The New Guitar Gods: Mars Volta
Originally printed in Guitar World Magazine, November 2006 The Mars Volta's reluctant guitar hero, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, talks about their new album, Amputechture, and his animosity for his instrument. “I've never considered myself a guitarist, and I’ve never liked the guitar,” says the Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. These statements may startle the many Mars Volta fans and Guitar World readers who have taken Rodriguez-Lopez as their guitar hero. The L.A. musician rated highly in a recent GW reader poll, and it may indeed be hard at first glance to perceive his epic freeform guitar solo marathons, some of which stretch to a quarter-hour or more, as the work of a man who dislikes the guitar. But then again, there is an undeniable element of struggle in the Mars Volta’s music: in singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s disturbingly hallucinogenic lyrical imagery and Rodriguez’s darkly distressed guitar tones. Like many great players, Rodriguez- Lopez has a complex and problematical relationship with his instrument. “I’ve been angry since the beginning, because I’ve always felt like I just got stuck with the guitar,” he says. “It was the only instrument where I could relate my ideas to other musicians. So I’ve always tried in one way or another to wrestle it, destroy it, make it really ugly by adding effects, or just try to make it sound like anything besides this thing I hate—the guitar!” But on the new Mars Volta album, Amputechture (Universal), Rodriguez-Lopez says he’s begun to make peace with his six-stringed nemesis. “I was feeling more comfortable with it and just wanting to play it as a traditional instrument, to see if I was capable of doing that,” he says. “This record probably has the least amount of effects on the guitar of anything I’ve ever recorded. The instrument is actually recognizable as a guitar. In the past, a lot of people have mistaken much of the guitar work on our albums for synths and keyboards.” He and Bixler-Zavala have also departed from the ambitious concept-album format of the previous Mars Volta disc, Francis the Mute. “The theme this time was not to have one unifying theme, to treat it more as a series of vignettes or episodes,” Rodriguez- Lopez explains. “We really took influence from watching old episodic TV shows like The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Twin Peaks. The idea was to have all these different stories on the record that are only tied together by the host, which is us.” Not that the end result could ever be mistaken for anything but the Mars Volta. Amputechture shares with its predecessors the deranged but obsessively detailed inner logic of a vivid nightmare. The title itself suggests an architectural edifice made of severed limbs. As always, Bixler-Zavala’s lyrical preoccupations with guts, worms, surgical mutilation and Catholic iconography find an uncannily sympathetic musical counterpart in the tortured tonal constructs of Rodriguez-Lopez. The duo have been the creative core of the Mars Volta ever since they formed the group in 2001, following the breakup of their prior band, emo faves At the Drive-In. The past few Mars Volta albums have been created principally in Rodriguez- Lopez’s L.A. studio, with additional tracks recorded on a Pro Tools rig he brings on the road with him. The man is almost constantly recording, editing or mixing. “I write all the music,” he says. “I work nonstop. I sleep at my studio. I begin working at 11 a.m. and end at about 3 a.m. I’ll maybe watch a movie, fall asleep and then start again the next day.” On album projects, he works with each band member separately, teaching them their parts and tracking them individually. “The process I’ve used on the last two Mars Volta albums is that everything is tracked out of order and out of sequence. One day I might track everything that’s in one particular key. Another day I might track everything very soft, or everything that’s loud and abrasive. So the players don’t really have a context of what’s coming before and after, or how they’re interacting in the song.”
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