Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
TMV 1 credit Fat Bob shot with Leica M11

The Mars Volta are embracing change

26 September 2022, 12:00

Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala tell Best Fit about embracing change as The Mars Volta enter a new era.

In July 2020, when I broached the idea of a Mars Volta revival with its guitarist and co-founder Omar Rodríguez-López, the Puerto Rican prog-rock luminary sidestepped the answer by reflecting on his recent return with At the Drive-In: “That was the first and most likely last time that I've ever made music completely the opposite to my own ethos and way of being”.

The topic was a tricky one, and at the time Rodríguez-López’s answer simply seemed a diplomatic way of changing the topic: At the Drive-In was fun, but would be the last time he confined himself to the music of his past.

But two years on, it seems in his own way he did answer the question. The Mars Volta, the seventh studio album from Rodríguez-López and his lifelong creative partner Cedric Bixler-Zavala and their first in ten years, is certainly not stuck in its labyrinthine past. Its singles ‘Blacklight Shine’, ‘Graveyard Love’ and ‘Vigil’ seemed to reveal a new, poppier side to The Mars Volta in ascending order — the first dancing closely with their Latino identity and the last a spaced out, Moby-esque piece of ambient electronica. Rodríguez-López made news in the UK press following a recent interview in The Guardian for his comments discussing what makes a true fan, the pair agreeing they weren’t afraid of losing so-called fans stuck in the past who tried to enforce their sound.

In the years leading up to The Mars Volta’s split in 2013, Bixler-Zavala became increasingly involved in the Church of Scientology with his wife, the actor Chrissie Carnell, before leaving around 2016. It was then that Carnell and three other women accused Scientology member and actor Danny Masterson of raping them, and since 2019 having pushing a civil case against him, which goes to trial in October. In a 2021 statement Carnell-Bixler wrote that her family have been “Living in terror”, claiming to have been surveilled and followed by the Church of Scientology, and that their two pet dogs had been killed as part of this harassement. The subject of the pain caused toward these women and Bixler-Zavala’s family forms the backdrop of The Mars Volta, the singer’s cryptic but lucid lyricism filling the space that this new, more spacious and lighter sound affords the band.

Speaking together, Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López delve further into their distinction behind the meaning of fandom, reconnecting through Sci-Fi and their adamant objection to the outside forces that have long tried to shape The Mars Volta.

TMV credit Fat Bob Shot With Leica M11
BEST FIT: Omar, when we last spoke you said you felt like a kind of “transmitter”. Before we talk about the new direction for The Mars Volta, when and why did you know it was the right time for its return?

OMAR RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: I think it was a process of us going through the At the Drive-In reunion and experiencing that, right? The conversions we were having and us coming together at that time. It was supposed to be a year and a half and it lasted three years, so I think we were ripe for going on and yes, saying that was a nice experience to do it from the outside in, but everything now needs to be from the inside out, going back to that ethos as you put it. More than anything, we shared moments also of bonding on a certain film or a certain record or whatever and just knowing, without using the words, that it was food for thought and leading to something creative. It's just how this thing works, especially when you have a tight bond and your own vocabulary with someone.

CEDRIC BIXLER-ZAVALA: Can I just interject, real quick? I think there was this one moment around 2016 where you hipped me to the movie Seconds by John Frankenheimer. For me there was this little seed planted in there, because to me that movie is very Volta. Even though it's an obvious thing, it was like ugh, it could be like this, like the way that movie hits. So thank you to John Frankenheimer, ha, because it's such a cool f-cking movie. Hopefully anyone that's reading this will go check it out and maybe understand the parallels, especially the low budget Sci-Fi parallels, with us and that movie.

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: Hopefully, too, this articulates what we were just talking about. That's part of the process. I was explaining it and then he gave a very specific example. Showing him that movie on a subconscious level means something else and we're communicating through it but we don't even have to necessarily talk about it. We both just do the thing and bring it to the table. That's the really interesting part of just the process of making a record or of being in an artistic partnership.

The bond is the music, they're inseparable. When the bond suffers the music suffers.

Was this new shift in sound something explicitly addressed at the beginning, or something that naturally unravelled as you began writing and playing together again, and was there a particular song that paved that way?

