The Mars Volta

author TL date 24/02/08

People who know me will also know that I'm a not one to be made easily nervous or phased, but having just read through The Mars Volta's description of the supernatural circumstances they claim surrounded the recording of their recent album "The Bedlam In Goliath", and coming in to meet with Cedric Bixler-Zavala, famed not only for his work with The Mars Volta but also for his past in the legendary At The Drive-In, I think it was fair to say that this did not feel like an ordinary interview at all! However, fortunately Cedric proved to be beyond forthcoming and from our conversation in the dressing room of Vega this night came one of the most interesting and open interviews I've been able to bring you in a long time. Enjoy! To start things off, can you give us a brief look into the state of affairs in The Mars Volta right now?
Cedric: Well is there anything specific that you want to know? To start out just tell me how's it going with your tour and with everything basically.

Cedric: So far so good. It's fun to tour now and it wasn't before.. Okay, how come?

Cedric: Because we had a 'rotten apple' in the family called Jon Theodore.. Hahaha.. Okay, fair enough, but everything is better now then?

Cedric: Yeah because he was like the grumpy pastor and this is our church and when it was his time to 'give a sermon' he'd have no faith in what he was talking about. I love him as a musician and as a person but to the group he was a rotten apple, and now instead we have this kid who.. you know, likes to wake up in the morning and have fun and he's like a fountain of youth to us. So now I'm having fun again and I'm reminded of why I liked to do this. So you're a band that has been changing members somewhat over the years, but do you feel you've got the right setup now, or do you suspect that The Mars Volta is going to continue to change for a while yet at least?
Cedric: I couldn't really tell you till it happens you know.. Okay but you do have a good feeling about it for now?

Cedric: Yeah for now it feels great Your live shows are renowned for the free-form improvisation arrangements. How do you prepare for a live show - do you script it beforehand and practice the same set like other bands, or is it truly just everyone improvising and fitting the parts together?
Cedric: No that's not true, that's not true at all! Even in the past. There was a while there where we were doing festivals and festivals only give you between a half and a whole hour and practically we didn't want to burn out over that, so we'd have pockets of improvisation but never the entire thing. That's a misconception, and I mean, it's a compliment if people think we sound like we're making it up, but we're just not, everything is scripted. Omar is the leader of the band and he writes every left and right turn of the band regardless of what any ex-member of the band may claim differently. His guitar playing is so specific that there's no way anyone could make up a drum pattern to it in an instant, it's just impossible. There are sets planned out and there are song lists to go through and then maybe there are pockets inside the songs where we do what we call "woodshedding", that is maybe practice a bit of new material or improvise a little bit, but otherwise that's all just a myth. A myth that tries to make us some kind of jam band and that's not the case at all. I'm not going to deny that we do have improvisation and that it might stretch for like an hour but that's still in one song. I guess it doesn't really take anything away from you if you planned it all out, because that's still some pretty intricate planning to be done..

Cedric: Yeah and we do rehearse it. We just rehearse it for a little while and then we go for two weeks on, two weeks off, two weeks on and maybe when we go on tour we rehearse the first days in front of everybody.. We've been reading around that Omar already has material ready for two more albums. That's quite unusual in the music business today - Why do you think he's able to come up with so much unique stuff consistently and quickly?
Cedric: I think it's because he appreciates that he's been given whichever gift he's been given and he's not the stereotypical lazy musician and.. Most bands are.. I think he understands that at any given moment a car or plane crash could happen or he could get a disease or anything that would make him not be here anymore, so he has like a whole library of stuff. I think if more people thought like that, there'd be more interesting music around. People get a little lazy and it's understandable because touring, rehearsing and recording can all take a lot out of you but if you're down to the fact that you know you've been given a gift - and you're kinda' like an 'antenna' - There should never be a moment in your life where you don't write the idea down and Omar's always writing the idea down. Can you try and explain to us, given the complexity of your work, how does a Mars Volta album come together?
Cedric: Everyone learns their material like.. 5 minutes before they go into the studio. Each song. So you learn it right then and there and they record you learning it, capturing the anger and frustration of the musician being mad with the tension of not having it rehearsed and having to do it on the spot. Even with vocals I mean.. Some of the time I do get to take it home and work with it, but a lot of the time Omar just likes to get my instant reaction which is not really words, more kind of just speaking in tongues and then maybe later I'll write words to it. Sometimes I'll re-do it again and I'll have to learn again what I did the first time but mostly it's just the first thing that counts. Everything is learnt 5 minutes or if it's a really long part then maybe 30 minutes in advance. That must be really demanding, isn't it incredibly hard?

