The name is in homage to Fellini - yes, the celebrated Italian filmmaker. It's a perfect moniker for the synthesis that The Mars Volta manages to achieve. Their music is multisensory; their art stimulates all the senses. The band's work crosses all genres, styles, boundaries and rules, and to me is perfectly representative of what it is to have grown up in a place like El Paso. It was a place where borderlines meant everything yet nothing at the same time, a place of overwhelming collisions between politics and history and class and language. It is one of the most unique locations in the world; The Mars Volta could have come from nowhere else.
On the eve of The Mars Volta's first full-length album release - and just weeks after core memberJeremy Ward has passed away - I have a long discussion with Omar. The album is called De-Loused in the Comatorium, was produced with studio genius Rick Rubin, and is dedicated to Omar and Cedric's friend Julio Venegas, and El Paso artist who committed suicide in 1996. The record does not merely exist in memory of Venegas; it was created to tell his story, to express his soul, and to convey the inspiration his life was to the musicians who survive him. With the band's direction, Storm Thorgerson - an album art legend most known for his work with Pink Floyd - carefully crafted the visual component to De-Loused. More of his work can be seen in the accompanying book, which also includes a full narrative explaining the album's genesis.
Omar and I begin our telephone conversation by realizing we hang out in the same neighborhood. It is one of those close-but-yet-so-far coincidences that connects us, just like having grown up in the relatively small space of El Paso. Omar conducts the interview while riding his bike around the neighborhood - "I need to be outside - it gets me feeling good and gets my mind working, or not working, or something!" - which to me is utterly indicative of the way he and The Mars Volta have always worked: unconventionally, dexterously, fearlessly.
Although I occasionally see Omar and Cedric from afar when the three of us are back home in El Paso for visits, I have never gone up to them to engage in a conversation about our related professions. In fact, the closest I came was spending time in their rehearsal space prior to the 2003 Coachella Festival, a space being utilized by other Coachella performers including the British band I was there to interview. But still I did not speak to The Mars Volta. Something held me back; the power of their music echoed in my head and intimidated the hell out of me.
I tell this story to Omar and he laughs, then replies, "It's funny because in our heads, you know, when people don't say hello or when we see someone kind of like looking over in our direction but they don't actually say anything, in our heads it's like, 'What the fuck are they staring at? They're making fun of us! They don't like us - what did we do wrong?'"
That's not it at all, I reassure him. This is how it is...
I had so much to say about how much it means to see people that I knew or that I grew up alongside. I mean, I went to elementary school with Cedric; we both wore the same dorky uniforms and scratched ourselves up on the asphalt playground. We are all from the same place that is usually so hard to get out of, and you guys have just succeeded so hugely despite everything that we've had to overcome. So it's really intimidating. Have you had that reaction from other people in El Paso?
I guess so. I know there's a lot of people who are really proud to know that we came out of there and did what we did there, but I don't know what people's reactions are really because all I know is how they treat us, you know. Some people will talk to us and say that and some people won't come up to us. [Laughs] It's a strange thing.
You're about to release your first full-length as The Mars Volta, which a lot of people have been waiting for for quite a while now. What's strange to me is how there has been so much anticipation, people saying, "Why is it taking so long?" when in reality it didn't really take that long at all. Did you guys feel like you were rushed at all?
Not at all. In fact, we took our time. We took our time to make it because we wanted it to be just right and have as much control over it as we could, beside the point where the music takes on its own life. I would hear about that, too, people saying like "What's taking so long?" and to me that seems like such a ridiculous thing to say, you know? [Laughs] It sounds like a really ridiculous concept to ask somebody what's taking so long with their record. It's such a delicate thing; it's like asking a couple, "What's taking so long? I thought you guys were planning to have a baby!"
What's going on with you? It'll come when it comes and not one minute sooner.
It's true. I guess people have this mentality of how the machine needs to function; they see it as a process and a system and a business, and so it's like every fifteen months you've gotta churn out a new product and tour it and sell it and all of that stuff.
Right. Well, they should understand by this point that while we're working within the machine or whatever, within the music industry, we still work very much by our own rules. [Chuckles] We've been a band for two years and this is our first record. We've toured in very spontaneous ways at very different times and taken months and months off when we feel like it. There's no pattern set for us. We kind of just do things by feeling.
I'm sure you feel you're really lucky and very blessed to be in that position but do you feel that you need to do anything to be careful with it, to hold on to this kind of freedom that you've acquired? Or do you feel like if it goes, it goes, and you're just going to use it while you have it?
