Interview: Cedric Bixler-Zavala of The Mars Volta
A condensed version of this interview was originally published in Verbicide issue #18
We begin with a flock of disclaimers:
1) Though this interview may appear to be a bit of objective journalism, it is not. This is a transcript of a conversation between an author of strange fiction and an author of strange songs. The fact that the fiction writer (me) has been greatly inspired by the songs of the lyricist (Cedric Bixler-Zavala) pushes this piece even further from the constrictive bounds of what any sane person would call journalism. The fact that the interviewer has written, partied, slogged through long bouts of marathon training, and just generally bugged out to the music of the interviewee means that this whole thing is just soaked in slant.
2) Though ardent fans of The Mars Volta may be accustomed to a myriad of standard interview topics — Cedric and Omar’s time in the band At The Drive In; those “crazy” Afros; progressive, i.e. “prog” rock, and what it means to the band — no such queries are to be found here. The band members have already addressed those issues, and their responses should be readily available to anyone capable of typing the word “Google.”
3) Any reader who may, as a result of this interview, find themselves listening to the music of The Mars Volta will be confronted by something I call “the freak out.” This is any moment in their considerable canon where the music suddenly shifts dynamics (ex. from filtered/flanged salsa to sudden, frenetic punk aggression) or any moment where a slow buildup is suddenly washed away by a tsunami wall of sound (potentially featuring crashing drums, soaring guitar work, pulsing keys, berserk percussion, and the sort of heroically-unrestrained-yet-still-melodic singing that one fears might collapse a vocalist’s lungs). These sorts of grand musical gestures may cause uncontrolled shaking/hopping/tarantism in the listener accompanied by the nagging sensation that this music is too large for mortal perception (see, that’s the “slant” I warned you about).
4) Those looking for more info on this sizeable band (which includes a thick roster of members with titles like “sound manipulator” and “multi-instrumentalist/flautist”) could do worse than to head out to www.themarsvolta.com (their current site) or www.thecomatorium.com/board/ (their very active forum). But for this interview’s purposes, please know that the “Omar” referenced is main guitarist/composer/producer/fellow-generally-viewed-as-the-Orson Welles-of-the-band Omar Rodriguez-Lopez.
5) For those with a tolerance for the hyperbolic missives of an obvious Volta addict, please, at last, check out the following interview from a balmy afternoon at the end of August 2006.
First of all I just wanted to say thanks for taking time out to talk to me. I’m a huge fan of your band’s work. I’m a writer who does sort of bizarre, surreal work and my last book was actually dedicated to you guys as an inspiration.
Oh, wait… what was the name of it?
Angel Dust Apocalypse.
Oh, yeah. Yeah. I have…I’ve been reading that. It’s really good. I like the one with the guy who has the brain on the outside of his body. And there’s the other one, too, where there’s some sort of worm going through the body of a patient that they’re keeping.
The parasite one.
Yeah, that was a great one, too. And the guy realizes he got contaminated.
And he chops off his leg with a hatchet.
Yeah. That was awesome stuff, man. Thanks for dedicating that to us.
A big chunk of that book was written while listening to De-Loused in the Comatorium and EL-P’s Fantastic Damage instrumentals, so that’s definitely part of why it turned out so jacked-up.
Okay, are you more interested in sort of standard issue interview questions or more absurd questions?
Whatever you want to try.
I’ll start with a sort of standard one. How’s the most recent tour been treating you guys?
Pretty well. There’s a seating arrangement in the front row so it prevents the more aggressive people who don’t like us from throwing stuff at us.
Speaking of aggressive audience interaction, back when you guys were touring with A Perfect Circle and you came through Salem, Oregon there was a big pit. Then you made some comment about the innate homoeroticism of a mosh pit and the thing just disappeared. (laughter) And the last time you came through with System of a Down the pits were rampant — to the point where people were getting knocked over during the middle of these slow saxophone/guitar feedback sections. When that sort of thing is happening, do you guys have a sense of what’s going on in the audience? And does it affect your performance?
