The Mars Volta – Eye Weekly (1.17.08)

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The story of how internal tensions, lineup changes and a demon called Goliath led The Mars Volta to make their best album yet

The Mars Volta are the epitome of defiance. With epic-length concept albums, a penchant for abstract live noodling and a sound that absorbs everything from the intensity of Black Flag and electric-era Miles Davis to the calculus-inspired prog of Yes and King Crimson to something like John Cale playing salsa, they’re no major label’s idea of safe bet. And yet their ongoing success remains undeniable, if somewhat inexplicable, even for singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala. “[It’s] like some gigantic, wealthy family hired a local duct-tape-held-together kind of carnival, and they let us into their house and we stayed there for a while,” he explains — sort of — from the Universal offices in Montreal.

While their success seems to defy all logic, their persistent output continues to defy all tragedy. Bixler-Zavala and Mars Volta co-founder Omar Rodriguez-Lopez began the band by quitting At The Drive-In, arguably the most promising indie-punk act of the early millennium, cleaning up after a history of heroin addiction and writing two albums inspired by the deaths of close friends. You’d think their karmic credit would be in good standing.

After their third album, Amputechture (2006), the Mars Volta machine ground to a standstill for the better part of two years. An angry demon called Goliath that the founding duo had been channelling through an ancient Ouija board wreaked havoc on their recording sessions and personal health until Rodriguez-Lopez exorcised the evil influence by secretly burying the board. Seriously.

Whether or not anyone believes the supernatural subtext, which can be read in elaborate detail on their website, the recorded result, an album called The Bedlam in Goliath, is a little harder to ignore. Gone are the self-indulgent, meditative passages of Frances the Mute and the tedious buildups required for effectively epic five-part song suites — Bedlam is easily their strongest, most spastically intense album to date. And with the addition of 24-year-old drummer Thomas Pridgen and his technically flawless chops, it’s almost as if their energy has been channelled into a John Coltrane–styled quest for new sounds. “Our last drummer was very limited with what he could do,” Bixler-Zavala explains. “And it’s the same kind of limitation that bored us and made us start the group in the first place. That same kind of hunger for something new… we keep pushing it and trying to find people who can interpret it the right way and give a new energy.”

Oddly enough, Rodriguez-Lopez’s methods for inducing creativity in the studio are equally jazz-inspired, favouring informed spontaneity. “He’ll show you something literally for five minutes,” says Bixler-Zavala, “when you walk into the studio and you just walk in front of the mic and you kind of get vulnerable and you just make it up as you go along.

“It’s frustrating, but it’s what we learned from punk rock — this compulsive gambling. Everyone in the band gets a little mad about it, but it’s recording that tension and that anger that has something to do with the way the records sound.”

Feeding off tension in a recording session is one thing, but what about the added supernatural stress? Bixler-Zavala sees the Goliath experience as a metaphor wrapped in an analogy, and deals with it in the same way that they approach resistance to the band’s artistic visions. “We just see the term ‘no’ as this obstacle or set of obstacles that are fun to tread over,” he says. “I’ve always said this, but one of our favourite movies — because it’s an analogy for our band — is Fitzcarraldo,” Werner Herzog’s infamous film whose shooting involved dragging a 320-tonne boat over a steep hill in a South American jungle.

“That’s an example of somebody taking ‘no’ and just squashing it. We just choose, and have always chosen to take the boat over the hill instead of around and in the water.”

Originally published in EYE Weekly (1.16.08).

BONUS: extended transcript of the interview here.

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