Omar Rodriguez-Lopez: The Process is The Point

To be frank, I’m not sure how Omar Rodriguez-Lopez made the time for our nearly hour-long phone conversation. When not functioning as the composer, guitarist, producer, and overall "dictator" behind the experimental prog-rock of The Mars Volta, Lopez has been known to release a solo album or 400. Since he started recorded solo projects in 2004, he’s put out around 30 discs (including a whopping 10 in 2010), not including the five Mars Volta albums, dating back to their 2003 debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium.

As Lopez puts it in our conversation (on several occasions), he has what is known as an "hyper-active" mind. Before he’s through overdubbing one pile monstrous electric guitar mania, he’s already thinking about his next opus—or his next feature film, or documentary, or live show. It’s a wonder he has time to think about breakfast. And it’s not just his wealth of ideas that leads to his impressive catalogue—it’s also his speed at recording. Despite the fact that with every one of his albums, he composes material for every single instrument (and records all of it himself), he lives up to his "Little Dictator" nickname by pushing his players to get through their parts as quickly and efficiently as possible.

In fact, Lopez’ dictatorial actions have caused a bit of a rift. While recording material for a still untitled new Mars Volta album, his longtime partner in crime (vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala) decided that, if the band were to survive, Lopez needed to chill the fuck out instead of pushing for his breakneck album-every-year pace. When I recently chatted with Lopez, we discussed the creative struggle behind the new Mars Volta album, his relationship with Zavala, his new solo compilation, Telesterion, and what it’s like to have a brain that literally never stops…

Hey, Omar! This is Ryan from Glide Magazine. Thanks for helping out today. First off, where are you calling from, and what are you up to?

I’m in El Paso, Texas right now, visiting my mother.

Cool. Since you’ve released approximately 80 billion solo albums, why release this 2-disc collection, Telesterion, at this point? Did you just feel like it was time for people get caught up a little bit?

Yeah, basically that was the idea. A friend of ours from Japan who has a record label over there—it was his idea, and he wanted to do it. He does a lot of records that are hard to find in Japan, and once you do get them over there, it’s kind of overwhelming for people, and they don’t really know where to start. So he said, "I want to put together a two-disc compilation of the material, and it can say where the songs are from and everything, so it can be a starting place for people who are interested in your music." So I said, "OK, that’s cool." So we did that, and then Kathy, with whom I run the label—or really the person who runs the label; she’s the one who really does all the hard work; I just get to make music—Kathy said, "I want to do that over here as well. Let’s put that out with the same person, and that was really the idea." I’ll run into people, and they’ll say, "Hey, I heard you put together a ‘Best Of’ or a ‘Greatest Hits,’" and then I just have to laugh." (laughs) I don’t have any hits, and I definitely don’t have any "Best Of!"

How did your selection process go for these songs? Did you pick out the highlights yourself, and what were the criteria you used in selecting them?

No, no, like I said, I have no "Best Of." I have no—how should I say—objectivity, you know? I really enjoy my life and what I do. I’m really fortunate to get to do music for a living, so how could I even pick? (laugh) I just get to go out and play all the time, just make things up! It’s like someone telling you, "Just be a kid, and that’ll be what you do for a living!" Which is not to say there isn’t work involved in what I do—of course there is because there’s always worked involved when you have to organize yourself—but I get to do something that comes really naturally to me, so that makes it really difficult to say, "Oh, this one’s great" or "This one isn’t." I can’t be judgmental; it’s all just an extension of my daily life. (laughs) Sorry—to answer your question, Sonny, who is my friend and my art director, he was big on the idea, and he said, "Let me pick it. I know what the best moments are for people!" (laughs)

You guys are playing SXSW and Coachella—those are some pretty big name festivals. Have you played those festivals before? Are you doing anything in particular to gear up for these shows, and also, what material will you be playing?

SXSW, we haven’t played it in years! We used to play there every year, it feels like, a long time ago—ten to 15 years ago. Coachella we haven’t played in a very long time; we played three times. In fact, I played the very first—we were the first band of the first day of the first Coachella with At the Drive-In. So this would be the fourth time playing Coachella, and it’s just fun thing to do that stuff. As for how I’ll gear up or what I’ll play, I’ll go back to this theme we were just talking about, which is that I just get to play for a living. I say that again—I reiterate that so that you understand that I play all the time, so I don’t really have to "gear up," and my favorite thing to do is hang out with the people I love and my family, and those people, luckily for me, happen to be people who play drums and keyboards and also love me. So we get together and play anyway, and I’m always showing them new material that I want to record, or they have songs they really like that we play, so we just sort of get together and do it! That’s the best way to explain it. I’ll play whatever at that time feels exciting. This also comes back around to the idea that since I’m not a part of popular music, and I don’t have hits, and I don’t have judgment, this gives me a big liberty. So it’s a big liberty; it’s not anything other than what I feel like doing in my heart. I don’t have to sit there going, "I should play these songs because people would expect them." I have no idea what people would expect, and luckily, I get the sensation that I’ve built a career out of just being myself. So, again, that’s all I have to do. I just have to go, "Oh, OK, this one would be fun to play" or "What about this one?" Or Juan, my bass player, will go, "Oh, we should play this one; I used to love playing this one, and you never want to play it!" And then somebody else will go, "Oh, we never ever play this one!" And then a set comes together, and then we’re playing, and we change something out if it doesn’t feel right. There’s a lot of freedom involved, you know?

