The Mars Volta – Welcome dictatorship

June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: Sydney Morning Herald, Metro, June 13, 2008.

The Mars Volta

The Mars Volta are at their happiest with a strongman in charge, reports Dan Rule.

Cedric Bixler-Zavala is perfectly content as one of the minions, the followers, the hangers on.

“I’m just along for the ride,” he says over the phone on the eve of the Mars Volta’s Australian tour. “That romantic notion of a band being a total democracy is just like lying to yourself in the mirror.”

It’s an unlikely assertion, especially coming from a frontman. But then again the Mars Volta – the Los Angeles avant-garde rock group built around the creative core of Bixler-Zavala and musical prodigy Omar Rodriguez-Lopez – are far from your average band.

Rising from the ashes of celebrated band At the Drive-In in 2001, the pair have pushed rock’n’roll in extreme and thrilling directions. Over the course of three studio albums – acclaimed debut De-Loused In The Comatorium (2003), follow-up Frances The Mute (2005) and the sonic blitzkrieg that was Amputechture (2006) – the duo have scoured musical terrains as diverse as psychedelia, prog, punk and acid-rock, Latin and flat-out experimental metal.

But according to Bixler-Zavala, it wasn’t until this year’s The Bedlam In Goliath that the Mars Volta truly hit their creative straps, with none other than Rodriguez-Lopez in a position of almost complete control.

“One day Omar basically put his foot down and said, ‘Enough talk, I’m in charge!'” Bixler-Zavala says. “If he hadn’t done that, we would still be a bunch of method actors arguing over what the f—ing motivation for the f—ing song is, which gives you nothing but grey hairs and compromised art.

“Not everyone’s put on this earth to make strong decisions like that, you know, but he really is.”

Indeed, the record’s frenetic song structures and noise-drenched dynamics underscored the most unconventional of creative processes. Rodriguez-Lopez would compose the songs in full, allowing the rest of the band only a fleeting chance to learn the material before entering the studio. Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics were written entirely ad lib.

“Omar was really, really exercising the idea of not letting anyone rehearse anything,” he says. “You literally had to learn it, or in my case respond to it lyrically, in five minutes, before he recorded it.”

The band’s odd methodology had some destructive effects. Before the recording sessions had even begun they fell out with two different drummers. Once they finally entered Rodriguez-Lopez’s studio, it was flooded – not once, but twice. To top it off, their engineer suffered a nervous breakdown and refused to hand over several of the near-finished tracks.

Yet it’s this flirtation with chance and all its potentialities that drives the Mars Volta’s unusual art, Bixler-Zavala says.

“We don’t like to classify it as anything while we’re doing it, because it limits what it could grow to be. It’s like you know that there’s a big pink elephant in the room, but you have to pretend it’s not there.

“It can make you could look like an idiot and sound like a fool, but [if] you scare it off you’re done for.”

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