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Stay Vigilant: The Mars Volta Interviewed
Patrick Clarke , September 13th, 2022 07:59

As they return with their first album in a decade, Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala speak to Patrick Clarke about radical reinvention, rage and their roots

Photos credit: Fat Bob

There are three distinct strands to the Mars Volta’s self-titled seventh album, their first since a surprise return from their initial split over a decade ago. Firstly, it is a bold stylistic left turn, totally eschewing the complicated long-form progressive and experimental rock that defined their first run of labyrinthine LPs in favour of a smooth, glossy, highly accessible new sound. “We’ve been warning you guys, we were saying ten years ago that the most revolutionary thing we could do was make a pop record,” says vocalist Omar Rodríguez-López over Zoom, repeating what has almost become a slogan in the promotion for the new album. He sees it as just another step forwards for a band who have always valued constant progression. “We’re in our mid-to-late 40s and you can’t just still be doing the same shit, expecting to wear an old t-shirt that doesn’t fit any more.”

Secondly, there are lyrics inspired by a period of considerable personal upheaval; the band’s initial split was to a large extent related to Bixler-Zavala joining the Church Of Scientology. It helped him to tackle a considerable weed habit, but it drove a significant wedge between him and his bandmate Omar Rodríguez-López, The Mars Volta’s only other consistent member. Bixler-Zavala’s wife, the actor Chrissie Carnell, was also in the church. In 2016 and 2017, four women, including Carnell, accused actor and Church Of Scientology member Danny Masterson (Carnell’s co-star in That ‘70s Show and her ex-partner) of raping them in the early 2000s. Carnell alleges that she was unconscious during one of the assaults. The women are also suing Masterson and The Church Of Scientology for alleged conspiracy to obstruct justice, claiming they were followed and harassed by agents of the church. Masterson and The Church Of Scientology have denied all allegations.

Bixler-Zavala has since become an outspoken critic of Scientology, but only alludes to the specifics in our interview for legal reasons. He has since made amends with Rodríguez-López, who puts the ordeal’s relationship to their new album plainly: “What else would Cedric write about other than exactly what he’s been going through?” Many of the lyrics on The Mars Volta are bristling with a mixture of desolation, vitriol and desire for revenge that makes a bold contrast with the silky instrumentals. “Out here buried beneath your tombs / My nails scrawl in blood / I will always haunt you,” Bixler-Zavala sings to gently psychedelic backing on ‘Blank Condolences’. “Never have I held the handle of a blade / The way I hold it looking at you,” on the electro-pump of ‘Equus 3’.

Thirdly, there is the album’s visual identity. Self-titled to mark “a clean slate” as Rodríguez-López puts it, the album’s cover is stark black and gold, a contrast to the vivid and often surrealist artwork that accompanied their early albums. The videos for the singles are even starker, black and white short films concerning the culture and people of Puerto Rico, where Rodríguez-López was born. Only a third of the video for lead single ‘Blacklight Shine’ actually features The Mars Volta’s music, the rest is given over to a performance of Bomba – both a traditional dance and musical style of the island where the relationship between sound and movement is of high importance.

To perform Bomba – and by extension for The Mars Volta to platform it so prominently – is an act of political significance. Originated by enslaved people brought to Puerto Rico in the 1600s, the style evolved as a means of communication that could be understood across the different African ethnic groups that they came from. Also absorbing elements of the island’s native Taíno culture, particularly the ceremonial Areíto song and dance to which it bears much in common, and that of their Spanish colonialist slave masters, it embodies the mixed heritage that still defines Puerto Rico today. In the video for ‘Blacklight Shine’, the dance’s joyous aspects are highlighted, but as Rodríguez-López explains, that need not dim its power. “It’s about that feeling of wanting to let your hair down and be yourself, showcase what your life is like and what your culture is like. It’s a dance of resistance.” He strikes a parallel between the colonialism of the 16th century and that of America today, “the way that once you’re indoctrinated into the American system, your identity and your culture is constantly being stripped away from you.” After his family moved from Puerto Rico to Texas when he was a child, he recalls how his culture’s conventions of having two last names couldn’t fit within American administrative systems. At school, other students took to calling him ‘Mike’ because they couldn’t wrap their brains around the correct pronunciation of Omar. With this in mind, the Bomba performance takes on a defiant quality. “We’ve had to protect and fight for every single part of our existence,” Rodríguez-López says.

