Interview: Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Discusses the New Mars Volta Album, 'Noctourniquet'
The Mars Volta has always been an operation in which you more or less dictate to the other musicians in the band what they will be playing, correct?
Pretty much. Obviously, not with Cedric, who is my partner in this. But the other musicians know that’s the case. Every time I bring someone new into the band, I let that person know: “You’re not going to be writing anything, you’re going to be doing exactly what I want. Is that cool? Great. Welcome aboard.”
What is it about that setup that works for you?
Well, I should start by mentioning that it no longer works. Noctourniquet is the end of an era. I’m in a completely different space now, which is one where I want to work with other artists. And not only do I want it, but it has to happen. What I came to realize through my arguments with Cedric is that, first and foremost, he and I don’t collaborate. We present the Mars Volta as a collaboration, but in reality we’re two people working in a completely isolated manner, and then, as a producer, I gel our ideas together. That’s a partnership, but it’s not a collaboration. And that way of working began as a complete reaction to eight years of being in At the Drive-In, where everything was a collaboration and we had to have a fucking band meeting about every little thing. So when I started this band I said, “Fuck it. I’m gonna do my thing.” My musicians, they come into the studio, and once they record their part they’re done and I kick them out. No one in this band has ever attended a mix session. But this is not how bands operate. And a decade later I realize I’ve isolated myself from a lot of great people who have been in this band, and that I overworked them and basically just used them as puppets. That’s no way to live, and that’s nothing to be proud of.
To that end, you’ve been known to have your bandmates record their parts with little to no understanding of how what they were playing would fit into the song being tracked.
That was more or less the process up until Noctourniquet. But this time I recorded all the music myself, and then I brought in each musician separately, let them hear the song and had them retrack their respective instruments. This time they could actually hear everything in context.
What gear did you use on the album?
The truth is that I did this record so long ago that I really can’t remember. I think I mostly played a Telecaster, and I know my main amp was this small combo built by a friend of mine. And there was very simple miking—just an SM57 on the amp’s seven-inch speaker. For effects, the normal things were there, like my [Roland] Space Echo, and I know I used a Maestro Phase Shifter—the big silver one—a [Mu-Tron] Bi-Phase and a [Electro-Harmonix] POG. I also got into plug-ins, which I’ve been against for a long time but now they were like the new thing for me. I like some of the SoundToys stuff—the EchoBoy, the Decapitator and the Crystallizer. That opened up a whole new way of looking at things.
What is your attraction to pedals and manipulating the sound of a guitar?
It stems from my lack of sophistication on the instrument. It was a way to hide that. And it also comes from my own rejection of the instrument, because I didn't choose the guitar. I wanted to be a piano player, but I couldn’t get my ideas out fast enough on a piano. But when I grabbed the guitar, the ideas came out, so that was the vehicle. It was the immediate thing that helped me get to the point I was trying to make as quickly as possible. So I felt like I got stuck with it, and then it just turned into a thing where I was really moved by all the possibilities of the instrument once I stopped thinking about it in traditional terms. Not to mention the fact that, I mean, how old is the guitar? And there are only 12 notes you can play on it! When you think of it that way, it’s like, in terms of the guitar as a device, what else does technology offer? So you go into the gear, the pedals, the plug-ins and anything else that has been invented.