Are you going to emphasize any new material with these live shows?

Oh, definitely, and that’s a great point! The stage is always a great place to do new material, and it’s just exciting! There’s just something about it, you know? It happens a lot. For example, when I put together Mars Volta, I do make spaces to jam, as in just to play over one repetitive riff and stuff. We have this big history of people thinking that we’re improvising on-stage, because of the fact that a lot of the time, I’m trying out new material on-stage. And since people don’t recognize it because it’s sandwiched in-between other songs they do recognize, they think we’re improvising—truly improvising, which is coming up with completely new parts on-stage—but that’s not the case. That’s just not something that we do. I always try to explain that we’re playing new material. Admittedly, a lot of times, I’ll show it to the band just before we go on-stage or at soundcheck, so it’s very, very loose, and that’s cool, but it’s a way of trying out material. It always feels different when you play it on-stage, you know? How could it not? There’s a whole different energy, and you sort of see things; it will accelerate something or slow something down. I can’t really tell what it is, but it makes you hyper-aware of stuff when you play it on-stage, the same as when you get a new musician in the band and you say, "Huh, I wonder if this is gonna work…" with something as simple as going on tour. On tour, you’re hyper-aware within the first ten days of that tour whether you’re going to replace that person or not. Something really special happens, really unique and intense, when you go out and play.

Could you talk a little bit about the legendary documentary that’s been in the works for years now?

It’s not coming out as in there’s any plan about it. You know how it is—a band is together for 8 months, and all of the sudden, they have a film out, or in these days, a DVD out. (laughs) So people come up to me all the time and say, "How come you guys don’t have a DVD out?" and my point has always been that while I have filmed everything since the beginning of the band—and to be clear, I’ve kept a journal. Some people keep a journal and write in it, and some people keep a diary. I have kept one since our very first practice, and before that, I have kept one in At the Drive-In and in the transition from At the Drive-In to De-Facto. And I even filmed the moment when we’re at the park and breaking up the band. And they’re filming when I’m calling new musicians. I’m always filming because I’ve always loved cameras—since I was a kid. And so that sort of became the response, like "Yeah, I’ve been filming everything, and I’m definitely trying to edit as I go along because obviously we’re talking about lots and lots of footage, especially when you have a wandering mind—like the way mine is, as you can tell by the way I talk. (laughs) And so I have to edit to try to get to the point of the footage, you know? In the same way that I try to edit my speech to get to the point of the question. I’m trying to do it—I’m sorry! (laughs) The point being that I have all the footage; I’ve just gotten to the point now where I have no objectivity—I have no perspective. When I started doing it, it was a very honest and very true to my heart where I’m just filming all the time. It’s something I love doing—something I’ve done since I was a kid, since my dad got a VHS. After a while, of so many years of people going, "What about a Mars Volta film?," looking at it now, I’m like, "Jesus, I have no objectivity." I’m in everything, you know? I’m filming it. It’s my band. I do everything in the band. I’m the dictator of the band, so it’s like, "Me, me, me, me, me!"

So my only solution is to remove myself from the project, hand it over to another filmmaker, and say, "Do something about this!" Because I want all the negative to be in there, you know? I want all of that to be in there. I don’t want anything to not be in there that maybe I would cut out—things like how selfish I can be. So I plan to hand that over to a filmmaker or a couple of filmmakers and just say, "Here, make your perspective on it." Because for me, it started out as a diary, but as a filmmaker, it’s just 15 years of footage of me! I don’t have perspective. Understand that I spend the majority of the time in the studio alone. Our records aren’t constructed like how a normal band gets together and rehearses. And when I used to be in a band, that’s how it was—we were together all the time—"Yeah, a band, us, a team!" And you go in the studio together and argue about stuff like a traditional band. And this band has never operated that way. You know, it’s me dictating the music and taking one musician at a time in the studio, and then just banning everyone from the studio like, "Go, you’re done!" Getting people one at a time and telling them what to play and then going with Rich Costey and mixing it. So it’s not as exciting as it is when you have an entire band because there’s not that type of conflict that propels it forward. Normally, you have an inner-band conflict that propels it forward. Cedric and I are brothers of 20 years, so there’s no conflict there either, you know? We’ve disagreed maybe three times in our lives, and he trusts me completely with what I do with the band. He shows up to sing, and that’s it. So there’s not that same conflict you would have in a normal situation, which is normally the only thing that propels a story forward. 

Speaking of The Mars Volta and studio stuff, I know for this new album, you’ve decided to completely let Cedric do his own thing. You’ve finished the music, and you’ve handed things over to Cedric to work on the lyrics before you re-group. What’s his status—is he finally finished? And as far as the album’s sound goes, could you provide any kind of glimpse into that?

