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Omar Rodriguez-Lopez on Epic Solo-Album Series, New At the Drive-In LP
by Ryan Reed | July 19th, 2016 11:19:AM EST
After his mother's death in 2012, the hyper-prolific Omar Rodríguez-López resolved to re-route his career. The big change: no more solo albums. During the previous decade, he had masterminded several bands, including acclaimed prog-rock outfit the Mars Volta – but he also amassed an intimidating, Zappa-like solo catalog: 26 records and a smattering of EPs, issued at such a blistering pace that even his most devoted fans struggled to keep up. (He released seven LPs in 2010 alone.) While working through his profound grief, the guitarist-bandleader-producer-filmmaker realised he wanted to channel his energy outward. He formed collaborative projects like Bosnian Rainbows and Antemasque – featuring his longtime musical other half, Cedric Bixler-Zavala – then reunited with post-hardcore giants At the Drive-In, including an appearance at the upcoming Splendour In The Grass festival. The goal, he tells Rolling Stone, was "being a part of something and sharing things."
Now he's taking another dramatic – and very Rodríguez-López-like – step in achieving this goal. With new label Ipecac Recordings, he's clearing house of his solo work, delivering a bi-weekly, open-ended string of albums, with release dates set through December, that were once withering away on his pile of hard drives. But the material, newly mixed by engineer Chris Common, is far from leftover quality. The first two entries showcase two polar-opposite sides of Lopez' creative mindset: the demented prog of Sworn Virgins (out now) and the mournful folk-pop of Corazones (out July 29th), the latter originally written as a film score.
Despite this foray into the past, Lopez is moving forward with band-related projects – including an interrupted but recently resumed world tour with At the Drive-In, who are also recording their first new LP since 2000's Relationship of Command. The endless swirl of music is daunting, even for him. "I just assume it's the same reason why people who work at the post office go crazy," he tells RS. "The mail never stops, and there's never an end to it. Sometimes it feels that way."
Lopez spoke to Rolling Stone about his ambitious solo project and offered a progress report on the future of his many bands – including a potential reunion with the Mars Volta.
First off, this solo-album series is insane. How did you arrive at the concept?
I quit recording solo material in 2013, so these are all old solo records that are coming out. We got talking with Ipecac and hanging out, and we talked about doing something together. They said, "Do you have any solo records?" I said, "Well, I haven't recorded any since 2013, but I have some stuff that's pretty cool from back then." So I started sending them stuff, and they were like, "Yeah, we like this one. That one's great too."
So the narrative changed into, "Why don't we just do a series, and we'll put out whatever you can dig up. It's all really quality work." It became interesting to everybody – to be able to approach such a unique project because of the volume. "How would we tackle this?" That in itself became a creative project. Obviously it will be new to my fans, and it was new to the guys from Ipecac, but the creative process became, "How do we put them out? In what order? What's too many? What's not enough?" Luckily I have a great engineer, Chris Common, who works at my studio and pretty much lives there. I was able to give him all the hard drives and say, "Look, this is stuff from 2008 to 2013 – will you go through and mix these records and send them to Ipecac?" [Laughs]
You were inspired to put out this material partly because of the passion of the fans you met on tour. Do you remember specifically when you came to the decision?
I want to say it was about 2014 – whenever it was that Faith No More starting working again. It just all started coming together at that time. Ipecac signed Le Butcherettes, which I produced, so we became friendly then. They took them out on tour, so we got to be around each other. We have a lot of people in common: Zach Hill, the band Isis, the Melvins. So we started meeting up at these shows Le Butcherettes were opening, and we started talking about doing something together. It initially started out as releasing a solo record. I told them Chris Common did a better mix of this record that Zach Hill played on, and I wanted to put it out again. That sort ignited the whole thing. Who else would like that? Who else would say, "Let's do all of them?" Especially these days, when a label just wants you to put out one record and milk it for as long as you can. It used to be an 18-month cycle, and now they're trying to get three years out of it.
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez performs with At the Drive-In, June 2016.
It's funny to imagine Chris' daunting process of sorting through the hard drives.
