The Mars Volta’s guitarist and co-leader, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, seems possessed by an almost demonic energy. The fifth Volta album, Octahedron, will be released tomorrow, June 23. The latest in a string of over a dozen releases under his own name, Cryptomnesia by El Grupo Nuevo de Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, came out in May. Both albums are among his most accessible releases; Octahedron features melancholy ballads in place of the usual headlong screaming and solos, while Cryptomnesia is a wiggy Latin-rock explosion featuring Zach Hill and Jonathan Hischke of Hella, Mars Volta bassist Juan Alderete, and on vocals, Rodriguez-Lopez’s hetero life partner, Cedric Bixler-Zavala. We caught up with Rodriguez-Lopez by phone, as the Volta was preparing to leave for Bonnaroo, to talk about the recording process, boredom, and getting punched in the face.
Tell me a little bit about Octahedron; is it true it was recorded at the same time as [2008’s Volta record] The Bedlam in Goliath?
It started that way. I have a tendency to work on records simultaneously, at least two or three at the same time. But when Bedlam started sort of taking off and having its own life and its own problems, I had to abandon Octahedron completely, ’cause it turned into a fuckin’ nightmare of a record to make, and for the first time in my career there was no way I could sustain both projects. So I had to put all my energy into finishing the nightmare that was Bedlam. So when I finished it, I picked back up with Octahedron, and then it all made sense why it just wasn’t meant to be, why I couldn’t do them simultaneously.
A lot of the new songs are very quiet – and am I hearing drum machines?
Yeah, there’s drum machines and sequencers and that sort of stuff on there.
You’ve said that you give the musicians their parts with little or no preparation in the studio. Is that still your working method?
Yeah, the same this time around. But the interesting thing is, now I’m gonna have to come up with something new, because everybody’s getting used to it, and everybody’s getting really good at it. So on the lighter side, as a result, this record got made in three weeks. Plus the material is easier, it’s a different type of record. But everybody’s gotten used to that sort of gun-in-your-face mentality now, and just learning everything on the spot, and everyone’s settled into something. The reason I started doing that in the first place was so they wouldn’t be settled. So I’m gonna have to start changing my methods of making records somehow.
How many of these new songs are likely to make the live set? Won’t this kind of material change the feeling of your performances, which have been pretty balls-out until now?
I’d like to play most of them if I can. We did one show where we did about half the record the other night, getting used to the songs, but the important thing is, a year or so ago, when we were touring for Bedlam, I realized that our show–as fun as it was and as intense as it was and as energetic as it was–lacked any real kind of dynamic. You come and see us and it’s three hours of getting punched in the face. So I started throwing an acoustic set in the middle of our show. We had three acoustic songs from the old records, like “Televators” and “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” and “Asilos Magdalena,” just to break it up. And now with this record, our live show won’t suffer as much, because it’ll have a little of everything and be more dynamic.
Some people really responded well to the relentless, Santana-meets-’70s-Miles feel of the older shows, though.
Definitely, but that can’t go on forever. I’m starting to get bored of that too now. My thing has constantly been following my instinct, changing and growing. You know how it is. You do the same thing for too long, you just start to get bored with it. You go to the same coffee shop and have breakfast at the same place, and it’s great for the first months or years or whatever. But at a certain point, you go to the next place around the corner. Everything in life works that way. Unfortunately for fans, the problem is once they’re barely catching on to the one thing they like, the creative person is already on to the next thing, so they get upset at the band. They say, “This is not the band I fell in love with. They should be doing this.” And there’s also the issue of, as human beings, we all want to have control over our lives and control things, so it’s natural that people should feel that they have some sort of control over what we should be doing or playing, and when they realize they don’t, it’s a bit of a letdown.
In a lot of ways, though, Octahedron is the friendliest Mars Volta record since De-Loused. You could really win over new people with this one.
Right, right. I guess it’s just the nature of our approach, which is just to make a completely different-sounding record, and if we were getting more and more unfriendly, to go in the other direction. I never thought of it in those terms, I thought of it more like, “What would be the opposite of Bedlam?” And if Bedlam was an aggressive record that didn’t stop and was 50 minutes of pure chaos, then I wanted this to be a sort of tranquil, melancholy record, to reflect how I was feeling after finally finishing Bedlam. I had tranquility in my life finally, but it was bittersweet, because as much as I hated making that record, I fell in love with it at the end. I had this twisted sadomasochistic psychology with the record, so Octahedron started to reflect where I was at.
When we were doing interviews for Bedlam, I was talking about Octahedron being almost done, and how it would be more acoustic-inspired. Which of course, when you say something like that, people take it literally, so now they’re like, “This is not acoustic. There are electric drums and blah blah blah.” But it was acoustic-inspired, which means I thought a lot about Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen when I was making the record and conceiving the record. On every record there’s an acoustic-based song, a song that started acoustic and then I just added layers to it. On De-Loused it’s “Televators,” on Frances it’s “Miranda.” So I always thought this would be something cool to explore when I was sick of playing bombastic, in-your-face music. And that’s exactly what ended up happening.
You’ve also got Cryptomnesia out now; when was that recorded?
Cryptomnesia was recorded in the summer of 2006, around the same time I did Old Money. It was a very, very fun record to make. I made that record in five or six days.
You have three times as many solo albums as Mars Volta albums. In what way can the Mars Volta be said to be your primary band?
In the way that I take it all home, I refine ideas and I save the best of the best of the best. Solo records are homework, and when I get to the best of the best or the core of what I’m trying to do, then I utilize that in the Mars Volta. That being said, I don’t compose thinking, “This is a solo song, this is for the Volta.” I just compose constantly. I’m constantly trying new things, and when it’s time to focus on the Mars Volta, out of 300 songs, I pick the eight songs or ten songs that I’m most interested to focus on, and I pull those out. So it’s like getting through all the mistakes and happy accidents and getting to the root of it all. It’s a way of burning through my ideas: going through stuff, getting bored of it, and getting to a place where I feel in my mind like I’m doing something fresh–fresh for me, as a creative person.