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LA WEEKLY Interview Part II: The Mars Volta and At the Drive-In’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez



See the first part of the interview: Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Is a Real Bastard

Our music feature this week focuses on Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, a giant of the progressive rock and post-hardcore scenes who seemingly wants nothing to do with them.

The mastermind behind The Mars Volta and At the Drive-In tries to tell us he’s not a musician, for all kinds of deep and philosophical reasons. He might start out talking about how many hours of sleep he gets nightly, and end up describing the principles of some ancient religious text. In other words, he’s one deep human being. Below are excerpts from our meandering interview.

On doing interviews:
People get bummed out or consider it arrogant when they ask me what are my influences and they want me to talk about records. I could care less about records. I’d rather talk about how my influences were my mother, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, Roberto Clemente’s life. Those are the real things. Because that’s music. 

On his own “music theory”
People who go and they buy the same amp Jimi Hendrix had or they play the guitar upside down — you ain’t never gonna sound like him because that’s not his music. His music was the fact that had a tumultuous relationship with his father that he never got figured out. His music was the fact that had a brother that he absolutely loved and wanted to be with all the time but he was in and out of jail. His music was the fact that he wanted to be accepted by the black community but he wasn’t until the very end of his life. That’s his music. The other stuff is just a vehicle.

Passion’s the only thing that’s going to make you good at anything. You can learn the technical aspects of anything but that ain’t going to make you necessarily good or tasteful. Look at how many awful musicians come out of Berklee and all these music schools — just faceless, mindless musicians that are being churned out under the concept of, like, ‘Well, you know all the theory so there you go, you’re good to go. You excel at theory.’ Like, big deal.

On why he doesn’t think of himself as a musician:
Musicians definitely get stuck in this pitfall of having to think about things in terms of theory and how theory fits together and why that can work or why it doesn’t work. I have absolutely no interest in any of that. I’m only interested in the simple element of does it move me or not. Because at the end of the day all I’m here to do is to express myself. I have to stay true to that. Any deviation from that path is treated like a dagger pointed at my heart.

I’m basically in most peoples’ eyes just a product, they know me as the At the Drive-In guitarist, The Mars Volta whatever. It’s funny to be diminished to just a guitarist, which I don’t even consider myself. It’s just one of many vehicles.

I had very informal music training. I had true music training, which is the fact that I come from a culture that is enveloped and surrounded by music. Everyone in my family plays music, none of them are musicians. When my ancestors were slaves, when they were conquered by the Spanish — I’m Puerto Rican, a lot of people think I’m Mexican — in any culture music and laughter is what gets you through any kind of trauma, you know?

On At the Drive-In’s break-up:
I broke that band up — but, I mean, how many people do you know that ended a relationship in the most immature way, just not having ever really expressed their feelings and one day they blew up and said ‘I’m outta here’? That’s what happened to me. I didn’t care at the time about how that would affect, not only the four other people in my life, but the people that we were employing. I didn’t have a sense of responsibility at all, or commitment. It was just what I wanted to do at the moment. Summer vacation for the rest of my life, you know?

On his Mars Volta “dictatorship”:
It’s a band that I put together and that I named and I wrote the songs for and I produced the records. In a normal band situation somebody has a skeleton [of a song] and they’ll come in and somebody else’ll go, ‘Oh that’s cool,’ and they’ll start playing a bass line and you kind of jam it out. People start writing their parts and everybody gets excited, you know?

This is completely the opposite. This is like, ‘Here’s your part. Here’s your part. Do it like this. OK, you’re done, get out of the studio.’ My musicians don’t hear the records until I mix them and they’re done and usually they don’t get information until it’s out on the Internet. I’ve had people, unfortunately, that have found out they were fired because they saw a press release and their name was no longer there.

On his biggest fan — him mom:
I’ll explain to you my mother’s relationship to my music. Her license plate, the border of it says ‘The Mars Volta.’ Inside her CD player, there’s five CDs you put in: one is my Mars Volta music; another is one of my solo records; the other is the Zechs Marquise record, which is my brother’s band; the fourth is a recording my little baby brother has made on his own 4-track and bounced onto a CD; and the fifth one is old traditional boleros.

On loving Los Angeles:
For me, Los Angeles is the east side, really — the part that I pertain to, the Latino community. And that’s the most rich and vibrant part of this city. It’s a reminder that Los Angeles and America at large belongs not to the white man but to the native American and, second to that, to the Latino.

On corruption:
Los Angeles and America at large is what Mexico and Latin America could be if we learned to organize our corruption. It’s all organized. At some point, America really figured out how to work with the mafia, work with the drug dealers, work with the oil barons, work with the pharmaceutical companies and wrap it up into somewhat of a nice little package. I mean, the threads that hold together the society are still as thin as they’ve been in any major empire — we’ve seen that all throughout history. Like, it’s going to fall at some point.

But Mexico is in a state of chaos because [President Felipe] Calderón wants to fight the drug cartels but the drug cartels have more money and infrastructure than the army does. I, for one, am in support of the cartels — they’re here to stay. What we need is a government that’s going organize their corruption, streamline their corruption and get it figured out. You can never get rid of them.

On his new project — making movies:
It’s 100 times more work and larger than making music. Unless you’ve made a film you really can’t appreciate what goes into getting every single frame and then cutting it all together to have it be cohesive. But it’s just opened up everything for me — all my parameters of creativity and of interaction with other people.

I’m completely independent of the Hollywood infrastructure. Me and my team don’t ask anyone for anything, we just go out and do it because we love doing it. If I waited around for somebody to give me the ‘OK’ or the money or the permit or whatever to make a film I’d probably — like most people in this town — never get anything done. You have to understand I do it for the process, not the end result, the end result is almost completely useless to me. Having a movie is nice, but that’s just all candy for the ego.

Interview by : Erica E. Phillips 

See also: Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Is a Real Bastard