BIXLER-ZAVALA: For me it was what is now 'Vigil', I used to call it something else. It was right at the tail-end of At the Drive-In, we were going to try to make a little bit more music, but it wasn't that it wasn't clicking, it was just time to put it to rest and work on this now. Some of the music and ideas that were kicking around just didn't really stick. Then once I started getting bigger playlists from him, that song just took me out and gave me that feeling. That feeling that... who's the director that made Sixteen Candles? John Hughes? It gave me the feeling of a John Hughes movie at the end when the credits are rolling, and you wanna go call this person you haven't talked to in a while. When the credits roll on a John Hughes movie you're left to face that emotion no matter what it is, and that song hit me like that. I think that was 2018 maybe, and I think the seeds of what it was dictated what the vocals and the words were gonna be like. A lot happened like that. I was living in this place at the time and there was this gigantic redwood tree in the front yard, at night I would go out there and listen to it and was always moved to tears, so I knew that that was the direction, to be vulnerable and direct. Even in 2018 I don't think I was there yet.

Omar had already been in the spectrum of that idea in 2006 or 2006, and he'd had a conversation with me, asking me how I felt moving towards pop. The person I was at that time, I was like some of our fans. No, don't do that! If I think of pop I think of SIA, and I love SIA but are our fans ready for that? But you can't really worry about that, and at the same time you gotta understand that some of our fans are maybe around the same age as us and are growing up and having families as well, and doing something like the first Mars Volta record is just not gonna be very f-cking believable, in terms of what you're left feeling. Are you left feeling like a John Hughes moment or are you feeling like another muso group doing these crazy acrobatics. That's cool, but we did that for so f-cking long and you have to start looking forward. You have to start looking at your record collection and think there's a reason why that Van Morisson record is so timeless, there's a reason why this Lou Reed record is timeless, because they're your Sunday morning. I don't think we had achieved a Sunday morning record, or a direction like that, so it was kinda cool to see it sprouting in 2018 into that, and everything that's been happening in our lives dictated that it should be going in this direction. But like I said, Omar had the first idea of it moving this way and I had been resistant to it.

Your recent interview with the Guardian made some news over here concerning your thoughts on what makes a true fan, which isn't something you hear often...

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: I don't know what you're referring to, sorry, we don't read these things.

Well, I think you were alluding to the fact that a true fan should be as fluid as the band they follow.

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: Ah, that's why they brought that up in the last interview, haha. Now I understand. I'm not trying to define a true fan, I was just trying to make a distinction, because we're using the same word for two different types of people, you know? I would use the word ally, like if you're an ally of an artist you check in with them, you're interested in what's happening but at no point would you think to try and dominate them or dictate what they should be doing, you know what I'm saying? If I ran into Grace Jones on the street I would not be like...

BIXLER-ZAVALA: Yeah would you say, hey Grace Jones you should smile more!

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: Haha, exactly! Never in a million years would I think I could be some sort of fascist over her life. So I was trying to make that distinction, because I think a lot of times people put on the badge of a fan but it's really just coming from an ego place because, when you think about it, all they talk about is their own opinion. They talk little about the actual band, like this is what should happen! bla bla bla. And my point was that in terms of living your creative and spiritual life, that's a form of oppression and fascism. Back then the bullies in high school were trying to tell you the same thing about how to dress or what to do.

BIXLER-ZAVALA: Yeah, so imagine if you live your life the whole time getting from under the shadow of those kinds of people, for them at the end go, Oh now I like what you're doing, but once again I'm gonna insert my need to steer your ship. That's what becomes toxic fandom. If you wanna go see Las Vegas acts, go to Las Vegas. Wayne Newton plays his greatest hits. Or go see the Pink Floyd cover band. They will play exactly what you want perfectly and sound just like the record, and that is not real life. Real life is mistakes, it's growing, it's something as mundane as cutting your hair or just moving f-cking forward, you know? I wish people understood that, that we need more allies because if not you really do come off as suffering from consumerism.

Consumerism tells you, you know, Remember that first time you smoked weed? Well keep chasing that and see if you can match that first epiphany you had where shit was magical. That first LSD Trip! I think a lot of Westerners when they meet the shaaman, the shaaman says you only need to do this once, this isn't some f-cking beer you drink on the weekend over and over again. Experience it now and then move forward and apply what you've learnt, don't chase it. Don't f-cking chase it, because then you'll do what most humans do in the consumer mentality and you start destroying shit and there's no value in it because it doesn't provide you with the same first high. When you preoccupy your life like that you're not living in the present and you miss so much, and you'll feel kinda silly later when you realise, God, if I had just been a little more open and not stuck in nostalgia.

The Mars Volta credit Fat Bob Shot With Leica M10
The video for 'Blacklight Shine' features Puerto Rican bomba dancers, which turn the preconceptions of dance on their head by allowing rhythm to be dictated by the dancer and not the drummer. That kind of reminds me of what you're saying here, the quote-unquote fans dictating how you should dance, as it were. It takes two to tango in the meaning-making of your music, right?