Um, a little bit of both, I guess. You're right - we definitely feel really lucky and really blessed to be in the situation that we're in. But at the same time I think we realize that the only reason we're in this situation is because we've always listened to our hearts and done what we've wanted to do, and if that ever changed then it would really ruin the chemistry of the relationship that we have with music and we don't want to upset that. And so a lot of it is really just enjoying it while it happens. People get really caught up in what happens if it'll go away...people get caught up in what ifs, and when that happens you're not involved in the very moment. And then it's all passing you by and you really can't enjoy. I'm fine enjoying what's happening right now as it's happening and when it changes it changes and then I'll deal with that. The only way that we can make sure that this keeps going on is by doing what we want to and making the music that we want to make.
As crucial as it is to keep doing the music that you do and doing it the way that you want to do it, it's just as crucial to stay alive, maintain survival and retain sanity, especially in light of expectations and pressures. This lifestyle can really get to you, I think, and be just as destructive as say ten years ago when you guys were struggling and had nothing to eat and nowhere to live. How do you think that you've kept sane through it all?
Riding bikes! [Laughs] I think the sort of fact that we live very normal lives. While there's this whole thing happening around us that involves expectations and pressure and all that, it's definitely just that - it's happening around us, it's peripheral, you know? There's reviews and magazines and message boards but that stuff really isn't for us. That stuff is for other people. For us, like I was saying before, it's this: I'm at home, I ride my bike, I go grocery shopping at Trader Joe's and then go to practice. So it's really a matter of just keeping your head on straight. It's all an illusion basically is how I see it. We make our music and we do the interviews because people are interested.
But beyond that, none of it is real. Like if a writer reviews our record or our show or something and says it's the best thing in the world it's not true, and if they say it's the worst thing in the world it's not true, either. The only thing that's true is the importance that we place on ourselves, and the love that we have for ourselves and for our music. That's just an essential, human component. People need to be able to really love themselves and to believe themselves in order to do anything in life, in order to have fruitful relationships or anything else.
It's true. But there's something about coming from where we come from, or at least my own and my siblings' experience. We're all artists, and we were infused with this kind of Mexican-Catholic mentality of self-sacrifice where you have to be a martyr - you can't do what you want to do and everything has to be for the good of the family or the good of other people. The greatest glory you can achieve is to sacrifice yourself for others. It's hard to rectify that kind of upbringing with a desire to just be what is interpreted as selfish, to do what you want to do, you know.
But you'll never be happy otherwise I guess.
Right. Selfishness is our aesthetic. [Laughs] But it comes of making music, so...
Somebody once told me that art is a very selfish way of sharing.
It's definitely true.
And your music is so specific that I think it can't help but be universal in a way - people don't realize that something so specific can apply to a lot of different people.
You mentioned going to practice and I'm curious as to how the dynamic is forming for the upcoming live shows and the tour. How is everything working out in the rehearsals and is it different from the way that things were being done before?
Right now for rehearsals and everything it's been a lot more laid-back. We're generally a very regimented band - I like going to practice, everybody being on time, and just kind of working through parts and getting really into the mathematics of it all, however you want to see it, and then going off and doing our thing. And now... [Sighs] I think now the way of us dealing with this huge trauma that's happened to the band is that it's just way more relaxed now. We show up and just jam for a couple of hours and play that way, kind of just hang out. We're hanging out a lot more right now because we're all appreciating what we have. Not that we didn't before, but definitely more so than ever we're appreciating more what we have with each other and each other's presence and the music that we're making together. Just really communicating.
That's important. What kind of communication went on in deciding the tracks that were gonna end up on the album? I assume that you had a few in mind, but then there was this concept that everything had to be molded into.
It was very specific once the ideas started coming out about what the record was gonna be about. Most of the songs were written before the concept came together. Once the concept of the story and everything else came together it made everything much more clear. It limited our options, which is really good, because then it was a lot clearer what songs were gonna be on the record and in what order they were gonna be in. It just paved the way once the story came together.
Was there every any question of whether or not to go with this concept? Did you ever rethink it at any point, say, "Uh, maybe this isn't the way to go..."?
No. Not at all. It was a really exciting and adventurous thing to come upon.
And it must've been nice to have a guideline, something to carry you through and keep you centered.
Totally. It was great. It's something we've been wanting to do for a while and now it's finally manifested itself.
Yeah, you can feel in the music that you guys are really letting loose with what you finally wanted to do. I noticed that you have a tandem production credit with Rick Rubin and I'm wondering how you guys worked together. Were you a bit in awe of the process? What did you contribute versus what he contributed?
First off, I think we worked really well together. I wasn't in awe and there was nothing separating us, you know? It was two people who really enjoyed each other's presence working on a project together. Rick really helped with the arrangements and with helping us come back from our tangents, you know? I always think of Rick as this guy: You know when you move into a new place and you wanna put up a painting? When you're standing so close to it the painting looks straight but you have your friend in the back of the room who tells you, "No, it needs to be a little higher to the right."
