Interview with The Mars Volta: Happy Pastors

The Mars Volta (Ross Halfin)Terminal 5 is really more like a hangar than it is a terminal. Inside, it’s as cold and gray as the January evening outside. The dark and chilly ambiance is only offset by the countless attendees, all packed in on top of each other throughout the three stacking levels of the recently opened venue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Cedric Bixler-Zavala, singer and lyricist for The Mars Volta, climbs back onto the stage after diving into the crowd, and proceeds to hump the amplifiers that are lined behind his partner-in-crime and best-friend-forever, guitarist and composer Omar Rodríguez-López. “This one is for all the people out there who don’t want to hear us make the same record over and over again,” he says after facing the crowd again, as the band launches into “Drunkship Of Lanterns,” a track from their first record, De-Loused In The Comatorium. The performance is a pummeling affair; Cedric flails about the stage like a free-form expressionist, while Omar—the captain on this eight man rotation —blasts from the frets like Carlos Santana being funneled through Greg Ginn.

The repetition comment isn’t so much a dig at this particular crowd as it is a dedication of thanks to the city. The Mars Volta’s early conquests in New York were by no means easy tasks, and their expansive musical scenery has graced practically every stage in the area—starting off no less with Madison Square Garden, while on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers prior to the release of De-Loused. It was during these formative years that Flea would watch the band’s sets from the side of the stage, and even Dave Grohl remarked that The Mars Volta reminded him of being a teenager, listening to Led Zeppelin’s Presence amidst a black-light’s heady glow. But The Mars Volta are clearly not your dad’s Led Zeppelin, and no offense to Grohl (who was clearly impressed), but the comparison is kind of a cop-out, considering Cedric’s high-pitched wails that kind of (but not really) bear some resemblance to Robert Plant.

So when I catch up with Cedric a few days prior to the Terminal 5 show—being dangerously at risk of fruitlessly speculating—I decide to ask him point-blank about any of the comparisons or contrasts he can draw between how he feels about the music of The Mars Volta, and how he feels it is perceived by the listeners. “I think a lot of times people really misunderstand our music,” says Cedric, whose speaking voice is soothing, but is ripped with energy and passion. His answer to my question is an honest one, even if it only scratches the surface. But nothing can prepare me for his remarks as he continues. “I think we started attracting a lot of dumber people because of songs like ‘The Widow,’ people who wanted their hands held through everything, and wanted to be told what the motivation is.”

“The Widow,” of course, was the breakthrough single from their second record, Frances The Mute. The album would sell 123,000 copies in its first week of release, and it would make almost every “best of” list at the end of 2005. But in the ever-forward, ever-progressing world of The Mars Volta, accolades such as these just don’t cut it. “When people cite our first two albums as our ‘peak,’ I really shudder to think what their record collection must be like,” says Cedric, “because if they thought those albums were fantastic and great, then they must still have Sublime records, or Smash Mouth and shit like that.” Cedric even files a grievance with Rick Rubin, who produced De-loused, by saying “Rick really over-simplified some of the parts that we thought were unique, and just made them very digestible. He’s got this thing about representing the common man’s ears—I’d rather jab the common man’s ears. If we don’t, we’ll never get to a place where future music exists.” Future music exists, I repeat to myself inside my head, and it’s at this very moment that I realize that The Mars Volta might be the only band on the planet that would risk even death for the virtue of remaining creative.

If Cedric’s comments sound bitter or resentful, try to keep in perspective how insulting it is, after all, to say that a band went to shit after their second record—which is essentially what you’re implying when identifying a “peak.” Or as Cedric puts it, “It makes you feel like the people you thought got you, never got you in the first place. We’re out there because we’re trying to push it as much as we can, and if that means we piss people off, then good. That’s why I love (Radiohead’s) Kid A, because it’s not fucking O.K. Computer all over again.”

All thistle and hum aside, it must be noted that The Mars Volta have always had a very clear position in terms of how albums should sound. “Our music demands your attention,” he continues. “It demands at least an hour out of your life, and with complete silence and with complete devotion. But it’s like a movie. You shouldn’t really be talking during a movie because the moment you say anything, you’ll miss a really great subtle moment that expresses what a character’s feeling.”