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: It is a dance, but we have to come together in that. Again, the fans dictating anything aren't fans, that's just an absurd notion. That's the distinction we're trying to make. Fans are a supportive force; the root of the word is fanatical, which is related to extremism, which usually has to do with some sort of exploitation and oppression. We're trying to get as far away from that as we can in every aspect of our lives, let alone in the music, or this superficial understanding that people have from us because they know our music or have seen our picture somewhere. So it's protecting that personal freedom. Ha, what is that Wild at Heart Nicholas Cage snakeskin jacket quote?

BIXLER-ZAVALA: "It's a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom."

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: Haha, exactly. And we're gonna protect that at all costs, and sure if you're on the other end of that as an oppressor, you better believe you're an enemy. [Cedric laughs] If that's what you were referring to, something I might have said in another interview, that's what I meant. If you're trying to oppress and exploit then yes, we back ourselves at all costs.

Has this dialogue appeared before? Was there any déjà vu with Octahedron, for example, which I remember being described as relatively accessible at the time.

BIXLER-ZAVALA: We've experienced this since leaving At the Drive-In. Not only did fans f-cking get mad at us, but people we thought were friends in our home town, all sort of people, management, all just f-cking turned on us. People like KROQ threatened us and blackmailed us saying they would never play anything that would come from our new bands unless we got back together with At the Drive-In. The irony of that is that by the time The Mars Volta had done all the heavy lifting and got to play at a venue like The Wiltern and sell it out for two nights, then KROQ show up with their little van. As heard on KROQ, when you know god damn straight they weren't f-cking playing our shit at all, it was mostly f-cking snowboard and skateboard f-cking music. And, they don't even f-cking acknowledge the main person that made KROQ cool, which is Rodney [Bingenheimer].

We had this conversation record after record, band after band. Even when we did Antemasque, we had Mars Volta records being like What the f-ck is this? Because most Mars Volta fans at the time had no concept or terminology of what power pop was or why that was a cool thing to embrace, you know? But every record, every time there's a new person in the band, everybody comes out of the woodwork to say You're not at you're full potential, I'm just trying to help out. Well if you wanna help out, there's a muzzle, shut the f-ck up and listen. Just listen.

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: Plus what would they know? It's the extreme irony that they became a quote-unquote fan, or fanatic, because they just stumbled upon something we were doing, you see what I'm saying? We were doing something without any kind of input from them, and then they came along and saw what we were doing and were like, That's great, I own you now and keep doing that.

BIXLER-ZAVALA: Mhmm.

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: It's like, we were just over here doing shit and you happened to stumble on us. I compare it to the narrative of Christopher Columbus discovering The Caribbean, and in The Caribbean on that day that's celebrated, we say that's the day that the Taínos, the indigenous people, found a lost group of Spaniards going circles around the island of what's now Santa Domingo, you know what I mean? It depends on your perspective. It's the history of the world and that is our enemy. That is our natural enemy. Anyone that would try and get in the way of us living a healthy, happy life, which they have no idea what that is for us? We protect ourselves against that at all costs.

BIXLER-ZAVALA: The funny thing is that there are people that sort of fetishise the different players we've had in the band, which I always call the Football Fantasy kind of fan. While they were fetishising one player, they missed the beauty of the next guy we introduced to the world.

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: Then later on they come and say I never got to see that guy live.

BIXLER-ZAVALA: I never got to see that, will you play those songs? And I say, well you were too busy talking shit and trying to boycott us because we didn't help you chase the dragon again, so now you missed that. I feel like a lot of people missed out on the Deantoni Parks era of our band, and you know what? Your f-cking loss man, because that was some f-cking cool shit we were on. I'm not trying to say yeah we're awesome, I'm just saying we had some very f-cking beautiful conversations with god when Deantoni was in the f-cking band. You were stuck on [Jon] Theodore or [Thomas] Pridgen, you f-cking missed out on Deantoni. And now people come out of the woodwork and I see it all the time, I hear it all the time, Will you play the stuff from Nocturniquet? I'm sure we will, but you missed it when it was in its original form because you were stuck in nostalgia. If you understand that nostalgia is not your f-cking best friend, it's a consumer tactic.


"Without a doubt it's a whole different era."

(O.R.L.)
As you say, the origins of The Mars Volta were a way of approaching your musical interests and influences without judgement. I wonder if that's a nod to going self-titled this time?

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: Yeah, sure, it's like you mentioned earlier, it's a new beginning and we get to look at it the same way that you're expressing it right now.