God bless him and also Jon DeBaun, who's worked on all the Mars Volta stuff since [2005's] Frances the Mute. I just handed them some hard drives and said, "Hey, we're going to do this thing with Ipecac. Take a look at this." It was them saying, "We found this record, we found this" and me saying, "This is cool" or "Let's not do that one." There were things I'd turn down, and they'd come back and say, "Hey, I mixed this one song. Listen to it, and if you hate it, we won't do it." Jon was instrumental in sifting through hundreds of hard drives. Chris mixed all of them, and his touch is all over these records. They wouldn't be the same records had they been mixed back then as opposed to now, with his ears, brand new like this.
What made you definitively decide not to make another solo album?
To be quite candid, when my mother passed in 2012, just right before when At the Drive-In played, I wasn't even there. I was not in my body. She passed one week before, and of course, as you can imagine, it made me look at everything in a different way, and it was a huge shock to my system. From that moment on, when I finally started the long road to accepting it and recuperating, I decided that I wanted to dedicate my time, while I'm still here, to collaborating with people and being a part of something and sharing things, rather than working on solo work, where I'm writing everything and doing everything and locked up in my studio. And from there, the idea was born: "I only want to be in bands now. I only want to make records with people." I started Bosnian Rainbows, and shortly after that I started Antemasque with [Cedric Bixler-Zavala]. Now, obviously, this with At the Drive-In. And eventually Mars Volta. It was really just a shock to my system, and this was just one of the ways it redirected my entire life.
With Mars Volta, you always had this reputation as the "Little Dictator," where you wrote all the music and directed the band. But you've talked about the last Volta album, 2012's Noctourniquet, as being the end of an era. It's interesting that you've made this shift.
At the end of 2012, going into 2013, I resolved myself to only doing collaborative work, so I used that time to finish anything that was unfinished that was my own, like that last Mars Volta record and some of the solo work from that era. I just put it all to rest and from there only started working collaboratively. Which is why I love cinema so much: No matter what you do and no matter how much control you try to have, it will always be a collaborative effort. It's too big –there's no way around it. It's good to get you out of those bad habits.
Are you working on any film projects currently?
I have a few scripts I've written that I'm trying to get off the ground. Hopefully we can get going at the end of the year. Our last one was Los Chidos, and we toured with that for a minute on the film-festival circuit. We were over at SXSW and in competition for Best Narrative, so really exciting stuff happened around it, and we got a little bit of funding because of that to do the next one. But the next script I've written requires more money than was given to me.
One of the first solo albums coming out, Corazones, is a collection of songs inspired by your mother, and it was written for a film that never came out. It's life-changing for anyone to lose a parent. You've said before that "the process is the point" to making music, so was it still therapeutic for you?
Oh, completely. It was for a studio, so I was actually excited about it when I was approached by them. That's why I didn't want to talk much about my own films because you never know if it's going to happen or how long it's going to take. It just started to happen and got a little bit of funding, and then they said, "Nope." It was exciting to me at the time because more than a score, it was actual music that was going to be used as a soundtrack, as you can tell by the songs. When working with the director and producer, all the themes that were in the film itself were exactly what I was going through: loss, loss of identity because of such an extreme loss.
It was a really interesting process to go through. And the difficult part came when everything I turned in, they wanted it to be simpler and more straight-ahead, especially with the lyrics. They wanted everyone to be able to understand it. For me, that was a huge challenge because emotionally you're writing a certain way that's particular to the images in your heart, but [simplifying things] really exposes you. But it was the best thing that could have happened to have to put it in black-and-white terms, and to be that exposed and that raw about it. It's almost like these childlike nursery rhymes. I could have just rewritten the lyrics and used my melodies and had it be more me. But I liked the final product because it was so not natural to be that simple in my approach.
Sworn Virgins is the complete opposite of Corozones – very electric and weird. Do you recall when it was recorded and who performs on it?
Sworn Virgins was one of the very last ones I did. That would have been at the very end of 2012, 2013. That's Deantoni Parks on drums, and he played on the last Mars Volta record. Just after that I asked him to join Bosnian Rainbows, which was starting up then. That album is literally just me and him, and it's mostly tracked live. It sounds like a band, but I was able to sample myself with my sample pedal. I pitched the guitar down to sound like a bass; he'd play to that. I'd pitch my guitar back up, play to that, sing over it, and he'd play to that. Those are live, one-take cuts. We never did anything a second time. We just talked about it, went through the changes once. The only one who got to do anything twice was me. I re-recorded some vocals here and there, but it was a pretty crazy record I could only do with him.
