Where to begin with a man such as Omar Rodríguez-López? The first port-of-call for any conversation is almost always a new release - but in Rodríguez-López' case, there are three.
The guitarist and founding member of At The Drive In - who went on to weave mysticism and magic realism into progressive free-form rock and jazz as The Mars Volta - has well over fifty records to his name. His latest release The Clouds Hill Tapes is a three-parter, recorded on tape over the course of a few days at Clouds Hill Studios in Hamburg two years ago.
When we speak - the 44-year-old Rodríguez-López talking from his grandmother’s house on the Carribean island of Puerto Rico – he is as wordy and articulate as a fan of his music would hope. From microbiology to star matter, Hurricane Maria to Lily Allen (yes, you read that right), our conversation is a complete trip.
BEST FIT: How has the past few months been for you? You’ve been cooped up in Puerto Rico, right?
OMAR RODRÍGUEZ LÓPEZ: Yeah, I've pretty much been living here anyway since Hurricane Maria. We're used to hurricanes but everything now is in terms of before Maria and after Maria. It's funny to answer the quarantine question simply because I don't want to seem insensitive; I know a lot of people have a hard time with everything psychologically and so I just want to prefix my answer to say that...but for me it's not much of a change of life. I'm what people refer to as a ‘homebody’. I pretty much do everything from home anyway and I was using technology to get groceries delivered way before this.
The ironic thing is that before people would see me washing my hands all the time, and the fact that I don't touch doorknobs and stuff like that...I would always carry a little cloth. People would say, 'Oh I didn't realise you were a germaphobe', and I would always have to explain that I'm not, this is just the basics of microbiology, you know?
Well when this is finally all over I think you'll probably have fewer critics of that kind of thing. I think it's made everyone reevaluate basic hygiene and the amount of germs that we share.
Yeah I think that's a positive, and I guess that's the point. I didn't mind the criticism - I just always thought it was funny because it's a form of ignorance, you know? But you have the opportunity then to explain to people, 'Oh no actually I'm not a germaphobe, I'm fine with germs but this is where the highest concentration is." The positive thing is that on a mass scale people are becoming more aware of hygiene and hopefully most of all their consideration towards others, too.
It's interesting hearing you talk about returning after Maria, because there's another Puerto Rican act I've been really getting into recently called Buscabulla, and I was reading how they - and many people in their 20s or 30s - moved from the island to the mainland and returned after the hurricane to be with their families and reconnect with the island.
Yeah, even when I was back in El Paso I would still come here two or three times a year. It's very stereotypical of Latino families - family is really, really important, so Maria was a huge scare for all of us and for our older generation, just like this pandemic is. We value their knowledge, we value the picture they're able to paint of the family members we never met, and as you know the celebration of our dead is super important too. Like anything traumatic it makes you appreciate the things that are actually important in your life.
I also heard that your grandmother is pretty spritely for her age, and dealing with everything pretty well.
Ha yeah, that actually is the problem and why we don't like her being alone now. She's a fiercely independent woman and it's hard for her to really wrap her head around that, just physically, her body can't withstand the adventures that she takes! But no, she's very active and engaged. I'll put it this way: I will be lucky if I'm as fiery and as aware as she is at 91.
Are you optimistic about what's been going on politically in the States right now?
I tend to be on the side of optimism or hopefulness, or whatever you want to call it - but also pragmatism at the same time. I'll try to condense my thoughts as well as possible, but that's not one of my strong points. None of this is surprising. It's a country founded on institutions that were by whites for whites, who were forced in one way or another to slowly include women and minorities. Just starting with the conservative party - born out of those who sided with England, as you know - which is basically to say: 'this was the party for the people who didn't want to break away from the monarchy; these are the people who wanted all of the power in the hands of a few rich families.
So for as much as they wanna say nothing's institutionalised, the first words of the constitution make the irony clear: people who wanted to be free but were using slaves in order to achieve that freedom.