Omar, when you went back to the reunion of At the Drive-In it wasn't pleasant at first; you were dealing with grief and journalists twisting your words. Is it different this time around, is it easier to get excited about this reunion?

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: Of course, without a doubt it's a whole different era.

BIXLER-ZAVALA: And it's a whole different f-cking band altogether. They don't sound the same.

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: Yeah it's a whole different band, and there's no, um...

BIXLER-ZAVALA: They don't sound the same at all. Big little moments where you go, Oh I can hear the influence here! No, no. Two different kinds of bands, two different kinds of players, two different kind of approaches. It really is night and day, and that's why there was such a big backlash at the beginning of Mars Volta, because I don't think a lot of people had heard what was coming out of us. It was through our lens, the way we did it. What do you do when you see a black widow? You wanna f-cking kill it, you want to erase it as a living organism.

Cedric, how comfortable are you talking about Scientology? I'm aware you're involved with an ongoing trial and I want to respect that, but I wanted to ask if you hoped to use this album as a kind of warning, or is it just something you accept will be brought up in the discourse of the new album and this reunion?

BIXLER-ZAVALA: You know, I feel like I would do a disservice to humanity if I start persuading people not to seek self-help, I think whatever avenue people need to find self-help, that's their journey. I was on that kind of path as well, and it came to bite me on the ass, particularly my family and what my wife went through, you know? But I guess that was my problem with being involved with it in the first place, I had so many people coming out of the woodwork claiming they knew about it yet no one had actually gone down to a place where it was practised. So I went into the lion's den and sure enough I found lions.

So if anyone's gonna read this and use that as a precautionary tale please do, but I think moreover most of the people that should be warned about that are the people that can afford to use their services, which should kinda f-cking tell you what kinda organisation it is right now.

Most people tend to worship or use self-help within the temple of their mind, and that place requires a certain tax bracket to access what they call religious freedom, so maybe the proof is in the f-cking pudding right there. They're not what they say they are but if you wanna find out yourself? Find out for yourself.

Growing up listening to your music, it felt like you were shrouded in mystery and mysticism. I don't want to sound naive by romanticising or trivialising it here, because I'm aware of their problematic ethics and the grief the organisation has inflicted on you and your family, but there is also a strong sense of enigma to the Church of Scientology. Did the experience at least give you a relevant creative canvas in that light?

BIXLER-ZAVALA: Only in terms of trying to interpret the emotional fallout. I sit shotgun, scratch that, I'm not even sitting shotgun. There are four other people driving the vehicle right now, but I'm watching it and I see everything they go through. It's not just as obvious as sadness and pain, it manifests itself in the kind of behaviour that you don't assume would come from it. Maybe that's the precautionary tale in and of itself, but yeah.

It's definitely part of my life experience and I have a bit of a trauma to express now, but I also have the birth of my children and also having watched what Omar has gone through with losing his mother, those are all in a way shared experiences. Not thoroughly experienced by me but I think maybe one of the strengths I have in life is to see something someone is going through and put it into words, even if the words don't make sense to people.

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: Yeah the words are images right, you read into it and get some sort of road map to the thing you're actually getting at.

Musically too, there's a lot more space for your lyrics, Cedric. How did that affect your approach to songwriting?

BIXLER-ZAVALA: Yeah I guess there is a lot more room, and that room is very inviting to be more direct and more vulnerable in expressing any of these emotions that I've seen other people go through or what I've gone through. There's a reason why, out of all these hundreds of songs that I've been given from Omar, I'll gravitate towards one, because it has the space that you're talking about. Like the song 'Cerulea' or even 'Shore Story', instantly I knew the narration that they needed.

As we've discussed, you both seem to accept life and your music with an acceptance of fluidity and changes and a rejection of nostalgia, is that how you're approaching this next era of The Mars Volta?

RODRÍGUEZ-LÓPEZ: Yeah, it's the way we're approaching it. Someone earlier asked us if we see this as something permanent and the best answer we could give is it's definitely a new beginning, but nothing in life is permanent and that goes to what we've been talking about here, being OK with that, with the fluidity of the life-cycle. That's our organisms on the other side now and growing older and everything turns into something else at some point, you know?

Everything has to die in one way or another, and it's something that Latino culture in particular is obsessed with or at least in awe of. It's a very present thing in our lives; I name my dead two to five times a day. Someone else might see that as a dark thing, but from our own culture again, the Taínos describe that as an areíto, which means to remember is to live. So you have to remember those things, pass them down and let go, because everything's gonna change, you have to embrace it.

The Mars Volta is out now via Clouds Hill

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