He has always platformed his Puerto Rican heritage. “I always wore the flag on my jacket with At The Drive In, and on my amp with The Mars Volta, it’s always been there,” he says. Among the countless influences that have appeared across their discography, various Puerto Rican and Latin American styles have always been present. The starkness with which they’re presented this time around, however, makes this one of the largest platforms to date. The Bomba-based video for ‘Blacklight Shine’ is “just the start” when it comes to its presence on their new record, says Rodríguez-López. Visuals for ‘Graveyard Love’ consist of a series of simple black and white shots of everyday life and people in Puerto Rico, with a below-the-line description that features a reading list on the history of colonialism in Puerto Rico ‘for further understanding’. There is also a timeline that runs from ‘FREEDOM’ in 1897 (the end of Spanish colonial rule following the Spanish-American War) and ‘EIGHT DAYS OF INDEPENDENCE’ in 1898, through to ‘STILL A COLONY’ in 2022, via uprisings across the 20th century, devastating hurricanes, forced sterilisation of Puerto Rican women from the 1930s to the 1970s and more.

Although the music itself may have been streamlined, then, The Mars Volta is still as multifaceted as anything they have done before. Watching the video to ‘Blacklight Shine’ can be dizzying when you try to take it all in at once, a tight – a blissfully smooth yacht rock track with revenge-fantasy lyrics (“He’s fit for a crypt, a place for the errors in judgment that he can afford / And I am that moment you never saw coming and every fingerprint you answered for”) set to a Bomba performance filmed in stark monochrome. The album’s complexities lie not in technical wizardry, but in the relationship between the three strands, sometimes clashing against one another in violent juxtaposition, at others dovetailing in an unusual harmony.

It is not hard to find the parallels between the way the album pushes against both the oppressive evils of colonialism, and those that have been alleged of Scientology, for a start. “If you want to tell someone the way they should live, the other person has the right to protect themselves at all costs," Rodríguez-López says. Furthermore, a softer, poppier sound doesn’t necessarily have to contradict Bixler-Zavala’s brutal and raw lyrical focus, they argue. “There’s a long history of famous pop songs that have utter fucking darkness in them,” Bixler-Zavala points out. Furthermore, he says, the more accessible the song on the surface, the more subversive its potential. “When it’s in a major key it gets past the inspectors.” He likes the idea that they might plant the seeds of an idea in the mind of someone drawn in by the accessible sonics that might only reveal itself years or decades later, “that a young kid could be listening to a song and then later on in life they’ll go, 'Holy shit! That’s what the fuck that means!' Perhaps decades down the line.” That was the way he experienced the music of Phil Collins-era Genesis growing up, for instance. “Back then it was what was on the radio, it just reminded me that I had school on Monday, but now I look back and think ‘fuck! There’s some beautiful moments on there!’ There’s a beauty in what people might perceive to be its cringiness.”

He refers to the sonic shift as “our Style Council moment,” and uses Paul Weller’s decision to disband The Jam at their height as a model. “Quite frankly, a lot of [fans of The Jam] needed to have the Style Council put in front of them, just to show them that you can’t be stuck in a genre. It becomes cosplay after a certain time, people start dressing like you, the cover bands come out, the bands who don’t understand influence and just make carbon copies then start being praised. You have to reinvent shit, and embrace things your fans didn’t think you would be embrace.”

It says something about the relationship that the band have fostered with their listeners that the response to their change in direction has been boldly positive, particularly in an era where, Bixler-Zavala views it, the internet has made public opinion particularly unforgiving. “It’s created this overly privileged Yelp review culture, where you’re gonna be damned to obscurity if the internet doesn’t approve of where you are as an artist.” In below the line comments beneath their new material and press interviews are people acknowledging that though their initial reaction to a poppier Mars Volta might have been dismay or disappointment, once they stopped and gave more nuanced thought to the ethos of reinvention and progression that the band have always espoused, they realised that this kind of music was exactly what band should be making. “Imagine that!” laughs Rodríguez-López. “Imagine living in a world where you can think before you speak, and process how you feel before you act!”