I guess it’s more noticeable in festivals in the day. At night, it’s kind of harder for us to see out from where we are because Omar requests for the band to be not that well lit. For the most part, I try to stop talking about that stuff. But then when I see people get hurt — sometimes during a part of a song where it isn’t frantic, and they don’t know what to do but they’re still beating each other up — that gets a little annoying, you know?
I mean, we’re not really worried about who is listening — but when you see that that person is listening, and you see that they’re really just taking it the wrong way, it makes you want to impose a rule, even though rules are kind of lame.
It’s a weird balance between the Ian MacKaye sort of “don’t knock each other around, just dance” thing, and just letting people do whatever the music inspires them to do. Okay, on a different tack: if you had to choose between performing a song with Bjork or doing a show in the floating opera house from Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, which would you pick?
(laughter) I think I’d like the Fitzcarraldo angle better because I’d probably end up choking around someone like her. You know, I wouldn’t know what to. I think I’d just trip all over myself and fuck up.
Yeah, she’s sort of, like…magical.
She’s kind of intimidating, too, and I’ve heard some stories where she’s kind of mean — she’s one of the people who I don’t want to meet because I don’t want to ruin the way I’ve always [perceived] them.
She seems to come from the really raw, honest, uninhibited, almost feral place. I think it’s part of her genius. I saw that footage where that British reporter was messing with Bjork and her kid, and Bjork decided she’d had enough and went after her. And she was fast, too. It’s a strange duality next to her general imp-like presentation. I wouldn’t want to be on her bad side.
Shifting to songwriting and lyricism: your line, “She was a mink handjob in sarcophagus heels” sort of strikes me as the best film noir line that Chandler or Melville never wrote. (laughter) And yet that was one of the lighter lyrics in Frances the Mute, [an album that] is almost relentlessly dark and horrific. How draining was it to write that batch of songs, and what sort of mental state did it leave you in?
A lot of it was [written] on the spot. Omar — because he collects TVs — would set up his wall of TVs again. We used to live together and he would set them up all the time — kind of like in the Bowie movie The Man Who Fell To Earth, he had a stack of TVs like that. So he would do that while I would record vocals, and that would be the main inspiration. So it was everything from The Magnificent Seven and any Akira Kurosawa stuff. And I wouldn’t have [lyrics] written right away; I would just do takes of gibberish and then later try to fix them to make them into words. Sometimes he wanted to just keep the gibberish takes which he liked a lot better because it was the first reaction to the music. It’s just really [about] being in a state of being willing to give up to the producer your scratch tracks, as opposed to really working on it and refining it.
I think the state that I’m in is having to be on my toes, and being able to just instantly do something. Sometimes it’s three or four in the morning and I’m calling Omar and saying, “Get our engineering. Wake ‘em up. I’ve got an idea!” He’s the same way, so [we were] constantly on [our] toes. It’s nerve-wracking sometimes. A little stressful.
Definitely. That writing style reminds me a bit of Burroughs’ “word salad,” or like “automatic writing,” where words inspire the words and it just keeps going almost unconsciously.
It’s hard sometimes because I’m not very comfortable with what I put down the first time — but I trust Omar’s director’s approach to it, as if I’m the actor and I had no motivation, I knew nothing about the scene, and I just have to be okay with what I did the first time. Which is great, because I’ve always heard certain writers talking about, “Just leave it alone. That was your first true intent.”
A lot of times, whatever comes from you at the most subconscious level and ends up on paper is going to be the stuff that reaches people the most. Your writing tends to have all these kenned terms and merged words that create a new language within the songs — what would you say has been the biggest influence on how you use language in your songwriting?
I’d have to say growing up in a bilingual setting, because it gives you a natural instinct to make up language. [I grew up] in Texas, specifically in El Paso. My dad’s a professor of bilingual education, so the seed was planted a long time ago. And my mom speaks half and half all the time, so it became natural to throw the rules out the window and have fun with it. Let someone else walk away with what they think “amputechture” means, or anything else that’s made up.
Definitely. Sort of along that line, do you prefer Spanish or English for singing/songwriting?
