Watching movies was a big part of this record," says Omar Rodriguez, guitarist and co-founder of Los Angeles-based band the Mars Volta. He's referring to the group's debut album, De-loused in the Comatorium. "It's something I'm so jealous of -- the medium of film," Rodriguez continues. "There are so many limitations right now in music, and being able to escape that through film and all of the possibilities of expression that can occur, it conjured up so many different feelings for me."
Given Rodriguez's comments, it's not surprising that the bandmembers spent their recording downtime watching the surrealist films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Luis Buñuel and Werner Herzog -- films marked by exaggerated shifts in theme and an unwillingness to adhere to a standard narrative. A first listen to the new record quickly reveals that there's more going on than meets the ear; repeated spins uncover several recurring themes, multiple layers of extended subconscious elements and the absolute realism that is surrealism.
The narrative, however difficult to follow, is one of loss and celebration. De-loused is a concept album inspired by and dedicated to the memory of one of the bandmembers' close friends, Julio Venegas, who committed suicide in 1996. The players describe Vanegas -- an artist from their hometown of El Paso -- as a free spirit and noted provocateur who lived life to the fullest.
"We wanted it to be a celebration of his life, something that was inspired by him yet took a completely different turn and was completely fictionalized," explains Rodriguez. "There was a lot of grandiose traveling and experimenting of what could have been and what was. It was a nice gesture for him, to celebrate him. An epitaph for him, to let him know that we miss him and we love him, and that it has nothing to do with him as much as it has everything to do with him."
Rodriguez and vocalist Cedric Bixler were both members of the critically acclaimed, adrenaline-soaked quartet At the Drive-In, which disbanded in 2001, just as it was about to break big.
"To me, that's an outside thing," says Rodriguez of At the Drive-In's popularity. "The amount of people that were attracted to our band or this bullshit hype -- all of this stuff -- it's all an illusion; it's all peripheral."
Rodriguez assumes full responsibility for the breakup of his former group, saying it was a completely "self-involved thing," that he couldn't picture himself going another year playing with people whose concept of music was so different from his own. "As fucked up as this may sound, I was bored. I felt like we weren't going to move forward anymore," he says. "You know, some of these songs that we have in the Mars Volta were songs I had written while in At the Drive-In. But while I showed them to Cedric, I cringed at the thought of showing them to the other guys." According to Rodriguez, there was a conflict from the beginning, with him and Bixler in one camp trying to push the envelope, and the rest of the band more concerned with pop music, like "the Foo Fighters and Radiohead. I pictured in my head us working on them, and I knew exactly what they would turn out like: another record that we made before. And the thought of it just made me feel sick, in the same way that you can feel vomit coming up your throat before you swallow it back down. It was a horrible feeling."
Free to explore new musical ventures, Rodriguez and Bixler went on to form the Mars Volta, borrowing a term for the concept of time that was a hallmark of Federico Fellini's films. In 2002 the band released the three-song teaser EP Tremulant, which only hinted at the progressive ethereal jazz, psychedelic and salsa-laced hard rock that was to follow. By late last year, the duo had cemented its lineup with drummer Jon Theodore, keyboardist Isaiah "Ikie" Owens, and sound manipulator Jeremy Michael Ward (who died this past May). Enlisting the help of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea on bass and ubiquitous producer Rick Rubin, the group holed up at the latter's haunted mansion/studio in the Hollywood Hills and got to work on its debut album.
"I think he really helped us to see it," says Rodriguez of Rubin's ability to present a panoramic view of the band. "It's hard when you're making a record, because you're so close to it. You're completely emotionally attached in every way. To me, Rick was the guy who, when you move into a new house and you're putting up your favorite painting, stands at the back of the room and guides you. The one who says, 'Hang it there and come back to the end of the room so you can see how I'm looking at it, and if you don't like it, you can always put it back to how you had it.'"
The spirits in Rubin's Laurel Canyon estate also added their own tweaks to the recording process. While Rodriguez won't go so far as to say the house is haunted, he does acknowledge that it had "a lot to say."
"It's this big mansion with these stories that seem to be written all over it," he remembers. This sense of spirituality helped guide the band through the process and ultimately keeps it focused. "Collectively and individually, our sense of spirituality plays a big part in not only the record, but in the presentation and the personality of the band. It definitely plays a huge role in what our band is, and the goal is to be able to achieve those levels of consciousness while playing and recording."
This guiding principle -- achieving a higher consciousness in music -- recalls the stylistic foundations of the jam-band mentality and the wildly self-indulgent prog-rock acts of the past. But Rodriguez is quick to point out that he doesn't consider the Mars Volta to be a prog band, even though it frequently gets labeled as such.
"What people are scared of is that it became this thing where prog bands are completely self-indulgent, in the way where the power of the song rested on how hard it was to play, or how many different theories you could mesh together, or time signatures. Even though it may come across that way, it isn't that way," he adds, "because I don't know music theory. I don't really know anything about music except for the sounds that I enjoy. I don't know notes; I don't know what time I'm writing in. I write what I like, then I introduce it to the band, and we put it together and play with it until it sounds pleasing to us. People have this fear that we're going to make a record based on how hard it is to play or on how often we can change time signatures. But I don't think like that. I'm going off of a feel."
Rodriguez is amused at the way some critics have seized upon the self-indulgence of the band's latest effort. "No, I should be clear: We're definitely self-indulgent," he says with a laugh. "Simply by the fact that we write our music in a completely self-involved and a very narcissistic way. We're not thinking of anyone else when we're putting it together. In that sense, it's very self-indulgent. What our close friends think of songs, or what our audience thinks of songs -- or our managers, label or anyone else -- plays no part in how we make our music."
This strict adherence to making music on its own terms has allowed the band to create the concept album it wanted to present. But in the process, the bandmembers found that there were limitations to the compact-disc medium. "The vinyl album is the complete picture," says Rodriguez. "The CD is an inferior format to vinyl in every way -- in sound and in vision. There's a lot more detail that goes into a record, and aesthetically, it's a lot more pleasing."
Ultimately, the band did not compromise and got its wish to include the full story and lyrics in the vinyl package. "It would be like releasing the record with just the drum tracks and the guitar tracks and the vocals, and you would have to get a separate thing to get the keyboards and the bass tracks and the effects."
Whether it's on compact disc or vinyl, however, the music contained within still paints the same picture. "Again, the whole record is all one story," says Rodriguez. "It changes the entire focus of how you look at songs individually, because they rely on each other. And to be able to have recurring themes is necessary. Part of the element in making this record was that there had to be parts of the songs that were somehow reminiscent, or tied into each other, to make it one cohesive story: The opening credits, the closing credits, the climax, the little reminders, the clues...."
De-loused in the Comatorium contains clues that are meant to be unraveled. It's a puzzle that the listener has to work at, just as the viewer has to cull meaning from a challenging film.
"The story is the lyrics, basically," proclaims Rodriguez. The lyrics are contained within the story. Like the music, it's all just one piece, and you have to sit down and 'read' through all of this before you stumble upon the lyrics to each song. They are part of a bigger picture."
Herzog said during his filmmaking career that "we live in an age starved of new images." The Mars Volta is making every attempt to prove him wrong in its own medium.
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