Here's what I want to say. I'm optimistic, but people – especially liberal whites in America – have to realise that it's a very slow process that should be thought of in terms of centuries. That's not to say we shouldn't have this influx of power and change, but my point is that it has to be constant. We saw what happened in 2008 once the Democratic Party won and the Obama administration came in and whites celebrated that. Jordan Peele coined it best: the 'post-racial lie'. At that time white liberals were like, 'That's it, we defeated it, we defeated racism!', wherein they would literally say that they were in a post-racial society, and even bringing up racism was seen almost as a faux-pas or as perpetuating it.
They should hopefully reflect that even to have the audacity to be able to speak that type of sentence when they don't know true oppression..they should look at themselves and say 'That's a product of my own entitlement'.
Yeah, this is gonna take a long fucking time.
Again, the US was first only for rich, white male landowners, and slowly women too – white women who had husbands who were landowners. So everything's very, very slow. Those are the people who need to stay awake and fight whatever wins we have. The Obama-era happened and there were all of these wins and then all of a sudden according to them we're in a post-racial era.
In my hometown of El Paso, the border wall was put up by the Obama administration, and the people who pushed that concept were the Democrats. You can watch footage where they're saying the exact same things that Trump was saying now about the wall, and they put up this ugly, fucking wall that divided my city there. People - especially those who consider themselves to be on the side of change - have to really have that fire in them and let go of this idea of celebrating themselves all of the time. The libertarian principle is that when given the opportunity people will do the right thing. So we can look at what's going on right now and think, 'Nope. We're not there yet'. We're not even close, so shut the fuck up and keep doing the work that needs to be done.
It's not that we shouldn't celebrate victories, of course we should, but look at the faces of everybody that's making the decisions for minorities, it's all old white men, so that says it all.
"Why does someone like Nancy Pelosi who's supposedly a great liberal have to humiliate Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez when she comes with new ideas?"
Rugged individualism has failed us. The industrialisation of the individual has become the weakest point and we look at the countries in the pandemic that have done well, and it's because they come together as a community. This whole idea of American individualism - which is an old frontier and comes from manifest destiny - is being championed again by white liberals and by the younger generation. So we fight each other over our little, microscopic ways of seeing things, while the other side is very united. Maybe recently not as much so, but for the most part they really know how to unite themselves under a message that speaks to their constituents, and the left just does not know how to do that. The bigger problem is it's not even a partisan issue: they're both being funded by the same families; it's rich people not wanting to share the wealth. We can see the agendas. Why does someone like Nancy Pelosi who's supposedly a great liberal have to humiliate Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez when she comes with new ideas? Publicly? If she disagrees, why not behind the scenes? But one of the first things she did was make fun of her and say 'She's dreaming'. How does that help anything, you know?
I'm sorry, I'll stop myself now before I go on forever...
I shouldn't be surprised because you're known as quite the prolific songwriter with at least fifty albums to your name, but what spurred this decision to release three EPs in such short succession?
That was the idea of Johann Scheerer, who runs Clouds Hill Records, because these records were from 2018 from a session I did when I went to go play his festival. At that time I was doing the At The Drive In reunion, and we'd been on the road, and at the beginning of that year it really hit me: I'd been on the road for 24 years now! There's not been one year where I've had a break. So I just said, 'OK'. I said to my managers, 'If something hasn't been confirmed then cancel it, I don't care what it is just cancel it'. But then when Johann asked if we could still do the festival, I thought that would be a nice way to end the year.
So I went from Brazil, where our last ATDI show was and flew to Clouds Hill, rehearsed with a band for two days, chose 20 songs all from previous solo records, made new arrangements and then recorded for five days and played the festival. The idea was that we'd get the best of those and make an album that represented what the festival set was like, because for the most part it was recorded live.
So Johann said why don't we separate the piano parts, the more electronic stuff and the more rock stuff...again, it was the end of the year for me and it was songs that were taken from records from roughly between 2008 and 2012, so I was just happy to end the year and have an outside voice to guide the sessions, which I don't usually have.
How did the collaboration with singer Virginia García Alves come about?
She's from Spain but we met in New York, by way of my piano player Leo, who's on these recordings. She's one of our good friends from this group of artists that I work with there in New York and obviously she has an amazing talent and went to Berklee [College of Music], but all of that is really so much less important than who you're going to be hanging out with in a room for 12 hours, you know?