Yes, he’s finally done. I just finished tracking him, and I just made rough mixes for him. As far as the sound, I don’t know because that’s always such a hard question to answer, again because of the problem of perspective. In this case, it’s really different because the perspective is also warped, you know? I’ve mentioned in other interviews that normally, I just go in, and it’s "Boom, boom, boom!" I just go what I gotta do, but we got to the point in Octahedron where that was actually one of our disagreements and one of our few arguments. He said, "Stop." There was an inner tension because he said, "I can’t keep up with your pace. I can’t do a Mars Volta record every year. I feel pressured to work at your pace and at your level. That’s not me." And I said, "Cool, no pressure. That’s fine—I have plenty of things I could be doing. You do your thing, and when you’re ready…" No pressure, basically; I took the pressure off. What happened is that was a year and six months ago, so it took a very long time for him to do his thing, you know? So then there was that conflict.

But now, we’re sort of on the road to figuring out—like, oh how do you say it in English? When you’re in a marriage—it’s not compromise; it’s not compromise. It’s what you do when you really love someone. You just give. When you love, you give, and you don’t think about what you receive. So we both give, and then the point is that then you talk about things, and you’re open. So I gave one year and six months, and that’s too long for me, man, with my high blood pressure way of doing things. Constant, non-stop doesn’t work for you, so let’s find a middle-point. That’s the point I’m trying to get to, you know what I mean? Let’s compromise, and let’s give and take, but let’s see what about the process each one of us is willing to give up in order to receive an understanding about each other and our internal process. So that’s what happened, and that’s what we’re trying to figure out.

So I finally finished tracking him and got rough mixes. And the point being that I don’t know how it sounds because of that whole process. For me, the most important thing, and I’ll say this over and over until I die or quit creating music or things that people know about, is that that is the point. The process is the point. Nothing else matters. The end result is neither here nor there. That’s why it doesn’t matter if someone thinks it’s good or not. What came out of it isn’t the point; the point is the process, the journey that it took to get there, and that’s why I go through it lightning-fast, because I love going through the process. I have a hyper-active mind; I love learning about life, and that’s one of the ways that I do it is through the process.

And so here we have a great example of how this process brought an issue that I wasn’t aware of. I’m sure Cedric had felt this for a long time, but it’s the first time he finally tells me. And it made us have to talk about it, and it made me have to be frustrated about it because it took so long for him to finish. But it brings us closer together—that process brings us closer together. And there’s a million other things, too, that I learned along the way, but right now, this is the most tangible example. And so that’s the thing—what it sounds like, I don’t know. The first thing that pops into my mind is that it sounds like me and Cedric finding answers and insight into each other’s spirits, but that’s not a tangible answer because the other part of my mind realizes that you’re asking for something more musical, and I can’t seem to separate it, you know? I can’t think, "Well, it’s more this or more that." Plus, I recorded those songs over two years ago! It’s not even where I’m at now with what I’ve recorded since then. What’s that saying? (laughs) There’s a saying that would really wrap up the point I’m trying to make. You know when people will go, "Hey man, let’s take a break and jump in the pool," and someone will go, "That’s music to my ears!" You know what I mean? It’s like that—the experience, the process, the feeling is the music, so I don’t know how to describe that feeling to you besides that I’ve unearthed a lot of questions and answers about myself and my relationship to one of my closest friends. I’m sorry if that’s a very long answer, but that’s the best I can do! (laughs)

That tension you and Cedric unearthed going through this whole thing—is that something you’re going to keep exploring in the future with Mars Volta stuff? Are you going to keep trying to find that middle-ground, and will this kind of be a new start for you guys?

Yeah, I think so! Yeah, because that’s where I want to take it. That’s a good point because, through that process, that’s what I’ve found. For myself, I’ve found there’s something that I’ve missed for the past 10 years, which is being in a band! So this brings us full-circle again to the documentary issue, and all this stuff comes together at once. I miss being in a band, and every band will have its dynamic, and there’s still a triangle in no matter what group activity you do, even if it’s going out and playing fucking softball, you know what I mean? There’s always someone who sort of pushes their way to the triangle going, "OK, we’re going to do it on this day" and organizes people. Some people just have that personality, you know? So there will always be group dynamics, but I would definitely like that freedom of just playing in a band and just writing songs and not necessarily writing the bassline and writing the keyboard line, and "The drums will go like this." Just being open and really participating as a real unit.

It’s definitely brought all those feelings out, and it’s definitely something I have to change. It’s not healthy for me, you know? I thought it was, but you have to understand that everything was a reaction to what came before. I was in a band for eight years, so I was like, "Goddammit, we have to fucking vote about everything!" In At the Drive-In, it was like, "Oh, we have to pick the color of the fucking shoe?!" We all have to get together and vote and say why, so after eight years of that, you’re like, "Fuck that! Fuck discussion; it’ll be simple!" I don’t want to discuss anything! You react to everything like, "That takes too long; it waters it down, blah, blah, blah." So after 10 years of being that way now, I’m like, "No, it’s really good to have other people’s opinion." I want to learn that again!

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