Interview: Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Discusses the New Mars Volta Album, 'Noctourniquet'
It isn’t difficult for Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, guitarist, songwriter, producer and all-around conceptual mastermind for art-rock unit the Mars Volta, to define the role that music and creativity plays in his life. “It’s all there is,” he says simply. “I have no other agenda. I don’t want to rule the world, I don’t have a lust for money, I’m not obsessed with sex. Expressing myself through my art is everything. And I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to be able to do it for a living. So what the hell else should I spend my time doing?”
Indeed, even a cursory overview of Rodriguez-Lopez’s output over the past few years makes it hard to fathom how he has time to do much of anything else. Since the release of his band’s last album, 2009’s Octahedron, the 36-year-old musician has issued somewhere in the range of a dozen non–Mars Volta efforts, including one with friend and former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, as well as a film, The Sentimental Engine Slayer, for which, in addition to scoring the soundtrack, he functioned as the writer, producer, director and lead actor.
It was also during this time that Rodriguez-Lopez managed to pull together Noctourniquet, the new Mars Volta record and the band’s sixth studio full-length. Working quickly, as is his nature, he wrote and recorded all the music for the album shortly after mixing Octahedron. “Basically, I finished that record, moved to Mexico, set up my studio and recorded about 30 songs in a two-week span,” he says. “Out of that batch of songs came Noctourniquet.” As he has for all past Mars Volta records, Rodriguez-Lopez composed all the music on his own before bringing in the rest of the band to record their parts. He then turned the finished tracks over to his partner in the Mars Volta, singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala, to add lyrics and vocals.
The result is both a continuation and a progression of the Mars Volta sound, which is at heart a polyrhythmic, celestial noise shot through with Bixler-Zavala’s frantic vocals and Rodriguez-Lopez’s kinetic, often heavily effected guitar riffs, squiggles and squeals. But the band also steps out into some less-traveled territory, evident in the skittering percussion and electro-rock riffs of leadoff cut “The Whip Hand,” the ambient pop-impressionism of “In Absentia” and the lurching junkyard dub of “The Malkin Jewel.”
Rodriguez-Lopez recently sat down with Guitar World to discuss the writing and recording of Noctourniquet, the unique manner in which the Mars Volta operates and his approach to and relationship with the guitar. He also opened up about the imminent reunion of his pre–Mars Volta band, At the Drive-In. After more than a decade apart, the beloved post-hardcore act, which also included Bixler-Zavala, will be playing select shows throughout 2012, including a headline appearance at this year’s Coachella Festival.
But while Rodriguez-Lopez is looking forward to playing with the reformed band, it’s unlikely that he will revisit past work for long. “I need to always be in the moment, or else whatever I’m working on starts to slip away and become useless to me,” he says. “Alfred Hitchcock once said, ‘You never finish making a film. You just decide to stop.’ That always stuck with me. I say, ‘I want to get it all out and then I’m done.’ And then I move on to the next thing.”
Though Noctourniquet is just seeing release now, you actually wrote and recorded all the music for the record several years ago. What led to the delay?
I finished my part—meaning the production, the tracks, the music—in 2009, but then I handed it over to Cedric, and he took a while to do his part, which is the lyrics and vocals. What happened was, we got into this argument and he sort of came clean and basically said, “Listen, I can’t keep your pace. It’s too frantic to allow me to do what I do. The Mars Volta has always been your baby and it’s always been your way, but it’s just not me. I want to take my time with this record.”
And you were okay with that?
Yes, because fighting over music or money or anything isn’t worth a friendship. So I said, “Do your thing. I have plenty of other stuff to do.” I had a film coming out at the time, I was touring as a solo artist…I was busy. It was cool. But then a year and a half passed and nothing happened, so we had another argument, which was me calling him up and saying, “Hey, I’m all for you taking your time, but come on!” [laughs] And then Cedric took another nine months or so to get his stuff together. But when he said he was ready to do the vocals, I flew right out to L.A. Normally when we’re doing a record, everyone comes to where I am. But I got right on a plane and went to him. I just wanted to get the record done.
You work at an incredibly fast pace. In your opinion does the music benefit from being documented so quickly?
I think so, but that’s just my personal philosophy. The way I see it, you can be different in the morning even than you are that night—different feelings, different ideas, a different outlook. So imagine then how different you might be a couple weeks, months or years later. I try and stay away from that. Otherwise, you can just keep refining a batch of songs until you’re an old man. That’s why, while people can make fun of something like Chinese Democracy, I can see exactly how that happens. Your tastes are changing constantly, and you fall into this trap of saying, “I have to refine it. It could be better…” So in the case of Noctourniquet, it was just two weeks. I’d fly in each band member, show them exactly what I wanted, they’d record their parts and leave. Then I did the guitar tracks, edited everything down and gave it to Cedric.