If the world has learned anything from the Arab Spring, it’s that dictatorships always crumble. The same is true in music. Self-proclaimed fascist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the co-founder of American rock band the Mars Volta, says the release of Noctourniquet in March marked a turning point in his need to have total creative control over his band.
Rodriguez-Lopez, 36, has recently vowed to secede the power he wielded over the Mars Volta’s career since 2001, during which time he made the band a revolving door for musicians (kicking out those who had too many opinions), dictating lyrics to lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala, writing the music and even booking the tours all himself.
“I’ve spent 10 years not sharing. That will make you very lonely inside,” he admits during a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post ahead of the band’s summer European tour, which opens in Tel Aviv on Monday.
From now on, he’s looking for a more “communal” approach to running the 2009 Grammy award-winning outfit, known for their mesh of hard rock and punk, and Freddy Mercury inspired vocals.
“This last album was the most extreme, most fascist state of Mars Volta you could have and from here on out I want other band members’ ideas,” pledges Rodriguez- Lopez, who was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in El Paso, Texas, and maintains a solo career, music side projects and a film career, having directed, produced and acted in a couple original films – The Sentimental Engine Slayer and Los Chidos – in 2010 and 2012, respectively. “I want to hear other opinions.”
It was through the making of Noctourniquet that Rodriguez-Lopez, the band’s guitarist, producer and composer, experienced his true “aha” moment with his long-time collaborator and friend, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, the lead singer of the five-member Mars Volta. The turning point was when Bixler-Zavala admitted that making music with him was no longer fun.
He told Rodriguez-Lopez he wanted to write lyrics and work on the album at his pace for a change. The argument, which started when the band was completing its previous record Octahedron, released in 2009, helped Rodriguez-Lopez realize his style had grown stale and feel ready to make their music more of a collaborative experience.
The tension between the two friends, who met in 1988 at an El Paso garage, ended up helping them confront their issues and strengthen their relationship.
“You can’t trade in what you got in the process,” he says, pointing out that many other bands operate with one person making all the decisions, but pretend they’re one big happy family for business purposes. “I have no interest in entertaining anybody or being a politician,” he says confidently.
Bixler-Zavala spent the next two years writing nuanced lyrics, combining words that don’t belong together, like the album’s title, for the music Rodriguez-Lopez had already arranged. Once the lyrics were set, Rodriguez- Lopez finally recorded and mixed the album.
In the past, Rodriguez-Lopez would write the album and only after he was finished, hand it over to Bixler-Zavala to get some feedback and have him record his part. While in a dictatorship, everything moves swiftly because only one person is calling the shots, this time around Rodriguez-Lopez found himself feeling impatient, but ultimately grateful.
“So you give up pace for the fact that you’re in communion with your fellow man and sharing a fellow experience,” he says. “Things become much more real and much more beautiful when shared with others.”
Still, the new album feels somewhat irrelevant for him because since finishing it, he says he has put out material on his other projects in the meantime.
HE DOES not blame his parents for his “extreme personality.”
“I come from a very large, loving family, so I don’t understand why I behave like an only child. They raised me with the concept that anything is possible and I can accomplish anything I put my mind to. Unfortunately, I’m such an extreme person... I took that to its most extreme level. And so it’s taken me 35 years to figure out, to start to figure out a balance.”
When Rodriguez-Lopez was 12 and Bixler- Zavala was 14, the two passed each other between each of their bands’ rehearsals, held in the garage whose adult owners didn’t mind the loud music.
“It was just one of those things that people describe as love at first sight,” Rodriguez–Lopez says. “You just know you’ve met someone. That was the beginning of a very long relationship and friendship.”
That relationship has seen the formation of several bands together and apart from each other.
Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez started the Mars Volta when they broke off from their last band, the post-hardcore group At the Drive-In, which formed in 1993 and stayed together until 2001. At the Drive-In had a devoted following and garnered commercial success, but operated too democratically for Rodriguez-Lopez, who says he felt bored and stifled by their tendency to hold meetings about meetings and to spend too much time discussing issues like the color of the next record. From one extreme to the next, Rodriguez founded the Mars Volta to let fascism reign supreme.
Coming to peace somewhat with At the Drive-In, the band reunited at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California last January and at Lollapalooza in Chicago last August. The group has not announced plans to record together again, and the Mars Volta is occupied now with its tour.
Rodriguez-Lopez says he took inspiration for Noctourniquet – a combination of the words “nocturnal” and “tourniquet” – in part from the great religions of the world. “At that time I was making the record three years ago, it was fascinating to me hearing literal translations of the Bible,” he says, adding that he spoke to different types of religious leaders, including a rabbi, and thought more about the use of plurals and of the feminine in the text. He didn’t come away with answers, conclusions or meaning, rather, summing it up succinctly: “I think that everyone’s right and I think that everyone’s wrong. The world is a mysterious place.”
Rodriguez-Lopez’s curiosity about religion, history and culture led him to Israel in 2006 to visit, not to perform. Traveling to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and seeing pilgrims on their hands and knees kissing the ground was a particularly moving experience for him.
“Whether you believe in it or not you have to be a person really cut off from humanity to not be brought to tears by the sight of hundreds of people going into a spot that they consider sacred,” he says. “I don’t think that Jesus was the son of God. I don’t think God has a penis and he gave penis to the world, but still it’s interesting to go and see.”
Bixler-Zavala said the album’s title came from a story he is writing called The Boy With the Voice in his Knives, during a recent fan interview on YouTube. He said the tourniquet metaphorically stops the night from bleeding, as darkness is commonly regarded as the scary time of day. Rodriguez-Lopez disputes that explanation.
“I don’t even think Cedric knows what it means,” he says, laughing. “I think we both speak in metaphorical terms that we don’t exactly understand but that create some sort of image. It creates an image in your head because it’s two words that don’t belong together.”
Pressed to expand on that image, Rodriguez-Lopez says we’re all searching for the light amid the darkness, and eventually the sun always comes up.
“When you let yourself get overwhelmed then night starts to bleed profusely. It gets harder and harder to see day,” he says. “You have to stop the bleeding because nobody’s going to do it for you. You have to find it within yourself to remember there’s always light no matter how dark things may appear.”
As his band shifts gears, Rodriguez-Lopez shows little sign of losing his ambition to evolve or look for the light.
“I see myself as a boutique shop,” he says, categorizing his music as not a big name brand, but also not for the recluses, either.
Taking it down a notch, more modestly, he says his music isn’t really anything special, and that even he would not want to listen to it all the time.
“It’s what plenty of people in plenty of places have to offer,” he says. “I’m a color in a rainbow. We can make decisions and I’m one of the decisions you can make.”
Or perhaps he means we are one of the decisions listeners can make.
The Mars Volta is performing at Hangar 11 in Tel Aviv on June 11. Visit www.themarsvolta.com to purchase tickets.