Sometimes Spanish has a little more depth. I couldn’t sing certain songs in English in order to get a certain sentiment across. It would have to be in Spanish. I’ll view it like this: if I’m in a foreign country and I hear something, just some sort of song on the radio, and it’s not from my era, and the lyrics might be about walking the dog or something, but to me it just sounds so…it doesn’t sound like that. It might sound like an ode to a dead lover or something. Being Chicano I tend to gravitate towards the “Spanglish” a lot more, and Spanglish has a lot more English in it, and I want to get away from that sometimes because I think the sentiment is best…its intentions are better felt through Spanish.
Your videos, from the Jodorowsky-esque scope of “The Widow” to the Bosch-like moving landscape of “L’ Via L’ Viaquez,” have a distinctive, surreal feel. And the long stretch of tweaked, filtered backstage and ambient noise in “Scab Dates” has the same sort of post-modern and disorienting feel as the end of The Holy Mountain. (laughter) Your press kit even mentions Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” as an analog to the new album. How strongly is your music influenced by the surreal?
One-hundred percent influenced by it. We’re always talking about how we want our songs to look like Jodorowsky’s movies. That’s always our goal. To emulate what’s going on in our favorite scenes in our favorite movies.
Any chance you guys can work with Jodorowsky to score Sons of El Topo or Abelcain or whatever it’s called?
I think it depends on who he likes. I know he’s a big fan of Mastodon. His son is a fan of Mastodon. I think he gravitates toward a lot of what I guess you’d call modern metal. I know Omar camped outside of his house for eight hours once, to no avail. The maid told him to leave. Eventually, Jodorowsky got back to him on email, which is really cool, but I don’t know if he’s too in touch with a lot of modern [music] other than metal.
The fact that he considers Starship Troopers one of the best sci-fi movies out there gives me an idea of what maybe he likes musically. I’d hate to pinpoint him like that, but I do know Mastodon is one of his favorites.
I never thought he’d be into such brutal, stomping stuff. That’s strange. Have you ever read any of his comics?
Oh yeah, I burned through all that stuff really quickly.
And then, did you ever hear about the version of Dune he was going to film with Salvador Dali shitting in marble dolphins?
(laughter) Yeah! And with [Pink] Floyd and Magma on the soundtrack. I wish he would have done that one. I don’t mind David Lynch’s version, I love that one. But I think Jodorowsky’s version would have been a whole lot darker.
It would have been a whole different world.
I feel like only the Harkonen’s are the darkest in [Lynch’s] movie, and I feel like everyone, even the good guys, have really dark secrets that should have been in the film.
Blake Fleming has replaced drummer Jon Theodore on your current tour. Has there been a noticeable shift in your stage dynamic and the flow of your live music?
I feel as if Jon Theodore’s drumming was based on the simplicity of, like, John Bonham. As some kids were saying, it’s like Jon was more groove-oriented. Blake can be, too, but Blake likes to flip beats on you, and he likes to throw you off and have fun with it. He leans more toward [the style of] Zach Hill, Hella’s drummer. I find myself tapping my toes while I’m singing to stay on top of the beat — figuring out how to [perform] and ignore the drums sometimes, and flow over it.
Blake is the father of most of the Mars Volta songs. He’s the one that came up with a lot of beats for us. Even on Frances the Mute, “L’Via L’Viaquez” and certain parts [of the songs on the album] Blake Fleming beats [that were taught to] Jon Theodore. Sometimes [we’d have] to not let Jon know that they were Blake’s beats, because he’d have a bit of a problem with that, since Blake was our first drummer and tracks like “Cicatriz ESP” and “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)” were Blake Fleming beats.
Along that line, the new song “Viscera Eyes” opens up with some tumbling synthetic beats. Have you ever had any interest in absorbing the aggressive sonics that come from the jungle or “drum and bass” genres, the glitchy work that Aphex Twin or Autechre are known for?
Yeah, we love that stuff. [Red Hot Chili Pepper’s guitarist John] Frusciante was showing us some really cool Squarepusher stuff. I had no idea that Squarepusher was a great drummer, too. Just hearing him fool around [on a drumkit], I knew that he had it.
