Q&A With Cedric Bixler-Zavala of The Mars Volta

At one point during the following interview, conducted for a profile of the Mars Volta that appears in the January 24 Westword, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, the band’s vocalist, lyricist and frontman, casually mentions his “old habits” with “drug use.” After perusing the entire Q&A, readers will understand precisely what he means, since the conversation is every bit as hallucinatory as primo peyote.

The main topic is The Bedlam in Goliath, the act’s latest disc. Bixler-Zavala talks about what inspired it in a rush of imagery emblematic of the group’s over-the-top post-prog jams, touching on a visit to the Holy Land by guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, a Ouija-type board that was allegedly possessed by multiple spirits, terrified translators, messages from beyond the grave, a murder that echoes across time, the 2004 assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the uses of bear mace, hereditary foot problems, and an insane engineer who tried to take the album hostage. Once that trip ends, Bixler-Zavala launches more, hashing over the positive aspects of paranoia, record-company battles and the relative dearth of creativity in today’s rock scene prior to a guest appearance by Powdered Toast Man.

What kind of powder is it? No one knows for certain – but I’ve got a guess.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Tell me the story behind the new album.

Cedric Bixler-Zavala: Right after Amputechture, Omar took a trip to Jerusalem. I don’t know why he went there. Out of the two of us, he has that spontaneous traveling bug. I think there was a spiritual calling for him to see things like that: see the birthplace of Jesus and all of that kind of stuff. Film a lot of stuff and record a lot of stuff – a lot of field recordings that we can use in our albums. So he went over there and he stumbled upon the Jewish quarters, the Muslim quarters and whatnot. And then he found this flea market, and he was singled out by this street vendor there. The street vendor took him aside to a shop that was situated away from the flea market, and the shop sold lots of I guess you could call curio objects: taxidermy kind of candle holders, different amulets, different kind of jewelry. Stuff that would be considered blasphemous in that area. He singled Omar and saw that there might be some kind of spark of interest, so he showed him the shop, and in the shop, Omar stumbled across this antique talking board. In American terms, it’s called a Ouija board, even that “Ouija” is not an American word. I think it’s either French or German. Omar just knew I would love something like that.

Having the old habits that I do with drug use, it became my new drug. It became a private sort of drug that only Omar and I would play. And pretty much playing that thing was when we had all our drummer problems and everything kind of went to shit for our last album. We didn’t get to tour that much on it because of all the problems, all the bad luck from it. That’s when it started, and the more and more I played it, the more and more I wrote everything down that it was saying, and the more and more I was excited by it, because I was having such a dry spell for inspiration. And, of course, a lot of people can comment and say it probably just is me writing this stuff down. But it’s an exercise in opening up portals in the back of the head – not so immediately in front. And so I wrote all this stuff down and I think as an example, all the bad luck was happening to my friends around me.

The more I played it, the more I realized it wasn’t the average kind of children’s game, really. I discovered poetry attached to it underneath the decal of the design of the top of it, and I had it translated. The first person quit – didn’t want to have anything to do with it. The second person, this woman, she stayed on and translated it for us. Some of it was Hebrew, some of it was in Aramaic, some of it was in Latin. She stayed on because I think she realized the content of the story was a lot stronger than what we realized – and she never really explained it to us. She just kind of looked at us like, “I think you’ll figure it out in time.” And now that we’ve had the bio written, the bio is sort of like the worm on the hook to get people come and dig into what the story is. But once you actually bite on the worm, you realize that there’s this stronger story. And the story, in my opinion, the way I read it, is about this honor killing – the kind of honor killing that happened quite frequently in the Middle East among Muslims. And it’s the spirit that contacted us that’s called Goliath, and it’s a combination of a male voice and two female voices, and the male voice doing what it does best in organized religion, which is talk over and suppress the voice of the female, what she’s trying to say. Essentially, it’s the sprit that realized we are antennas, and apart from being antennas, we have a somewhat large audience that’s going to listen to what we have to say, and that’s why I’m here talking to you about it now, and that’s why we have microphones and other media to explain about this stuff.