Watch the video for Sworn Virgins' "To Kill a Chi Chi," co-directed by Rodríguez-López and Adrian Blanco.
With Deantoni's superhuman, metronomic playing style, the vibe is similar to Mars Volta's Noctourniquet. You've mentioned previously that he did all those drums in one take as well.
That's exactly correct. That's the level of artist he is. We have such a great chemistry together and understand each other. We go in there, and it gets done. The rest is hang-out time. [Laughs]
Shifting gears here: Obviously it was a huge disappointment to both fans and the band when you had to cancel those At the Drive-In shows because of Cedric's vocal issues. First off, what was Cedric diagnosed with, and is he healed up?
They found nodules in his vocal cords. Untreated, that could get bad. We took the time off, and after working with a specialist, Cedric's nodules are being treated, so we're continuing the world tour right now. Fans who bought tickets are getting refunds of the canceled shows, and we're making them up in the future. That's about as definitive an answer as I can give about that situation. He kept trying to sing night after night because he didn't want to let down fans, but his voice got worse and worse. The doctor came in and found the nodules. We canceled those five shows, went home. He worked with a specialist, and they're being treated. Then we picked up and did those shows in Europe, and now we're headed to Australia.
You guys ended up having to cancel the New York show shortly before you were supposed to hit the stage. Obviously you guys had no choice in cancelling the show — Cedric can't sing without a voice. But it was shocking to see the hostility of some of the comments online. I wanted to give you a chance to speak directly to those people if you want.
I didn't know [about the negative comments] until you just mentioned it right now, actually. [Laughs] All I know is the real moment in front of me when we announced it. And even then, you have to understand: It wasn't awkward for me. I make films, and we go to film festivals, and that's how Q&As feel. Everybody attacks your film, and you have to defend it. I'm sure if you're looking at the clip [of the band announcing the cancellation on-stage at New York City's Terminal 5], it's also out of context. It was a really emotional thing.
We feel lucky to have such passionate fans. Even the one fan who was yelling and was like, "No!," I kept telling him, "We have to look at the bigger picture. This is about his health." He said, "I know!" That's what he was yelling from the balcony. I'm sure that sounded like chaos. But he was like, "I know! I know! I was just so excited! I'm sorry!" Then he blows me a kiss. The audience was booing at him, not at us. I was like, "It's OK, let him speak!" Then he got that out. So we feel really privileged and honoured to have fans who were so emotional and excited about seeing us. For us, it was a positive thing. I'm sure people said mean things on the Internet. That's just the nature of it.
"We feel really privileged and honoured to have fans who were so emotional and excited about seeing [At the Drive-In]."
I never look at comments, even other people's stuff. I don't look at any of it. My friend sent me "Happy Fourth of July" with the clip of Jimi Hendrix playing the "Star Spangled Banner." I watch it and go, "Ah, God, what a great moment in American history." For whatever reason, after years of never doing this, I looked down. The first comment was, "What a great guitarist!" The second one was, "What an overrated player. Too many sour notes." I just closed the computer and was like, "Oh, yeah, that's the Internet." Someone as important to American culture as Jimi Hendrix is thrown into this endless slew of data and people without any kind of historical consideration of what the country was going through at the time, the social revolution, him representing the counterculture, him as an African-American to play the anthem – his own interpretation of it – and the fact that he had a head full of acid. All of that goes out the window for someone to sit on the toilet, take a shit and write a mean comment. It's sort of like Mel Brooks in History of the World. The guys are in the cave, and he goes, "First was born the artist," and he draws in the sand. Then he goes, "Then the critic," and the guy goes over and pisses all over what he's drawn.
But for us, it was very positive for us to know we have such an intense fan base. When we got back out there, same thing: People were so excited and clapping, cheering us on. Cedric's headspace is what anyone's headspace would be, which is the bigger picture. Remember Jawbreaker? Blake Schwarzenbach got nodules and left them untreated, and he had to have a massive surgery, which changed his voice forever. So for Cedric, it was a serious health and longevity thing.
