There is a Spanish phrase that Omar Rodriguez-Lopez keeps in mind as he pushes forward with Bosnian Rainbows, his newest experimental rock band: con vivir. It is a motto not only for his new music, but for what he describes as a new way of living.
“In English, the only translation is ‘togetherness,’ but that doesn’t do it justice,” the guitarist tells Rolling Stone, as the band celebrates this week’s release of their debut album, Bosnian Rainbows. “It’s the essence of the chemistry that happens when people come together.”
For Bosnian Rainbows, that togetherness has been unusually intense since the quartet formed a year ago, as Rodriguez-Lopez stepped away from At the Drive In and the Mars Volta. Joining him is Mars Volta drummer Deantoni Parks, keyboardist Nicci Kasper and singer Teri Gender Bender (née Suaréz), the explosive leader of Guadalajara garage band Le Butcherettes.
Rodriguez-Lopez calls Bosnian Rainbows a collective of artists who spend virtually every moment together. “We wanted to create a microcosm for what we’d like to see in everyday life,” says the guitarist, who has openly admitted to being a creative “dictator” in previous bands. “I’ve awoken to a reality that has taken me 36 years. This is the project to us: our togetherness, the films we watch, nutrition, then the nutrition of the mind, the ideas that are coming into our head. If we stray true to that, music will happen.”
On Tuesday, the band marked the release of the new album with an hourlong set at the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles, performing the album’s 11 songs in order. The sold-out show was the second date of a 2013 tour across the U.S. and Europe through September.
The night began with “Eli,” amid lush waves of sound and bursts of guitar aggression, more postpunk than the modern prog Rodriguez-Lopez is best known. “Dig Right In” was funkier, mingling euphoria with gloom in the big 650-capacity room, as a red spotlight cast a giant shadow of the guitarist against the stained glass.
Up front in a short black dress was Gender Bender, still a wild and unpredictable force at the mic, but more self-controlled and anchored to the rest of the band. Right behind her, the others were in a tight formation – drums, keyboards, electronics attached as a single shared unit. “Morning Sickness” approached Seventies disco, while “Turtle Neck” began with dreamy layers of melody and vocals, then shifted into a hard, muscular funk as panicked and brainy as King Crimson‘s Robert Fripp.
While not exactly stripped down, the music was noticeably more direct than some of the expansive music the Mars Volta created. “It’s elemental and to the point. That’s indicative of our chemistry and our relationship,” Rodriguez-Lopez explained. “We’re real direct with each other in our communication.”
“It feels like we’re riding a giant spaceship playing to space,” said Gender Bender with a smile. “I know it sounds pretentious.”
In their upstairs dressing room before the show, the quartet sat on folding chairs between the fireplace and a food table covered in healthy snacks: grapes, bananas, juices, organic corn chips, vegan cookies and unfiltered water. No booze or cold cuts, and none needed.
“We live in a place where our food supply has been poisoned. Everybody is eating genetically modified foods. You have to go out of your way just to eat right,” Rodriguez-Lopez said, and then alluded to the recent death of actor James Gandolfini. “Look at our boy here who just died at 51. That’s not natural.”
The band came together last year and traveled to Hamburg, Germany, settling into Clouds Hill Studio on the Elbe River. With studio owner and producer Johann Scheerer, Bosnian Rainbows was recorded during eight days of sessions on analog two-inch tape.
“We’ve all been collaborating over the years,” said Rodriguez-Lopez, “so it just seemed the natural order to put together a democratic, collaborative group, where everyone’s a writer, everyone’s a producer, everyone’s a composer.”
Choosing the opening track was simple and obvious, said Gender Bender. “‘Eli’ had a smell to it, a good, stinky smell,” she said with a laugh. “It’s funky, like us. That’s what we smell like, I guess.”
After Hamburg, there were other long stays together in Atlanta, El Paso and elsewhere, with the band operating like a traveling commune and much more like the original punk-rock anarchists of Crass in England than the endless rock & roll party bus. In April, the band began a six-week stay in a Malibu mansion once owned by William Randolph Hearst. Most of their time was spent together in the small laundry room off the kitchen or on the porch overlooking the ocean.
“They’re hilarious,” Gender Bender said of the band. “It’s like Comedy Central the whole time. I can’t keep a straight face with them.”
The church concert ended with the crowd cheering loudly for an encore that never came. Once the entire album was played, Bosnian Rainbows had nothing left. (They don’t do covers or songs from their other bands.)
Many followers of Rodriguez-Lopez have learned to accept the prolific musician’s creative whims and left turns, leaving popular bands behind, while others have expressed predictable degrees of disappointment and rage over the indefinite hiatuses of ATDI and the Mars Volta. He says there was no other choice he could make.
“We all gave up something to be here to serve something else,” said the guitarist. “We all had to be in the right place at the right time for that to work.”
Also on hold is Le Butcherettes, with a finished sophomore album produced by Rodriguez-Lopez awaiting release at some unknown future date. In the new band, Gender Bender’s onstage persona still has bite, but also vulnerability. “Le Butcherettes was a lot of angst, and this is more about our togetherness,” said Rodriguez-Lopez. “It’s a different energy and another side of her.”
Gender Bender added, “First I was a little scared, because it’s the first time I’ve done something without my guitar. I was a little nervous yesterday about the show and Nicci said, ‘It’s good that you’re nervous, because it gives you passion.'”
Not that she ever lacked for passion. At Le Butcherettes gigs, she could suddenly drop her guitar and begin climbing the scaffolding to hang upside down above stage, or leave her band behind as she crawled to the floor and out the front door. Rodriquez-Lopez, who played bass with Le Butcherettes at 2012 tour dates, saw it all up close.
“I remember one time I was so bummed, because we were in Chicago and it was a packed house – she just started playing and I hadn’t even tuned yet,” he said with a laugh, underlining the differences with their newest project. “That would never happen here. We’re a team, and we’re very conscious of each other.”