Cedric: Yeah it is! I think this is in some wway why Omar likes Frank Zappa so much because there's entire Zappa albums that are recordings of when he was auditioning for new members and he simply decided to use the audition and just left it in there as the first or the second take you know. Your lyrics has received a lot of criticism from some media. Some say that to understand your lyrics it's necessary to have a dictionary in front of you, but how do you come up with the lyrics and how's your reaction to this criticism?
Cedric: It's just instant inspiration and.. I think in life everyone needs a dictionary.. We all kind of operate with very common words and a lot of times if you want to use different words you get laughed at and made fun of but.. I think this is the medium where.. You know, rock'n'roll is such a dumb medium.. When I ride on a plane to come on tour and I'm sitting in a certain class and there's a lawyer to one side of me and a brain surgent to the other.. And I'm in a rock band that sings "Baby baby baby!" or like "Don't leave me!" or "Fire!" or "Fuck" and "Love" and you know this whole way of living could stand a whole revolve of language and that's what I find interesting. Like in Blade Runner, Edward James Olmos's character is speaking in dutch, german, french, spanish.. Just everything put together, and then there's slang involved and then there's.. For us there's a manipulation of compound words and a manipulation of language in general and our version of a concept record is a gigantic puzzle or riddle to overcome and it's just our way of trying to give rock music a brand new life really.. Because it's so stale and geared for dumb people really. There's only so much Ramones and Slade I can take. It's simple and it's obvious and I love it and I can listen to it in my car but.. After a while, like twenty years later, I don't want to be supporting a band that's just going to Xerox-copy that shit. I want the future to actually be the future. Having made three out of four albums concept albums, does the pressure of coming in and having to make up lyrics on the spot help you or act as a hurdle then, thinking of piecing things together in this gigantic puzzle you speak of?
Cedric: I guess we just work well with deadlines.. Sometimes it's just better to be on the edge of your seat you know. You've been said to express a desire to not release your next album on a major label - Can you confirm this?
Cedric: Well it depends what the label wants to offer if we want to re-sign with it. Romantically it would be nice if we all could follow in the footsteps of Fugazi, but not everyone in the band knows how to book tours or talk to people in the right way and therefore you need other people to do that and therefore you need an organization to do that. Like once a band becomes more popular it just needs a big machine behind it, it's a necessary evil like voting I guess because I don't want to have to call up venues or check how it's going with our records or make sure like.. "Did you book this size venue and is there the right food and bla bla bla".. I don't want to deal with that, I want to devote my time completely to singing the way I do rather than worry about all that stuff. It's really good for someone like Fugazi because they're so hands on, but we just can't do what they do. I'd be tired by the first song if I had to book the show and deal with selling the merch and with mailorder and all that shit. It's a great romantic, almost communist way of living, but it just doesn't work for everyone because some of us just aren't smart enough to do everything on our own. Well I guess one could say that making your music might also be somewhat more time consuming than what Fugazi's would've been..

Cedric: But then they did have some complicated stuff too.. Haha.. For some reason they're an anomaly that, for the ten years they did exist they did everything on their own and played for five dollars and.. I'm glad they did it because it shows that it can be done, it's just that not everyone's geared to do it. So summing up, you reasons for doing it would be mostly romantic, it's not like you have any major label horror stories to fuel the rumours about them?