So really it's based off of our friendships and being around each other, and it comes down to being like 'Hey, I've gotta do this thing at the end of the year, you wanna do that with me I think it'd be cool?' and it happens.
How long was the process of rearranging the tracks? From the start to the end of all three there's such a wide swing of variety in sounds and texture that it sounds like it was perfected over a long period of time, but from the sounds of it that wasn't actually the case?
Yes, thank you that's a huge compliment. It was two days, basically, looking at all the songs we picked and choosing some to be just piano or jazz arrangements, you know? Again, you're working off of your strengths and weaknesses too, so here we had the lack of time and simplified some arrangements, and other ones we'll go in completely different directions. And one of the strengths was that Virginia having a very versatile range; she's mostly known in Spain for singing boleros in Spanish and these traditional songs, but she's obviously also really versed in jazz and rock.
So it was just nice to take those days and intensely go over it – and that's not to say that in the next five days of recording we didn't change anything, because we definitely did, but I think in those initial days the overall structure that we would take was decided then and there. That's also the great thing about recording with tape, because you have to do that, there's no other way to do it.
Clouds Hill Studios seems like an important place for you.
[It's] a second home for me. To give you an idea, whenever we go and tour Europe, usually on a day off I'll take a trip up to Hamburg. I've been doing that since the first time that we toured Europe, taking trains from wherever because that's just part of the great system that you have over there. So I'd take the train there, hang out, and then make it back in time for lobby call at the gig.
It's been over 15 years now, and I actually met Johann when we first went to Europe with ATDI, and I stayed at the studios. It was life-changing for me, because I'm the first of my family to make it from this little country in the middle of the Caribbean to go there. I was literally the last one in line at the airport somewhere in Europe, and I handed the woman my passport and said, 'Hey how much is it to change my ticket?' Back then it was $150, and this was the first tour we made money on, we each made $700. So I stayed there for a few weeks before our next tour, and then I went to Hamburg, which had always interested me for the typical reasons that The Beatles went there, and Krautrock and all this stuff. Since the band was becoming popular at the time, I made friends, like I'd be in a record shop or somewhere and make friends and then really get to know the place and cool places.
So through a mutual friend I met Johann – some years later, but I already had very strong roots in Hamburg.
Yeah, well I was going to say that you have a deep connection with Europe, living in Amsterdam for a while, and obviously both At The Drive In and The Mars Volta are adored in England and I'm sure elsewhere on the continent. So you considered Hamburg and Clouds Hill at the centre of all of that?
Without a doubt. You mention Amsterdam, but also before that: Rotterdam. Literally the first people we met when we landed in Europe were from there, and back then it was the underground scene, so it wasn't hotels and shit, it was people's floors. That's where I met my lifelong friend and mentor for photography, a great photographer named Daniëlle van Ark and her partner at the time.
Eventually we moved to Amsterdam, the three of us, and I definitely feel like what you're saying: it was an epicentre for me. But also the thing that you brought up about England – I can tell you that we definitely fitted into the cliché where people don't appreciate you where you're from until someone very far away else does, until somewhere exotic someone goes 'Oh this is good', and then all of a sudden everyone goes 'Yeah they're ours, they're ours, they're from here!' To give you an idea, when we left on our first tour with ATDI in 1995, our first show was obviously there in El Paso. We passed out flyers and everything, and get to the show and nobody was there. It was literally my brothers, my dad, and Cedric's parents. That was it.
Europe was the first place to truly embrace us. Now that's not to say that there weren't bands in America who took us out and let us open on tour, but it was very weird combinations. If you remember back then, in the mid-90s it was all white guy reggae ska shit, Orange County pop punk stuff. It was just a weird situation to be in and we weren't particularly welcomed, you know? So Europe represented the first time where it was us, our tour, and no matter how small the place was, we showed up and other people showed up and gave us an amazing response. I could definitely speak for Cedric and myself that we consider that was really when things started happening to us, where then news started travelling back to America and then there was more interest, because you guys had started to write about us in the press.
What's it like when you decide to return to projects as influential as ATDI or The Mars Volta? Obviously you had the big ATDI reunion, and then there were rumours last year of The Mars Volta coming back...I think Cedric made some tweets that got the press excited...but what are the factors at play when you discuss that kind of reunion? Is it, 'Let's do it tomorrow', or is there a lot more politics at play?
