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Q&A: The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez

Guitarist is a prog-rock warrior and a salsa fan

Mars Volta

Mars Volta, Omar Rodriguez and Cedric Bixlerlex, July 9th, 2003

Lex van Rossen/MAI/Redferns/Getty

“I get stoned just to change my perspective.” The Mars Volta’s second record, Frances the Mute, is 77 mind-blowing minutes of … what, exactly? Prog-rock salsa? P-Funk emo? Deep-space heavy metal? “Some people get flustered,” says the MV’s electrifying guitarist, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, of his band’s epic reach, “and I say, ‘Well, we’re definitely electric music, so you could call it rock.’ “

In 2002, Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala put the kibosh on At the Drive-In — then the hottest punk band on the planet — and got heavy into their mutual love of prog, hardcore punk and Parliament-Funkadelic with the Mars Volta. Now “The Widow” — a six-minute, Zeppelin IV-worthy edit from the suitelike and extraterrestrial Frances the Mute — is ruling rock radio. Up next is a cross-country Mars tour, beginning in May. So it’s rock, then?

“I don’t consider ourselves that,” says Rodriguez-Lopez. “Our band is not for me to describe.”

How did music enter your life?

My father would literally put the back of the acoustic guitar to my mother’s stomach and play songs for me while I was in her stomach. So it’s always been there. Being Puerto Rican, music was always such a big part of my upbringing and culture — everyone in my family plays something. Anytime we get together, we’re playing music and singing improvisations about what’s happening in the room or what kind of food we’re eating. I started to learn to play the bass when I was nine and moved to guitar when I was 14 or 15.

Oh, yeah [laughs]! When I was growing up in El Paso [Texas], I got into skateboarding and punk rock, and Cedric and I were hanging out with older musicians. There’s a place called White’s Music Box in El Paso, and one night they parked their van outside the store, threw a rock at the window and went in and grabbed as much stuff as they could. I was a skater, I had baggy clothes, so I’d steal little things like effects pedals. And there was a place in the West Side shopping mall where we’d steal box sets, trade them in for cash and buy musical equipment. It was all a bit dishonest.

If you were going to outer space and could bring only one record, what would it be?  

It would be Electric Harlow, by the Orchestra Harlow. That’s probably what my dad played the most when I was in my mom’s stomach. That record was in ’71. One of my first concerts was the Fania All-Stars, and I remember seeing Larry Harlow playing piano with them. I was sitting on my dad’s shoulders, and he said, “That’s Harlow on the left!”

What gig of yours did the fewest people show up for?

The first four years of At the Drive-In we continuously played to ten people. I remember the first time we played New York. We were booking our own tours and our own van — we were so excited. “Wow, we’re finally going to play New York! There’s so much history here!” We played the Continental. There were two people: the bartender and the guy who we booked the show with, who also ran the door and did the sound. He felt so bad about it, he bought a record.

What’s been your worst stage injury?

Once, I swung around and hit the mike stand, and it cut open the top of Cedric’s mouth. He was bleeding a lot, and we had to take him to get stitches that night. My worst injuries have always been to other people.

Do you ever get superbaked before you play?

I’ve been clean for almost three years now. I don’t do caffeine or nicotine or anything, except smoke pot. But that only happens at the end of the night, or when I’m done with a project, or when I feel I’ve explored all the different avenues that I have to offer myself. After I’ve gotten out all my pure ideas, then I get stoned just to change my perspective, to hear what my creative mind was doing. I’m just observing. It’s a way to look at this other person who was working the whole time.

What’s your favorite P-Funk song?

It’s hard to pick one. One that wakes me up and makes me feel good is “Standing on the Verge of Getting It On.”

It’s my only true form of a gift. I wouldn’t want to get them something they’d smile about and not really use. I always figure I have music in common with people around me.

What was on the last one, and who did you give it to?

I made a mix tape for my girlfriend’s brother — he only listens to a certain style of music. So I probably opened the tape with something a little heavier, like “Jealous Again,” by Black Flag. Then I threw all sorts of stuff on there — the first track on Alice Coltrane’s record, Journey Into Satchidananda, and some music from Vietnam and a lot of Augustus Pablo and a couple of salsa things. Definitely a lot of Funkadelic and Parliament.

What’s the last concert you’d want to have to sit through?

Anyone who has the guts to make music in front of people should be commended. But I could definitely never sit through a Linkin Park performance, even though I met those guys and they’re nice. Now I feel bad.

How annoying is it that every story about you guys involves a remark about your hair?

It’s a nightmare. My clothes or my hair or how skinny I am has nothing at all to do with my music. Let me put it this way: It’s worse than dealing with record labels.

It’s true. 

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