Has it felt strange touring without guitarist Jim Ward? Some fans were really disappointed to see the band without one of the founding members up there – especially since he dropped out days before the tour started.
It isn't strange at all. Jim's been out of the band on three other occasions, and some of our longest, hardest tours he wasn't there for. We did a tour that was six months straight throughout American where he just wasn't in the band. So it's been quite the opposite: Having Keeley Davis, who's part of the family and who obviously played in Sparta and is a great musician, it's been amazing. He definitely brings a fresh energy. I think anyone in a brand-new situation is grateful to be in that situation, as opposed to being in a grind. One person can see it as a grind, and the other can see it as, "Oh, this is great. I get to travel the world." Keeley's energy and spirit and writing ability – everything about him is a breath of fresh air. It's been a dream for us.
Can you explain why Jim left the band? For fans, the timing was shocking, and some were afraid his split would derail the reunion.
I'll keep it really simple about Jim. If you think the timing was a shock to you, as a fan, it was tough on us to be such an irresponsible timing, to be let known about it so close to tour. Luckily Keeley has been great, and he saved us, and we were able to continue with our touring plans for ourselves and for our fans, more than anything. If it came as a shock to you, imagine for us inside of the band – we all knew about this tour for the past eight months. We all knew and worked towards it and put our family lives aside and planned accordingly. But we got through it, and that's the important thing.
We made the announcement just after it happened. So however fans experienced it is how we experienced it. The only difference is that we were used to this sort of wishy-washiness. For the few people who were upset about him not being there, it's like, "What would you rather watch: one person who doesn't even want to be there or the band existing without that one person? We [were thinking about] the greater good, so it's nice to hear you say that people were concerned it would derail the whole thing. Anyone who knows the history of the band knows that Jim has been kicked out of the band on three different occasions, and we've done a good amount of touring without him. So for us it was like, "Ahh, this again?" The sum of the parts is what the band is: it's the whole. It's what we come together to do.
Have you made any progress on original At the Drive-In material?
We've been writing since we let that information out. We wouldn't let that information out without having – we're not that type of band. When we announced new music, it was because we were already in that process, and we've definitely continued it. I've been able to bring my portable rig, and these days it's easier because everything's much smaller. If you'll notice, the tour has a lot of double nights, so those are days we don't have to set up the next day, so we can just spent time writing and recording and jamming. It's been great.
What's the vibe of the new material, sonically? Do you feel like you've picked up where you left off?
I can't really comment on it just because I'm on the inside. To me, of course, it's that. It's picking up where we left off, and of course we have fresh eyes. I can answer it this way: This tour we're doing right now, it's us picking up where we left off. We're finishing the tour we never got to finish from where I left the band and we broke up. Now we're back together, and we actually get to finish that tour. We get to revisit it and reignite it and do it with fresh eyes.
You mentioned Mars Volta earlier in your list of projects you'd like to revive. Do you have plans to put out another Volta album eventually?
At some point, we'd love to do [Mars Volta] again too, you know what I mean? There's so much to do there as well. Obviously now we're focused on At the Drive-In and making this record great and touring. Jon Theodore is doing Queens of the Stone Age right now. There are only four surviving members of the real Mars Volta, which is Eva Gardner, the original bass player who gave us all our soul but unfortunately had to leave the band because her father died on the second tour; Ikey Owens, who, of course, isn't with us anymore; Jeremy Ward, who isn't with us anymore; and Jon Theodore. Jon and Eva are still alive, and we're so grateful for that. And any true fan of the band knows that's the real chemistry right there. Whenever we get to that time, we hope that it all lines up with whatever Jon's doing and whatever Eva's doing, because she's been touring with Gwen Stefani. I just have a feeling it will. Life has a funny way of working out that way.
Fans were very excited about Antemasque, since it brought you and Cedric back together. Could you talk a bit about how that project actually started? It seemed like a very quick transition between Cedric tweeting about the death of Mars Volta to you guys coming together and making the album in what seemed like a very spontaneous way. Then the project seemed to fly under the radar.