To use your words, I would say it's personal politics. In my own words, going back to the example of doing a session and working with musicians, it's all about relationships. That's what you're casting actually. So in terms of putting the band together, in theatrical terms you're casting these people in your play, you know, you're casting relationships. It's like, 'Oh this person is really cool to be around!' Now when I say that I do not mean they have to have the same ideas as me, I think that's often misinterpreted, on the contrary I like to be surrounded by people with different backgrounds and with different ideas because I'm stimulated by conversation, and am very stimulated when I hear a concept that I may be uncomfortable with at first, and then I meditate on it and try and see it from that person's point-of-view; I think it's such a crucial part of being a person.
"We always had a rule between the five of us in At The Drive In that we called 'The Six Month Rule': if shit ever gets weird, if we can tell things are going wrong, we'll take six months off."
But to go back to your question: it's whatever's going on in our lives personally, and our personal relationships. That's what either makes something like that possible, or not possible. Behind the scenes, of course the subject comes up between us here and there throughout the year, and when it does we start talking and check in with each other. There was the initial period when I quit ATDI in 2001, we were all angry at each other and they were angry with me for breaking away and quote-unquote 'taking Cedric with me' and blah blah blah. So we didn't speak for eight years. So the big misconception there is that people think we broke up in Europe because we cancelled that tour and everything, but in fact we didn't, we just cancelled the tour. I was fed up, and we always had a rule between the five of us that we called 'The Six Month Rule': if shit ever gets weird, if we can tell things are going wrong, we'll take six months off. So when we were at Vera, in Groningen, I was just lifeless, so after the show we as friends got together and I said 'This isn't fun anymore. I don't like this'. So Cedric said, 'That's it, let's call the rule'.
So we took that time off, but then we got this email from management saying that we had been outvoted and that the other three had decided we should get back to it. So that solidified it for me, and because it was such a non-discussion, to me that disrespect to go back on a rule that we had specifically made in order to preserve our ideology as artists, and the decision to betray that rule for money or success or whatever it was, I was - as a press release said at the time - "Spiritually bankrupt". So I said fuck this, I'm done. We didn't speak for eight years, until 2008 or something. I was living in Mexico at the time, and I said to everyone 'Hey, I don't like this feeling that we're people who grew up around each other and now we're not gonna speak forever. I'll fly you guys down here, come to my house and we'll just talk all of this out, and that's exactly what we did. We hung out for three days with nothing else to do but talk and cry about it, to ask for forgiveness and to forgive; all of those things that happen in a family.
Maybe a year later, we got our masters back and so then we had to talk about that. What I'm trying to illustrate by this roundabout way of answering your question is that, it's just real life stuff happening, and so you have to talk about it as it's something that was so important to all of our lives. Eventually these opportunities come together, and believe me we were asked every single year by Coachella to do a reunion – 'We'll give you this much, how about this much?!' – and every year the answer was no. Then 13 years later or whatever it was, because we had buried the hatchet in 2008, becaue we had got together in 2009 to decide what to do with the masters, because Tony [Hajjar, drums] had got closer through that, by the time 2012 rolled around, we actually could consider it. And that's what we did.
It's not an overnight process, or a two phone call decision, it took years of us talking about things that really didn't have to do with the band, things that we had to get over with in our own personal relationships and politics.
That's specific to At The Drive In, and let's stay on that for a second: when you did come back, what was that like? It wasn't entirely positive, right?
Yes and no. It was exciting when we were making that decision again, but in my own personal life, my mother had been dying a very slow death for the past year, so I was recessed into myself. She then passes away two weeks before we're supposed to play our first show, so at that point I had a decision to make, whether to cancel everything or to go through with my responsibility. In the spirit of what I know would have been her decision, because it's just the type of woman she was and how she raised me, I chose to fulfil my obligations and in that sense, just get it over with. The problem is that when you talk to people, even if you and I have a nice conversation, and maybe not with your own publication, there's still an editor and they want to sensationalise and pick one thing and put it as the headline. So right now I'm giving you all of this personal information, and inside that same context I said, 'Well a part of it was just getting it over with', an editor will quickly grab that and go 'The Reunion: I Just Wanted To Get It Over With'. I'm not saying, 'oh what injustice', of course there are worse things in the world and it's the price that you pay to live a beautiful life living off of your art. But my point is that it was an awful experience.
