The Mars Volta
The Mars Volta

Life on Mars

Having already danced with the supernatural on their last album, 2009 finds The Mars Volta dogged by another old ghost. But Omar Rodriguez-Lopez tells Dave Kerr that he won’t be press ganged into reforming At the Drive-In.
Feature by Dave Kerr.
Published 26 June 2009

As I sit down to talk to the Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, it dawns on me that this interview can’t be some big chin-stroke about the way he’ll condense his unwieldy jams into a 40 minute set at T in the Park; I’d be an idiot not to clarify his position on the topic that’s got everybody from the music pages of the local Courier to the gossip inches of Rolling Stone in a funk: "Will you reunite At the Drive-In?" An innocuous slip of the tongue by bandmate Cedric Bixler-Zavala recently confirmed that the El Paso quintet were on speaking terms again, but then it was Cedric himself who once suggested in song that ‘a single spark can start a spectral fire…

“The fact of the matter is that we’re in our thirties now and that breakup happened ten years ago,” Omar starts. “As a human being you just don’t want that kind of karma. They did a lot of shit talking, and we did a lot of shit talking, so I just called everybody up and invited them to my house and said ‘hey, listen, we’re in our thirties now, I’m sorry for whatever I said, I’m sure you guys didn’t mean what you said – you guys were upset because I split up the band and we were upset because of whatever. Let’s be friends again.”

So far, so dinner and a Columbo marathon. “But do I want to reunite and play fucking 15 year old songs?” he lingers. “Well, it would be like asking you, ‘do you want to get back together with your first girlfriend?’ You learn some amazing things together, but I just shudder at the thought.”

With the common perception being that At the Drive-In bowed out at the height of their powers under the ambiguous slogan of an “indefinite hiatus”, it’s little wonder they’re thought to have unfinished business. Not so, Omar clarifies: “We were a band that went out on top, which is good, but it’s just a coincidence. We were also a band that had been together for seven years, and for six of those years played to nobody and had a great time but were also on the verge of splitting up many times before that. It’s an old relationship. People would like to think of it as unfinished business because to them we went out when we were most popular, but that has nothing to do with the creative element. As far as the creative element went, it very much was finished business. That’s why I ended the band! Now, thank god, fucking ten years later, we’re not holding a grudge and we’re all cool with it. People pick up on the difference of attitude and think ‘oh, this could mean a possible reunion’, but that’s just them projecting their own desires upon us.”

However, after such a resolute dismissal of the idea, he still tantalisingly concedes that “we’re both smart enough to never say never, because you just end up putting your foot in your mouth.”

Although Omar appears to have made peace with this pivotal chapter of his career, the lyrical matter of the fifth Mars Volta album recalls an unresolved phenomenon first highlighted by Relationship of Command’s Invalid Litter Dept. Past story arcs have ranged from narratives wrapped up in outer body experiences and heretical folk tales, but Octahedron engages a very real concern which is consuming the band’s hometown.

“The main theme on this record is of disappearance: kidnappings and unexplainable things of that nature,” says Omar. “In El Paso and Juarez – its sister city right across the border – there are 900 kidnappings a year, just a gust of women. When you drive down the freeway there’s gigantic poster boards that say ‘Are you being held against your will?’ with a hotline to call. So yeah, it’s a pretty crazy phenomenon. It’s still the biggest problem in Mexico, where I live.”

As a reflection of the human face that Cedric paints for Octahedron with his lyrics, Omar shed the excess of previous releases and stripped the songs down to their core, leaving the usual bells and whistles one associates with a Mars Volta release well off the menu. “A lot of discipline went into this record,” he affirms. “A lot of discipline goes into every record, but a lot of holding back and enforcing limitations was a big part of making this one.”

Dubbed their “acoustic” album as often as their poppiest by critics, purists will argue that this is precisely the kind of focus that The Mars Volta need, having previously created progressive rock that’s equally appealing to aficionados as it is alienating to fans of their old punk band. Yet they still exist on their own plain.

“We’ve always been out there on our own," Omar acknowledges. "We’ve always had this feeling, especially coming from El Paso. We didn’t have a scene. It’s not the same as being a band in San Francisco or DC or Washington where you could just be a band and somebody would put out your record, or part of a collective of lots of bands that were sharing ideas, y’know, we were just on our own. It’s always felt that way, and we tour on our own – we don’t have opening acts. Definitely, there are people like Mastodon, M.I.A and Battles who feel like kindred spirits, but at the same time we’re in a little bubble of our own out there in the universe.”