. It’s like meeting a woman, and saying: ‘I love you more than anything, but if this doesn’t work out I’m going to have to go to plan B, you know, what’s her name’. When you’re driven by passion, and emotion, and not on an intellectual level, it doesn’t work that way. This is it, this is it, this is it; consume, consume, consume. It seems totally watered down to say: ‘I’m totally obsessed with you, but if you don’t work…’ Those who are truly obsessed don’t have that sort of foresight. They know their objective and they’ll stop at nothing to get it. Expression is the obsession – and jokes are part of expression.” He flashes a dazzling grin, one mirrored by his bandmate. Po-faced these men most certainly aren’t, and the fuel for their frivolity comes from a source quite close to home.

“I love The Office,” says Omar. “The American version I didn’t like as much. They’ve just started showing The Mighty Boosh in America, too. Americans can’t do English humour – no other culture can, and people shouldn’t try! The American Office just isn’t the same – it doesn’t make you feel as uncomfortable. When I watch Extras, or The Office, it makes me want to crawl out of my skin.”

“You couldn’t have a Monty Python anywhere else, you just couldn’t,” he continues. “You can be inspired by it, and do your own shit, but you can’t do Monty Python USA… And all of these things are a celebration of the dark side of the subconscious, like The League Of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh. How do those minds come up with that shit? It must be a similar level to how we come up with things, and if that’s the case they must have a great time. They must just sit there and write down whatever fucking thing that comes into their head, whether they’re on the toilet or on the train, whatever.”

And suddenly talk of raping a best friend’s mother makes a degree of sense. Sort of.

Words by Mike Diver

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The Mars Volta – ‘Cotopaxi’, (live, T In The Park)

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Read the full interview in Issue 41 of Clash out now. Read more about the issue HERE or get access to it now, online HERE.

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