Cedric: No, we pretty much wrote our own contract and we hired people who read all the small print to us.. You just have to be smart to not be inhibited by all the small talk and red tape.. If you don't then you're going to be complaining that it's not working. You have to know that when you're working with a big machine, it's going to want certain things.. And we're kind of okay with that because at least our big machine, Universal, has stayed out of the studio.. They just like to take songs and make trailers out of them to make people understand but that's their world not ours. Before coming in to do this review I was told that it was required of me to read the document written about your latest recording progress by Jeremy Robert Johnson and so I did. To some people what's described in this document would seem pretty weird and I think they might wonder if you guys actually believe in this or if it's kind of a promotional thing?
Cedric: Oh it's not promo stuff at all.. It's 100% what we had to go through in order to get this done. Just culturally speaking it depends where you're from because to most Latin-American cultures it's kind of like oxygen that this stuff exists. Whether it's alternate realities or alternate dimensions or witchcraft you know.. To some people, like in the states, their version of spirituality is standing up and down in a church, getting on their knees, drinking red wine and eating bread but not everyone's like that. Everyone seems to have their version of what they think is God and everyone wants to believe that it's their version that's true and that everyone's seeing the same thing, but it depends how you see it and how you describe it. To us this stuff does exist and it's whether or not you want to recognize what's in the back of our heads and not just what's in the front, because you know we only use a certain amount of our brains.. To us it's about realizing that we're like antennas and that when stuff comes to us it's not necessarily even us so.. To not believe that is to not believe other avenues of reality. But it's okay, we need that kind of innocence and nonbelief in it in order to reverse some of all the bad luck I think some of us tend to believe in. Obviously you guys have strayed further and further away from your origin in At The Drive-In, but seeing how so many seminal bands seem to be reforming these days we'd just like to check if you've ever considered doing an At The Drive-In reunion tour or something like that?
Cedric: Erhm.. As fucked up as it sounds - Because this band only operates with a lot of money behind it, I would only do it for the money. Simply because I knew I could spend the money I'd earn with At The Drive-In on bigger and more elaborate backdrops or being able to record more stuff. Putting more money where money needs to be put, not spending it greedily on ourselves but spending it on making The Mars Volta go around, because that's one of the biggest obstacles this band has to climb, that it takes so much money to make it work. If we did do it, Omar and I would need our own bus and we would unfortunately need a certain amount of money to do it. So you kind of had enough of each other back in At The Drive-In?

Cedric: Yeah, pretty much.. We what's in it and what personalities we had to deal with.. I wouldn't say no if there was money for The Mars Volta in it though. So how are your plans for the future right now?
Cedric: I don't know really. Maybe recording some covers and put out a record with those and work on putting out a more acoustic record as well. Another live record maybe and otherwise just keep doing what we do. Any festival plans for the summer?

Cedric: Yeah, I'm sure we're doing the whole run.. And there's also other records of Omar's that we're working on too. There's this guy Jonathan that used to play in Hella and Zach from Hella and Juan our bass player and.. I forgot who else is on it, but we've been working on that too aaaand.. Omar's made two movies since we did this record so I'm sure they need music so there's really so much to work on.. Never a dull moment.. Okay, basically all there's left for us is if you want to shout out something to the readers - We have about 20.000 eager readers waiting to hear words from The Mars Volta so go ahead:
Cedric: Hahahhaa.. Erhmm.. I don't know? Not to put any pressure on you whatsoever!

Cedric: Yeah.. I wouldn't know what to say really.. You see you're asking the wrong personality because there's the alter ego and there's this really calm and kind of shy person, where as up on stage I think I'd be able to tell you a lot more interesting stuff.. I'll be sure to shout the 'question' at you at the show then.

Cedric: Haha, yeah you try that.

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