And then you don't believe him and you go, "No I think it's straight." And they're saying, "No, trust me, just put it up a little more to the right and come back to the back of the room and look at it and if you don't like it you can put it back to where it was." And then you say okay and you hang it and you stand in the back of the room and you go, "Oh okay, I see what you're saying now!" He's kind of like that.
I'm so close to the music, being the songwriter and whatever else, that it's really easy to just get lost in tangents or in self-indulgence. He really helped to guide us through that. I was there to provide what the record sounds like. He definitely did his work on the drums but I was there to get the tones for the bass and the guitars and the keyboards and decide the proper arrangements, decide what takes to use and the layering of everything. Even down to the mixing. I pretty much took over the mixing and just did it myself there with Rich Costey.
Were you that involved in the production process from the very beginning of your music way back with At The Drive-In or was it something that came out as time went by?
I kind of evolved into it. I think as my understanding of music or even just of the technical aspects of the machinery grew, I had the desire to be more and more in control. When you start out, you're in control of your music, how you want it and how it's gonna be presented, but you rely on somebody else to record it and document it. When you're starting with a band and recording, it basically comes down to somebody documenting where you're at. And then as you're growing and working with different people it comes to the point where somebody can push you to a new level of the band's, so it evolves from documentation into a recording. When you're younger, you're looking to other people for guidance because you've never done it before. You definitely have things here and there that you know you want to be a certain way, but besides that you pretty much let the person in charge of the recording session do their thing, you know?
As you grow, at least for some people - some people just always stay like that, some people just always need a producer to make their records work - but for me it wasn't. I feel so much like a sponge sometimes; I feel like all this information is happening and I just wanna soak in every minute of it. So being around and understanding the technical aspect of it and also understanding exactly what I want the record to sound like just started to become clearer and clearer.
Before this whole recording process, how do the sounds you have in your head come together with Cedric's lyrics? If you guys writing your own things separately, how do you sync them up?
Usually the music is written first. I have a number of different songs and we'll sit down and pick out two or three to work on. We'll pick out a couple that stick out to Cedric - you know, sometimes you just hear something and you know exactly what needs to happen with it. And so we'll focus on those things and he'll work out his melodies. They're usually pretty separate but as separate as they are they seem like they've always been one.
Speaking of the separate being one, I'm interested in the decision to release the lyrics in a separate format from the album. Can you explain a little bit more about what this book is going to be? I assume it's not just the words. Why did you guys do that?
It's the lyrics to the record but the thing that people have to understand is that there's a whole story there - there's pages and pages of words, and within those words are literally the lyrics of the songs. They're within the story, so you kinda have to read along with the story to get the lyrics.
The reason they're not on the CD is because CD is obviously an inferior format in the art of making records. Records are meant to be listened to as a slab of vinyl, you know, twelve inches, and that's always been the superior format - superior for the musicians, for sound engineers, for the artists who are making the covers. They never intended for their artwork to be seen in this little, tiny...(Laughs) I don't know what the dimensions are for a CD but they're really small. And artwork - at least for people who have been making artwork for rock records - has always been intended to be on the format of 12 x 12, and that stuff is important to us. To us, it's not really a record until...well, it says it right there - record! Vinyl, not CD!
CD is just something that we have to adapt to in order to keep up with the rest of the world or where it is people are evolving to. I had to learn to use a computer because all my friends have fucking email or something, so I have to assimilate in one shape or form in order to communicate with them, you know? (Laughs) For us to communicate with an audience that has forgotten about the beauty of vinyl, you make CDs and hope that someday they'll want to own the vinyl and actually hold the artwork, hold the story. There's not enough space for artwork and there definitely isn't enough space - even if we would've had a 24-page booklet - for the story. But on the vinyl there's more than enough space.
What was it like getting the concept conveyed to Storm Thorgerson so it could be depicted visually? Was there a lot of discussion and drafting?
Definitely. It was great. He was exactly what we wanted - he was somebody who put just as much energy into the visual appearance of the record as we did into the music and into the words. Right away we needed to send him all the music and all the lyrics printed out, and then we would spend tons of time on the phone just discussing it. Not only discussing our story but also our personal lives, where we were from, how we grew up, what it was like to know this person who the record is about. And even then he wasn't ready - then he really wanted to meet us. The way he saw it was the more information he got from us and the more feeling he got from us, the fewer ideas that he would have - the more it would come down to a finer point. Exactly in the way that we were discussing earlier about the track listing, you know? The more information we knew about the story once it became a concept, the less ideas that we had and the less things we could do. We kind of got narrowed down. So it's a really great and liberating process even though it might sound strange to say that it gives you less ideas.