Obviously I'm biased, but I think it's a great record, as well. The most important thing is the fact that it got made and we did it and went through the process. Like you said, there was him tweeting or something, and not long after that, we got another band together. Because we're brothers. We're brothers of 25 years, and we had our very first disagreement, and unfortunately it happened to be in the era where arguments can be made public. But having one disagreement in the span of over two decades, you're not going to find that anywhere else. When you look at musical pairings throughout history – Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page – usually like 10, 15 years is their limit, then they go their separate ways. Ours is much deeper than that. We didn't end up in a band together because we were looking to form a band. We ended up in a band together because we hung out every day and played music every day, so the next logical thing was to take a band out on the road. We had one disagreement about me not wanting to do Volta at the time, and it turned into that.
"[Cedric and I are] brothers of 25 years, and we had our very first disagreement, and unfortunately it happened to be in the era where arguments can be made public."
I had a solo tour planned to go on, but I didn't want to do that so I started a new group, Bosnian Rainbows. That band made two records, and we had some great successes: We had songs on True Detective, which was a great show around that time. We played over 160 shows, or something, toured the world, played places even Volta hadn't played. But in the process of that, it was exactly what you said: a phone call. Cedric called me up and apologised for how we handled our disagreement. I went over to his house; we hung out, started doing what we do: "Dude, check out this riff I have right here. I was thinking about you when I wrote this." "Oh, that makes me think of this lyric I wrote when I was upset with you." To used an overused word, it was very "organic." We just got back into it. Antemasque made our demos, and that's exactly what we put out. We wanted to go out on the road, so we just said, "Let's put it out." We put our demos on the Internet, and then Caroline came along and put out those demos as that black record that came out. Then we made our actual first record with our drummer Travis Barker, and that's gonna come out soon. We actually just made a video for it.
Do you know when that album will finally come out?
I guess we're just waiting for the release date from the label. Since we're on tour and Blink's on tour, they're just trying to figure out the release date, but the record was done a while ago. Hopefully they'll give us a date soon.
Since you're in this more collaborative mindset these days, if you were to do another Volta album, would you want to take a more band-oriented approach where you worked on the music together?
That would be interesting, just because we never worked that way. Volta, from the beginning, was a very specific idea of what we wanted out of it. We had been in At the Drive-In, which was a complete collaboration with a band, and we were so sick of that at the time. But with Volta, it was like, "Here are the songs. I want the drums to sound like this. Play this organ, keys. ..." We knew what we wanted, and we talked a lot about it before we did it. It was like making a movie where you talk a lot about the script before you shoot anything. We recorded everything with another drummer who wasn't Jon Theodore, and we recorded it, refined it, tweaked little things. Then I called up Jon and had him re-record everything that was already there but with his intense groove and feel.
How do you mentally compartmentalise all your assorted projects? It stresses me out just thinking about it.
To me there is no difference. It's all one big body of work. To me, everything equals everything, and it's all coming from us – whatever it is we're afraid of, our loss, our joy. It's just certain things come out of us are born with a certain personality. If I sit down today and I'm able to transmit, say, 15 songs tonight and record them, I can see for the most part, "That's a Mars Volta personality." It's like having children: That comes from your mother or your father. You put it in a pile of potential Mars Volta material. This might be more angular and hard, and that's for At the Drive-In. And then, "I don't know what the fuck this is. Keep an eye on this guy." You put stuff into different files and piles, and that's really all it comes down to: the endless sifting of material that one day will just have to stop.
When Chris Common went back to the hard drives for the solo records, there were records I'd forgotten about or had gotten completely lost. It gets a little daunting at times, and at a certain point, for mental-health reasons, I imagine I'll have to turn it all off and focus your life in a new direction. I just assume it's the same reason why people who work at the post office go crazy. The mail never stops, and there's never an end to it. Sometimes it feels that way.
You don't want to go postal.
[Laughs] Yes, exactly! Captain Beefheart had a great quote later in life when he started painting and moved out to the desert. He said something to the effect of, "I'd rather get lost in my painting than to drown in music." I just related to that completely. You can literally just drown in it because it's all in your head. With painting or with a movie, there's a visual that goes along with it, and that does a different thing for the human psyche to identify it as a solid object. But when it's all in your head, floating around, you can drown in it. I really relate to that.
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