I was really, really disappointed with “drum and bass” for a while, because when we were in At The Drive-In we played in Australia, and we had a chance to meet with Roni Size. He was the one person who we made an effort to actually talk to, just because everyone else on the tour was very [into] pop music and I couldn’t relate to a lot of them. Some people were cool; it’s just that he’s the one person who we went out of our way to say, “Hey, you really have a big influence on what we do.” And he was a big asshole. So it turned me off from all electronic music — I thought, God, are they really that full of themselves?
At The Drive-In did have some obvious “drum and bass” [elements], and it carried over and amplified a lot more with Mars Volta. I’m always interested in that stuff, but I think, for me, the electronic interest comes more from things like Throbbing Gristle and stuff like that.
Here’s a strange one: I know a lot of people who still desire some metaphysical aspect to their lives, but have been let down by organized religions. Some people run into the desert [Carlos] Castaneda-style to wolf peyote, and some people bury themselves in scientific religions, like String Theory. For those seeking other paths, do you think there are any modern shamans leading the way?
I wouldn’t say they’re anywhere in Middle America. If they are, they may be on Indian reservations. To look for that stuff you’d have to go to South America.
And if you do want to look harder, in my opinion, I’d look in the mental institutions. I think I find myself really attracted lately to mental institution movies, like Shock Corridor or The Ninth Configuration — or I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, where the primary problem with the main character, the woman, was that she was being contacted by these pagan-type tribes in another world, and she was their leader, but the doctor was like, “No, come back to us. Come back to normal living.” It’s just a strange dynamic the way our culture treats crazy people.
Frances Farmer is a classic example. She’s just an [old school] Courtney Love; you may not like her, but she’s really outspoken. And then we are afraid of that, so we lobotomize her and put her away. That’s why I think that the majority of real shamans are locked up and you won’t find them in America — but if you do, they’re in the psycho wards. I think that we could benefit a lot, also, [from] being in tune with what certain trees and certain environments have as far as answers to the medical problems that we have today.
Oh, yeah. There’s a big movement in the UK right now to finally legalize and go forward with research on the old school hallucinogens.
This might tie in to your last answer. On “Tetragrammaton” (my favorite song on the new album), you sing about faith and God, and there’s a line, “In the end, they just gagged me to make him come out.” It feels like there’s a more straightforward narrative to the song. Any back story there?
I was watching CNN and we were in Poland, and the story was about a woman in Romania who was, for lack of better terms, possessed. It was a small congregation that she was a part of, and they didn’t know what to do with her, and they didn’t try to exorcise anything from her. They just stuck a sock in her mouth and hung her out on a cross, and the next day they found her dead. And when the news team was there to investigate the next day they showed the guy who did it, the main priest. It was like out of a movie — he looked like Rasputin, all the women in the congregation looked like they had shit themselves. I just thought, God that’s so amazing. It’s 2005 and we still have Salem in some parts of the world. And they can get away with it because it’s closer to a third-world country and I’m sure the police aren’t very organized over there. I’m sure there’s no such thing as forensics going on over there, and I’m sure police walk over blood in the crime scenes and fuck things up. And I wanted to write about that — you know, don’t close the book on it, there’s a new chapter being written and Salem is still alive and well and on Earth today.
One last question: With Amputechture, how close have you come to creating the music you’ve always heard inside of your head?
Close enough, just because Omar’s producing now. Before we had Rick [Rubin] on one album, and Rick was more interested in bringing out the pop formula that would attract a new audience, because people think in those terms sometimes. With Omar there’s no question about a part being too long, or a vocal being indecipherable, or “why does this certain part exist” because we do everything in the context of cinema — none of it’s boring to us. You shouldn’t be listening or watching as if it’s a sports activity, even though we are very, very active. It should be listened to the way you go see a movie. With what we’re doing, there is so much to catch and there are so many hidden meanings in the lyrics, and there is so much hidden in the layers of what Omar’s putting on the record. So, yeah, I’d guess that now we’re a lot closer to achieving what at least Omar hears in his head.