It is technically their second Style Council moment, of course. When At The Drive In, whose music centred on post-hardcore and punk, first disbanded in 2001 and the duo formed the decidedly proggier Mars Volta, that was a considerable departure in itself. As well as a guiding mission to “honour our roots and honour our dead,” a mantra that the band have repeated throughout their career, Rodríguez-López says that the very formation of their new band was also “about freedom, the freedom to transition [between styles] if we want to.” Twitter’s inclination towards harsh binary groupthink might be a rising problem, however they also acknowledge the ways in which things have changed for the better since they first set out on that mission. “When we left At The Drive In we got the kind of criticism that wouldn’t fly today,” says Bixler-Zavala. “The immediate reaction was that we were gay and on drugs. That was the general tone of society at that time.”

Throughout their lives, Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López have been acutely aware of the way that their respective Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage has caused them to be subject to double standards within the industry. “Touring in the punk scene, people would call us names that I’m not gonna repeat,” Rodríguez-López says. “In the press people would write about our ‘natural hair’, or make fun of our music having different forms of percussion in it. I came to believe 15 years ago that if a white person heard a maraca, their only point of reference was Carlos Santana. When we were on the cover of one magazine, they literally airbrushed us so that we would be whiter. It was blatant racism, and blatant judgement of what we were doing almost exclusively through a white lens. I thought at the time, ‘Why isn’t this being called out for what it is?’ Now, through today’s optics it would be called out in an instant."

This is why, even when discussing the simpler aspects of the record like a transition to a poppier sound, there is a defensiveness to the two musicians’ voices; the freedom to shift in style is central to The Mars Volta’s DNA, but throughout their lives freedoms of all kinds have been attacked on multiple fronts. “I’m very protective of our music, because it’s really easy for haters to dictate the narrative,” Bixler-Zavala says frankly. “I can be very fucking jaded because for years I’ve been dealing with everyone critiquing anything, from my hair to my choice of pants, my choice of singing, to my choice of lyrics.” Adds Rodríguez-López, “The music is the by-product of our life, so we have to be protective of our space against any antagonistic force that thinks it has a right to oppress you or exploit you in any way.”

The positivity with which The Mars Volta has been received thus far has taken him aback, Bixler-Zavala admits. “When you develop this salty, protective exterior, to encounter positivity… there’s moments where I don’t trust it. But then there are moments where I’m very humbled by it.” It is clear that much has changed in the decade since the band first released an album. “Things have gotten better, and things have gotten worse,” Rodríguez-López says. On the one hand, “there’s the fact that we can have conversations like this [in the press] now, and that the younger generation in particular are really adamant about having these conversations. Go back and read any Rolling Stone magazine from the 1990s and look for a non-white band or a female musician and see how they write about them. See how they pitted Kathleen Hanna against Courtney Love simply because they’re two women.” On the other hand, in American politics those years saw the liberal triumphalism of the Obama administration give way to the violent rebuke of Trump, a victory for those “who unify, stay on message and keep working hard to preserve that antiquated white, straight way of life.”

“It’s just important that people remember that the conversation barely even began. Don't start letting your guard down now. Don’t ever celebrate a victory because there is no such thing,” Rodríguez-López says. "The eight years that the Democrats were in office and Obama was in office and the general democratic leftist liberal attitude was ‘We did it! That’s it! We ended racism!’ but the reality of that situation was shown to us right after. Look at what’s just happened with Roe Vs. Wade!” In a world getting simultaneously lighter and darker, perhaps the many different threads of The Mars Volta can be read as a mirror of those dizzying and opposing motions. If there is an ultimate lesson to be learnt from it all, it is to remain vigilant above all else.

The Mars Volta's new self-titled album is released on September 16 via Clouds Hill