The last time something like this was talked about was when Van Gogh’s distant cousin was making this cinema – this Dutch guy. He was making this movie essentially about honor killings, and within months of making this movie, he was found murdered with a knife through his heart, literally stabbed in the chest with a note that pretty much said, “Don’t fuck with Muslims.” For us, it’s somewhat telling us, “No, don’t talk about this,” and we’ve dressed it up in some very unbelievable clothing. So it’s your job to be private investigators and explain to people that this happened. Things like The Exorcist are based on true stories, even though it’s not a woman, it’s not a girl. It’s a young boy, and he was outside the Georgetown area. They’re all based on true things that happened. It’s just culturally how you’re brought up. That has a big impact on whether you’d believe a story like that. I talk to most white people: They laugh at me and say, “Great. That’s a great cover story. It’s a great way of getting people interested.” I talk to anyone of Latin persuasion and the first thing they say is, “What the fuck were you thinking of? Here are some remedies. Here you go.”

WW: Were you at all trepidatious to go into this territory. After all, the Van Gogh story you mentioned had a tragic conclusion.

CBZ: Right. If anything, it’s like in Apocalypse Now where he says, “Don’t get off the boat,” you know? I’ll stay in van. If anybody wants to fuck with me there, I’ll have a nice big can of bear mace for them (laughs).

WW: Did you play with Ouija boards when you were a kid?

CBZ: I had a cousin who did, and he got deathly ill from it. That has had a lasting impression. Some of the urban myths are, don’t allow young teenage girls to play it, because they are easily susceptible to the power of suggestion, which to me is a big load of crap. It just adds to the myth of it, you know?

WW: You mentioned bad things that had happened to you guys during this period, and I’ve heard that included foot problems for you. What kind?

CBZ: I have this problem that’s hereditary, but it was really aggravated by the touring, the live show, which is directly linked to playing the board. Some people can say it’s me using heightened paranoia as a story, but I’m still having problems with it today, and I’m still trying to figure out how I can perform like I used to, which has changed a little. But the biggest problem was losing our engineer to a nervous breakdown. We had to hire people to physically take our tapes from him. It was like Dog Day Afternoon. He took over his house, didn’t allow anybody in there. He was freaking out, arguing with us, and we were like the cops trying to convince him to come out and let the hostages go.

WW: Were the hostages in this case the recordings?

CBZ: The recordings, the tapes, the original demos, a lot of which didn’t make it – that were damaged in the whole struggle. A lot of it, I had to convince Omar to keep going on and don’t start over, because that would have pushed us back two years or so.

WW: How long did this incident with the engineer go on?

CBZ: It was a couple weeks. When I came to New York to start doing my regular vocals, not just demoing, he didn’t get on the plane. And I remember getting out of my hotel and seeing Omar fuming up and down the parking lot, screaming at him: “You can’t fucking do this to me, John!” He came back to me and said, “He’s lost his fucking mind! He’s not making any sense.” And I just kind of giggled because I thought, okay, this is someone trying to put another obstacle in front of our band. And every time they put an obstacle in front of us, we’re like, I’m going to eat this obstacle alive, and once I eat it, the outcome will be even greater than what you feared.

WW: You mentioned paranoia earlier, and obviously paranoia can have negative effects. But can it also fuel creativity? Can it cause you to go to places you might not have gone to otherwise?

CBZ: Yeah, I believe that. Paranoia can be such a powerful hallucinogen if you’re not careful – but it’s great to kind of recognize it as that. Sometimes it’s great to not recognize it as that, because I think you kill the actual signal, and then you’re left with having to come up with stuff on your own (laughs) – with it being obviously from you. In this case, I don’t believe it was from me, but I do believe it used me as an antenna. I believe it used me as a bullhorn.

WW: Was the bullhorn used primarily for the lyrical content? Or did it translate to the music and the melodies?

CBZ: The music was there first. It was lyrically speaking. It’s the fact that I wrote down everything that came from there and used it. It’s like transcribing a conversation between a hit man and the person paying the hit man. Not everyone wants it to be documented, and that’s the way it felt.

WW: When you first put the lyrics together, was there a frightening aspect to it as well as an exciting aspect?

CBZ: Oh yeah. That’s the fun part – the taboo of it. The more you’re not supposed to do something, the more you do it. And then you start wearing it out and do it all the time. That’s what it was.

WW: Is there a corollary to that for the band as a whole? Do you see the Mars Volta as doing things that other performers don’t think should be done?