I can't begin to imagine...
Especially with how close I was, and am, to my mother, to then go on tour. I was vacant, I was somewhere far away in my suffering. You have to remember our first show wasn't Coachella, it was smaller shows in Texas, old punk show days. The crowd is right there in front of you, right where you're at. Our first show, I literally had a white boy in dreadlocks screaming at me, flipping me off, going 'Fuck you! Jump, jump around!' I didn't even have the energy to come back from that.
Then it was like, 'oh I'm phoning it in, I don't want to be there, blah blah blah,' without absolutely no context, and when someone finally did get around to asking me, then everything I said was taken out of context, because the journalist at the time kept pushing me. I had explained all of this other stuff I've told you, but then he goes: 'Money must have been part of the decision?' Of course! Anyone who tells you money isn't part of the decision would be lying to you. That was the context, but the headline was 'I Did It For The Money'.
That further perpetuated this idea that I was dialling it in and doing it for the money. Coupled with the music not being where I was at then - it was music I had written in my teenage years - that was the price you had to pay for just trying to be a person and be honest and not play politician or something, as they put it.
You've just told me about how journalists want to get a pull-quote, and I don't want to do that because we're having a really productive and respectful conversation but of course I'm interested in The Mars Volta returning. So let me rephrase the question: do you still write music and think 'I might keep it to the side for later, just in case'?
I understand, and thank you for expressing that, it's a rare thing. I'll say this. Generally speaking, for lack of a better term it's just like these things are flowing out there, and if you look at any interview with any artist, going back to Leonardo da Vinci or whatever group, most people, woman or man, will tell you 'I feel like I'm just a transmitter. It's out there and I can hear it', blah blah blah. I can't say that enough. There's people who can say that more eloquently than me but it's exactly that – you're a transmitter and if you do it enough you start opening your head in a way where more of it can come in.
Now that can be dangerous, too, because then your head is filled with only that, but life isn't only that. Because I tend to live with my head open like that, a lot of this information comes in and then I put it down and sort it out later. The only way I sort it out is what is most exciting to me, whatever surprises me the most, because again I feel like I'm just receiving something. That allows me to group things together, I guess. The At The Drive In reunion we did do was interesting because 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. That was very much like okay - we owe this to the people that loved this band. Just think how crazy that is that 13 years later people were still talking about that band. We can't then just make a dub record, or acoustic record, and say 'This is At The Drive In'.
So that was the first time as an experiment of open-mindedness, actually, because I've been so adamant in how I do things. As a thought experiment I said, OK I am willing to go through the discomfort and flipping my ideology, and now I will write from the outside in. So the way to accomplish that was, I wrote a letter to everyone in the band and said, 'I want everyone to think about your lives, where you were at that point, what your thoughts were, what your philosophies were, who your partner was at the time, what your relationship with your parents was like at the time. I want you to watch the movies you were at the time, I want you to listen to the music you were listening to at the time, and just receive it. Without judgement, put yourself in that mind frame and that will dictate to us the process'.
That's definitely what I submerged myself into, and because I did that whatever part of my brain was opening then, that's what I was receiving. Those influences or those things in your life - like 'oh I was really angry' or I had just gotten dumped, then all of a sudden all of this music starts to come out that sounds like that project. I want to just add as a side note that I'll never do that again, because it was an interesting process, but thinking that much from the outside was really detrimental, at least to me as a person. It was a very strange thing to do in terms of creativity. But I'm glad I went through it because some aspect, a little bit of that I think, I know, will be very useful. But I'm glad the experiment's done, so I can truly say, 'That's not for me'.
You mentioned your mother and how you didn't write your own music for a while after her passing, but in the past you've also talked about how music for you is very therapeutic and mindful in that it is - or at least should be - of its time. I would have imagined that's what you'd turn to first, but also completely understand and respect why you wouldn't. Do you remember a time when you thought, 'OK now is the time to start writing again'? Or was it more of an organic transition?