No, it gives you less inappropriate ideas and more of the right ones. It's filtering them out.
I think people forget that and maybe that's why we have journalists like me who try and dissect things. We just try to understand and try to get that back story from you. Everyone wants to know what went into the making of all of this, and obviously there's the story about Julio, which meant a great deal, but then there's what you were discussing with Storm, like who else are you and what else contributed to the pot that boiled into what's coming out of you guys right now.
Definitely. It was so important for him to just to sit with us and feel our presence, you know, what we're like as people and how we come off.
Would you say that what you're like as people is totally different from who you are onstage or when you're playing music? Is it like a way for you to be somebody else?
I don't know. I don't really know what I'm like onstage. I don't think it's somebody else because I think it's something that's within me. I always think of it as a positive way of letting out a lot of feelings and a lot of unsaid things that I can't really let out in normal, everyday life without robbing someone or breaking a window. It's these feelings that I think everyone has, you know, but I think it's just a positive way of letting it out. I feel like there's so much that I could never describe to anyone - whether it be a lover or a friend or a parent or anyone - I feel like I'm so limited by words. I feel like I could learn every word in the dictionary or that I could learn twelve different languages and I would never have enough words to describe things that I'm feeling inside. I think playing, at least for me, is that vocabulary that we're all searching for; it's that vocabulary that we just can't find in written language to really express some of the things that you've got going on inside. It's a really positive way of saying those things.
When did you figure out that music was your outlet? How young were you, and did you start off with guitar or was it something else?
I probably started off with percussion. As long as I can remember music was an outlet for me. I'm Puerto Rican and our culture revolves around our salsa music, so when you're a kid in Puerto Rico pretty much everyone in your family plays a conga or a maraca or a guitar. All family get-togethers are centered around music and playing music, and I would go to practice with my dad and everything else. So as far back as I can remember I've always been surrounded by music, whether it be in my mom's stomach with my dad playing a song to me on guitar, or now. It's always been an integral part of what my soul is at this point in time. I started off by playing percussion and I moved on to playing bass, then I moved on to guitar and keyboards and anything else.
You keep going. How old were you when you moved from Puerto Rico to El Paso?
I think I was about eight when we moved to the States, but we moved to South Carolina first, and then I moved to El Paso when I was around twelve. My immediate family is there and the rest of my family is still in Puerto Rico.
What's it like to go back home to them with everything that you've accomplished so far? I take it they're proud of you, but is it strange to be wandering around the same city with everything that you've done?
No, no it's great! It's great to be back at home with my family. I'm sure they feel great knowing that I won't be spending the rest of my life staying in a room there, as it seemed like it was going to be for a while. (Laughs) It feels nice to be able to take my dad out to dinner instead of hitting him up for money. It's a really great, relaxing feeling to be back at home, to just sit around and see my friends and watch the sun set.
Back home I'm sure there are those Doubting Thomases, the people that provoked you when you were a teenager trying to do what you wanted to do. Have you rectified things within yourself and with them, and do people you know who were antagonistic to you try and come up to you now and try to talk to you?
Oh, definitely. (Laughs) It's like a bad made-for-TV movie or after-school special. There are definitely people who totally used to fuck with me and now if I see them somewhere they'll come up and say, "Hey, man, how are you? Aw, man, I've known this guy since blah-blah-blah-blah blah!" And it's really silly and it's really interesting just to think, "God, are they really that insane that they've forgotten how they used to treat me or that they'd think that I would forget?" But by the same token I do. I'm at peace with it. That's their role in life, that's who they chose to be or who they've evolved into, and I feel bad for people like that. If that's the way they want to remember it, that's fine, because I know at the end of the day when they go home they know that regardless of what they might tell people, they know that they used to beat up on me or whatever else. They have to live with that. I don't have to. I've moved on and I'm happy with where I'm at.
Right, and they're probably unhappy with where they are, which is why they have their revisionist history of "Things are cool with us," when in reality that's not how it is.
I guess so. It's hard to conceive it, but yeah, we definitely have people who come up to us all the time who aren't there to take up our space or to take any energy away from us but who are just to say thank you really quickly. They say, "Hey man, I don't know you but I just wanted to thank you because what you're doing is really inspiring and it helps me." And that's a really nice feeling because obviously we know what that feels like, growing up and following other bands or movie directors. It's nice to know that people feel that way.
We get people who bring us vegan cookies on the road or people who'll bring by humus and pita to our doorstep. (Laughs) Really strange things but really great things, you know, really interesting ways of people just giving back somehow. It's such a nice thing to receive a gift from a stranger that can be really comforting, like cookies. (Laughs)