CBZ: Completely. We’ve lost a whole big bunch of people who were fans of our band because this album doesn’t do thirty minute songs and this album doesn’t sound like Francis [the Mute] and this album doesn’t sound like the first record. But that’s what we learned from punk rock: compulsive gambling. It’s going to a hardcore show and seeing Flipper and not understanding why Flipper sounds like they’re on Quaaludes and all the other bands sound like they’re on speed. That’s inspiring. It’s inspiring to see Black Flag looking like Vietnamese farmers with big beards and those kind of Vietnamese farming hats showing up at a Mohawk-mania club in England and being spat at because they don’t sound or look like Exploited; they sound more like Black Sabbath than Black Flag. I love that. I think it’s great. Andy Kaufman is a prime example of people who twenty years later realizing that was the joke in and of itself – that they were so pissed off at him.

WW: It surprises me that your fans are having problems with the new material. I would think anyone who’d like your band would also like adventure – and adventure is all about change. Does the backlash surprise you, too?

CBZ: No, because I think it’s one thing to say you’re adventurous and it’s another thing to actually do it. That’s why there’s all these bands that are recreating OK Computer. Radiohead doesn’t want to recreate OK Computer, so you have all these mediocre either soccer-mom versions of it or metal versions of it, so it can appeal to young people. Because young people didn’t gravitate toward or understand things like Amnesiac or Kid A, which I think are phenomenal – and one of the reasons I do is because they don’t sound like OK Computer. It sounds like music of the future. It’s the sound of a band shedding its skin every time there’s a new record to be made. I wish more bands would do that. Then we’d have less bands like Coldplay and Travis trying to rip off the most digestible parts of Radiohead – selling it back to people who are dumb enough to think it’s something new or interesting. A lot of people who’ve said they’d follow us with blind faith, they really don’t. They’re hoping we’d recreate our first two albums again, which is just boring. That’s suicide more than it is murder. I’m not going to give a fan the benefit of a suicide. I’m paying too much attention to them. We’ve never been a jukebox and we’ve never been the kind of DJ who takes requests.

WW: With the state of the record industry right now, I’d think there might be people at your label who’d like you to recreate your first two albums as well. Has there been any pressure along those lines? Or have they given you complete creative rein to do what you want to do?

CBZ: They’ve given us complete creative rein, but at the same time, that’s the kind of rein that doesn’t allow certain songs to be on the radio that I think would be great on the radio, because I think you need a kind of song that makes you have a double-take or make you scratch your head in the middle of traffic because it’s the sign of the future coming. But that’s not where the label is at (laughs). It’s actually just paying us so that we can make music that is this creatively unrestricted. That’s the hardest thing, because we’ve had such bad luck in the past, and sometimes we’ve just walked away from interviews – and they see it as us being troublemakers. But if you work in the rock industry, you should realize that the most important bands are the troublemakers.

WW: Is there an example of a song on the new album that you wanted out there on the radio and they objected?

CBZ: Yeah, there’s a song called “Ilyena” that I just thought was catchy to me, and it showcased a new sound for us. It didn’t have this obvious Led Zeppelin sound, and there’s certain bands that can just completely ape that nowadays. I wanted to show the fact that we could grow and we weren’t just some Floyd thing, some retro act. The song “Ilyena” really showcased to me what was a giant leap into future music for us. I wanted that to be on there, but it’s like six minutes, and to edit it would be to butcher the real intent of it. I thought that was the catchiest one, but what do I know.

WW: Six minutes doesn’t sound very excessive to me…

CBZ: I know! Some of our conversations in life are fifteen minutes long, you know. I’d hate to think that the stereotypical American is someone who just says “Hi – bye” in conversation. That’s how Europeans see us. And I’d like to think that not all of us are like that. If I do meet someone and I ask them how it’s going, and they are having a shitty day and their dog has died, I do want to know about it. I want to know humanity. I don’t want fast-food culture in my interactions with people.

WW: Speaking of interactions, I know that you guys did a New Year’s show were the audience was encouraged to come in costume. What were some of the most notable costumes – and were there any soothsayers among them?

CBZ: No, no – none of that. We wanted to do that to show that we have a lighter side now (laughs) – because we’ve been through all that darkness. My favorite costume was Powdered Toast Man, which is from Ren & Stimpy. I don’t know how they pulled that off, but they did. That was pretty phenomenal. It was just nice to open my eyes and see an audience that was reminiscent of the spirit of Zappa’s audience, which didn’t need a flyer to tell them it was costume only. Those fans were just nuts, and I love that element. I love walking down the street and someone telling me, “It’s not Halloween,” and I can say back to them, “Yes it is – because every day’s Halloween for me, my friend.”

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts