The Mars Volta: With twilight as my guide

By Gavin Bertram

As The Mars Volta releases its impressive sixth album, Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala also prepare for the much anticipated At The Drive-In reunion.

'When you're in the studio it's too easy to keep adding shit, and after a while you've got to ask why?' - Omar Rodríguez-López Photo / Supplied
'When you're in the studio it's too easy to keep adding shit, and after a while you've got to ask why?' - Omar Rodríguez-López Photo / Supplied

Even at the conclusion of a long string of interviews, Omar Rodríguez-López is lucid, philosophical, and candid.

In a short period The Mars Volta mastermind relays more wisdom than many artists struggle to achieve in far longer exchanges.

Clearly Rodríguez-López is a musician who through struggle and an inexhaustible drive has achieved an acute insight into what he does and precisely why he does it.

It's a wisdom that has been won over the course of the guitarist and his vocalist song-writing partner Cedric Bixler-Zavala's long, productive collaboration - first in defining Texan post-hardcore act At The Drive-In, and subsequently over six albums with The Mars Volta.

"Self analysis is what's happening all through the process," Rodríguez-López says of creating music, with reference to The Mars Volta's new album Noctourniquet. "Because you do things instinctually, just by nature. Then through the process you start examining what it is that you're doing.

I don't mean it to be cold or clinical or intellectual, I'm talking about that instinct that says 'why exactly this and why not something else?'"

That process has led to certain re-evaluations by the duo. It's impacted on how they work in The Mars Volta, and also in the form of a reunion of At The Drive-In for this year's Coachella Festival in California.

A few years ago, neither of those things would have seemed likely. Rodríguez-López's drive to create new music was such that no one had the stamina to keep up, and what was in the past seemed likely to remain there.

But the musician says his focus has been redirected in the intervening period, and he's learnt to appreciate what's really important.

"Before, maybe I felt like time was running out and I had to do it all then and there," Rodríguez-López reflects. "Now I realise that time is what you make it, because you don't really know the bigger picture. I'm reminding myself that the most important parts of making a record are having dinner, or having a great conversation, or making love to your woman, or sitting and watching the leaves rustling in the wind. When you lose sight of that, that's when it starts to sound the same."

With that in mind, Noctourniquet exhibits perhaps a more direct approach than previous records from The Mars Volta. Once their avant-garde prog rock often felt like every idea had been included at the expense of discernment and decency.

That could be thrilling, but Rodríguez-López's comparison between children playing with toys and bands working in the studio appears fairly accurate.

"Just by nature you want to play with everything," he admits. "When you're in the studio it's too easy to keep adding shit, and after a while you've got to ask why? Am I adding it just because I can? Am I really expressing something or am I just playing with that toy because I saw some other kid playing with it?"

The album was recorded straight after 2009's Octahedron was released. Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala allegedly argued, as the latter struggled to maintain the songwriter's pace.

Despite his self-confessed stubbornness and selfishness during his musical career, the self-analysis above suggests Rodríguez-López is at least open to change.

That's clearly benefitted The Mars Volta, while also informing the decision to reignite At The Drive-In after more than a decade in hiatus. No one really believed the hugely influential act, which also includes Jim Ward, Paul Hinojos and Tony Hajjar, would ever reform - including Rodríguez-López.

"Before I was so stubborn and would go 'f**k that, I'm never doing that again'," he says. "But you start to appreciate things in your life a lot more. I get to revisit something from a completely different point of view, 11 years later. I get to revisit these friendships and see them in a different way. And see it all again in a much more light hearted way."

The Mars Volta's Noctourniquet is released on Tuesday 27 March on Warner Bros. Music. At The Drive-In perform at the Coachella Festival in California on both 15 and 22 April.

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