Update: The Mars Volta show on Wednesday, September 2 at the Santa Barbara Bowl has been canceled. Refunds can be obtained at the point of purchase.
Love ’em or hate ’em, El Paso’s The Mars Volta are an undeniable force to be reckoned with. Since rising out of the ashes of early-’90s post-rock outfit At the Drive-In, guitarist Omar Rodr-guez-L³pez and lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala have turned more heads-and stirred up more critical disagreement-than most bands do in a lifetime. Together, they have arguably crafted some of the best avant-garde hard rock of their generation, melding progressive song “structures” with jazz and blues complexities and instrumental prowess with some surrealist lyricism.
This June-with help from longtime Volta collaborators Isaiah Owens, Juan Alderete, Thomas Pridgen, and Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante-Rodr-guez-L³pez and Bixler-Zavala released their fifth studio album, Octahedron. Dubbed by many as the band’s most approachable record to date, Octahedron is chock-full of Rodr-guez-L³pez’s signature spiraling guitar solos and hard-hitting chord progressions, but gone are the 12-minute rock-outs and overarching conceptual narratives. Recently, I caught up with Rodr-guez-L³pez to talk about the new album, critical labels, and why fans are helping to rewrite his perceptions.
You’ve said that Octahedron was your way of breaking away from what you guys were doing on previous albums. Are these songs still providing a good outlet for you on tour? Yeah, we’re able to have more dynamics now. Playing a live show isn’t just three hours of drums and bass [anymore]. Now I’m able to put songs in the set that are much mellower, so there’s a dynamic there that wasn’t present before.
Can you tell me a little bit about the cover art for Octahedron? That’s a piece by Jeff Jordan. Early on, I started sending him some music and some of Cedric’s lyrics, and we’d worked together a couple of times. He did Amputechture-but that piece was already done-and then on Bedlam [in Goliath] we sort of had the same process, where I would send him music and lyrics and themes. On this one, I handed him a couple of pieces of music and explained to him what we were trying to do, about the changes I was trying to make and the limitations I was trying to have on myself. [The cover] is his response to that.
You say “limitations.” What was your goal going into the making of this album? “Limitations” just meaning putting handcuffs on yourself so that you don’t do the things that you’re accustomed to doing. People who create stuff-artists, whatever you want to call them-are afraid of limitations, when actually limitations help us to be creative. : The less you have, the more your brain works, you know? It’s like exercising for the mind. The more you have, the more content and the lazier you become. I remember doing a lot more when I only had an eight-track recorder and one guitar and a couple of pedals and a Rhodes. You become creative because your mind’s working in a way that it normally wouldn’t. It’s saying, “How can I improvise here? How can I get more out of this?”
How do you respond to people who call this the most accessible album you’ve made? I don’t know. I don’t think of it in those terms. I don’t think it’s more accessible, or it’s more digestible. It’s my music; all my music is accessible and digestible [to me]. By somebody else’s perception they could easily laugh that off, but I don’t think our music is that far out there, especially considering the century that we live in and the fact that it’s 2009. I think, 50 years later, if rock ‘n’ roll music is still meant to be guys playing 12-bar blues but loud and fast, then we have a problem. Things are supposed to change and evolve and grow. : [This is] the record that I wrote at that point in time and it had to be what it had to be, and maybe my records become in somebody else’s eyes more accessible, or maybe they become less accessible : I don’t know. I’m just making my music according to what’s happening to me in my life.
It’s also just the consequence of putting your music out there. That’s a really important fact. I can say all day long that I’m making this music just for me, but at the end of the day I also make a decision to let it leave the house, leave the studio, leave the bird’s nest. We all know that any thing, when perceived by something else, that person’s perception changes it. Once someone else hears it, it changes automatically, whether the other person intends for it to change or not, it just does because they have a different background and a different way they are looking at it. So if you have an audience, then forget it; that’s a whole other power. The whole thing changes into whatever their collective perception is, and for us that’s usually two polarized groups. [Laughs.]
The Mars Volta play the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.) this Wednesday, September 2, at 7 p.m. For tickets and additional info, call 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com.