I think it was a transition that went unnoticed, in the same way that we can easily let ourselves go in one way, you know, and can be like 'Oh my god, how have I put on all this extra weight'. The same thing is constantly happening in your mind and unless you meditate on it and reflect on it it will just catch you by surprise. I was still writing to some degree, but it was more of a collaborative thing, like I started the group Bosnian Rainbows, and we would all write in it. I got to say as well that, however this may come off, there's an element to it when you do anything I think for that long, that's also just muscle memory. There's a part of it that's just purely technical and maybe doesn't have a spiritual aspect to it, like 'Oh these chords go well together and they're pleasing to the human ear, and the melody should be like this' or whatever. There's just this muscle memory that kicks in whether or not you're at the top of your game or not.
"It's been difficult to come to terms with this idea of how much should be recorded versus how much should just be honouring the amazing thing that is music and that we can make these beautiful sounds."
But looking back I found those years were really insightful; they really helped me to cope with everything I was going through but it also goes back to this thing that I told you about earlier, that it's dangerous to have your mind that open all of the time and be receiving stuff, because it's all so... I don't know what the word is, mysterious, abstract? I don't know. But that period got me back into writing, like writing thoughts and more scripts, it got me way back into reading and other things that brought me way more comfort than sitting in a studio for twelve hours like I had done for the years before that.
I think what you're saying is, part of art is channeling chaos and putting it into terms that we feel comfortable and understand, which I guess you would call order - its opposite. Art is channeling that, but it's also not healthy to just be open to chaos the whole time?
I guess that's exactly what I'm saying, yeah, because that's what you're doing. To further your point, because I like this analogy, everything mirrors everything else in the universe. Before I would say that and it sounded like hippy shit, but now we know it through science, and 'above so below' and all of these occult references actually have science to back them. We're made of the same exact matter that's out in the stars, and we can find a million examples about it, but my point is that as you say, if you have order and chaos, the physical manifestation of it on earth is normally warfare. Where there's chaos, someone has to go in and make order. We can read about any time in history, and how we even evolved to even have the concept of human rights – the irony being that people were slaughtered for people to be like 'No, we deserve this'. Genghis Khan, for as bad a wrap as he gets, went to Europe with brand new ideas and conquered countries that still weren't giving rights to women. And he was saying, 'No, women can own land. Women can be part of the workforce.' These were brand new concepts at the time, and he was operating by the laws of how the world worked at the time, which was that you expanded by going in and killing.
I'm trying to say that as it's in all of our human history of how we've been able to create order out of chaos, create the laws of man, that was all accomplished by warfare. What you're talking about now is the exact same thing because to refine chaos you have to destroy something to create order. You're constantly making decisions, destroying one possibility to favour another. You do that even more so by recording it. That's something that's also been difficult to come to terms with, this idea of how much should be recorded versus how much should just be honouring the amazing thing that is music and that we can make these beautiful sounds. Especially once you get into a career, a lot of people spend way more time recording – raging warfare on music – and having it be a finite thing, and then all of a sudden spending less time, for lack of a better word, around the campfire singing with their friends. It's a pattern I've seen with a lot of people that I know. They don't do the actual thing that got them into music in the first place, this communal thing of sharing and the human voice and being out in the open. I include myself in this; it's a problem that needs to be balanced out in order to have a healthy life.
I remember seeing The Mars Volta ten years ago at a festival in New Zealand and thinking it was one of the craziest things I had ever seen, and it's cool that we can now connect and talk about it. If I remember correctly you were playing just before Lily Allen of all people, I'm not sure if you'd know who she is...
That was one of the craziest things I've ever seen, because I don't know anything about Lily Allen, but we went to go see her at the back of the stage after, because you know I just wanted to go see stuff. And so she did her performance and was all sweaty, and then literally she walks off stage and while she's walking, without stopping, her entourage pull her performance attire off, they dry her off, put new clothes on her, hand her champagne and a cigarette.
She never had to break her walk. I was like, 'Holy shit. That was impressive. Right on sister, you've got your system down. Right on’.